Neil Gaiman On Returning To 'Sandman,' Talking In His Sleep And The Power Of Comics Twenty-five years after he initially created Sandman, Gaiman returns to one of his most enduring characters. Gaiman says writing The Sandman: Overture was "the most intense period of my life."
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Neil Gaiman On Returning To 'Sandman,' Talking In His Sleep And The Power Of Comics

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Neil Gaiman On Returning To 'Sandman,' Talking In His Sleep And The Power Of Comics

Neil Gaiman On Returning To 'Sandman,' Talking In His Sleep And The Power Of Comics

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our guest Neil Gaiman introduced his horror fantasy comic "The Sandman" in 1989. It attracted a large adult audience. Norman Mailer described it as a comic strip for intellectuals. It's hero was a godlike creature known as Dream, or Morpheus. He was named one of the Endless, a group of seven immortal siblings, each name for what they embodied - desire, despair, delirium, destruction, destiny and death. Gaiman's "Sandman" stories dealt with mortals and gods alike and were considered groundbreaking for the time. The 75-issue series ended in 1996, but for its 25th anniversary, Gaiman returned to write a six-part miniseries that's just been collected in one volume called "The Sandman Overture." Neil Gaiman has also written many best-selling books for adults and children, including "American Gods," "Coraline" and "Stardust." The last two were made into movies. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Neil Gaiman, welcome to FRESH AIR.

NEIL GAIMAN: Thank you so much.

BRIGER: So your hero Sandman is known by many names - some of those are Dream or Morpheus - and he's in charge, he's the lord of the dream world. He's a personification of the act of dreaming. Can you describe his activities for us?

GAIMAN: The eponymous character of Sandman - I decided that it would be really interesting to create a character who was dream - who was the incarnation of the act of dreaming. He's one of a family of seven siblings beginning with Destiny and Death and ending with Despair and Delirium. He is incredibly stiff, slightly pompous, rather lonely, hidebound and obsessed by rules, and has very little sense of himself. He is many, many things, but empathetic is not really one of them, although he's slightly softer than he likes to believe himself to be. And he's not very funny.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

GAIMAN: He really isn't, which is always one of those things that I enjoy because it allows me to have other characters around him being funny.

BRIGER: So as you said, the Sandman is part of a family that you call the Endless - these immortal siblings whose names all conveniently start with the letter D. There's Death, Desire, Despair, Destiny, Destruction, Delirium and Dream. So they're like gods but they function and exist differently than the other gods in your book - your books, your comics are populated with all sorts of gods - because their existence doesn't rely on faith. Can you explain that a little more?

GAIMAN: I love the idea that basically gods rely on worship. They rely on belief. Out there in the world we're in, you can tell the importance of any deity by how many temples they have, how many worshipers they have in the real world. And I assume it's the same on whatever godly strata they're on. The Endless simply exist. They don't care if you believe in them or not. They're these anthropomorphic personifications of fundamental things to do with life, and they are doing their job.

BRIGER: So because we dream, because we despair, because we desire, they exist as the function of those things, right?

GAIMAN: Exactly. The idea was that destiny came into existence just before there was any life. Death came into existence as there was life because life now contained the potential for death, and so on. And really a lot of it went back to when I started writing "Sandman" - back in 1987, I began to write it. I was thinking that there really just weren't any comics out there with families, and I love the family dynamics. I love the way that families work or don't work. I love the way that families behave. I love the way that families interact. And it seemed like that would be a really fun kind of thing to put in. And when I came over to America to do signings, people would say to me, we love the Sandman and his family, they're a wonderful, dysfunctional family. And it wasn't a phrase I'd ever heard before. And I'd say, well, hang on, explain to me - what is a dysfunctional family? And people would explain. And after a while, I realized that what Americans called a dysfunctional family was what we in England called a family...

BRIGER: (Laughter).

GAIMAN: ...Having never encountered any of these...

BRIGER: ...functional ones?

GAIMAN: ...Functional ones, exactly.

