Talk of the Nation Transcript – September 18, 2003

Something to reiterate: My policy is always to remove articles posted here by request. It is doubly so with this, as National Public Radio is one of the last, best voices that we have available to us in the States. It’s a resource that is definitely worth both your attention, and support. End of caveat.

The interviewer for Talk of the Nation is Neal Conan, and the audio is available here.

It might be hard to imagine needing Cliff’s Notes to read a comic book, but if you’re not familiar with the work or writer Neil Gaiman, his stories and characters are a little distinct from the usual tights-and-cape crowd. Gaiman’s plots jump from history to mythology to everyday life. Cain and Abel, Orpheus, Shakespeare and Satan have all made appearances. Gaiman may be best known for his long-running comic book series The Sandman. The books revolve around the very dysfunctional personalities of a family of abstract concepts, everything from Desire to Destiny to Dream, the eponymous Sandman. Like Greek gods, they tend to dangle up human affairs with their family infighting on a cosmic level.

Neil Gaiman is also a best-selling author of fantasy novels and children’s books, screenplays, rock ‘n’ roll lyrics and radio scripts. If you have questions about his work or about writing comics in general, join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That’s (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

A new collection of stories hit comic book shops yesterday. It’s a hard-bound book called “Sandman: Endless Nights.” Neil Gaiman joins us here in Studio 3A. And good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. NEIL GAIMAN (Author, “Sandman: Endless Nights”): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: As you go through life, you once gave–in the beginning of this book you give a wonderful less-than-25-word summation of The Sandman series, which it should be said ran for nine years once a month, more or less. Start us off with that.

Mr. GAIMAN: I think the summation that I give, which was given as a sort of very desperate attempt to summarize a 2,000-plus-page story that ran over 10 volumes, was that the Lord of Dreams learns that you must change or die and makes his decision.

CONAN: Well, those of us who have read the comics know what choice he made. But tell us, this is now the second book you’ve done in The Sandman series since the comic book series actually ended. Why come back to it now?

Mr. GAIMAN: It felt like the time was right. When I stopped, I stopped still enjoying it. It was a very conscious decision. I’d finished the story that I began in Sandman No. 1, Sandman 75, and I’d done these 10 volumes and I still loved it. And I thought, `If I stop doing it now while I still love it, it’ll be good to go back to. If I keep doing it until I’m sick of it, it’ll be like one of these TV shows that everybody remembers fondly and just wishes that people would put out of its misery.’

So I stopped and came back a few years ago for Sandman’s 10th anniversary to do a book called “Dream Hunters,” which was a written novella illustrated by a wonderful Japanese artist called Yoshitaka Amano, where I completely made up an old Japanese folk story and had Amano illustrate it. For this, it’s now the 10th anniversary of “Vertigo,” the imprint that Sandman was the flagship of, I suppose. And my editor, Karen Berger, asked if I would do something for the 10th anniversary, and I thought about it and said yes. What I’d really love to do is go and get some of the European artists I love, go and get a bunch of artists I’ve always wanted to work with and never have, and I’ll do a story for each of them.

CONAN: After all that time, though, were you afraid that maybe, you know, you’d been in these voices, in these characters for nine long years and, as you say, the first redux was not so long after that, but that you were afraid that maybe the voice, the feel for these characters had gone?

Mr. GAIMAN: Oh, terrified, absolutely. It was like going to a party with a bunch of your best friends from seven years ago and you haven’t seen them in seven years and you really don’t know what they’ve been doing and whether you’ll have anything in common. And you get there and there’s maybe two minutes of awkwardness and suddenly you realize how much you’ve missed them. And it was lovely. I really–it didn’t feel like work. Again, going back and writing seven stories–I think there’s about 160 pages–and it was just wonderful. And in each case I had the excitement of getting to work with a master artist, Milo Manara, the Italian.

CONAN: When you’re working with an artist–we’re going to be talking with one of your artists later in the show and we’ll bring this up later, but when you write, you know, a story line, do you write it with a particular artist and what he or she can do with his or her style in mind?

Mr. GAIMAN: Yes, absolutely, 100 percent. And I won’t write a story unless I know who’s going to be drawing it because you’re trying to play to the artist’s strengths. You’re trying to figure out, `What do they bring to something?’ And normally if I’m going to do a long story line with somebody, find out what kinds of things they’d like to draw that they never have or what they don’t want to draw. You can phone somebody up and they can say, you know, `I just don’t want to draw cars,’ or whatever. You go, `OK. Then I’ll do something with no cars in it. That’s easy.’

