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Dreaming big: How Neil Gaiman and a team of fantasy writers are expanding The Sandman Universe

Four new books bring readers back to the realm of dreams

Left to right: Dan Watters, Neil Gaiman, Nalo Hopkinson, Mark Doyle, Kat Howard, Si Spurrier and Molly Mahan at the Sandman Universe summit in New Orleans.
| DC Entertainment

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Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

“Just tell great stories.”

This past January, Neil Gaiman delivered that simple direction to four acclaimed fantasy writers assembled in New Orleans, a city known for the blurring of mythology and reality. The DC Comics creative summit had a specific, yet singular aim: revive one of the most influential comic-book epics of the last thirty years. The future of The Sandman was in their hands.

Since its original — and only — series run, from 1989 to 1993, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman has sucked in comics readers in like a portal hidden in a piece of antique furniture. The book’s eponymous lead and his supporting cast have maintained a rare status in an age when corporations stretch comic characters’ legacies as far as licensing agreements will allow: Even though the artist who made them famous doesn’t own them, other artists voluntarily ask for his blessing to use them in their stories.

To resurrect The Sandman, Gaiman handpicked Si Spurrier (The Dreaming), Kat Howard (Books of Magic), Nalo Hopkinson (House of Whispers) and Dan Watters (Lucifer) to pen four books — about a disaster in the realm of dreams, a young British wizard, a Vodoun goddess and Satan himself — that would interconnect, interweave and affect each other’s plots. The writers arrived to Louisiana with their pitches prepared, their notes shared and their minds focused on building a new interconnected era of Sandman stories under a new DC imprint, The Sandman Universe.

Gaiman considered those interconnections carefully, and realized that there was one more necessary step to take.

”When we all finally sat down in the room with Neil,” DC Vertigo editor Mark Doyle told Polygon, “and we were talking about it, he was like, ‘Look, this is great. I totally see where you’re going. But also let’s make sure these books stand on their own.’”

“If anything that we’re talking about here is going to hinder you in any way,” Gaiman said, according to Doyle, “then I don’t want to do it.”

From The Sandman Universe #1, DC Vertigo (2018).
Denizens of the Dreaming in The Sandman Universe #1.
Bilquis Evely/DC Comics

The masterplan kicks off with this month’s The Sandman Universe #1, an anthology issue that gives new fans a taste of each tale, and gets returning readers up to speed with the setting. Who those old fans are is one of the title’s defining characteristics. Unlike a lot of its contemporaries that have reached the same level of success and longevity — The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, The Killing JokeSandman garnered a group of fans that was assumed to be impossible for a comic to grab in 1989: Women.

Legendary DC Comics editor and Vertigo founder Karen Berger had the simple idea of inviting the then relatively unknown British comics writer Neil Gaiman to reboot the Sandman, an obscure Justice Society superhero who had already been rebooted by Jack Kirby a decade earlier. Under Gaiman, Sandman was ahead of its time, taking a hard left from superhero adventures to craft a truly global look at mythology that pushed stories about women and queer and trans folks to the fore.

For every new comics reader who was forged in the pages of a Sandman trade paperback, there’s someone who, though they didn’t get dragged bodily into the hobby, were deeply touched by its story. There’s hardly a college dorm in the English-speaking world where you can’t find a dog-eared copy of at least one of the 10-volume Sandman set on a shelf somewhere.

The cover of Sandman: Overture #1, DC Vertigo (2013).
Sandman: Overture #1.
J.H. Williams III/DC Comics

Now that series is back and ready for returning readers, and the Sandman Universe team has plans for a year or more of storytelling, it’s time to answer some questions. What are those series about? Where are they going? Which one should you start with? How did they get made in the first place?

According to Doyle, the Sandman Universe was conceived over two years ago, prompted by Gaiman’s work with DC Vertigo on Sandman: Overture. Overture worked as a prequel and sequel to The Sandman, which made it singular in and of itself. While Gaiman has occasionally written stories that expanded on the Sandman setting, it was the first time he’d come back to the series’ main plot, and with the goal of answering a question that had been hidden in plain sight from its very first issue: If The Sandman opens with the King of Dreams becoming trapped in the web of a petty human sorcerer for decades because he was weakened in a great battle, what, then, was that great battle? (As typical for the ancient anthropomorphic entity known as Dream, it was a self-created disaster that he’d decided to ignore so as not to have to confront his own missteps.)

