Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean: “How we made The Sandman”

Cuz Neil and Dave are huge in the creative world at the moment, and it sure couldn’t hurt to pick up on some of the secrets of their success:

The Sandmanby Phil Hoad

Neil Gaiman, writer

The character of Dream – AKA the Sandman, or the Lord of Dreams – had always been in my mind, like that Michelangelo analogy about a sculpture already being in the marble. In 1988, when I wrote a dream sequence for Black Orchid, my first comic for DC, it occurred to me that it might be cool if the Sandman, who had appeared in comics by other writers, was in there. I started thinking about reworking the character and talked about it over dinner with [DC president] Jenette Kahn and [editor]Karen Berger. Later, I got a call asking me to do a monthly comic.

They said: make it your own. So I started thinking more mythic – let’s have someone who’s been around since the beginning of time, because that lets me play around with the whole of time and space. I inherited from mythology the idea that he was Morpheus, king of dreams: it’s a story about stories, and why we need them, all of them revolving in some way around Morpheus: we encounter a frustrated writer with an imprisoned muse; we attend a serial killer convention and the first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; we even find out what cats dream about (and why we should be afraid).

I realised I had a platform and decided to write about big things. I started thinking: “What does it mean to be a king?” At one point, I did a set of four stories exploring that question: with Robespierre, one of the leaders of the French revolution; Joshua Norton, the Californian who in 1859 declared himself first emperor of America; Augustus, founder of the Roman empire; and the eighth-century Arab caliph Harun al-Rashid.

I went on holiday, driving around Ireland with my wife. Every night, I would write a one-page description of the next story. I planned eight issues. Every comic I’d liked doing had been a major commercial failure. So I assumed, by issue eight, they would ring me and say they couldn’t keep publishing. The sales on issue one, which appeared in October 1988, were fantastic. But two, three and four saw a downwards spiral. Then, on issue five, we started this long, slow climb up. DC now had something that was outselling anything comparable – Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, say, or Jamie Delano’s wonderful Hellblazer. By the very end, in 1996, we were beating Batman and Superman. Investors buy comics for their future worth, but the market had collapsed and sales had gone into freefall – except for Sandman, because nobody who bought it was an investor. Readers just wanted to find out what happened each month.

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