CONAN: Set that in Greek times.

Mr. GAIMAN: Yeah, absolutely.

CONAN: Ancient Greece. Yeah.

Mr. GAIMAN: So in this case, yes, I got to do–for Desire, I got Milo Manara, who is famed across Europe for erotic comics and for beautiful historical work. For Delirium, there was an American artist named Bill Sienkiewicz, who I wanted to work with for 15 years, and finally we got to do a story together and so forth. So you’re imagining this story for that person.

CONAN: And you mentioned, obviously, the erotic content of at least some of the stories. Comic books, you have to point out to people who are not familiar with them, these days a lot of them are not for kids.

Mr. GAIMAN: That’s absolutely true. What actually is harder these days is finding good comics for kids. I was very proud recently to have done a story for Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s Little Lit series, “It Was a Dark and Silly Night…” and the 3. And it’s got me and Lemony Snicket and people actually doing children’s comics because people aren’t doing many children’s comics anymore.

CONAN: Let’s get some listeners involved. Our phone number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And our first caller is Michael, who’s with us from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, Neil and Neal.

CONAN: Hello. It is–we were talking before the show about how strange it was to be speaking with somebody named Neil.

MICHAEL: Right. OK. Anyway, my question is I am–in addition to Neil’s work, I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell and I see a lot of similarities and ideas, and I was wondering how much of a conscious influence, if any, Joseph Campbell was on The Sandman.

CONAN: Joseph Campbell, of course, featured in that long series with Bill Moyers on Public Television and obviously writes a lot about some of the same subjects you write about, Neil Gaiman.

Mr. GAIMAN: Yes. The series–he did “The Masks of God” with something that I was reading right at the beginning when Sandman–when I was first putting it all together, and just this wonderful sweeping lunatic look at mythology all around the world. And I loved it and it was definitely part of what I was doing. “The Hero With 1,000 Faces,” which is the thing that many people point to, actually started and realized
I didn’t want to read because I didn’t like seeing the nuts and bolts of my craft exposed so obviously. What I like about writing–if you’re writing a story with a hero in it, what’s nice is somebody will come along afterwards and say, `Ah, yes, you have fulfilled the Campbellian imperatives here. Look, you’ve got the call and the rejection of the call and the old man and the gatekeeper and you’ve got all this stuff.’ But I’d much rather they came along afterwards than that I had this stuff in the back of my head and was trying to hit things along the way. Otherwise, three-quarters of the way through a book I’m going to be going, `Oh, I should have the reconciliation with the father here, shouldn’t I?’

CONAN: Too calculated, in other words.

Mr. GAIMAN: Yes, I don’t necessarily–the stuff you don’t want to know. But I loved “The Masks of God.” I just thought it was just this wonderful book and I actually stole a–in Sandman No. 8, the one that brings death in for the very, very first time from Campbell he lists an Egyptian poem about a man essentially in love with death, which begins `Death is before me today like a man returning to his home after years in a strange land.’ And I took that and put that into the first appeara–Sandman 8, which was the first time that death appeared.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: OK. Death, I mean, we all have–you know, there’s that standardized image of death, you know, the Grim Reaper, you know, the guy in the baggy cloak and all of that. You envision death a completely different way. Was that your idea or was that the idea of the artist you were working with at the time?

Mr. GAIMAN: It was–actually, it was a very interesting combination of the two. When I came up with the idea of the whole Sandman character, I thought, well, he’s the incarnation of dreams. That’s good. That implies there are others like him. Then I thought–there’s the very famous quote from somebody like Byron or Shelley that “Death is the brother of sleep.” And I thought, `Ah, OK. I like that.’

CONAN: But you made her the sister of sleep.

Mr. GAIMAN: Well, I loved the way that the sexism of language works for you. I thought, you know, if I just say in the first episode that Death–that Dream is Death’s younger brother, everyone will assume that death is the older brother because language works for you that way. So they won’t be expecting a sister, so that’ll be nice. And I also remembered from my childhood a story about the angel of death and how when you meet the angel of death you fall in love so hard and so strongly that your soul is sucked out through your eyes and leaves your body, and that’s how you die. And I think it’s an old Jewish folk story or something. And I just thought, `That’s wonderful. I want a Death you could fall in love with.’

