February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Neil Gaiman and Junot Diaz Talk About Graphic Novels and the New “Sandman” Prequel

“When I started out, I had no idea what I was doing, which was brilliant.” Such was Gaiman’s refrain on the evening of November 9th, during a Brooklyn by the Book celebration of his long-awaited prequel to Sandman-Overture-1the wildly popular comic series, “Sandman.” Sandman: Overture (Vertigo, 2015) will be the first time the author has revisited the 1989-1996 series in almost 30 years. Leading the conversation was renowned author and “Sandman” enthusiast Junot Diaz (Drowned, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). Diaz opened by asking the crowd who had been born after The Sandman‘s 1989 cover date; quite a few hands hit the air. One young audience member in particular drew Gaiman’s attention during the course of the night: his infant son Anthony, held by his wife, musician Amanda Palmer. Gaiman spoke excitedly of being a father for the fourth time, emphasizing that his children have taught him to treasure every childhood moment, and to keep one’s eyes and ears wide open: “I’m definitely looking forward to stealing from him…all of my good ideas [for children’s books] were absolutely knicked from my children!”

Though his was a bold concept, at the age of 26 Gaiman had little frame of reference for proper comics protocol: “I had this weird grand scheme that shouldn’t have worked,” he explained. “It was impossible, and because I didn’t know it was impossible, we pulled it off.” This grand scheme included a large, sweeping story arc with little conventional comic action (no extensive fight scenes or power-hungry villains), which would spread over monthly installments and end with Gaiman, instead of shifting into the hands of new writers. The author was quick to attribute the unforeseen success to a strong team of editors, artists, and pioneers “doing weird stuff,” including Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Clive Barker, and Art Speigelman. Though he drew from numerous horror and fantasy legends, Gaiman found that his true vision for “Sandman” only emerged after he escaped the confines of the ‘horror comic’ label. Diaz remarked that issue eight, in which iconic character Death debuts, is noted for its startling quality and as the moment where “Sandman” truly finds its footing. Gaiman agreed: “I look at Sandman [issue] eight, and it’s the first one of which I don’t sound like anybody else. I’ve found my voice,” instead of echoing styles and strategies of those he admired. As with most Neil Gaiman events, humor and sage writing advice were present in abundance: when asked how one finds their voice, he responded, “You write lots and lots of stuff, and eventually you’ll sound like you. You can’t help it.”


Interior art by J.H. Williams and Dave Stewart from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Overture.

Luckily, once found, the voices of “Sandman” never left. With all of the time and projects that have passed, Diaz questioned his relationship to this work from nearly three decades ago. “Oh, they’re all still in there,” Gaiman immediately replied. “That’s was the strangest and best thing about writing Overture, and it was also the scariest. Whatever parts of me they were when I was 26 are still there. I could probably write a 50th anniversary ‘Sandman’ story 25 years from now…they’d still be there. There’s still stories to tell,” a comment which made audience members whoop appreciatively.

Though they remain, Gaiman’s characters are far from stagnant. He recalled when, while in Italy, he was pressed to describe the “Sandman” series (which clocks in at over 2,000 pages total) in 25 words. He came up with: “The Lord of Dreams learns that he has to change or die, and he makes his decision.” Overture is intended to serve as a “plug in” to the series’ end, looping back to the beginning as a means of enhancing the original material. He cited the trap of the terrible sequel that has claimed many a sci-fi writer, wherein one revisits an iconic older work only to “make everything worse.” Gaiman explained, “Yes [Overture] would answer questions…but hopefully it would create new questions that would actually be more interesting than the old ones…that was my master plan.”

Diaz also noted that “Sandman” stood out amongst its peers for its refusal to abide by late-80s comics “rules.” Avoiding trademark superhero storylines rife with fantastical violence, Gaiman focused instead on the relentlessly human struggles of his characters (many of whom are not classified as “human” at all), including redemption, identity, responsibility, adapting to change, and facing the certainty of death: “I was always much more interested in how events affected people, than in what the events were.” This “preoccupation” with human nature, as Diaz called it, has roots in the author’s lifelong adoration of myths, and his firm belief that “myths are the ways that we used to make sense of the world…now, the ways we make sense of the world become the modern myths.”

Gaiman’s humanism manifests itself in more ways than one, another being his advocacy and personal inclusion of diverse characters in his works, and his subsequent refusal to engage with media companies who aim to sanitize his work for mainstream appeal. His 2005 book Anansi Boys (William Morrow) serves as a prime example, with interested film and television studios intending to whitewash the predominantly black cast as a matter of course. Diaz commended his “sadly unusual stance” when it came to the temptation of selling the integrity of one’s work to the highest bidder; Gaiman eagerly followed up with the news that the television adaptation of American Gods (William Morrow, 2001) will remain consistent with the ethnicities depicted within the novel, including a mixed-race protagonist.

The evening ended with a surprise early birthday celebration for Gaiman (who was turning 55 the next day), with executive editor of Vertigo, Shelley Bond, presenting the author with an original final page illustration of Overture. Amanda Palmer, who had been orchestrating an audience kazoo singalong prior to the event, performed a brief yet impressive rendition of “Enter Sandman” using only her ukulele and a kazoo before bringing their son onstage.

Diaz read a provocative question from a friend as a means of closing the evening: “Does Death ever come to you in your dreams?” Gaiman mused that he had dreamed of Morpheus but not of Death, and that the passage of time has only served to deepen his relationship with such a powerful character: “Writing her changed my attitude to death,” he said, claiming not to have actually feared dying since December 1988. Readers have expressed similar feelings, thanking him for this character that allowed them to process the death of a loved one in a way that was less painful. Though an author steeped in imagination and fantasy, there seem to be a few concepts of which Gaiman is sure: “You’re born, you die. That’s the certain stuff…it’s all the stuff that happens in between that’s interesting.”

Fans can watch the entire conversation on YouTube, via DC Entertainment’s channel.


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