F E A T U R E S    Issue 2.11 - November 1996

The Sandman's Story

By Oliver Morton

In which Neil Gaiman finds an unexpected fortune in comic books; a strange tube station is explored; collaborations are entered into; the quest for new media is embarked on; and accountancy is left unexamined.

Once upon a time there was only one way to tell a story. Well, that's not quite the whole truth. There were always lots of ways to tell a story. It could be told with laughter or with tears. It could be told in a sacred whisper or a profane roar. It could be old as the hills or new as a baby. There were a million ways for a storyteller and his listeners to make a story happen.

But a story was always a voice: someone saying the words, someone listening to them. That was the one way to tell a story. Now, it's more complicated.

That's why I'm following an Ariadne's thread of power cabling into the bowels of a disused tube station, down into the caverns where all sorts of people are putting together a storyteller's words. There are sound men and lighting men, there are caterers and set dressers, there's a gaffer or two. There are actresses being reassured by men from London Underground that if you see mice, this means there aren't any rats around. That'll be news to the rat-wrangler sitting round the corner but, to be fair, his charges are relaxing in a darkened cage, "finding their motivation", not out harrying the mice. There's a director asking whether the next Underground train can come through at the same speed as the last one - "a very sensitive speed". There's the spirit of Pablo Orton, who, according to the half-century-old graffiti, was here. Though he may not be on the payroll, he's adding to the atmosphere, and that makes him part of the team. A team telling a story for TV.

And then there's the storyteller. In the subterranean darkness, Neil Gaiman is dressed in black, just as he would be at any other time. Neil always wears black; because he has "no dress sense", he has become a Goth icon, "a very strange thing to be". But down in the tube station, watching as the assembled troupe transform the long mulled-over words of his screenplay for Neverwhere into a real TV show - his first - he seems a little too charming and excited to do much for the average Goth. He points out intriguing nooks and crannies as we clamber around looking for Churchill's cigar butts; Down Street station was Churchill's bunker early in the War. He is having a lot of fun, but he nevertheless feels "a certain responsibility" because all these people are here on his account.

The people form one of the ways that we tell stories today, turning Gaiman's fantasy, appearing on BBC2 this autumn, into something an audience can love. It is a story set in a fantastical London between the cracks of reality, a place of angels called Islington and tribes in thrall to honoured rats and supernatural markets on HMS Belfast.

So how did Gaiman come to write a TV drama on which people ended up spending a couple of million pounds? The answer comes in three parts. The first is that Neil Gaiman has achieved unheard-of success, of both the commercial and the esteem varieties, in a little-watched genre. Thanks to a hit called Sandman, he is the most successful script-writer in the world of comics.

Secondly, Gaiman combines a gift for storytelling with an acute sense of what a given medium permits - what it's good for. Before anyone talked about multimedia as a type of product, Gaiman's success in the mixed medium of comics showed that he had a multimedia sensibility; a highly developed ability to balance the what and the how of storytelling. And thirdly, Gaiman has a huge network of fans. Sandman spoke to a huge range of people who weren't really comics fans but found themselves addicted to Gaiman's literate, allusive stories. And some of these fans are in a position to let Gaiman spread his wings into other media, old and new. Fans like Lenny Henry, whose production company got all these people into London's bowels to make Neverwhere. And Neil is eager to oblige his fans, accepting their offers to take his ideas everywhere from Hampstead to Hollywood, from Broadway to the Net.

There are more media available today than ever before, and tomorrow there'll be still more. All these media will need storytellers, because telling stories has been a killer app since before Aeschylus. And Neil Gaiman means to try them all.

A disreputable talent

The medium to which Gaiman first devoted himself was comics: a disreputable, hybrid medium that proved the perfect place for him to develop his talents. In one of a number of conversations we had after that first meeting underground, he recalled seeing a careers adviser in Croydon when he was 15. "We spent a day doing vocabulary tests and spatial awareness tests and this and that and the other, and then we got called out one by one to go and have our meeting. I was quite looking forward to it. I went down into the language lab underneath the school where the adviser was, and eventually the previous boy came out and I went in, and the advisor said 'What do you want to do?' 'I want to write American comics,' I said, and he would obviously have been far more comfortable if I had said I wanted to be an astronaut. There was a long pause and at the end of the long pause he said, 'How do you go about doing that then?' 'Well, you're the careers adviser, you tell me,' I replied. There was another long pause and then he said 'Have you ever thought about accountancy?' and I said 'No, I have never thought about accountancy.' And then we sat there. Then I said 'Shall I show the next person in?', and he said 'You might as well,' and that was my careers advice.