Returning to the story of The Sandman made Gaiman realize that he’d like to see it grow even further. In March, when the Sandman Universe was announced, the author told Entertainment Weekly that he’d “started feeling guilty. I liked the idea of getting the toys played with again, reminding people how much fun [Sandman] is, and also getting the opportunity to work with some fantastic writers.”

Working with other writers was likely key — delays plagued Sandman: Overture from its second issue on. The six-issue series took over two years to roll out, rather than a planned six months. Neil Gaiman is no longer the fresh-faced comics writer with a few abstractly-illustrated graphic novels under his belt that he was when he started The Sandman, but an internationally best-selling fantasy fiction author, with a schedule to match.

But while the starting ideas of The Sandman Universe began with Gaiman, the new books are fully in the hands of Howard, Hopkinson, Watters and Spurrier and their artist collaborators, using the ideas generated during the New Orleans writers’ summit. The process of writing comics has evolved a long way from the days when the Marvel Bullpen was a physical office in New York City. Even comics writers who work on the biggest superhero universes may only get together once or twice a year for the express purpose of planning future events, but for The Sandman Universe, it was key.

“Getting together and talking in person is the thing that just set the tone for everybody,” Doyle told Polygon, “and locked all the stories in place for what the first year of stories would be. And then we reached certain turning points that makes us feel like, Okay, we know how to get to this […] the sort of loose framework of what it’s going to be for at least a year.”

Lucien in The Sandman Universe #1, DC Vertigo (2018).
Dream’s librarian Lucien attempts to contact his master in The Sandman Universe #1.
Si Spurrier, Bilquis Evely/DC Comics

The Sandman Universe writers room was diverse in experience as well as demographic. While Spurrier and Watters are established comics writers, Howard and Hopkinson were coming direct from their careers as scifi and fantasy novelists. The Sandman Universe’s imprint editor Molly Mahan, who began her career at Dynamite Entertainment before moving to DC Vertigo, ensures that nobody makes any “rookie mistakes” and one person’s story isn’t stepping on another story’s toes.

“I’ve worked with writers who come from the prose world before,” Doyle said, “So I had experience in working with people who are sort of like, Hey, I know comics, I love comics, but I’ve never written comics, how do I do it? It’s a combination of crash course and showing people strips and talking about the basics of what you can and cannot do in comics. And then also it’s about pairing someone with [an artist] who is an experienced comic storyteller so that they can form this happy medium.”

The cover of Books of Magic #1, DC Vertigo (2018).
Books of Magic #1.
Kai Carpenter/DC Comics

“I’m not visually skilled myself, and so I worried I wouldn’t be able to convey things properly,” Kat Howard told Polygon, and said she still approached Books of Magic as a collaborative story. “[Tom Fowler (Venom, Hulk: Season One) is] a great artist, and he’s brought so much to this book. I’ve found that I’ve been able to think differently about what can go on a page and how because of working with him, and I’m so excited for people to see these pages.”

Of the four series in the Sandman Universe, Howard’s Books of Magic is the only one that hasn’t grown directly out of the Sandman setting. Instead, it follows the adventures of Tim Hunter, a character Gaiman co-created for Vertigo Comics during the course of his Sandman run. Tim is a British teenager from a disadvantaged background who discovers that he has a secret magical destiny, and if you’re starting to feel like this is familiar, wait until you get to the part where he wears dorky glasses and has a pet owl. Gaiman first put Tim on the page in 1990, long before J.K. Rowling’s completely unrelated Harry Potter series took the world by storm.

Returning to Tim’s story in 2018 (the last Books of Magic series ended in the mid-‘00s), in the full context of Harry Potter’s success is a daunting task for any creative team. Howard, already an experienced writer of fantasy stories set in the modern day, with her novels An Unkindness of Magicians and Roses and Rot, sees it as an advantage.

“I love that [Harry Potter] is this global touchstone,” she told Polygon, “in the same way that I love that there are already Tim Hunter stories. I feel like these things give me material to play with — to write toward or against — to have Easter eggs and inside-jokes with the readers. That’s something that’s really fun for me.”

