It’s been 25 years since The Sandman’s first issue, 10 since the last Sandman-themed story. So Oct. 30 looms as a day of reckoning for the series' wry British creator, Neil Gaiman—that's when DC Comic’s Vertigo imprint unveils its long-awaited, four-years-in-the-making prequel, The Sandman: Overture, with artwork by J.H. Williams III, and set to publish in six, bi-monthly day-and-date installments.
"When I was writing Sandman, my readers were 100,000 people around the word," he says. "Now, I’m writing for 100 million—all the people who’ve ever read Sandman—all looking over my shoulder.
"In my head, they’re all waiting with arms folded. 'This better be good. We’ve been waiting 25 years for this!'" he laughs. "It just makes me slower and more scared and much more nervous as I’m writing."
So how does he cope?
"I drink," he grins.
"Actually, that’s not true," he adds. "I drive my editors to drink."
Since DC Comics published the first Sandman issue in November, 1988 (with a cover date of January, 1989), the ethereal graphic novel has sold 7 million copies in 9 languages and garnered more than two dozen awards.
The story (later published by Vertigo), ran over 75 issues from 1988 to 1996, followed by subsequent collected editions, spin-offs, and a 2003 15th anniversary edition, The Sandman: Endless Nights, which became the first graphic novel to land on the New York Times bestseller list.
"Sandman showed the vast potential of the comic book artform—that it’s not just superheroes," says DC Entertainment co-publisher and illustrator Jim Lee. "It brought not just new fans, but diverse and different kinds of fans at a period of transition in the industry."
The dark fantasy chronicles the journey of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, as he endures a 70-year imprisonment by occultists, avenges his captors, and rebuilds his dilapidated kingdom.
"There was one Sandman story that I never got to tell of what happened just before it began," says Gaiman. "We learn, as the story goes on, that he arrived in England exhausted, dressed for war, from somewhere very far away, and that was why they captured him so easily. But I never told that story. And it’s big, and it’s very weird."
Williams, who joined the project last year, was Gaiman’s first choice of artists. He's a multi-award-winning illustrator best known for Promethea, Desolation Jones, and the New 52-revamp of Batwoman.
"I write scripts and then I say, 'Page 1 panel: this is what we’re looking at,'" says Gaiman. "Then he goes off and reinterprets that in his head and gives me something back that I never would have imagined."
"Neil pretty much knows what he wants to do with the stories, so I don’t want to try to infringe on that. I want to do his story justice," says Williams. "But we have conversations about the broader strokes of the feeling of the story he wants to create, his influences of that, and my influences. And they happened to be the same, which was fascinating."
But the process involved more than informing one another’s creativity. Almost in keeping with his novel’s theme, Gaiman appealed to Williams’ artistic desire. "At the beginning, I wrote an email to J.H. asking, `What would you like to draw that you’ve never drawn? That you dream of drawing?’ " he says. "And I got back a list."
Over the course of his writing, Gaiman would refer to that list. "He talked about the atmosphere of spaghetti westerns, and obviously this was nothing like one, but I wondered if there was a place for people to walk through huge rock formations and weird mesas."
Gaiman pauses a moment and smiles. "If you have an artist drawing what they like to draw, they make you look so good. And people think you’re so clever."
When Gaiman began Overture four years ago, he worried whether the characters were still in his head and would have the same voice. Given the wisdom of hindsight, has he ever distilled the element of Sandman that so captivated audiences?
"I have absolutely no idea," says Gaiman. "Nor have I ever really worried about that—otherwise, I don’t think I would have done this thing. I was writing the kind of comic that would make me, at age 26 or 27, go down to a comic book store every month and spend my $2. That was my starting point. I wanted to write a comic that I would read. And that’s still my agenda."
Along with a dangled carrot to his fans. "If we ever get to the 50th anniversary, I may tell the story of how the character of Delight became Delirium, or the story of how the first Despair died," he says. "But that’s the 50th anniversary, so there’s plenty of time."
[Images courtesy of DC Entertainment and Susan Karlin]