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
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
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.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most