In her and Fowler’s Books of Magic, Tim will struggle with school and bullies and girls — and also assassins, his missing mother, an ominous substitute teacher and making sure he learns to control his magic before he destroys the universe.

The cover of House of Whispers #2, DC Vertigo (2018).
The undressed cover of House of Whispers #2.
DC Comics

House of Whispers’ Nalo Hopkinson is also an accomplished science-fiction author who jumped at the chance to play in the Sandman sandbox, and, like Howard, she brings her wealth of knowledge. Hopkinson’s fiction is characterized by her knowledge of Caribbean religions — though she has since lived many years Canada and California, Hopkinson was born in Jamaica — and House of Whispers is about what happens when Erzulie Frèda, the Vodoun goddess of love, women, children and the neglected, finds her domain unexpectedly tossed into the Dreaming, the land of the King of Dreams. Can she answer her worshippers when her own house is in such a literal disarray?

“What happens when you’re a deity and you’re suddenly... without portfolio?” Hopkinson told Polygon at San Diego Comic-Con 2018, with a laugh. “And yet you know that there are people out there that need you?”

“In North America people think of Vodoun [as] ‘V-O-O-D-O-O,’” Hopkinson said at her spotlight panel at Comic-Con, “and they think of sticking pins in dolls and just stuff that is not at all reflective of the religion in any kind of accurate way. The word ‘zombi’ means something very very different here than it does in Haiti where the term originated.”

Given that lack of awareness of the actual Vodoun beliefs and practices that will appear in House of Whispers, Polygon asked Hopkinson what she’d like the uninformed reader to keep in mind when diving in.

“A lot of fantasy comes out of belief systems, but writing a story based in Vodoun means writing about a living religion, not a dead one,” Hopkinson answered. “So I want to be respectful of the very real religion practiced by millions of people the world over, while still reserving the right to apply artistic license to the story.”

The cover of Lucifer #1, DC Vertigo (2018).
The cover of Lucifer #1.
Goni Montes/DC Comics

Dan Watters (Limbo, Wolfenstein and Dark Souls comic adaptations), on the other hand, comes at his book from an established standpoint: Writing a series about one of the most famous “religious figures” in the world, Lucifer himself. The Lord of Hell, who quits his post as ruler of the Judeo-Christian underworld and opens up a piano bar in Los Angeles, is arguably the most famous Sandman character. He’s certainly the only one to have gotten his own hour-long procedural drama for three seasons on Fox, with a fourth coming up on Netflix.

Despite Lucifer’s television series and numerous previous Sandman spinoff comics, Watters and artists Max and Sebastian Fiumara (Hellboy, Four Eyes) are setting off in a somewhat different direction. “One of the interesting things to me is to see the through-threads: what both the comics and the show have in common that make them ‘Lucifer,’” Watters told Polygon, “and where our version fits in with those. So, long story long, we’re going back to the roots of the thing, and taking it in our own direction. As far as I’m concerned, all of those other things definitely happened … but these things happened too.”

In Watters’ Lucifer, the devil falls on hard times. All he wanted to do was find the mother of his unintentionally begotten antichrist, but instead finds himself trapped in a mysterious small town, and trapped in a physical form undergoing the ravages of old age.

“When Neil and I were originally talking about how I should approach this book,” Watters told Polygon, “he said it would be interesting to isolate Lucifer and see how he responds to that […] Lucifer as we’ve seen him before has always been full of existential rage, even as a near-omnipotent being with the body of a Greek statue. I wanted to put him through what the rest of us sad-sacks have to deal with — ugliness, entropy, and twinging back pains. This is still Lucifer we’re talking about, so it’s going to play out differently (and probably rather more gruesomely) for him than for most of the rest of us, but to have him scrabbling quite literally in the muck opened up new avenues and questions that I’m really enjoying exploring.”

The cover of The Dreaming #1, DC Vertigo (2018).
The cover of The Dreaming #1.
Jae Lee/DC Comics

The final book the the Sandman Universe is The Dreaming, from Simon Spurrier (Judge Dredd, X-Men: Legacy, Motherlands) and Bilquis Evely (Sugar and Spike, Wonder Woman), and it’s the one where fans of The Sandman will find the most centrally connected to the cast of the original series. (Spurrier was unfortunately unavailable for interview while we were preparing this article, due to the fortunate circumstances of the birth of his first child.)

