Over the course of seventeen years and seventy-five issues, writer Neil Gaiman partnered with a host of artists and a fledging comic book imprint to create one of the most popular comic series of the late 20th Century. The Sandman proved to be a seminal work for the then-newly growing graphic novel format as well as the growing modern alternative comics movement. Described by none other than Norman Mailer as "a comic book for intellectuals", it carved a path – and a course – for not only Gaiman, but Vertigo as well.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of The Sandman, which debuted in January 1989. Vertigo has recently collected those seventy-five issues into four massive volumes in the "Absolute" format, but did anyone back then know to what heights the series would eventually achieve? We asked Vertigo Executive Editor Karen Berger.
"I thought it had a lot of potential and there are some brilliant ideas there," said Berger,"but I will admit it took me a few issues into the book to really sort of get a real sense of how great the series is going to be. So, in other words, I didn't know in reading the pitch that this book was going to wind up being such a ground-breaking series."
Gaiman's initial proposal for Sandman proved to be far different from what it would eventually come. Initially conceived as a revamp of the 1970s comic character the Sandman (created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby), Berger came back with the request for an all new Sandman. "Keep the name. The rest is up to you," she was quoted saying in a text entry of the fourth issue of the title.
With that in mind, Gaiman wrote an eight-issue outline which was approved, and Berger set-up the creative team of Sam Keith (penciller), Mike Dringenberg (artist), Todd Klein (letterer) and Robbie Busch (colorist). Artist Dave Mckean, whom Gaiman worked with previously on Black Orchid was tapped as cover artist. The early issues, although described as "awkward" by Gaiman, showed a clear trajectory away from the DC Comics superheroes into a bold new world.
"When we bought the series from him, I thought he was establishing a real intriguing cast and creating a whole world that hadn't been explored in such a way in comics before," said Berger. " It's interesting that Neil had grounded the first seven issues of Sandman in DC continuity on some level – with some DC characters in there – except for the diner issue #6, which only had the spirit of Dr. Destiny making everybody crazy. All the other issues had an element of other series, which was in some ways a turn-off."
It wasn't until issue 8, the tail end of Neil Gaiman's original proposal, that the series begin to find its own footing, according to Berger. "I preferred when the series found his own voice, he broke away from any connections to those previously established. With the introduction of Death in Sandman #8, Neil really found his voice as a writer. I really thought the tone of the series was really established and got a sense of the possibilities."
The series followed the character of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams. Inspired not by the comic book Sandman but the mythical character from Western folklore, the initial stories about Morpheus show him escaping from seventy years of captivity. After the requisite revenge is accomplished, he sets about rebuilding his home realm, the Dreaming. After 70 years of captivity, he is shown to be be summarily harsher to his recently reunited friends. Although the series initially delved into darker horror elements, it expanded quickly to encompass fantasy and mythological elements. The series proved to be a story of Morpheus himself, but also a framing to tell various other stories featuring other character's in Morpheus' realm of influence.
Although original series penciller Sam Keith quit the series on the third issue, inker Mike Dringenberg took over for a time. The Sandman later turned into a showcase of various artists both new and established from comics, including Chris Bachalo, Kelly Jones, Colleen Doran, Bryan Talbot, Mike Allred, Jill Thompson, Michael Zulli, Charles Vess and a host of others.
In the intervening seven years, Sandman stories of the dream king and his dysfunctional family saw itself recognized numerous times, with eighteen Eisner Awards, a World Fantasy Award and considerable mainstream attention. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the series audience skewed away from traditional comic book readers, leaning towards more female readers and those wanting more mature comics than traditionally published. It helped define an audition for the author, the title, and the Vertigo line itself.
"I first became aware of it from Neil," said editor Karen Berger. "Neil did a lot of signing tours, and he and I both observed a noticeable shift in the crowds attracted to this comic. Yes, a lot of young women with dark hair, but also a lot of men and even some traditional superhero comics readers. We'd talk to them at public events, but also by mail and via retailers. "
"Creatively, Sandman started reaching out to people who normally didn't read comics," said Berger. "Women were reading, and people that normally wouldn't walk into a comic books tore would come in to buy an issue and walk out. And so we really felt we were attracting a different readers, and the collections were a response to that to get it further out to people who didn't necessarily come into comic book stores every month."
Although not the first graphic novel from DC, the initial collected editions of Sandman proved to be a sales juggernaut for the publisher – both in comic book stores and the then-new world of traditional book stores. Although the title gained initial popularity with its single issues in comic book stores, the collected editions in book stores showed a brand new side of comics to those who didn't necessarily read comic books regularly.
Over the course of seventy-five issues and several spin-off miniseries, Gaiman created a family for the Sandman, as well as a supporting cast that have gone on to star in their own series. The series helped propel not only the creators, but the line itself. Initially created as a DC title, it was Sandman and other associated titles under Berger's perview that led DC to formally establish Vertigo in 1993. Vertigo went to encompass the informal titles that led up to it with new titles such as Preacher, The Invisibles, 100 Bullets and others to become a pillar of the growing comics medium.
But when Gaiman announced he was ending the series with Sandman #75 in 1996, the comics-reading public was shocked; at the time, the series was outselling DC's own Superman, and the title had become the flagship of the expanding Vertigo line. But for Gaiman, it had been in the cards for awhile.
"Could I do another five issues of Sandman? Well, damn right," Gaiman said in an interview with Nick Hasted for The Independent," And would I be able to look at myself in the mirror happily? No. It is time to stop because I've reached the end, yes, and I think I'd rather leave while I'm in love."
Although the series ended in 1996, it's effects were felt --- various spin-offs and one-shots related to the title appeared in its wake, and the Vertigo line itself was somewhat influenced by the successful title and audience it captured. The series in many ways pioneered a new path, teaching new lessons to the creators, the readers, and even the publisher.
"Because Neil had established such a unique series, he really changed the playing field in terms of what you can do in comics. Even his decision to end the series; one of the things at DC that we've come to realize is that on certain titles, it doesn't make any creative sense to go any further. It works stronger in the long-run of you have the guts to creatively complete a story than keep going on and on. All good things come to an end eventually."
The Sandman helped establish DC, and the wider comics' world, graphic novel publishing, and both in longer format and in definitiveness. "Sandman showed that series don't have to go on for ever. Neil proved with Sandman that you can create a series with several volumes and let it stand on its own. It's a perennial in the comics store and book store markets. So in many ways, we're more successful since we ended it rather than trying to force a continuation."