EXCLUSIVE: The second installment of our three-part interview with Neil Gaiman finds the writer musing on the “British Invasion” in comics, describing his love for “mythology mash-ups” and wondering if maybe he pulled off the impossible with sustained excellence of “The Sandman”
GB: How would you describe Morpheus, your flawed Lord of Dreams, to someone who was coming to the tale for the first time?
NG: He’s a lot like me, only with an immortal’s superpowers and no sense of humor of any kind. Hmm. So in fact, he isn’t anything like me at all but he does have very messy hair. [Laughs] That was a great point of correspondence between me and the character. He’s much paler than I am too. No, really, with the character, it was an idea of trying to take something very literally: What would it be like to live in dreams? A lot of that came out of terror. I was a young writer and had never written anything monthly. I needed a story shape that could take me anywhere because my fear was: What if I run out of stories? So I thought, “I will have somebody who has existed since the dawn of time, so that gives me the entirety of human history to play with for stories.”
And I wanted someone who is absolutely and utterly powerful. It’s interesting because at the time, John Byrne had just taken over Superman and had announced that he was making Superman less powerful because he had become too powerful and you couldn’t write interesting stories about people that were too powerful. That started me thinking, “Well, no, actually you can, because what makes a person interesting or not interesting isn’t how powerful they are, but who they are.”
GB: There’s also the compelling problems that come with that power. Your Morpheus may be able to bend reality to his wishes but he still has to deal with the consequences of his excesses and his relationships.
NG: Which is why I created Dream, this god-like being of immortal power, and then I gave him a family. Most characters in comics simply didn’t have any families, and it was something I loved. It was something I loved to write about. When I first came out to America, people told me that in “The Sandman” I created a dysfunctional family, which was not a phrase I had heard before that in England. I talked to people about it, and I realized that what people in America called “a dysfunctional family” was the same thing that we in England referred to as “a family.” You didn’t see a lot of functional ones. So I gave him a family, the Endless. I gave him Death and Delirium and Desire and Despair and Destiny and Destruction.
GB: It became such an amazing tapestry as the series moved on. There was the feeling of epic fantasy on a scale that wasn’t really there in those earliest issues.
NG: At the beginning it was a horror comic. Those first eight issues was a sort of horror comic. After that it became more of, I guess, a fantasy tale, but one that allowed me to go off and write about Shakespeare or history or do a modern-day road trip or really go anywhere I wanted to with an unlimited special effects budget. [Laughs]
GB: I was fascinated when you began plucking the deities of different cultures and putting them together in a sort of mythology mash-up. It was something you would come back to in your non-comics work later with the “American Gods” novel …
NG: It was something that I had always loved so much about the nature of comic-book universes. Those Marvel and DC heroes all seemed to exist in worlds where you had gods and you had fairies and robots and aliens. It was all there, and there was the potential for this amazing mash-up. All I did was take joy in it and mash it up much, much further. It was all there to be mashed, but nobody had mashed it up just yet in that way.
GB: Well, in Marvel Comics, when Thor and Hercules both ended up in Manhattan, they tended to blend in with the superhero except for their Old Vic accents. Your stories, though, presented the gods as mistrustful tribes forced into the same room.
NG: That’s it, yes, the idea of putting them together wasn’t something that nobody had done before; it’s just that whenever it had been done, they tried to downplay the awkwardness. I wanted to revel in the joy of that awkwardness. It’s something I keep coming back to. This wonderful, great-big, post-modern grab bag. It’s all up for grabs; it’s all metaphor and mythology, and if I can find a kitchen sink, I’m throwing that in too.
GB: No, I don’t know that book.
NG: It’s a lovely kid’s book. All through the book, people are saying to the hero, ‘There’s one thing that you need to know about this quest you’re on, but we’re not going to tell you what it is.” Then there’s a point at the very end, after he’s succeeded in his quest, where he says, “So what was the one thing that no one would tell me?” And they say, “That your quest was absolutely impossible, that it couldn’t be done.” If he had known that one thing, he would never have gone on. Looking back at “The Sandman,” I do sort of look at it with part of me saying, “That was probably impossible.” So it’s good that nobody told me that.
GB: One of the great things about “The Sandman” and, before that, your work on “Black Orchid” was the approach of taking existing and familiar characters from the comics and adding new layers of complexity to their stories as well as more nuanced explanations of their motivations and origins. Along with Alan Moore’s work on “Swamp Thing,” it seems to me that your character revival approach on “The Sandman” really created a template for a whole generation of comics writers.
NG: One of the things I had in common with Alan Moore and a whole generation of comics writers around us — certainly Grant Morrison — was a love and respect for what had gone before but also a healthy interest in seeing where we could go with it. It was a combination of those the two impulses. We were in a period then in mainstream American comics that things had gotten a bit hidebound. Comics read very much like a mixture of what had come before. And I think at the time you had this wonderful little transatlantic thing that happened, this mini-British Invasion. Looking back on it, the analogy of what happened to pop music in the 1960s was probably pretty accurate. Alan Moore got to be the Beatles and, along with Grant Morrison, I was Gerry and the Pacemakers.
GB: Well, don’t sell yourself short. What about the Kinks or the Stones?
NG: Right, maybe the Kinks or the Stones. But maybe I was Herman’s Hermits. …
GB: I’ve got it: the Animals. Then you can have a spooky Eric Burdon, “House of the Rising Sun” kind of thing going on.
NG: The Animals, yes. That would be cool. But yeah, the idea that you had Brits listening to this [American] stuff and fell in love with it and for all the right reasons, and then realized they could do something new with it, something with different cultural impulses. The British Invasion did that in music, and in a way, we did it in comics.
GB: It was very satisfying for readers too, to see familiar characters such as Cain and Abel, Etrigan, Dr. Destiny brought back and rendered in a new and more sophisticated way that winked at the past but didn’t mock it.
NG: It was never tongue-in-cheek. When we brought back old characters, we always did it with love. For me, in “The Sandman,” I was building a universe, and I would look around and think, is there something that already exists in the DC universe that I can put in here. Grabbing a Cain and Abel, that was lovely. I arrived in America [in August 1992] shortly before Bill Clinton was elected and I watched the joy that my friends had when he was elected, and then I watched six months later as that joy turned to grumbliness when they realized they elected a politician. I had a thought that I would write them the kind of president they obviously seemed to want, and I got to do it by grabbing an old, forgotten DC Comics character called Prez, the “first teen president of the United States,” and it was so much fun.
GB: That was “The Golden Boy” story …
NG: Yes, and the idea was to take out this thing here that already exists and tidy it up a bit and then tell the story as if it was a gospel. I had a great time doing that.
GB: It is interesting how people cast their vote for symbols but get stuck with politicians after the election is over.
NG: Yes, it is, and it’s unfortunate. And this was one of those things where as an artist I got to have an enormous amount of fun just writing the story of an American presidency presented as a synoptic gospel.
READ PART ONE: Gaiman reflects on the 20th anniversary of “The Sandman.” “It is has been wonderful and baffling and inspiring.”
READ PART THREE: Gaiman discusses his Hollywood dreams for “The Sandman” as well as his disappointments with “Stardust” and anxieties about the February release of “Coraline.”
— Geoff Boucher
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All artwork courtesy of Vertigo/DC Comics.