Neil Gaiman is relieved. After being on tour for several months, the one topic he’s not been asked about so far is Sandman.
Tonight of course, that all changes. Fellow graphic novelist Hannah Berry chairs an event where Gaiman’s groundbreaking and critically-acclaimed work is well and truly in the spotlight.
When seeing the name of Alan Moore, a British writer, on the cover of a US comic, Gaiman describes how a “dormant dream started to smoke”.
After finding his way into the industry, he was initially tasked by DC Comics to write episodes of Black Orchid, a little-known but already established character. Worried that sales of the title may be affected by having an unknown writer, the powers-that-be gave him the ‘opportunity’ to work on his own monthly title until he became better recognised.
What followed is the stuff of comics legend. The 75-issue story was “completely unprecedented” at a time when most titles ran and ran indefinitely. “I knew the story and knew it had an ending,” he says. “I told them I wanted it to be over when I was done.”
The title initially experienced moderate success until a writer in Rolling Stone magazine picked up on it and featured it in their “hot” issue. One of the benefits of being featured was an associated advert, but there was only one problem – the comics’ producers had nothing to advertise. Hastily coming up with the idea of collecting issues together into a single volume, the first Sandman graphic novel was hurriedly born.
“That first edition looked like it had been laid out by blind monkeys,” says Gaiman. “But it invented what we now know as the graphic novel.”
Conceptually, Sandman was conceived as “a kind of storytelling machine”, allowing Gaiman to experiment with form, characters and setting. “All time and place, all human history were available,” he says.
And it became an all-consuming passion. “I don’t think there was a minute between 1987 and 1996,” he says, “when I wasn’t thinking about plotting it.”
Now, after almost twenty years, Gaiman has returned to the world of Morpheus and Death with The Sandman: Overture, a prequel of sorts to the very first episode, which will debut in October.
“It was really fun going back and writing those characters,” he says.
He felt “buoyed” when he viewed the new artwork, and compares being reunited with cover artist Dave McKean as “like one of those old caper movies — getting the old team back together.”
That said, he felt something similar to “stagefright” returning to such a well-loved classic.
“It was like millions and millions of people all standing behind me and looking at what I wrote and going ‘really?'”
Neil Gaiman was in conversation with Hannah Berry at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Aug 25