With Yvette Nicole Brown (Community, Avengers: Endgame) hosting, DC FanDome’s The Sandman Universe: Enter the Dreaming panel brought together series creator Neil Gaiman, writer G Willow Wilson (Ms. Marvel, The Dreaming: Waking Hours), audio director Dirk Maggs (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Michael Sheen (Good Omens, Tron) to discuss the history, present, and future of the world of the Lord of Dreams, in an all-too-brief twenty minutes that was often filled with laughter.
Gaiman told how the series began in 1987, having never written a monthly comic before, and without his actually knowing what he was doing. Conceived as a revival of the concept behind the 1970’s series of the same name, Gaiman re-imagined the Sandman to tell any kind of story he needed to tell, in the hopes that he would figure things out as he went along. After about the first year, he knew what kind of story he was telling, and by the middle of the second year, he knew the shape and direction of where it would go. Then it was just a matter of “holding on tight and hoping to be able to tell the story before it got canceled”.
G Willow Wilson, who is writing The Dreaming: Waking Hours for The Sandman Universe line, first read The Sandman in the late 90s as a teenage goth. “By the time I was reading that series, it was already part of the culture, so I was already wearing the Death outfit without knowing what it was.” The series shaped her idea of storytelling and making legacy characters fresh again, and served her well in writing the Hugo Award-winning Ms. Marvel comic. She saw the challenge of telling new stories in the Sandman universe being both being faithful to the world that fans already knew and yet also bringing something fresh and accessible to new readers. A struggle with insomnia that had her thinking even a nightmare would be welcome at that point led her to the creation of Ruin, a nightmare who no longer wants to serve that role in the Dreaming.
Asked what was exciting for him about new stories being told by new creative teams, Gaiman replied “Not feeling like I made a slice of history”, and that The Sandman stories still have relevance 30 years after their creation. It’s not something he set out to do, which he thinks is what might have made it work.
Littered throughout the panel were often very funny stories about the early days of the comic and how DC didn’t quite know what to do with what Gaiman had in mind. The now-classic Dave McKean covers were a particular point of contention, with Gaiman explaining that he fought to not have Morpheus on every cover – “the words The Sandman are on the heading” – and that editor Karen Berger actually fired McKean, but he refused to stop painting the covers and sent them to her anyway.
Of course, it’s not just new comics set in the Dreaming that fans have available or are on the way. Earlier this year the full-cast Audible Studios production of the first three acts of the comic was released, produced and directed by Dirk Maggs, and starring James MacAvoy as Morpheus. Gaiman himself served as the narrator, and Michael Sheen portrayed Lucifer alongside a cast that included Andy Serkis, Kat Dennings, Samantha Morton, and Taron Egerton and many, many more.
Maggs explained that when it came to adapting the comics to audio, “The process was really easy because Neil is still alive”, and that he originally brought the idea of an audio version of The Sandman to BBC decades ago, but they turned him down. Having access to Gaiman’s original scripts for the comics was a huge help – Maggs called them works of art – and the absolute joy of getting so many talented voice actors coming into his studio to essentially perform scenes from the comic in front of him in real-time.
Michael Sheen had not been a comic book fan as a kid, but a friend in drama school introduced him to the works of Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen) and Neil Gaiman, and he said it “changed my life”. The David Bowie-inspired image of Lucifer in those early issues of The Sandman stuck with him, and when it came time to play the Prince of Darkness, it was that young, smooth, almost disturbingly friendly version that he brought to his performance. He and Gaiman became friends in 2010, and he joked that between Good Omens and The Sandman, Gaiman keeps creeping closer and closer, and if this keeps up, surgery will be required to separate them.
The audio production is an incredibly faithful adaptation, with – if anything – critics finding fault in the places where the story and characters are clearly products of the late ’80s and early ’90s. That’s something the upcoming Netflix series will do differently, as Gaiman explained.
“Part of the joy of the audio adaptation is going this is going to be the nearest we can do to an audiobook of the first three graphic novels and we are going to start it in 1988 and it is going to end in 1991 and 1992. It’s a very compressed story. What we are doing with Netflix is saying, okay, it’s still going to start in 1916 but the thing that happens in Sandman #1, the point that the story starts is not 1998, its now, and how does that change the story, what does it make us look at that we wouldn’t have had to look at? What is it going to do to the gender of characters, the nature of the story? That has been an absolute delight, true to the story, true to the characters, but if we were doing it now what would Sandman be?”