Welcome to the first part of Comics Bulletin’s look at Neil Gaiman’s classic Sandman. We hope you stick around for this whole series about the classic comic series as our world-class team of writers deliver our takes on this amazing and classic comic book. In this first chapter we’ll be looking at the background of the series. Next week we’ll take a long look the first volume of the collected Sandman, Preludes and Nocturnes. After this, every week we’ll have another team essay beginning with our look at the next Sandman volume A Doll’s House. Starting out this series is our resident comic book historian, Jason Sacks, who will fill us in on how this series came to be.
When he first started working in American comics, Neil Gaiman was a virtual nobody. He had worked as a journalist for a number of years (with a quckie biography about the band Duran Duran one of his most prominent early credits) and wrote a small handful of short stories for the iconic British sci-fi magazine 2000 A.D. He also created an obscure graphic novel with friend Dave McKean. Published in October 1987 by Titan Books, so little was expected of Violent Cases that Titan published McKean’s color artwork in black and white.
But Gaiman had at least two major things working in his favor: first, he was ambitious; and second, he was friends with Alan Moore. (It didn’t hurt that Gaiman was talented and intelligent as well). By 1987 Moore was the hottest writer in comics; Watchmen, which Moore wrote, was seen (then and now) as a revolution in the comics form, and he rapidly became the prominent comics creator of his era among a certain set of comics cognoscenti. In the post-Watchmen era, the quest was afoot to find creators with similar sensibilities and approaches. Moore was Gaiman’s favorite writer, and the two became friends as they met at conventions and social events. As part of that friendship, 1985 Moore shared some of his scripts with Gaiman as a bit of mentoring for his younger friend, which promoted Gaiman to write a pair of scripts as tryouts for jobs at DC. One was a story of John Constantine; the other was a Swamp Thing tale set in the 17th century called “Fiddler in the Green.”
Moore’s success also spurred his editor, Karen Berger, to come to England to meet British writers with the thought of their comprising a kind of latter-day British invasion. Just as the Beatles led a revolution in music in the 1960s, so too would Moore and his peers revolutionize comics in the 1980s. In retrospect that’s the perfect analogy to use, because just as the Beatles changed American music forever, do too did the British writers change American comics forever.
Gaiman first met Berger at the UK Comic Arts Convention in September 1986, when he passed Berger his script for of “Fiddler in the Green”. Berger liked the story (which didn’t see print until the 1999 collection Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days). When she and fellow DC editor Dick Giordano were next in London the following February, Gaiman and McKean stopped by Berger’s hotel room, during which Gaiman pitched Berger a new take on the mediocre, obscure mystical character the Phantom Stranger, a character so neglected that nobody thought to create an origin for him. Coincidentally, a very young Grant Morrison (also an obscure writer in 1986 and a rockstar writer today) had also pitched his own version of Phantom Stranger to Berger and Giordano that same morning. In some alternative universe, Grant Morrison’s Phantom Stranger is a classic. In ours, however, it never happened. Neither Gaiman nor Morrison received the commission for the series because the character as already assigned to writer Paul Kupperberg. (Kupperberg’s four-issue take on the Stranger was published by DC in 1987 and contained beautiful art by Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell and is a delightful quarter bin find.)
Berger then asked Gaiman what other characters he’d like to write. In that era immediately after Crisis on Infinite Earths, all of DC’s history was available for exploration with new takes commissioned for many obscure characters The writer rattled off a slew of other, increasingly obscure, DC characters: Green Arrow, John Constantine, Hawk and Dove, Black Canary, Klarion the Witch Boy, Nightmaster, Black Orchid. Berger stopped Gaiman with that final name. “Black Hawk Kid?” she asked? No, Gaiman, clarified, he was pitching Black Orchid, a character even more obscure and forgotten than Phantom Stranger. Black Orchid was published in a handful of issues of Adventure Comics in the mid-1970s that sold so badly that the comic was nearly cancelled during one of DC’s periodic purges. Berger was interested in Gaiman’s revival of the character, figuring it would be a low-stakes gamble to commission such a project. Gaiman sketched out the first thirty pages of that story on his hour-long train ride home after the pitch meeting; the next morning Gaiman called McKean at the latter’s art college dormitory and spend 45 minutes discussing the plot.