CONAN: Death–your character Death, mischievous, beautiful, absolutely loveable. Her brother, though, Dream, you say he’s a hero, but a hero a little unlike a lot of other heroes, not even likeable at times.

Mr. GAIMAN: He’s an incredibly gloomy bugger and is occasionally blamed for, you know, the Goth movement and stuff, which I’m not really sure that he–I think he certainly had something to do with it, but probably not as much as people think. I wanted a really, you know, byronic, screwed-up hero. I wanted somebody who was all powerful and still cannot get out of his own way. And what was then fun was contrasting him with Death, who you expect to be like that, only more so.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GAIMAN: And she’s very good at what she does and she likes it and she gets out and she meets people, you know, because you do if you’re Death. And actually what was interesting in “Endless Nights” was doing a story from a very, very, very long time ago, right back at the dawn of time, and you get to meet them, and she was a lot gloomier and she’s a lot posier and more melodramatic, and he’s actually a lot more cheerful and human. But you get to see why things went the way they did much later.

CONAN: Let’s go to Leila(ph), who’s with us in Tallahassee, Florida.

LEILA (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hello. You’re on the air.

LEILA: Hi. I actually just wanted to tell you that the Sandman comics are really amazing and the stories are beautiful and I really like the episode that has the serial killers. I was kind of wondering, why did you get so dark there and where did you come up with all that?

Mr. GAIMAN: Good question, Leila. The serial killers convention story is probably one of the darkest places I ever went in Sandman. In 1988, I was at the British Fantasy–no, the World Fantasy Convention, where fantasy writers from all over the world came together. At that point it was in London and they all came together in London. And I’d just read–I think “Silence of the Lambs” had just come out and it was a book. And I could see the romance of the serial killer just over the horizon and it bothered me. You could see that we were just about to get a wave of romantic serial killers as heroes and anti-heroes all over the place.

CONAN: And so you have them all gather in one convention…

Mr. GAIMAN: Well…

CONAN: …a little like a comic book convention.

Mr. GAIMAN: …that was the other part of it, which was I–or I’m sitting there late at night brooding over the serial killer thing and in the bar with a bunch of writers, and I looked around and I thought, `I wonder if serial killers have gatherings like this. I wonder if they just get together one weekend a year to be special and have panels on women and serial killing and…’

CONAN: Mm-hmm, and swap trade secrets.

Mr. GAIMAN: Swap trade secrets, have an art show, have the awful disco on a Saturday night, like every convention of every kind everywhere. And at that moment, of course, I also knew that having had the idea it was now in the air and I had to get it down before somebody else wrote a serial killer convention story, and it was a very long 14 months before that story came out.

CONAN: Leila, thanks very much for the call.

LEILA: Thank you.

CONAN: We’re talking with author Neil Gaiman. His new book is “The Sandman: Endless Nights.” You can join the conversation: (800) 989-TALK, (800) 989-8255. Or send us e-mail: totn@npr.org.

I’m Neal Conan. It’s TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington.

We’re talking with Neil Gaiman, a legend in many subcultures. He’s the author of several highly popular comic book series, numerous fantasy stories and novels, and recently best-selling children’s books. You’re invited to join our discussion. Give us a call at (800) 989-8255. Or you can send us e-mail: totn@npr.org.

And for those of you who last opened a comic book back when Archie cost a quarter, here’s a quick cheat sheet for some of the jargon you may hear here today. Comic books tend to come out monthly. The stories they tell may begin and end in a single issue, in which case it’s called a one shot, or they may go for several months in what’s called a story arc. Gather a bunch of them together in one volume and you have what’s often called a graphic novel. There are two main comic publishing houses, Marvel and DC. DC has a smaller mature readers’ imprint known as “Vertigo.” We mentioned that earlier. That’s the company with which Neil Gaiman’s work is most closely identified. You may also hear talk of the universe in which a series takes place. These are the fictional worlds shared by many of the different titles published by the same company. For example, the DC universe includes Superman’s Metropolis and Batman’s Gotham. It’s also where Neil Gaiman’s Sandman lives. The Marvel universe is home to The X-Men, The Hulk and Spider-Man, all of whom who have visited Hollywood recently. It’s also the setti

ng of Neil Gaiman’s newest series, 1602.

