Yyears ago, in one of his first opportunities to speak at a university, author Neil Gaiman was informed that the English department had chosen to boycott the event. Their concern? He wrote comics—and one couldn’t write comics and be a real writer.
The following decades suggest otherwise. Today, Neil Gaiman is the creative force behind an extraordinary range of imaginative books, including American Gods, Good omens and Coraline– is one of the most famous (and prolific) storytellers in the world. Writing not only comics, but also novels, children’s books, poetry and more, he has topped bestseller lists, won Hugo and Nebula and Eisner awards, and has seen his work adapted for stage, radio, film and television. And over the course of Gaiman’s long and consistent career—one that notably led Stephen King to describe him as a “treasure trove of stories”—The sandmana one-off cult hit that turned over millions is perhaps his most beloved work.
First posted by DC Comics in the late 1980s and is now debuting on August 5th on Netflix as a TV series, The sandman tells the story of Morpheus, the master of dreams, as he navigates the waking world and tries to protect it from his runaway creations. Although set against the backdrop of the gods and their cosmic conflicts, this is (in the way of all good myths) a story deeply concerned with what it means to be human—our frailties, our failings, and the possibilities we imagine when we close our eyes.
Gaiman spoke with TIME about the challenges of adaptation, the power of speculative fiction, and what he learned from his nightmares.
TIME: More than 30 years have passed since you first put pen to paper The sandman. How did it feel to revisit one of your most famous stories all these years ago?
Gaiman: It felt like we were doing something that was literally impossible. I spent 30 years waiting for someone to do bad sand Man movie. And I just hoped that if I was really lucky, maybe it wouldn’t be too bad. So let’s get to a place where we’re given the money and the resources to do sand Man from the comics is unexpected and an absolute delight.
Was there anything that after re-reading you were excited to update?
Mostly, looking through the old comics reminded us to what extent sand Man somehow it was way ahead of its time. Then when no one commented on the fact that it was filled with gay characters and trans characters and black characters and so on. And now we’re making a TV series of the comic. I feel like we got the whole thing done in some weird way. We had actually gone and done something that felt quite of its time.
Superhero stories are now among the most popular stories in the world. How did it change the world of comics?
I don’t think it’s changed the comic book world much. I think it made people very aware of comics as a source of intellectual property. And I think it also made people realize that Marvel movies have become incredibly successful by doing what Marvel comics have been doing for years—intertwining stories. The feeling that you have to see every single one of the movies because otherwise you might miss something that is important to the movie you want to see.
In one of the later episodes of the season, Morpheus tells a recently captured nightmare that the purpose of the nightmare is to reveal the dreamer’s fears so he can face them. What did you learn from your dreams or nightmares?
I learned to trust my dreams and nightmares. When I was a child I had terrible nightmares. And when I was writing sand Man, they continued. But every time I had a nightmare, I would wake up excited and immediately write it down and say, “Wow, I could use this.” Pretty quickly, the nightmares just went away. My eventual theory was that whoever was giving them to me was so frustrated with my reaction to them that they just couldn’t be bothered anymore.
There is no shortage of horrors The sandman, but the character of Death offers some of the warmest moments in the series. What informs your creation about her?
When I came to make Death, I thought, well, on the one hand, I can make a standard that people expect, but where’s the fun in that? I liked the idea of a Death that was warm, a Death that was pleasant, a Death that you would want to meet. I thought this was the death I would want. When it was my turn to go, there would just be someone wonderful there who would say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, you should have looked both ways before you crossed that street.” That was the Death I wanted.
Despite the numerous television adaptations of your work in which you have participated in recent years, incl Good omens on Amazon and American Gods on Hulu, you have a reputation for trying to steer Hollywood away from, not toward, your work. Why?
From 24 to 27 I was a film critic and saw a lot of bad movies. And I saw no point in making bad movies. I didn’t want to do things that were less than they could be, which didn’t mean I didn’t want to take chances. And sometimes the chances you take pay off and sometimes they don’t.
I’d love to hear your thoughts specifically on the role of fantasy in this moment, which is of course defined by so many crises in the real world. What does a genre like fantasy offer in times like these?
[Fantasy] brings us back to our lives with a different perspective. I think politics makes a lot more sense if you read George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones books. You will understand that politicians are actually human and act according to their own motives. And sometimes these motivations are useful and very often your village will be burned down.
This is on a macro level. On a micro level, I spent 34 years with people coming up to me and saying, your character Death in sand Man, she got me through the death of my child. She got me through the death of my parents, my loved one, my brother, my friend. I got Kirby Howell-Baptiste [who plays Death in the series] aside the other day at Comic-Con and I said, “You played Death as well as I could have hoped for. For the rest of your life, people will take you aside and tell you about someone who meant something to them, and how the way they dealt with their death was to imagine you there, greeting them. And you take that person to the afterlife. It’s a huge responsibility.” I think Kirby is doing fine. But the very fact that a work of fantasy can actually help people shoulder that burden is huge.
Speculative fiction has sometimes been isolated from other genres. What do you say to people who look at epic as The sandman and you don’t see literature?
I kind of like the fact that comics can still be looked down upon and we’re still a medium because there’s always life in the gutter. It doesn’t really matter to me whether people think sand Man is literature or not. What I care about is people reading sand Man, that it affects their lives, that it affects the way they think, that it matters to them. After all, the people who will decide what the literature of a period was that really mattered, what spoke to them, what was important—they are hundreds of years away. From a modern perspective, Moby Dick was a failed whaling book. I’ll be happy, frankly, if in 100 years, in 150 years someone picks up sand Man and finds something to enjoy in it. I’d take that.
If you could talk to your 28-year-old self, the version of you who published the first issues of The sandmanwhat are you going to tell him?
Oh, I wasn’t going to tell him anything. I think what drove him to do the impossible was a combination of terror and the knowledge that if he didn’t do the thing, it wouldn’t happen. I’m terribly worried that if I go back in time and say to him, “Hey, everything’s going to be okay, you’re going to do whatever you want in sand Man. Everyone at the end of the day will love it. In 30 years it will be printed and we will make the most amazing TV series out of it. He would just say, “Oh, that’s good,” and relax and stop working. To get to where we are, he must be hungry and terrified.
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