McKean agreed to work on the story, delivering six paintings of the charactersas an indicator of his apprach. That Saturday, Gaiman brought the outline and paintings to Berger. Their diligence won the job for the young creators; as Gaiman said in a later interview, “Years later Karen told me the reason we got the job, the reason they took us seriously even though neither of us had any credits actually, in any real terms, was because we met them on Thursday and on Sunday morning before they went back to America they had the pitch.”
After some back-and-forth and considerations on format, Black Orchid was published as a three-part story, in the Dark Knight Returns format, in November, December and January 1988. It was one of the first comics to show Karen Berger’s budding stable of new creators and displayed a commitment to quirky creators delivering work with high production values. That first issue was published one month after the premiere of a very different Gaiman comic: in October 1988, The Sandman #1 was published by DC Comics.
At the time, Gaiman expected The Sandman to be the more obscure book of the two; as he reflected in 1992, “I figured that Sandman would be this nice little horror comic that no one would notice, and Black Orchid would come out and everyone would go gosh, wow, and jaws would drop and we’d be famous. As it was, Orchid had all the impact of rose petals falling onto the surface of a pond.”
While Black Orchid was stuck in DC office politics, laying fallow in a desk for a year, Gaiman began planning ideas for an ongoing series. In an early draft of Black Orchid, Gaiman had written a scene at a restaurant in which several characters from DC’s dreamworld, like Cain and Abel as well as a version of the Sandman, show up as waiters. Gaiman removed the scene from the second draft but it was still percolating in his head as he considered his proposal for an ongoing series. Berger suggested Gaiman consider expanding the idea of the dream stream. Gaiman then hit upon concepts he picked up on from the childish and mostly forgotten Joe Simon/Jack Kirby take on the Sandman from the 1970s: “I had this idea that was basically: what if this was just how this one kid saw him, as a big, yellow and purple superhero? What if he was someone else for different people who saw him? And I was really, really attracted to the idea of someone who lives in dreams.”
Berger felt Gaiman was onto something and tasked him to work on developing the series. As he did so, the Great Storm of 1987 hit England, a weather event of terrible ferocity that knocked out power to Gaiman’s home in the small village of Nutley: “In some ways the hurricane was the best thing for Sandman. Because I was trapped. In my house.” Gaiman spent the next day walking around the storm-tossed village, thinking about Sandman, and calling Rick Veitch, then writer for Swamp Thing to discuss some of Gaiman’s ideas (the phone lines weren’t affected by the hurricane). The two men brainstormed ideas for the series and Gaiman felt the sharp spark of inspiration. When his computer came back on, Gaiman poured his ideas onto the computer screen.
Those rough concepts became an eight-page outline that Gaiman sent to McKean and his artist friend Leigh Baulch for character designs, as well as to Berger. Baulch designed a version of Dream that resembled David Bowie from Aladdin Sane. Berger liked the idea but wasn’t sure that Gaiman was up for the job. Giordano and DC Publisher Jeanette Kahn asked to see the outline. Those executives liked the pitch so much that they gave a green light to the project.
McKean agreed to do the covers for the series; Baulch begged off on the work because he was too slow an artist. The team thus considered who should illustrate the series. Gaiman first suggested Tom Yeates to Berger because he liked Yeates’s Swamp Thing work. Berger countered with Sam Kieth, then an up and coming artist in his mid-twenties with a short list of credits to his name, mainly inking Matt Wagner on the popular Mage. Berger called Kieth up one night at 11:30 pm and signed him up for the job. Keith suggested Mike Dringenberg as the inker. As it turned out, however, Kieth wasn’t the right man for the job. He quit after three issues, saying to Gaiman, “I feel like Jimi Hendrix in the Beatles. I am in the wrong band. This is not what I want to be doing.” Indeed, as we’ll see when digging into the stories in this first volume, Kieth wasn’t a perfect artist for the series. Part of the problem came from the fact of the two mens’ inexperience at the time; part came from the fact that the two men hadn’t even spoken to each other as the early issues were produced so they had no idea what each other would want to do on the project.