Neil Gaiman is with us here in Studio 3A. And 1602, this is going back to–What?–the gunpowder plot and all sorts of things. And what’s the idea of this series?

Mr. GAIMAN: The idea of this was I’d agreed to do something for Marvel, I wasn’t quite sure what, and then September the 11th happened and I thought, `Well, I’m not sure what I want to do, but I know what I don’t want to do. I don’t want anything with skyscrapers in it. I don’t want anything with planes. I don’t want anything with guns. I don’t want anything that goes boom in a big way.’ And seeing that most of the Marvel heroes are famed for swinging from and exploding through skyscrapers, that sort of changed the way that–with that set of perimeters. I thought, `Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a story set with all of these old characters and to do the Stanley, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko characters that I remembered from when I was a kid and take them again, but as if they were happening 400 years early.’

CONAN: Obviously people can tell from your accent that where you grew up was, well, somewhere well east of here, an island called Britain generally. Were comic books as influential amongst kids of your generation there as they were here?

Mr. GAIMAN: Well, they were to me. I think so. I think they probably were. There’s a huge–there was a wave, which I was a part of, right in the middle of, of English writers coming to America. And Grant Morrison–Alan Moore, of course, was the first and the finest of us.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GAIMAN: Pete Milligan. There’s a whole slew of us Goth. And I think that part of that comes from the fact that we were reading American comics and we were reading them as these strange things. They were like postcards from another dimension. In my case, of course, I was also very lucky because I got to read the Marvel comics from the very beginning. They were being reprinted when I was about seven or eight from the very first Spider-Mans and Hulks and Fantastic Fours in these English reprint editions with names like `Wham!’, `Smash!’, `Pow!’, `Fantastic!’ and `Terrific!’, all with exclamation marks.

CONAN: Let’s get another caller involved and this is Tom, who’s with us from Redford, Michigan. Tom, are you there?

TOM (Caller): Yes. Yes, I’m here.

CONAN: You’re on the air.

TOM: Hi. Well, first I’d like to say just what an honor it is to talk to both Neals. I enjoy your radio program and I’ve been following Sandman since almost the very beginning. The first story line I read was the “Seasons of Mist” story line and it’ll forever be remembered as one of the greatest story lines in comic book history as far as I’m concerned.

The question I have is, I know especially in the world of comic books when you start something as different as Sandman, you’re not always guaranteed 75 issues. When in the course of writing did you realize that you were going to be able to get to an ending point?

Mr. GAIMAN: Well, when I started it, I actually–when I started Sandman, critical success and commercial failure were more or less synonymous in the world of comics. People would talk fondly about comics they’d liked which had rarely lasted more than a year. They just tended not to sell anything and get canceled and be remembered fondly.

CONAN: The usual thing is to get a call after your eighth issue saying, `Best wrap it up after number 12.’

Mr. GAIMAN: Well, that was why Sandman, the first story line, was eight issues long, because I actually figured that what would happen was I’d tell my eight-issue story line, it would end in number eight, I would get the phone call there and I’d do four short stories to number 12, and that would be that, and people would remember Sandman very fondly as one of these minor, critical successes. No. 8 came out and we looked around and Sandman was selling more than anything comparable had sold for 20 years. And suddenly I realized that I really did have this–you know, I could keep driving this. It was about a year before I mentioned casually in conversation to the powers that be at DC Comics that I did envision an end and would like to end when I was done. And they very politely explained back that that was never how things were done and it simply wouldn’t happen, but it was nice of me to have asked. And then time went by, and a few years later it was sort of a fait accompli.

I think they’d realized that Sandman was, for whatever reasons, something unique and that putting another writer on and continuing Sandman at No. 76 after I left would just devalue that. And also, on the sheer bland, boring, bottom-line commercial side of things, one reason why a good run-on comics and a writer leaving always meant that somebody else would carry on the comic was that the comic company who owned the characters and so forth would be making some money out of it. With Sandman, when it was done, they had 10 graphic novels, they had these 10 books, and these 10 books were selling as well or better than the comic had ever sold.

So I think they realized at that point that if they just let it stop and stayed on good terms with me, I would come back and do things like “Endless Nights.”

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much.

TOM: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

As we mentioned, “Endless Nights” is illustrated by seven different artists. The volume starts off in the hands of one of Neil Gaiman’s frequent collaborators, artist P. Craig Russell. He joins us now from the studios of member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio.

And thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. P. CRAIG RUSSELL (Artist): Oh, thank you. Hello, Neal. And hello, Neil.

Mr. GAIMAN: Hey, Craig.

CONAN: You guys first worked together on what became one of the most popular Sandman stories, an issue called Ramadan. Craig Russell, tell us how that came about.

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, Neil has a way of picking artists almost like casting actors on the basis of what they’ve been known to do and do well and might do well in the future. So Neil had seen an illustrated book I did, “The Thief of Baghdad,” that had come out a couple years before that, and knowing he was doing an Arabian Knights fairy-tale style story with a sort of modern twist to the end of it, thought of me as the artist to write the story for. He said, `Do it like you’re a thief of Baghdad, only more so.’

CONAN: Now when you get a script from Neil Gaiman, what does it look like and what’s your first reaction when you look at it? Do you say, `Oh, God, he’s basically telling me the story,’ or do you look at it and say, `How does he expect me to do that?’

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, with Neil’s scripts, the usual response is delight, especially reading the ones that are written for comics. We have two ways–we’ve done four projects together. Two, I’ve done adaptations of his short stories, and two have been scripts like “Endless Nights” and Sandman 50 that were written for comics. So those are the easiest to do, the ones that are written for comics. Everything is there, you know? Every word that’s going to be spoken is there. With the short stories, you have to be more of an editor, crossing out lines–`We don’t need this, because we’re using this picture’–which always makes you nervous when you’re crossing out lines of a living author.

CONAN: Now…

Mr. RUSSELL: You feel like, you know…

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. RUSSELL: …he’s there behind you.

CONAN: Yeah. When you get the script from a writer, say Neil Gaiman, do you ever call him up and say, `No, no, no, no, you know, on Page 6 we really want to do this instead’?

Mr. RUSSELL: No, not exactly that, no. We’ll talk before I start working on the adaptation or illustrating the script. Like on the story we did, “Murder Mysteries,” a couple years ago, which was on

e of his short stories, we talked beforehand and he let me know–sort of underlined something that was implicit in the story, which even though this was Los Angeles and it was in sweltering heat, it was Christmastime. `So be sure to put some sort of sad, tacky little reminders around that this is the season we’re in.’

CONAN: And, Neil Gaiman, similarly, if you get, you know, a look at the artwork, do you ever say, `No, no, no, there’s not enough tacky Santa Clauses in there. You need to add some more’?

Mr. GAIMAN: Not with Craig. No, I mean, the delight–it’s a lot like, I don’t know, ballet or acrobatics or, you know, those people in circuses who swing and have to be sure there’s somebody there to catch you. I normally will completely trust my artists, and they’ll always come through. Because you’re trying to give them something to do. With Craig, actually, the strangest way we’ve ever worked was probably Ramadan, because I phoned Craig up and I said, `Right, I’ve written half of this story already and I just wanted to read you what I’ve done because I need to figure out how I’m going to break it down into panels for you. and what kind of pacing you’re going to want.’ And I read it to him, and he said, `Oh, don’t touch it.’ He said, `Just finish it. Send it to me like that, and I’m going to break it down into panels.’

CONAN: So the pacing, the speed at which the story advances and whether it’s close-ups or long shots, essentially–we’re talking cinematic terms–that, you think, is the artist’s…

Mr. GAIMAN: No. A lot of the time–I mean, Craig is a lovely example of somebody who–I will say to Craig at the beginning, `I will suggest ways that you can do this that should work. If you can see a better way of doing it, you’re the artist and I trust you. Go for it.’ And with our story in “Endless Nights,” which is called “Death in Venice,” there’s a couple of places where Craig just sort of expanded things. At one point he added a panel that I hadn’t written that makes everything somehow deeper and odder and more beautiful.

Mr. RUSSELL: I think if you’re living with a script, with a writer’s script, when you’re doing layouts and your thumbnail drawings and working up to the full pages, you just live with it so long and reading it over and over, it almost feels like a three-dimensional object in your mind that you’re looking at. And once you get that intimate with it, all of a sudden, other pictures just sort of pop up that aren’t changing the story; they’re sort of underlining it and expanding it in certain directions, but always in the service of the story that’s already there. So if you live with it long enough, it just sort of takes a life on of its own.

