‘I can’t do superheroes, but I can do gods’: Neil Gaiman on comics, diversity and casting Death | Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman feels relieved to be at home. He’s dressed in black with unruly black hair, and he is sitting comfortably on a couch at Woodstock, New York. “I left here in August 2019, figuring I’d be back by the end of March,” he says. “I didn’t Actually get back till April 2022. Just in time to go off on a tour of America.” Nobody was completely unaffected by the pandemic, but not even Covid could derail the big-budget Netflix adaptation of Gaiman’s seminal 90s comic series The Sandman, due next month.

Gaiman, born in Britain, is one the most recognized living authors. His unrestrained imagination is not constrained by genre or age. He has written adult horror fantasy (American Gods).), children’s literature (Coraline)Retellings and stories of ancient myths (Norse Mythology)). He was the recipient of the Hugo and Nebula awards as well as the Bram Stoker and Bram Stoker Bram Stoker medals. These are only a few of his books. Gaiman’s Midas touch extends beyond literature: his play The Ocean at the End of the Lane was recently staged in London to enthusiastic reviews; film adaptations of his work include Coraline and Stardust; Lucifer, Good Omens and American Gods have all been successfully adapted to television; Gaiman even wrote the English translation of classic Studio Ghibli anime Princess Mononoke.

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Gaiman’s output may be prolific and diverse, but it’s also instantly recognisable. It is based on a magic realist vision of the universe where mythic creatures can exist in everyday life. Gaiman’s stories are filled with kindness. He is a writer who loves his characters. His fans love him for his generosity, which may explain why he is so beloved. His social media interactions reflect this same optimism. He is intimately familiar with his nearly 3 million Twitter followers as well as the readers of his online journal. Fans were invited to listen to Gaiman, his wife Amanda Palmer singing lullabies for their son Ash.

Although Gaiman is enjoying incredible success, he began his career in comics and was then considered to be the literary gutter.. The mid-80s was an exciting time to be involved with the medium, and Gaiman – working as a freelance journalist – was well aware of it. “In 1986, I pitched a story about what was happening in comics,” he says. “At that point Maus, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were all coming out. One newspaper replied: ‘We’ve written about Desperate Dan’s 50th anniversary this year – we can’t do another comics piece.’”

A Sunday newspaper supplement eventually asked Gaiman to write a comics feature. “It would have been a big cover article. I did all the interviews and gathered together art, including unpublished material.” But it was not to be. “They didn’t call back,” continues Gaiman. “After a few days, I phoned the editor to ask if he got the article and he said: ‘Yes, I’ve read it. There’s just one problem – we feel it lacks balance. These comics – you seem to think they’re a Good thing …’ What I was saying was that there was this whole flowering of the medium, and what he wanted was for me to interview people who felt that comics were the end of literacy.” Gaiman was, of course, proved right. Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer prize for Maus. The Dark Knight Returns was a popular comic that reached readers beyond comics. Watchmen by Alan Moore was named one of Time magazine’s top 100 novels since the magazine’s inception.

The late 80s saw a kind of “British invasion”, a migration of talent to the US that was to change the face of comics. Karen Berger was the visionary editor of DC Comics. This is where Superman and Batman are found. Berger first asked Alan Moore to write the horror title Swamp Thing. Moore’s run Monthly comics have raised the bar in terms of what is possible. It was all open. Grant Morrison, a Scottish writer, followed suit. He took on the Doom Patrol superhero team and transformed it into his own surreal, psychoedelic image. It seemed that anything was possible.

Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer Morningstar in The Sandman
You want it darker … Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer Morningstar in The Sandman.Photo by Laurence Cendrowicz/Netflix

This was the setting for the relatively unknown Gaiman to appear in the picture. DC comics was able to give these young British upstarts a character they could use, and thus minimize risks. Gaiman was offered The Sandman. This minor character had been in two different incarnations over the years. Neither of these were very successful. Gaiman was encouraged and given full control over the character, and was allowed to make changes as he pleased. Gaiman was anxious even with this tabula rasa.

“Bear in mind, at this point I’ve written and sold maybe four short stories and [comic miniseries]Black Orchid. And now I’m going to have to do a monthly comic,” he says. “And I have no idea whether or not I can do it. I don’t think I have the engine to write a superhero comic. I’ve watched what Alan Moore does, what Grant Morrison does. These guys have superhero engines, they can do them; I don’t have that.”

Gaiman needed a way to get in and it was through a US science-fiction writer. “Roger Zelazny did a book called Lord of Light, where he did science-fictional gods who feel like superheroes,” says Gaiman. “It’s set in a world in the future where a bunch of space explorers have given themselves the powers of the Hindu pantheon. I thought: I can’t do superheroes, but I Could do god comics. I bet I could get that kind of feeling to happen, and it might feel enough like a superhero comic to fool people.”