In fact, the first three issues had their scripts completed before Kieth laid pencil to paper, but with issue #4, Gaiman tailored a script to Kieth’s strengths and interests (the artist was obligated to complete the series up to issue #6); as Gaiman said in 1993, “It was: let’s do stuff that Sam will actually enjoy doing. Which is why we got that double-page spread of demons from horizon to horizon, and Lucifer’s Tower, and all that kind of stuff.”
Kieth enjoyed that issue, but The Sandman #5 really affected him. That whole issue takes place in a car in which a nice woman named Rosemary picks up hitchhiker Dr. Destiny near Arkham Asylum. Kieth grew fond of Rosemary as he drew her. At the end of the issue, Destiny murders Rosemary, which upset the artist deeply.
Kieth exited the series with that issue, with Mike Dringenberg taking over as the new penciller. Malcolm Jones III (inker on The Question, among other series)assumed inking duties, on a closed-room horror story that takes place in a diner. Gaiman was very fond of that issue: “All of the characters in the diner in issue #6, some of them are nice people, some of them aren’t nice people, but they’re real people. And I think that’s what hurts. But one of the nice things about having done #6 is if I want to do something offbeat now, it’s sort of like #6 established that I was going to go beyond anything that anybody had previously done in comics, or in mainstream comics. After that, I’ve been pretty much left alone.”
Gaiman was a pessimist, or maybe a realist, about the potential success of The Sandman: “So I plotted eight issues, because I figured at eight issues I’ll get the phone call saying: minor critical success, absolute commercial failure. And I will shrug, and that will be that, and then I’ll do four short stories and we’ll close out. And that’ll be Sandman. And for the first four issues we were on line for that.”
Gaiman was exaggerating slightly. Perhaps buoyed by the lovely McKean cover and the intriguing advertising (misquoting T.S. Eliot because they were terrified of the Eliot estate), the double-sized The Sandman #1 sold around 80,000 copies (Moore’s Swamp Thing sold 40,000 copies per month at the time he left the series). Sales dipped on the early issues; Sandman bottomed out around 40,000 with issue #4. Soon sales started picking up — slowly, at first, but steadily.
That steady growth was enough to encourage DC to promote the series; issue #8, with the memorable debut of Death, turned things around: “By #8 I don’t know what we were selling. We were suddenly selling sixty thousand a month. Or fifty thousand a month. We climbed and we climbed and we climbed with real readers who were staying. That was fascinating. So I didn’t get canceled.”
That sales success gave Gaiman the confidence to go the direction he wanted to go with the series for the long term. He realized that the readers who were leaving were the ones who wanted to read DC continuity stories. Those who remained, on the other hand, would read the kinds of stories Gaiman wanted to write. In time, the series would become iconic, a symbol for the infinite potential of the comics medium and one of the best selling series of graphic novels. As we’ll see in this series, the comics also earned deep critical acclaim.
The Sandman has its roots in DC Comics of the late 1980s, a fecund period for new concepts that brought readers proto-Vertigo comics like Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, Michael Fleisher’s wild Haywire, Andrew Helfer and Kyle Baker’s surreal Shadow and Jamie Delano’s brooding Hellblazer. It was a time of experimentation and of new writers who could come into the industry and have their own playgrounds to play in. Neil Gaiman combined an intense work ethic, smart ideas and a great opportunity into one of the finest comic stories of the 20th century. Join us as we explore that series.
Many thanks to Hayley Campbell, whose outstanding book The Art of Neil Gaiman was an invaluable resource in the preparation of this essay.