CONAN: Let me ask you both a quick question, and that’s simply a matter of logistics. When you say, `live with it for so long,’ Craig–how long does this take to do?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, it depends on your page count. I mean, “Murder Mysteries” was a 64-page story. The Sandman 50 was about 32. So once you really get going, I might do a half a page a day, so it can be several months…

CONAN: And…

Mr. RUSSELL: …from start to finish.

CONAN: Same to you, Neil Gaiman. How long does it take you to write a comic book that comes out once a month?

Mr. GAIMAN: Well, when I started writing “Sandman,” I was young, excited, and every single panel I was writing I’d never written before, and every panel transition I’d never done before, and I could probably write about–I could have written about two issues a month. I could write one issue in two weeks. By the time I finished that…

CONAN: So that’s about a page a day, roughly.

Mr. GAIMAN: Yeah, or a little bit more than that. By the time I finished “Sandman,” I–and there was sort of roughing-out time. I mean, there’s figuring stuff out and drawing little thumbnails and figuring out what you’re doing, and then–but I could do two comics a month. By the time I finished “Sandman,” I was up to about sort of–it took me about six weeks every month to write it, and it was just gradually getting later and later.

CONAN: Deadlines affect everybody in a lot of businesses. Neil Gaiman is with us, also one of his collaborators, P. Craig Russell. We’re discussing “Sandman: Endless Nights,” which is newly published. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let’s get another caller in. Matthew’s with us from Arden Hills in Minnesota, excuse me.

MATTHEW (Caller): Hello to both Neils.

CONAN: Hi.

MATTHEW: Yes. I have a question for Neil Gaiman. I’m sorry, it’s not really about the artwork, but I was just browsing your Web site and I came across a question that you answered in which you said that you would not be surprised if the gods, demigods and etc. that you wrote about turned out to be true, but you did not expect it. Now one of your constantly reoccurring themes has been the idea that humans have a need to see past the physical world. We have a need to know about story and we have a need to believe in gods. How do you explain that need if we are living in a completely physical world, and if, obviously, there’s no evolutionary advantage to it?

CONAN: And if you could answer that in 10 seconds, if you would–no. Go ahead.

Mr. GAIMAN: Thank you, Matthew. Well, speaking as an author who makes things up, I love making things up. I like the idea of a world in which everything exists, and the joy for me of “Sandman” was creating a fictional universe in which everything could possibly exist. Everything anybody had ever believed was absolutely true. I remember during the Season of Mist story line where I had Lucifer resign as the person who runs hell, close the place down, throw everybody out and give the Lord of Dreams the key. And bringing characters on from all three stories…

CONAN: And much hilarity ensues. Yes.

Mr. GAIMAN: Yes, with hilarious results as I brought on Greek gods and Egyptian gods, and then I thought, `Well, what about fairies? Can I bring them on? Will everything collapse?’ And I brought them on, and no, the structure of belief still held. And then I brought on angels, and it still held. I love the idea that death is an awfully big adventure. I love the idea that all the things that I make up are true. Do I expect it? I have no idea. It’s–the joy for me of being a writer is you can be the kind of ultimate agnostic who gets to believe whatever you need for the story. And if ever I write a story in which there are absolutely no ghosts, no gods and nothing but this world, then that’s what I believe while I’m writing that story.

CONAN: Matthew, thanks very much.

MATTHEW: Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: OK. Bye-bye.

MATTHEW: Bye.

CONAN: Here’s a quick e-mail question from Joan Lowe in Cleveland: `I have a question about Mr. Gaiman’s new comic book series 1602. I’ve read the first two issues.’ She’s one ahead of me. `I would like to know how many are planned. I especially like the cover art. And can he tell us something about the artist?’

Mr. GAIMAN: Yes. Scott, who does the covers, is absolutely wonderful. He’s never done any comics work before. He’s mainly done playbills. And he’s…

CONAN: For what we call the legitimate theater.

Mr. GAIMAN: For the legitimate theater. And he’d sent his portfolio in to Marvel, and Joe Quesada, who’s the editor in chief there, saw it and had wanted something that he could use Scott on, and he showed me his stuff and said, `How would he work for 1602?’ And I said, `I think he’ll work very well.’ And I love his approach. And they’re absolutely gorgeous covers. It’s planned for eight issues. I’m currently halfway through issue seven and have a terrifying feeling that I will get halfway through issue eight and look around and grit my teeth and start planning issue nine.

