To The Best Of Our Knowledge, broadcast May 31, 1995
A production of The Ideas Network, University of Wisconsin
Neil Gaiman: I remember when I was about seven, somebody gave me books of American comics. They were just the most wonderful, alien things. Everything about them was strange. I was perfectly willing to believe that America was this country filled with people in strange costumes who hit each other through walls. It seemed every bit as likely as the other odd things in there, like fire hydrants and pizzas and things that we didn’t have in England.
Jim Fleming, ANNOUNCER: Neil Gaiman kept up his childhood fascination with comics by becoming a comic writer. He creates the best-selling adult comic, SANDMAN — definitely not pulp. Open a SANDMAN comic, and it’s full of pictures and word balloons. But start reading along and you enter a somber, mysterious world. It’s the dream world of Morpheus, Prince of Sleep, Gaiman’s leading man. Dressed all in black, with dead-white skin, gaunt body and jet-black spiky hair, he looks nothing like the other flying superheroes. He’s not out to save the world, either. Instead, he haunts his way through tales of myth, history, horror and fantasy. Gaiman has only six more adventures planned for Morpheus, but he told me where they all began.
NG: When I was 15, we had one of those things where you do a battery of tests and then they bring a careers advisor in to talk to you about careers, and the careers advisor said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to write American comics.” And there was a very, very, very long pause. And then he said, “Well, how do you go about doing that?” And I said, “Well, you’re the careers advisor, I thought you were gonna tell me.” And there was another really, really, really long pause, and then he looked at me rather desperately and said, “Have you ever thought about accountancy?” And I had to confess …
JF: And had you?
NG: No, I hadn’t, and I admitted that I hadn’t, and wound up leaving.
JF: It does make you think that there’s a connection there, actually.
NG: Well, I …
JF: Well, but you’ve made a good living writing comics.
NG: Yes, I have. Comics was not something I went into to become either rich or famous. I’m reminded of the Great Gonzo in “The Muppet Movie” announcing that he wants to go to Bombay, India to become a rich and famous movie star. And when informed by the others that they’re going to Hollywood, he looks at them rather disparagingly and says, “Oh, sure, if you want to do it the EASY way.” You don’t write comics for the fame and the fortune. You write comics because … in my case, anyway, I wrote comics, and write comics, because it’s a medium that I just tend to feel is enormously under-exploited. There’s so much you can do in it, and that for me is the joy of it.
JF: How do you go about creating a comic? Now, you’re not a drawer, you’re a writer, so the pictures have to be actually put on the page by someone else. But are they created by you?
NG: Yes, basically. What you wind up writing is a comic script which is a bit like writing a film script or a TV script, only it’s enormously more complicated, because as a writer, you’re also being the director and the editor as you go. You’ll start Page One, Panel One, and you’ll describe the panel, you’ll describe what we’re seeing in the panel, you’ll say how many panels are on the page, what shape they are, and you’ll write down what anyone is saying, and …
JF: Not only what they are saying, but how that saying is to appear on the page.
NG: Sure. SANDMAN is a monthly comic. It’s a 24-page monthly comic, and a SANDMAN script runs normally about somewhere between ten and 14,000 words.
JF: Which is substantially more than the number of words that appears on the page.
NG: Sure, exactly. The actual lines of dialogue are the tip of the iceberg.
JF: We ought to talk a little bit about who and what SANDMAN is. You’ve said that it’s a monthly magazine, 24 pages or so, but who is the Sandman?
NG: The Sandman is the embodiment, and anthropomorphic personification, of the action of dreaming. He’s the King of Dreams, and he’s not a god, he’s just the embodiment of dreaming. What happened was I wanted to create … when I was offered the chance to write a monthly story, I wanted to do something that I could go anywhere with. I wanted something that would give me pretty much the entirety of recorded history, unrecorded history, something I could do fantasy, historical — something that would be a device for telling stories.
JF: Can you give me an example of one of the stories that the Sandman would be involved in?
NG: Probably an example would be SANDMAN #19, which is collected in a book called DREAM COUNTRY. SANDMAN comes out as a monthly comic, and then they’re collected together as trade paperbacks. SANDMAN 19 won the World Fantasy Award as best short story, which is the first and only time that a comic story has actually won a prose award. And it’s the story of the very first ever performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Shakespeare and his theatrical troupe on the Sussex Downs, before and invited audience of Titania, Auberon, the Faeries, and the Sandman, who commissioned the play.
JF: A dream within a dream and a play within a play, then.
JF: Now THE SANDMAN as a series goes well beyond the world of men in tights that you saw first in American comics all those years ago. Again, I’m curious to know, why comics then, instead of writing the short story and winning the award with that. Why move from the printed page to the comic page?
