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Twenty-five years ago, fantasy writer Neil Gaiman started a comic book series that became something more. It was called "The Sandman." At over 75 issues, fans came to regard it as a work of literature; elaborate stories so deeply laced with references to history and culture that there now annotated books of "The Sandman." Now after a gap of the decade, they'll Neil Gaiman has returned to the subject by writing a prequel called "The Sandman Overture."

NEIL GAIMAN: The eponymous character is Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, also known as Dream. And he is one of a family of seven, known as the Endless.

INSKEEP: Let's just go through here. There are seven Ds here, I guess we should say.

GAIMAN: There are. There is Destiny, there is Death, there is Dream - who is Sandman - there is Desire and Despair, and Delirium. And there's also one other, who is Destruction.

INSKEEP: And so, we are basically talking about aspects of human life. I mean already we're getting an idea of how ambitious these comics were for you.

GAIMAN: Well, the glory of "Sandman" at that point was nobody knew what to expect, which was wonderful. There weren't any rules that said I couldn't go off and do a retelling of Shakespeare's "Midsummer's Night's Dream" on the first-ever performance before an invited audience of all of the fairies and the characters from "Midsummer's Night's Dream," because nobody had ever done anything like that to make a rule that you couldn't.

It starts out almost a horror comic. And then I start getting bored with horror, so it becomes a comic about other things. It becomes about history; it becomes about the responsibilities of leaders and kings; it becomes about whether we need gods. And if we do, why we need gods.

INSKEEP: And what is Sandman's role in the characters' dreams? Will you describe that?

GAIMAN: Essentially he is the Lord of Dreams. The idea is that when you dream, we go into a sort of communal undermind. While he may be bringing out nightmares, he would be dealing with things that would be fundamentally too dangerous for us.

INSKEEP: You mean getting us to confront things in a setting where we can survive and see the other side of it.

GAIMAN: Exactly. Although, he's not terribly interested in people individually. He's not interested in our redemption. He's just interested in running his world. His sister Death is much, much nicer than he is, because she's actually interested in people. She has to get down individually and meet every single person.

INSKEEP: As death has to do at some point, I suppose.

GAIMAN: Exactly. You know, she has to be the one who turns to you and says: You know, you really should have looked both ways before crossing that street. And she's nice.

INSKEEP: (Laughing) How do you go about writing these things? Because we should mention for people, you work with illustrator - you work with an artist.

GAIMAN: What I do is I write a script and it's kind of like a film script, only a lot more complicated. In a comic, it's Page 1, Panel 1, and you have to decide what you're showing. And Page 1, Panel 1 could be a finger on a doorbell. And the fun thing with "Sandman: Overture" was on Page 2, I did one of those things you do as a writer to try and put, you know, these upstart artists you're working with in their place.

I thought, well, I'll give him something impossible to. So I asked Jim - J. H. Williams - to draw the Sandman, the Lord of Dreams, as a plant. And I said just give me a white flower that is somehow reminiscent of a human face, and give me leaves that are reminiscent of the cloak. And not only did he do it, but he did it better than I ever imagined.

INSKEEP: And it's enveloped in fire by the end of the...

GAIMAN: It is. It's burning and dying by the end, which sets the story in place.

INSKEEP: Let me ask if this work has ever taken you to a place that you've never been, or that you didn't expect to go. You deal with profound issues, often dark issues; Death is a character, and here we are on Halloween. I'm wondering if you've ever started exploring a theme and actually been scared yourself with where you're going.

GAIMAN: That did happen several times while I was writing it. There was a story called "Season of Mists," which essentially is what happens when Lucifer quits Hell and closes it down and throws everybody out. Suddenly Hell becomes the largest piece of desirable psychic real estate in the universe.

INSKEEP: (Laughing)

GAIMAN: And poor Dream winds up having to decide between angels; there are Lords of Chaos and Order, there are Japanese gods and Greek gods, all of them...

INSKEEP: Real estate developers?

GAIMAN: Essentially, cosmic real estate developers, all wanting to take it over. And he has to deal with the consequences thereof.

And you come up with a story like that and you go, this is just too weird. And then you have magical artists working with you and people making it happen, and at the end of it you feel delighted, and rather terribly proud of yourself.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Now I want to preface this next question by making very clear what I mean. I want to ask if you're the Sandman. And I don't mean to ask, is the character you precisely. But you've created this character that directs other people's dreams. Is that what you do?

GAIMAN: You know, I suppose that's true. But it's true on a weird kind of level, because if you're a writer, the way that you write is that you always go and find the bits of you that are that thing, and put them in and imbue them into a character to give the character life. So on that basis, yes, I definitely am the Sandman.

But I'm Morpheus as long as I can also be Death, as long as I can be Merv Pumpkinhead who is the only character who really doesn't have an awful lot of time for Morpheus, but works for him.

INSKEEP: Hmm. But I'm even thinking on the level of what it is that an artist does. Are you directing people's waking dreams?

GAIMAN: We all do that, every writer gets to be. One of the titles of the Sandman - and it's a title that I stole from Lou Reed, who died so recently, from a song - is the "Prince of Stories." And I think any writer worth his or her salt gets to be the Prince of Stories, gets to be the Princess of Stories. We get to direct people; we get to give them waking dreams. We get to take them places, do magical things to their heads. And, with any luck, send them back slightly changed and not the person that they were when we got our hands on them and said: I want to tell you a story.

INSKEEP: Neil Gaiman, it's always a pleasure to talk with you.

GAIMAN: So much fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "I'M SET FREE")

LOU REED: (Singing) The prince of stories...

INSKEEP: His many works include the "Sandman" series of graphic novels.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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