Gaiman’s version of the Sandman is Morpheus, a handsome goth as comfortable in a flowing cape of velvety shadows as he is in stove pipe jeans and a T-shirt (all in black, of course). He’s one of the Endless, seven immortal siblings who are the embodiment of natural forces: Death, Desire, Destiny, Despair, Delirium, Destruction and – in Morpheus’s case – Dream. Like all mythological deities, Morpheus’s almost unlimited powers don’t protect him from heartbreak and jeopardy. Gaiman actually enjoyed exploring the humanity and fallibility of these characters. Morpheus’s immortality also allowed Gaiman to set his stories in every era, from deepest prehistory to the far future, as well as providing a snapshot of modern culture. This was a daring idea for a superhero series.

With this magic equation in place, Gaiman’s “god comic” took off. The Sandman was rich with literary allusions, and featured strong female characters. This book found new audiences beyond the usual legion. It became essential reading on college campuses – for both male and female students. “Back then, DC always did a year before they cancelled a title,” says Gaiman, “so I figured at issue eight they’d phone me up and say: ‘Well, minor critical success, major commercial failure. You’ve got four issues to wrap it up!’ Then I’d be done. This would be The Sandman. Instead, we got to issue eight, and we were selling more than anything comparable had ever sold within the last 15 years.” His confidence buoyed up by the sales, Gaiman was determined to do precisely what he wanted with the comic, supported by his ally Berger. “I knew this was the only chance I was ever going to get to put all the stuff that I loved in a comic,” he says, “so if I wanted to do a retelling of [Roman historian] Suetonius’s Life of Augustus as a homage to the poet Robert Graves, I was only going to get to do that once. The luckiest thing I had was an editor who trusted me.”

Tom Sturridge as Dream and Kyo Ra as Rose Walker in The Sandman.
Grave new world … Tom Sturridge as Dream and Kyo Ra as Rose Walker in The Sandman.Photograph by Liam Daniel/Netflix

Sales climbed – particularly when the comics were collected in paperback book form and made available outside of comics shops – but critical acclaim was slower to follow. “In 1989, I was at a Christmas party for some magazine that was at the Groucho Club,” says Gaiman. “I got talking to somebody who, if memory serves, was literary editor at the Telegraph. They asked me what I did and I replied that I made comics. The gentleman looked as though I’d slapped him with a herring, but he couldn’t just stop talking to me and turn away, so he asked: ‘Oh well, what kind of Comics?’ I said I’d written a thing called Violent Cases and that I was writing a thing called The Sandman. He said: ‘Hang on, you’re Neil Gaiman?!’ I said: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Oh my dear fellow, you don’t write comicsWrite, Graphic novels!’ I felt like a hooker who’d just been called ‘a lady of the evening’.”

A writer who is successful can go on a long and productive career, even if they don’t create a classic. Gaiman made his name right out of the gate. The Sandman is as much a part the 90s as Twin Peaks or Nirvana to those who have read it. While it may not have had the same audiences at first, it made an impact on the lives of its writer. “In 1997, I went for a meeting at Warner Bros. I don’t even remember what it was about,” says Gaiman. “I’m with my new agent. The meeting doesn’t go anywhere, and when we get downstairs there are a couple of what would then have been called secretaries at their desks. As we pass one of them says: ‘Excuse me Mr Gaiman – would you sign my Sandman?’, which I do. My agent says to me in a jocular fashion: ‘Ha! Ha! You’re like Tom Cruise to these women.’ She turns to him furiously and says: ‘Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt are in here all the fucking time. This is Neil Gaiman. He wrote Sandman!’ What’s fascinating to me about that is that nobody at the studio back then knew who I was, but the bottom-level people, the ones who brought the bottle of water when you came, did. They are the ones running the studios now. They’re the ones determined that the Sandman they loved gets on to the screen.”

The TV adaptation is sumptuously presented and faithful to the original comics – but not slavishly so. One of the reasons The Sandman initially found such a passionate audience was its progressive views on gender, sexuality and diversity, at a time when those views weren’t popular, let alone de rigueur. This has made it much easier to adapt. “The great thing about having done all that stuff back then is that there’s an awful lot less work to do now,” says Gaiman. “There are moments when people yell at me for being woke online, and I’m like: ‘Have you ever read the fucking comic?’ People have criticised me for casting a gender-fluid, non-binary actor as Desire, but they were in the original. Desire was always non-binary; that was the whole point of the character.”