BRIGER: Your main character, Sandman, is a hero but not a typical comic book hero. He's more of a tragic hero with flaws that eventually cause his undoing. As you said, he's arrogant, he's humorless, he's uptight - and just about the worst person to have a romantic relationship with.

GAIMAN: (Laughter) He really is.

BRIGER: (Laughter) He really is terrible. Were you careful to make sure that with all of these flaws he was still likable enough?

GAIMAN: No. I was perfectly willing for him to be unlikable. And I think that somehow is what works in his favor. He is absolutely appalling sometimes. But there's one storyline where you discover that he'd sentenced - essentially - an old girlfriend to hell for 10,000 years, basically for pissing him off. And when this is pointed out to him, and pointed out to him that he did the wrong thing, he promptly, nobly, heads off into hell to bring her back and try and do the right thing. But you always have to be very aware that this is somebody who would cheerfully send somebody to hell for 10,000 years because she irritated him - because she spurned him.

BRIGER: Your editor, Karen Berger, has said that "Sandman" was the first modern comic that attracted a large female readership. What do you think women responded to in those comics?

GAIMAN: I think they responded really, really well to the fact that it wasn't a preadolescent male power fantasy. And it had a lot of women in it. It had a lot of active women in it, who were part of the story. When I started writing "Sandman" I thought, you know, I should probably make sure that I have as many women in the story as men and that they are as integral to the story as the male characters. And that was what I tried to do from that point out - sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. And I think that that was the biggest thing that made it happen. It got very strange for me because I would get - at conventions - large men in sweaty T-shirts coming up to me and pounding my hand, saying, you, you brought women into my store for the first time. And I would always have to bite back the urge to say, if you sweep it, they may come back. But it really was - comics back then was a male preserve. It was male dominated. And one of the things I love now is the fact that there really are as many female readers of comics and graphic novels as there are males. It is no longer a gender-determined medium, which always seemed to me to be completely barking mad from the beginning.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Neil Gaiman. Gaiman's "Sandman: 25th Anniversary" series is collected in the volume, "The Sandman Overture." We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with comic-book writer Neil Gaiman. His "Sandman" 25th anniversary series has been collected in the volume "The Sandman: Overture."

BRIGER: I've always thought that comics were somewhat of a strange art form in that they're often about action and movement and all this kinetic energy, yet they're portrayed in static images.

GAIMAN: The magic of comics is that there are three people involved in any comic. There's whoever's writing it and whoever's drawing it. And then there's whoever's reading it because they are creating the movement. They are creating the illusion of time passing. There's a wonderful moment in Scott McCloud's book, "Understanding Comics," where he shows a man standing behind a woman - or possibly vice versa, I don't remember - with an ax. And then the next panel is a cutaway to the building they're in and a scream. And he points out that you, as a reader, just murdered the character. He didn't do it. And that, for me, is the joy of comics. Your imagination needs to do an awful lot.

BRIGER: Your "Sandman" comics have always been about storytelling. And many writers and storytellers have actually appeared in the pages. And one of them is William Shakespeare. And as you said, one of the most famous issues of your run was about a - the first performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for an audience of fairies. You also ended the series with an issue with Shakespeare in doubt about whether he'd lived his life well because he had spent his life as a writer. And he says, (reading) whatever happened to me in my life happened to me as a writer of plays. I'd fall in love or fall in lust, and at the height of my passion, I would think, so this is how it feels. And I would tie it up in pretty words. I watched my life as if it were happening to someone else. My son died, and I was hurt. But I watched my hurt and even relished it a little, for now I could write a real death, a true loss.

That's a pretty ambivalent description of the writer's life.

GAIMAN: I have no idea if that was true for Shakespeare. But I knew that that was true for me and wanted to put that in there. It always felt like the price of being a writer was that you would - even in the most terrible moments, there was a little phantom version of you sitting on your shoulder with a notebook going, I can use this. OK, look at the way that the light is glinting off the broken plastic on the road next to the blood. You can use this. And it was always a very strange feeling. For me, peculiarly, I think I kind of exorcised it. I definitely sort of took a step back once "Sandman" was done. And I definitely felt like I had taken a step further back into my life.

