YNeil Gaiman, an author, was told by the English department that they had decided to boycott the conference. What was their concern? He wrote comics—and one couldn’t write comics and be a real writer.
The years that followed will suggest otherwise. Today, Neil Gaiman—the creative force behind an extraordinary range of imaginative books, including American Gods, Good Omens Coraline—is one of the world’s most celebrated (and prolific) storytellers. Writing not just comics but novels, children’s books, poetry and more, he has topped bestseller lists, won Hugo and Nebula and Eisner Awards, and seen his work adapted for stage, radio, film, and television. And over the course of Gaiman’s long and consequential career—one that notably led Stephen King to describe him as a “treasure-house of story”—The SandmanHis most loved work may be “The Beatles”, a cult-hit that made millions of dollars.
This comic book was published first by DC Comics late 1980s. The series is currently available as a Netflix television series on Aug. 5. The SandmanThis is the tale of Morpheus (the master of dreams), as he explores the world in his dreams and attempts to rescue it from his ex-creatures. Though set against a backdrop of gods and their cosmic conflicts, it is (in the way of all good myths) a story deeply concerned with what it means to be human—our frailties, our failures, and the possibilities we envision when we close our eyes.
Gaiman talked to TIME about adaptation and the power of speculative literature, as well as what he learned from his worst nightmares.
Continue reading: Netflix’s Mesmerizing SandmanThe Decades-long Wait for Adaptation is Well Worth It
TIME: It’s been over 30 years since you first put pen to paper on The Sandman. Was it difficult to revisit one of the most famous stories you have ever written all those years later.
Gaiman: It was almost as though we were accomplishing something unimaginable. I’d spent 30 years waiting for somebody to make a bad Sandman film. And just hoping that if I was really lucky, maybe it wouldn’t be bad. So getting to a place where we’re given the money and the resources to make SandmanComics are a surprise and a delight.
Did you find anything in your reading that was exciting to be updated?
We were reminded of how much we loved the comics by mainly reading them. SandmanHad been a little ahead of its times. It was filled with trans and gay characters. And now we’re doing a TV series of the comic. In a strange way, it feels like all of the work was done by us. In reality, we actually made it feel like it took a lot more time.
These stories are among the most loved in the world. Is this how comics have changed?
I don’t think that it’s particularly changed the world of comics. I think it’s made people very aware of comics as a source of intellectual property. And I think it’s also made people very aware that Marvel movies have become incredibly successful by doing what Marvel comics were doing for years—interconnected stories. The feeling that you have to see every one of the films because otherwise you might miss out on something that’s important to the film that you do want to see.
In one of the season’s later episodes, Morpheus tells a recently recaptured nightmare that a nightmare’s purpose is to reveal a dreamer’s fears so that they may face them. What did you learn from your dreams–or your nightmares?
I’ve learned to trust my dreams and nightmares. As a child, I experienced terrible nightmares. Even worse, when I began writing SandmanThey went on. But whenever I’d get a nightmare, I would wake up thrilled and immediately jot it down and go, “Whoa, I can use that.” Fairly quickly, the nightmares just went away. My eventual theory was that whoever was giving me them was so disappointed by my reaction to them that they just couldn’t be bothered anymore.
There’s no shortage of horrors in The SandmanHowever, Death is the most touching character in the entire show. Was there anything that inspired your creation?
It was a strange feeling that I had when I first started to make Death. I loved the idea of a Death that was warm, a Death that was nice, a Death that you’d like to meet. I thought, that’s the Death I’d like. When it’s my turn to go, there’d just be somebody lovely there, saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry, you should have looked both ways before crossing that street.” That was the Death that I wanted.
Despite the many television adaptations of your work that you’ve been a part of in recent years, including Good OmensAmazon American Gods on Hulu, you have a reputation for trying to steer Hollywood away from—not toward—your work. Why?
Between the ages of 24 and 27, I worked as a film critic. I also saw many bad movies. And I couldn’t see the point in making bad films. I didn’t want to make things that were less than they could have been, which didn’t mean that I didn’t want to take chances. And sometimes the chances you take pay off and sometimes they don’t.
I’d like to get your thoughts in particular on fantasy’s role in this moment, which is, of course, defined by so many real-world crises. Is fantasy a viable genre in these difficult times?
[Fantasy]This allows us to look at our lives differently. I think politics makes an awful lot more sense if you read George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books. You wind up realizing that actually, politicians are people, and they’re acting on their own motivations. And sometimes those motivations are beneficial and very often it’s going to wind up to be your village burned.
That’s on a macro level. On a micro level, I’ve spent 34 years now with people coming up to me and saying, your character Death in SandmanShe got me through my son’s death. She helped me get through the deaths of my parents and my beloved one. Kirby Howell Baptiste I chose [who plays Death in the series] aside the other day at Comic-Con, and I said, “ You played Death as well as I could possibly hope. You will be told about people who mean something to you throughout your entire life. How they handled their loss. That person will enter an afterlife. That’s a huge responsibility.” I think Kirby’s up to it. It’s huge that fantasy works can help others.
Sometimes, speculative fiction is separated from other genres. How do you respond to those who see an epic as a silo? The Sandman and don’t see literature?
I kind of like the fact that comics can still be looked down on and we’re still a gutter medium, because there’s always life in the gutter. It doesn’t really matter to me if people think SandmanIs literature good or bad? It is what I care about that people read SandmanIt affects how they live, it influences their thinking, it is important to them. At the end of the day, the people who will decide what the literature was of a period that actually matters, what speaks to them, what’s important—they’re hundreds of years away from here. Contemporary perspectives are helpful. Moby-DickWas a failure book about whaling. I would be content if someone picked up the book 100 years or 150 years down the road. SandmanFinds something you enjoy. That would be my choice.
You could speak to your 28 year-old self and tell him/her that the issue you published was the first. The SandmanWhat would you say to him?
Oh, I wouldn’t tell him anything. I think the thing that kept him doing the impossible was a combination of terror and the knowledge that if he didn’t do this thing, it wouldn’t happen. I worry terribly that if I went back in time, and said to him, “Hey, it’s gonna be alright, you’re going to do everything you wanted to in Sandman. It will be loved by everyone. Thirty years from now, it’ll be in print, and we’re going to make the most amazing television series of it.” He would just go, “Oh, that’s good,” and he’d relax and stop working. To get to where I am, I have to make him hungry and scared.
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