These issues weren’t exactly at the top of the agenda when The Sandman was first published. “In the early 90s I was getting flak – particularly from the British comics press – for not being political enough. People were making political comics about Margaret Thatcher’s bad character, but I was talking about diversity in race, gender and sexuality. When I was asked about it in interviews I would say: ‘Well the personalIt is political, and maybe you’ll find that Sandman is more political than you think.’ I wasn’t out there banging a drum. These were my friends, and I wanted them to be comics. I wanted to bring about change in hearts and minds. I was transgender and still have trans friends. It seemed that no one was publishing comics featuring trans people. And then I made a comic. I learned a lot from my friends, such as the fact that people are buried under their dead names. [the names they used before transitioning]Families. It was quite shocking. And I thought, here was this opportunity to write a story in which everybody reading it is going to fall in love with my trans character who is going to be awesome.”

The Sandman adaptation features a cast that includes Charles Dance, Joely Richardson and Stephen Fry. The title role of the Sandman – AKA Morpheus – is played by Tom Sturridge. As well as being the story’s creator, Gaiman is executive producer and a writer on the show. He was particularly concerned about casting the lead. “The lines are very difficult to say. He can do it. He is a magnet. He makes you feel for him. He can be a dick, but you still love him. It’s magic.”

Game of Thrones’s Gwendoline Christie plays Lucifer, the ruler of hell. She’s scene-stealing good, obviously relishing her wicked role. Gaiman is also in agreement. “We needed someone gender fluid. As gender fluid and flexible as David Bowie was when he was a young folk singer. He was my initial model for Lucifer. Gwendoline was found. And she’s enormous! And she’s beautiful! She has that power!” Then there’s Morpheus’s sister, Death, played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste. One of the most important turbines in the story is the chemistry between the siblings. “Casting Death was horrible,” admits Gaiman. “I saw 700 auditions. It’s amazing how many amazing, beautiful, talented actresses of all ethnicities and backgrounds can’t say lines like: ‘You are the most appalling excuse for an anthropomorphic personification on this or any other plane!’ and make it convincing.”

Gaiman has now completed The Sandman and is now focusing his attention on a wide range of projects for television and literary. Gaiman is also going back to his roots, completing the comic series Miracleman that he started but never finished with Mark Buckingham of Marvel comics. “I’m primarily a storyteller,” he says. “As a kid I really wanted to write comics. Comics were fantastic. Comics were an amazing place to do things you’d never done before. However, I wanted to make films. I wanted television. I wanted novels. What I wanted to do was tell stories.”

Neil Gaiman on Sandman’s visual inspirations

Original artwork by Dave McKean for Sandman Issue 1.

Artwork for Sandman Issue 1, by Dave McKean.
Artwork for Sandman Issue 1 by Dave McKean. Photograph: Dave McKean/© DC Comics

It measured three feet in height and featured shelves on the sides. People assume that it’s a collage but it’s not; it’s an object with a painting in the middle and all sorts of found objects along the side. Dave was a man of high standards. It was a blessing that we met at the right time. He didn’t like superhero comics, but he did not like pulp. So I knew I had to impress my first reader.

The Beguiling and Magic of Merlin by Edward Burne Jones

The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones
Edward Burne Jones’s The Beguiling and Magic of MerlinPhotograph by Niday Picture Library/Alamy

I wanted Sandman feeling pre-Rapahelite. It was all about how you build. Barry Windsor Smith created Conan the Barbarian by taking pre-Raphaelites. The only thing I did was take off the muscles.

Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music

Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music
Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.

When I wrote Hell [a location in The Sandman Vol 1]That album was my favorite for the past four days. I don’t know what the soundtrack to hell is, but Metal Machine Music will do. It’s still unlistenable, but when I hear it I’m incredibly happy because that was my soundtrack.

Elvis Costello’s King of America

Elvis Costello’s King of America.
Elvis Costello’s King of America.

This album featured Sleep of the Just. I can recall not being able come up with a title after Sandman issue 1. I started humming something, and thought: What is it? That song is mine. I realised I was singing Sleep of the Just and thought: Oh, that’s the title!

Sandman’s Helmet from the Netflix show

Tom Sturridge sandman
Tom Sturridge models Sandman’s helmet in the new Netflix adaptation.Photograph by Liam Daniel/Netflix

The gas mask was worn by The Sandman, the first DC Comics character to wear it. I wanted a visual tribute to that gas mask, and I thought: let’s make it the kind of thing HR Giger would have created. It was a metal-leather and bone gasmask, basically made of a spine. It was fascinating to see how different artists could draw it in their own way. We had so many variations that it became a problem when we had one to make for the show. The one JH Williams III had drawn for The Sandman: Overture was the one we chose. That’s our helmet.

The Sandman will be available on Netflix beginning 5 August.

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