CONAN: You could just look outside and say, you know, `And then
a big hurricane arrived and everybody died.’

Mr. GAIMAN: Yes. I must have already written–I’ve already written at least one hurricane; in fact, I once wrote a hurricane in a “Sandman” story called Game of You which hits New York, so I’m hoping that that doesn’t come true tonight.

CONAN: P. Craig Russell, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. RUSSELL: Oh, my pleasure

CONAN: He’s a comic book artist. He’s illustrated many titles, including a story in the new “Sandman” book, “Endless Nights.” He was with us from the studios of member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio. We’ll be back with a question or two more for Neil Gaiman when we come back from a break, and we’ll also go from comic books to the comics page in the newspapers. Welcome back another cult character. A hint: He’s got a big nose, herring breath and will soon wander onto a Sunday funnies page near you. We’ll be back in a moment.

I’m Neal Conan. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington.

Tomorrow, join Ira Flatow and “Science Friday” for a special broadcast from San Antonio, Texas, and a discussion of preservation efforts that are under way to try to save the city’s missions. That’s tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Today we’re talking with Neil Gaiman. His new book is “The Sandman: Endless Nights,” which is newly available in a store near you. We’re wrapping up our conversation. Let’s go to Cal(ph), who joins us on the line from Cheyenne, Wyoming.

CAL (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi, Cal. You’re on the air.

CAL: Yes. I was wanting to provide Neil an opening to speed up the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund if he wished to.

CONAN: And do you work with that?

CAL: I contribute by buying nearly everything related in comic T-shirts and Neil’s videos and so on.

CONAN: All right. What is the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund?

Mr. GAIMAN: I’m very grateful. Thank you. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is the First Amendment organization that defends the First Amendment rights of comic books and comic book creators and comic book publishers and comic book retailers, who actually are out there on the front lines selling comic books and are the people who are most likely to suddenly find themselves arrested for having sold an adult comic to an adult police officer.

CONAN: I see. In comic book stores, or at least many of them these days, there are front sections for everybody, and in the back an adult comic book section.

Mr. GAIMAN: That’s true. And as a retailer in Texas recently discovered, that doesn’t matter if they don’t like the comics they can buy there. No, but the Legal Defense Fund, it’s an organization that’s now about 14 years old and has been fighting, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. We managed to prevent the state of California tax authorities reclassifying comics from literature over to sign-painting in order to be able to collect tax on them, which was actually a very, very long, hard-fought battle. And, you know, occasionally, we lose. There was a guy called Mike Diana–still is–in Florida who was arrested for doing a self-published sort of fanzine comic called Boiled Angel; found guilty of obscenity in the state of Pensacola, Florida, and sentenced to a three-year suspended jail sentence, $1,000 fine, thousand hours of community service; couldn’t be within 10 feet of anybody under the age of 18, and the local police force were ordered to make 24-hour spot checks of his place of residence, randomly, to make sure he wasn’t drawing anything in future. So sometimes you lose.

CONAN: Cal, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

CAL: Thank you.

CONAN: And very quickly, Neil Gaiman, another–well, I’m not sure–well, I guess it’s in part legal, but comic book writers and artists have for years struggled with ownership with comic book publishing companies over who gets the rights to what. Has that been resolved? Do you have the rights to “The Sandman”?

Mr. GAIMAN: No. No, it hasn’t–things are getting better, but there’s a sort of one-step-forward-two-step-back thing going on. “Sandman” is owned by Time Warner. It’s completely owned by that conglomerate. They could do what they want with it. They don’t ’cause they want to keep me reasonably happy. But they absolutely could. Some of the work I’ve done for DC since has been creator-owned. I did a beautiful series called Stardust, which was a fairy tale with Charles Vess, which we owned, we kept the rights to.

But on the whole, it would be a good thing if–yeah, it’s one reason why I spend more and more time now doing novels. The last novel, “American Gods”–the joy of that is I own it. It’s all mine, every word of it. Coraline, the children’s stuff, it’s all mine. When people phone up and say they want to make movies, I can say no if I don’t want to do it. I wouldn’t have that control over “The Sandman.”

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for coming in, and thank you very much for this new book. It’s a wonderful piece of work. “The Sandman: Endless Nights.” Neil Gaiman with us here in Studio 3A. Thank you very much.

Mr. GAIMAN: Thank you, Neal.