BRIGER: And that just happened naturally. You don't have to take certain measures to make sure you're not too detached?

GAIMAN: It definitely happened naturally. And maybe it was part of aging as well. And maybe part of it, at that time, was saying goodbye to "Sandman." There was - writing "Sandman" for me was the most intense period of my life because the fictional characters were more real to me - or at least as real to me - as anything else that was happening. I was spending more time with them than I was with my own family. I was - you know, 8 hours a day I would be sitting, huddled over my computer or scratching little drawings to try and figure out how to get from one panel to the next or working out the dialogue.

BRIGER: In your "Sandman" comics, you created a whole cosmology that includes your own immortal beings and also all these gods from many different belief systems. I mean, you have Norse gods. You have Christian gods, Greek gods, Japanese gods. I read that when you were supposed to be studying for your bar mitzvah, you cajoled your instructor to tell you non-canonical religious stories.

GAIMAN: Oh, yes. When I was - I mean, that was the joy, for me, of religion. The stuff that I loved was myth. And as a kid, my favorite books were things like Roger Lancelyn Green's tales of the Norsemen and "Tales Of Ancient Egypt." And when I was studying for my bar mitzvah, I was very lucky because I had a very orthodox cantor, Reverend Meir Lev (ph), who I could get off the subject of the stuff that we were meant to be doing and onto the subject of wonderful, strangest parts of the Midrash, weird tales of commentary. And it was essentially - although I didn't know it at the time - the mythology of Judaism. It was the stuff that had crept off into the corners, that became part of the oral tradition. And I loved that. I didn't know when I was 12 that not everybody knew that, for example, Adam had had three wives, that Eve was his third wife. I sort of vaguely assumed that everybody must know that because I'd been - I'd managed to get that onto the subject. And I loved that. For the record, the first wife was Lilith, who then went off and had sex with demons, so was sent away...

BRIGER: And birthed monsters, right?

GAIMAN: And - exactly, and spawned monsters and dark creatures. The second wife was made in front of Adam from the bones up. And he got to watch her being created, skin and nerves and hair and all and was so revolted by this he wouldn't go near her, which is why God had to put him - made her vanish and put Adam to sleep to create Eve so that he wouldn't actually get to see the creation process. And I loved that story. And then as an adult, going to look for it, found myself reading so many obscure books of Jewish mythology until finally I discovered it in I think a Robert Graves book and went, oh, I hadn't hallucinated this. I didn't imagine it. It did actually exist.

BRIGER: Well, that idea of you as a kid listening to all these stories and stories that aren't part of the canon, it resonates so much with "Sandman" and also a lot of your other work, where there are these stories behind the official stories and - or there's always something behind what you're perceiving in reality.

GAIMAN: I think that for me seems like a way to talk about the world we're in. None of us exist in a world that is the same world that any of the rest of us live in. The world that's important is the world behind each of our eyes, which is something that none of the rest of us can access. And more than that, it's the strange impossible bits. The idea of dreaming always fascinates me. The idea that even the most normal people close their eyes for six, seven, eight hours a night and during that time, for several hours, go absolutely and utterly stark-staring mad is beautiful. I think I love my dreaming process because one of the things that my dreaming process does is sort out stories for me. I will go to sleep stuck on what happens next. I will wake up, and somewhere these boys in the back room have been moving heavy furniture around. They've been digging. They've been painting. They've been plastering. And they present me with the solution.

BRIGER: Well, Neil Gaiman, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

GAIMAN: Thank you so much. That was wonderful.

GROSS: Neil Gaiman spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Gaiman's "Sandman" 25th anniversary six-part miniseries is collected in the volume "The Sandman: Overture." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Andrew Haigh, the director of the new film, "45 years." It stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a couple about to celebrate their 45th anniversary when a secret is revealed that calls into question many of the wife's assumptions about their marriage. Andrew Haigh also directed the film "Weekend" and was the showrunner for the HBO series "Looking," about a group of gay friends in San Francisco. I hope you'll join us.

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