NG: Comics are simply a medium, and it’s a medium with remarkable strengths. It also has very specific weaknesses. One of the strengths is immediacy, and one of the strengths is also the things that you don’t have to say — things that can be said in a drawing. If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, each SANDMAN could be a novel. There’s very few places right now for serial fiction. You don’t get the opportunity that someone like Dickens got, to create a fiction and interact monthly with the audience, actually build up — unless you’re doing television soap operas. Comics are like doing films or like doing TV, but they’re very, very cheap by comparison to those media, and you don’t get three hundred different people, and you don’t have to deal with studios and you make much, much fewer compromises. It’s you and an artist.
JF: And the actor does exactly what you tell him to.
NG: Exactly. They never complain and want more money and leave the series to go off into films or anything. They behave themselves very, very well.
JF: To you, the world of comics is a very serious world, and you’ve taken on very serious subjects in all of this — not just Shakespeare and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But these are not shoot-’em-ups. These are not Batman coming in to thwart a robbery. You deal with death and with the imagination and with horror in a way that comic books, when I was growing up, didn’t do.
NG: That was mainly, I suspect, because the comic books that you were reading were intended for children, and I don’t see any reason why comics have to be for children. Stop and think about it: You have pictures. Pictures are great, adults like pictures, pictures hang in art galleries. And you have words, and words are wonderful things. You can get the Nobel Prize for Literature just by using words. Somehow, as soon as you put them together, you are perceived to be doing something that’s either for children or for subliterates, and there’s no reason for that. Words and pictures are magnificent, wonderful things, and they can work together, they can work in ironic counterpoint, and you can use them in pretty much any way you like. So what I wanted to do was write comics for somebody like me. I’m an adult. I’m not terribly interested in Batman hitting somebody through a wall. That stuff was great when I was 14 or 15, but I’m not 14 or 15. And what became apparent with SANDMAN, really essentially writing a comic for me, was that there were a lot of other people like me around — people who’d grown up reading comics, had liked reading comics, and then around the age of 15 or 16, had stopped reading comics, because there wasn’t anything to read.
JF: I keep thinking of some of the graphic images, which are difficult to look at, perhaps easier to read about than to look at, unless you’re an aficionado of the violent movies that are around now. In A GAME OF YOU, one of the collections of THE SANDMAN, there is for instance a scene in which a man is killed and then his face is peeled off and stuck to the wall. That’s not a simple thing.
NG: No. It’s a very nasty image. I actually stole it from Lucan, the Roman writer. I wanted to have a character … in A GAME OF YOU, there’s a lady that calls herself Thessaly, who turns out to be a sort of 5,000-year-old witch from Thessaly, which is a part of Greece …
JF: … While looking like your neighborhood librarian.
NG: Looking EXACTLY like your neighborhood librarian.
JF: Do you find that being able to command an illustration changes the way you think about a character? Would you, for instance, have created Thessaly in the same way if you had had to write about and describe everything that she was going to do?
NG: Let me give you an example of how you can do something like that in comics, but couldn’t get away with it in any other medium. In my very first book, the first comic I ever did — it’s called VIOLENT CASES, and it’s about the memories … it’s told by an adult narrator, and he’s talking about being three or four years old and what he remembers of a story from back then. And you get to meet one of these characters, an old osteopath, and he looks a lot like Albert Einstein. And three-quarters of the way through the story, the narrator interrupts and says, “Now, I have to tell you something very strange about this. From now on, I don’t remember him looking like that anymore. He doesn’t look like Albert Einstein. He looks like Humphrey Bogart’s sidekick in ‘The Maltese Falcon.’ And I don’t know, maybe he always did look like that, but I don’t really know.” From that point on, that’s how he’s drawn, without commenting on it any more. If I’d tried to do that as prose, I could’ve interrupted and said “Well, he looks different in my imagination.” But you’ve by that point built up a mental picture, which is unique to you, of that character, and you’re probably not going to change it as you read on. If we did it in a film, or in a play, the guy would have to be made up differently. Here, it’s just very matter-of-fact, a change of the way you draw somebody.
JF: Now, you do intend to finish THE SANDMAN with number 75. What will you do next?
NG: Umm … sleep? No, I always to do a story that would finish. It seemed to me one of the problems that comics tend to have is that they don’t finish, and the action of not finishing, no matter how good something is, eventually turns it into a soap opera. If something .. stories are defined by their endings, and if something has no ending, then it cannot matter, so I wanted to do something that would finish, and it’s been six-and-a-half years, seven years, in coming.
JF: Neil Gaiman writes “Sandman,” and the new comic, “Mr. Punch.”
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Transcribed and distributed by Jefferson Robbins, firstname.lastname@example.org