Bring me a dream

'The Sandman' is a comic that sells a million a year, even to people who don't like comics. So why has Neil Gaiman killed it off and decamped to TV?

In the world of comics, Neil Gaiman is as successful as anyone alive. He didn't mean to be. In 1987, when he was invited to write a monthly comic called The Sandman for DC, Superman's corporate home, all the then 27-year-old from Sussex wanted to do was tell stories. So he made his hero the Sandman the King of Stories, the mythical Lord of Dreams. From this simple beginning, The Sandman grew. By the time its 75th and final issue was published in April, it had become an epic, 2,000-page sprawl. In it, Gaiman had told tales of every sort. There were stories of writers driven mad by ideas and mothers driven mad by grief; tricked gods and retired devils; speaking pumpkins and dreaming cities. Spinning these tales around the fortunes of the Sandman himself, a black-eyed, fallible immortal, Gaiman rooted his imaginings in human frailty. His comics asked why we died (one character decided not to die, and didn't). Restless, Gaiman picked different artists for each facet of his story, in styles from the cartoonish to the elegant. His readers were equally diverse. Half were women (while most mainstream comics cater for boys), many were in their twenties, many read no other comics at all. Some felt a personal relationship to The Sandman, and to Gaiman. And there were hundreds of thousands of them. There were other good comics being published. None of them had The Sandman's appeal. It was a phenomenon that no one could fathom.

When the stories were collected in books, an even stranger thing occurred. Literary figures high and low, not noted comics fans, adored them. "Sandman is a comic-strip for intellectuals," Norman Mailer thundered. Stephen King called it "a treasure house of story".

Pulitzer Prize judge Frank McConnell cursed Gaiman's nationality, his bar to nomination. And as Gaiman's acclaim grew, so did his audience. The Sandman sold 1.2 million a year. By its end, Gaiman sold more comics than Superman.

He had become quietly famous, powerful. DC ended The Sandman at his request, with regret. His displeasure was worth more to them than a million lost sales. Other, more experimental comics (Violent Cases, Mr Punch) have sold well, adding to his status. He has toured America like a rock star, Internet subscribers feverishly ask if he is God. The Sandman is to be filmed by Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary. And Neil Gaiman has had enough.

"I'm the comics writer that people who don't read comics have heard of," he says, poised on an armchair in a Notting Hill office. "I didn't like it. It made me pleased that Sandman was coming to an end. I think I got out just in time." What Gaiman has had enough of is the place where The Sandman has put him. He knows that there are other writers in comics as good as he is, who've been denied his freakish critical acclaim. And he feels, on the other hand, that his success has left him taken for granted inside comics' narrow world. He compares himself with Nick "Three Oscars" Parks, once thought of as an interesting animator, now too famous to be thought of at all. By some trick of fate, Gaiman's name has come to dwarf the medium he works in. He is Gulliver in Lilliput, horribly unique. It's a situation that has forced a simple, startling decision. "I expect to spend a couple of years doing other things," he says quietly. "And go back to comics when people have forgotten me."

It's equivalent to Tarantino quitting cinema. How can he? Isn't comics what he does ? "Story-telling is what I do," he says. "Comics are my first love. But one reason why I'm happy to stop is so that we can stay in love. I never got to the point in eight years when I got up in the morning and thought, 'Oh fuck, I have to write Sandman.' In another year I might have done. There was this bizarre temptation to carry on. We've got this thing that is an enormous commercial machine now. One could see that there was going to be a temptation to keep going just because of that." His tone changes to muttering calculation. "Could I do another five issues of Sandman? Well, damn right. And would I be able to look at myself in the mirror happily? No. Is it time to stop because I've reached the end, yes, and I think I'd rather leave while I'm in love."

Coming back might be harder. "I've been told that once you go away, you never come back as good," Gaiman admits. "I think the reason it may be true is that the burning desire to prove something is gone. I do not have a desire to get in there and write a really good comic to show people that" - in a voice of childish wonder - " 'Look! I can!' I've already done that, I've written comics as good as anything in the medium." But what if other avenues didn't work out? What if he had to write comics? "I don't want to retreat into the safety of comics. I think it would be a waste of a life if in 10 years' time, unable to do anything, I wound up going back and writing a Sandman that was a sad copy. At this point in time, I would rather write a bad Broadway musical than a really good comic. At least it would be forward motion."

For the moment, Gaiman's gamble is paying off. His first teleplay, Neverwhere, starts on BBC2 next week. The story of a Yuppie who falls between the cracks into a secret, magical London, even its making has met Gaiman's quest for new experience, taking him into sewers and secret tunnels, fresh, hidden places. He recently watched as Piccadilly Line commuters glimpsed a dinner party floating in mid-air in a forgotten tube station, an image they can barely have believed, brought to life from his imagination by Neverwhere's crew. "I feel like I've fallen through the cracks myself," he says. His script has attracted a cast that includes Hywel Bennett and Freddie Jones. Brian Eno has added the score. The BBC's head of drama has compared Gaiman's promise to Dennis Potter's. A radio play, Signal to Noise, has also been recorded, for Radio 3. And for a little while, the comics remain. The final Sandman, about finishing a story, has only just left the stands. Gaiman felt scared when he wrote its last words. Then he went to sleep. He had wild dreams. How does he feel now? "Like I've just left school."

n 'Neverwhere' begins a six-week run on BBC2 at 9pm next Thursday. The penultimate 'Sandman' collection, 'The Kindly Ones', is published by Titan Books on 20 Sept

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before