Along with the Dream Lord’s faithful librarian, Lucien, the book revives Matthew the raven; Cain, Abel and Eve; and the eternally complaining Merv Pumpkinhead. Spurrier is also introducing the new and mysterious character of Dora, a native of the Dreaming with a grudge against her master. And Dream might very well deserve her ire — the Sandman himself has gone missing, and it’s up to his servants and creations to safeguard the Dreaming in his absence. The job is going to be tough, though, as Dream’s domain has developed a titanic crack in its very fundament that’s growing with every moment.

“[Neil] came to us with the idea, and then it had different shapes, but this is what it evolved into,” Mark Doyle says. “But it all started like everything else, it all started with a story idea that he had, that he thought, Well, what if this happened in the Dreaming, and how would that affect other things? […] Like all the great Sandman stories, it’s focused more on human characters and how they were being impacted by things that were happening in the Dreaming.”

For Doyle, the chance to bring The Sandman back to DC Vertigo during his tenure as the imprint’s editor is a significant one.

“I would not be sitting here talking to you right now without Sandman,” he told Polygon. “I had been reading comics for a while, I was probably about 15, 16, when I found Sandman. And it was right at that point when I was pretty bored with comics and I was like, Maybe I’m done with this. Sandman is the book that made me realize I wasn’t done with the medium, I was just done with the stories that I had been reading up to this point. I had been reading, you know, pretty simple superhero stories. Sandman just opened a million doors in my mind where I was like, Oh my God, there’s so much more you can do with the medium of comics than what I’ve been reading before this.”

The feeling is much the same for Dominike Stanton (Prez), the artist teaming up on House of Whispers with Hopkinson. At San Diego Comic-Con, Stanton told Polygon that some of his biggest artistic influences are artists who made their mark on The Sandman, with Chris Bachalo’s work in the spinoff series Death: The High Cost of Living and J.H. Williams’ illustration of Sandman: Overture.

“Because I came up in the superheroes system; I drew Deadpool,” Stanton said, “I drew Moongirl [and Devil Dinosaur], I worked on a series called Starbrand & Nightmask for Marvel. I thought when I came to DC that I would be working on stuff like Super Sons or The Flash and stuff like that. So when I was offered the opportunity to work on The Sandman, immediately I said yes.”

Erzulie, the crocodilian Uncle Monday and the four human leads of House of Whispers in The Sandman Universe #1, DC Vertigo (2018).
Erzulie, the crocodilian Uncle Monday and the four human leads of House of Whispers in The Sandman Universe #1.
Domonike Stanton/DC Comics

All of the Sandman Universe creators that spoke to Polygon felt that their first encounter with The Sandman was magical, whether they were deeply into comics at the time or not. For many of them, reading Sandman also came with a feeling of belonging, an experience shared — at least according to this author’s anecdotal evidence — by many, many Sandman fans.

“If you feel like an outsider or a loser or a weirdo, all of those people seem to be in Sandman in one way or another and they are part of the story,” Doyle said. “Especially the human characters, [who] all seemed to sort of find each other and have a place in the world. That really spoke to me, as an outsider, nerdy teenager; finding something that was like, Oh, here’s a bunch of outsiders too, and they all sort of work in this world.”

“I am pretty much someone who hadn’t seen myself as part of the comics community [when I read it],” Kat Howard said, “and so Sandman really was a way in for me. Not only a way into a medium for story that I came to love, but just an idea of what kind of story could be told.

“And the thing is, when you expand something into a universe, you don’t make it smaller, you make it bigger. So I definitely see The Sandman Universe and my work in it as a way for these stories to continue to be a place where queer readers, female and nonbinary readers, readers of color, can feel seen and welcomed.”

The four series of The Sandman Universe will kick off this fall, with The Dreaming #1 on Sept. 5, House of Whispers #1 on Sept. 12, Lucifer #1 on Oct. 17 and Books of Magic #1 on Oct. 24. The Sandman Universe #1, a one-shot issue introducing the story and characters of each of the new series, is on shelves now.