Neil Gaiman On The Legacy Of ‘The Sandman,’ And What Happens When A Werewolf Bites A Goldfish

At long last, The Sandman is getting its due beyond the pages of Neil Gaiman’s genre-stretching, sprawling comic book series. Not as a film, of course, since the dark-fantasy saga’s widely accepted by fans to be unadaptable as a movie. Gaiman even once declared that “I’d rather see no Sandman movie made than a bad Sandman movie.”

Yet the project will leap to life soon in a few ways. The DC Vertigo title will be adapted as a Netflix series with a premiere date to be determined, but fans don’t have to wait that long for a fix. An Audible reading of the whole saga — beginning with a first installment that encapsulates the first three graphic novels (Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll’s House, and Dream Country) — will debut on July 15. The cast is sheer madness to behold: James McAvoy headlines as Morpheus, the God of Dreams, with Kat Dennings as his older sister (and adorable goth), Death. Also on board? Michael Sheen (as Lucifer!), Riz Ahmed, Samantha Morton, Andy Serkis, Taron Egerton, and more.

Gaiman was gracious enough to nerd out with us about Audible’s The Sandman reading. We also discussed the enduring legacy and impact of the comic book series, and we dove into why he prioritized the telling of women’s narratives, which was something of a nerd-centered rarity before the 1989 series debut. The fantasy maestro also revisited a question that only he could have conjured up: “What happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish?” In doing so, he dreamed up a definitive answer for us.

People often tell you that The Sandman changed their lives. Are there any stories in particular that stick out for you?

I think the stories that impacted me the most over the years, they tended to be from people who told me how the character of Death got through things that felt impossible to get through. And whether it was getting through the death of a baby, getting through the death of a sibling, or getting through the death of a loved one. In a couple of cases, it was people who came close themselves and come away from it. With all of those things, I wound up feeling honored that something that I created helped people to get through dark times.

You mentioned Death, and Kat Dennings is voicing that role. What does she bring to Death, and how’s her dynamic with James McAvoy as Dream/Morpheus?

Kat is such a remarkable performer, and as an actress, I always used to be very fascinated because I knew Kat as an actress, and I loved her work, and with something like 2 Broke Girls, there was a quote [that said, paraphrased], “She’s good, but they’re only asking her to do one of the hundred things that she can do.” She gets to do that one thing, over and over again, and people are going to forget all the things that she can do.

One of the things that I love about her performance as Death is that, with Kat, we get her cheerful side, her funny side, to land a gag. But we also get her deep, we get her angry, we get her very, very real… it’s funny but absolutely heartbreaking. I think in “The Sound Of Her Wings,” where it’s her and James McAvoy as Death and Dream, you get to really feel that you have a relationship between siblings. It’s kind-of magical.

The Sandman has comforted readers for decades. How do you think this Audible reading might resonate during a time when life feels nightmarish?

I don’t know. Your guess is as genuinely as good as mine on this. The least that I would be happy with is if it gives people eleven hours of entertainment and distraction that they might not otherwise have. Because we need all the distraction and entertainment that we can get. If it makes people think, even better. If it makes people ponder, again, even better.

I vividly remember reading the “Calliope” story (from Dream Country). That was the first time I learned the word “bezoar,” and that’s when it dawned on me exactly how much effort that you put into women’s narratives. Yet it also feels like that was a story about your own writer’s block?

It was! I was going to write, well, that story wasn’t what was meant to be written there. It was meant to be a story called “Sex And The Violets.” And it was going to be about an old [person] living in London, and it was going to be about — gosh, it’s been so long — the spiritual cost of making [things up in fiction]. And it didn’t really work, I remember, I think I have several versions on my hard disk somewhere. And I thought, really, what is this story about? It’s about desperation, it’s about the need for ideas, and suddenly, it became something about somebody, and with a focus, incredibly fast.

You of course wrote Black Orchid initially, but The Sandman was still one of the first female-forward comic book series in the U.S. You actually increased the number of women who’d visit comic book stores.

It was a slow process as well. I mean, the first year of writing The Sandman, I don’t think women would have been saying that. And I say that, and now somebody’s going to be like, “No, I was there!” At the time, they were incredibly few and far between, mostly the people who were in those stores were young males in between the ages of 15 and 21. And then it changed, and as those young men between the ages of 15 and 21 would give, I think, their girlfriends and would-be girlfriends The Sandman to read. And then the girlfriends would say, “Do you have any more of these?” And then the girlfriends would go and get their own copies of The Sandman, and it wasn’t long before it was a 50-50 thing, half males and half females.

Do you feel that, these days in comics, that there’s been progress toward more female-forward narratives? People have pushed back on problematic tropes, but overall, how are things going?

I come from a world in which there were two mainstream female comic artists … and I would have used others, but those were the two main female comic artists at the time. We had lots of women in editorial roles and marketing and business roles, but we did not have enough women writers, and we definitely did not have enough women readers at the time. And my goal was that there would be comics for everybody. It was a medium that I loved, and it should be a medium that everybody loved. It seemed to be really weird that the comic stores were very often where women and girls were not welcome, and it seemed just as weird and wrong that a lot of the comics were essentially, you know, pre-adolescent male power fantasies. And that seemed particularly weird to me because I, as a kid, had loved “girl comics.” In the U.K., you have fabulous comics for girls, and they had better stories than the ones here. Comparing what we have now to what we had then, we’ve come worlds. Comparing where we are now to an ideal world, I think we still have a long way to go, but for me, I just look at how far we’ve come.

One well-known quote of yours is about the absurdity of being asked for writing advice. At the time, you posited, “What happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish?” And you never really answered that question, so will you do so now?

[Laughs] Oh yeah. You’d definitely get a goldfish who would turn into a wolf at the full of the moon and shiver oafishly around the house looking for victims, and possibly head out into lakes. Then in the morning, he’d turn back into a goldfish. The dangerous thing is how you get the goldfish back into the bowl. It’d probably break the bowl. So, you’d have to hope. I think you’d have a werefish, or a fishwolf, who’s smart enough to hop out of the goldfish bowl, transform into a wolf, go on a ravenous trail of destruction and then, just before the moon would move behind the clouds, get back into the goldfish bowl.

You have truly made my week by finishing that story. Thank you.

Thank you so much. That was really fun.

‘The Sandman’ makes its Audible debut on July 15.