‘He Found His Voice.’ How Neil Gaiman And ‘Sandman’ Made Each Other Into Stars

‘He Found His Voice.’ How Neil Gaiman And ‘Sandman’ Made Each Other Into Stars

In late 1986, a 25 year-old British writer with one artsy graphic novel under his belt pitched DC Comics a new spin on one of the publisher’s oldest properties. Editor Karen Berger thought this Neil Gaiman fellow had some potential, and, after a tryout on another title, gave Sandman the go-ahead in 1988 for a January, 1989 release. Sales of the dark toned, adult-oriented comic started strong but kept building and building as Gaiman hit his stride.

By 1993, Sandman became the keystone of DC’s groundbreaking Vertigo imprint, founded and run by Berger, and one of the most acclaimed comic series of the past 50 years. It also launched Gaiman far beyond the comics industry to become a best-selling author and media figure with enough clout to finally develop his seminal work for the screen as he sees fit.

Today, the $165 million Sandman series drops on Netflix
under the direction of writer/executive producer/showrunner Gaiman. I spoke to Berger, who left DC comics in 2013 and now runs Berger Books for Dark Horse, about the early days of the series and at what point she realized she had a hit on her hands.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rob Salkowitz, Forbes Contributor: How and when did you first come across Neil Gaiman?

Karen Berger: In the mid-1980s, writer Alan Moore was working on DC’s Swamp Thing, which I edited. Alan was doing incredible, groundbreaking work, showing everyone what comics could do as a form of storytelling. Around that time, I started getting calls from Neil, who was trying to break into comics. He had sent me an 8-page Swamp Thing story called “Jack of the Green.” I thought it was very well-written, but there was nothing I could do with it since Alan was writing the book.

I met Neil in person at a convention a short time later, but it wasn’t a formal business meeting. When I came back to the UK on a talent scout with [DC Publisher] Jenette Kahn and [editor] Dick Giordano, Neil had just published his graphic novel Violent Cases [with artist Dave McKean] for [UK comics publisher] Titan. Nick Landau, who ran Titan, recommended Neil, so we met him at our hotel. I had forgotten his name from the first time we’d met, so was surprised to recognize him when he came in. I was like, “oh, you’re Neil Gaiman!”

He and Dave [McKean] pitched us a bunch of ideas, including something with Sandman, but a version of the character was already being used in another series at that time. We decided instead to go with a different character, Black Orchid. [note: Gaiman often tells this story, saying that the assembled editors initially did not pick up on his and McKean’s accent and thought they were saying “Blackhawk Kid,” which sounds like a DC character but isn’t.]

What promise did you see in Neil’s early work, and what areas did he need to develop more fully?

He wasn’t fully formed as a comic book writer. His writing had a nice flair; it was smooth, graceful and very evocative. But in the early work, his characters were at an emotional distance. In Sandman, and especially by the introduction of the character Death in issue 8, he really found his voice as the amazing writer he came to be. He’s very thoughtful as a writer and a person. I love how he fully translated his talents, personal point of view and persona into his work.

What about Neil’s pitch made Sandman seem like a successful project?

It was really smart pitch with new ideas. He had the concept of the Endless fleshed out in the pitch. That was the most appealing part to me. But you never know until it’s executed whether a writer can pull it off, and he was still fairly new.

How did artists Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg get selected for the initial issues?

Neil and I decided everything together in terms of artists. Neil wrote a very evocative story. We were looking for an artist who had a really good, illustrative line and was good with shadows, and it’s always tough to find artists who can draw a monthly comic book. We looked at a bunch of people’s stuff and both independently came up with Sam Kieth. We ended up calling him from the hotel to see if he was interested, and of course he was.

What kind of sales were you expecting on the first issue, and how did it perform?

It performed well. Keep in mind, it was such a different market back then. Monthly comics sold a lot better than they do today. Initial sales for the first few issues were healthy, but kept climbing and climbing. That’s a sign we had a hit. It was a slow build.

Did you give the series any kind of special promotional push, or just the regular effort of launching any new series?

We gave it a great push. We promoted all our books, but when we saw Sandman was taking off, we got behind it, especially in promoting it outside ordinary comic book channels. We bought an ad in Rolling Stone, for example. We did a trade paperback collecting the early stories, which was unusual at that time, and it sold through bookstores rather than comic shops. There was a wide reach into the general book market on that book and on that series. That also helped draw attention to Sandman and to Vertigo.

What kind of editorial direction did you give in the early days? What was Neil’s response to changes and suggestions?

Neil and I had a really close relationship working on the book. He has a great story sense. He didn’t need much direction, but he was always open to whatever suggestions I had, or questions about the stories. There were a few stories that I might have had a strong opinion on, but overall, it was all coming from him. I just wanted to help him and the artists tell the best story possible.

Neil was very smart in connecting Sandman in the beginning to the other DC characters, especially the books I was editing. It really grounded the character and had that DC fan connection. Neil had to get that out of the way to go forward and break away from the ties of DC continuity, which started with that issue #8. To me, that’s when he really blew the whole thing out of the water.

Sandman was one of the first mainstream comic books series to attract a lot of female readers. What do you think accounted for that, and what, if anything, did DC do with that information?

It was all anecdotal, because no one in comics was doing market research. It was what retailers told us. Neil was always a great self-promoter, even before social media. He’d do a lot of signing tours. He was always great at connecting with fans and readers. When he would set up a signing, he’d remark that there were more women than guys.

The reason was, Sandman was creatively a story that dealt with concepts. It’s not superhero stuff; it had more of a literary bent. The characters were relatable and there was a strong female cast. Just Neil’s way of writing created a very good connection. Plus, there was the goth aspect of Death. Goth was in, so that was a great hook.

Being a woman in comics without that history of fandom, I just always wanted to edit comics that I wanted to read myself. Sandman fulfilled that in a way to get more women that responded to it.

Sandman began when what became the Vertigo line was still officially part of main DC. How did it affect the decision to create a new imprint for the more mature-oriented, creator-owned books?

Sandman was a lynchpin book. The other books were wonderful and creatively very strong, but Sandman was outperforming the others by a wide margin. Sandman was the first series that connected to women and people who weren’t traditional comic fans. When we did a marketing sampler for the Vertigo launch in 1993, I asked Neil if he could do a special new short story for Sandman to launch the line. He graciously did that to help get attention.

When did talk of media adaptations of Sandman begin?

Almost immediately. There were a number of bad film scripts that crossed my desk. Thankfully Jenette and [DC President] Paul [Levitz] didn’t allow any of them to get that far. The world wasn’t ready for Sandman back then. Neil had pitched a trilogy to WB, but they didn’t go for it. In retrospect, we’re all glad they didn’t.

With Neil having the control he has on the Netflix show, that’s the way. If you don’t have Neil involved from start to finish, there’s no point in doing it.

You and the leadership at DC decided to respect Neil’s decision to end Sandman after 75 issues and not pass it along to other creators. What was behind that, and was it a good business decision in retrospect?

I think it was a very good business decision. It wasn’t mine. It was Jenette and Paul, and to their credit. They had never done it before. Sandman is a work for hire [corporate-owned] character. The mentality of successful mainstream comics is usually, if it’s successful, find a way to keep it going and get other creators involved. With Sandman, we realized Neil created something so singular that anything afterwards would just feel like a lesser work. We just wanted it to stand on its own.

Have you seen the Netflix series yet? What are your expectations?

Only the same trailers as everyone else. I can’t wait to see it!

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