"I came out of that meeting convinced that the one thing in life I would never do was write American comics. Even the fact that I liked comics was a source of vague concern to my teachers, and if I hadn't always been top in English and read everything else as well, they would have got a lot more stroppy."

And there you have the seeds of Sandman, the 75-issue magnum opus Gaiman spent eight years creating. It is a comic written by a very talented, well-read man who desperately wanted to prove comics' worth as a storytelling medium.

In the early '80s, Gaiman was making a living as a young journalist about London. He wrote for Time Out. He interviewed writers for soft-porn magazines with sympathetic editors. He wrote books on things he didn't much care about, like Duran Duran, and others that he did, like Douglas Adams. And when comics started to become a little bit hip, when Alan Moore and David Gibbons's Watchman stood as a "graphic novel" worthy of the name, Gaiman was raring to go. With Dave McKean, the artist who has become his closest collaborator, he wrote a beautiful stand-alone comic, Violent Cases, and a short series for US comics giant DC. When DC asked him for a regular monthly comic, he came up with Sandman. That was nine years ago.

Sandman won every major award the comics industry has to offer - not to mention awards no comic had won before, such as the World Fantasy Award. It outsold institutions like Batman and Superman. It built an army of devoted fans. The ten collected volumes - introduced by stalwarts such as Samuel Delany, Harlan Ellison and Stephen King - are all in print and selling well. They end up on the recommended lists of bookshops that careers advisers can respect: "He's a writer of comics but he's giving a reading at Waterstone's in Hampstead - you know the lad's arrived," says Gaiman, sarkily.

Perhaps most impressively, Sandman won itself a decent burial. When Gaiman finished the sheaf of stories he had set out to tell, the publisher, DC, closed the comic down rather than have another writer continue it. When I suggested that such sensitivity from a comics publisher was unusual, Gaiman just laughed at me; it's unheard of. Now DC is reissuing the whole thing in its original monthly installments. That's another first.

If your idea of comics is one of costumed superheroes or, for that matter, furry freaks, Sandman will come as a surprise. While Neil was crawling around tube stations and sewage works with the Neverwhere crew this spring, the last issue was hitting the comic shops. Illustrated by Charles Vess, it was a series of scenes from William Shakespeare's life during the year that he wrote The Tempest. It touches on the poet's family, his friendships, his reputation, his work and, crucially, his dreams. It was a meditation on storytelling - and on what it means to relinquish something.

The Sandman of the title - tall and wraith-like, fearfully correct in manner and custom - is a sort of deity at once created by and in control of humanity's dreams. As such, the Sandman was simultaneously powerful and rule bound, creator and created. The mixture of fantasy and formalisation struck a chord with all sorts of readers. As Frank McConnell points out in his preface to a recent book of Sandman stories by other authors, Gaiman found a unique way to tell stories about stories, to make narrative a character in its own right. Naturally enough, the writer ended up deeply identified with his writings; a lot of fans out there think Neil is the Sandman.

"It all sounds suspiciously postmodern to me," one young girl complained in an issue of Sandman when a Borgesian librarian turned up in the Slavic werewolf story. And so it is. But Gaiman cares about stories in a way that makes other people care, too. And he cares deeply about making them work as comics. That's what made Sandman a huge, if wildly unusual, hit. There's simply nothing else like it.

Except that now there is: Neverwhere. It's not part of the Sandman mythology, and it's not as richly textured, but because it was written while Gaiman was writing Sandman, and because it is Gaiman - how many TV shows give the screenwriter first billing in the credits? - it has obvious similarities: derelicts with an interest in birds, strange supernatural aristocrats, angels. Gaiman is fascinated by angels, returning to their beauty and strangeness again and again. Neverwhere's tone reflects little bits of G. K. Chesterton and James Branch Cabell and other now less-than-famous influences from literary history's shadowy borders. It features an opening graphics sequence by Dave McKean, who did all the Sandman covers. At the time of writing, early buzz suggested that the show, too, might well be a palpable hit.

In August, when the BBC was eagerly stoking Neverwhere frenzy among the ladies and gentlemen of the press, Gaiman was... not ungrateful, but a bit bemused. "The thing I find odd and funny right now is that I'm being taken horribly seriously. People are watching previews of Neverwhere and going, 'This is the coolest stuff I've ever seen,' and they look at the Dave McKean stuff and go, 'Where did you come from?' and I sort of say, 'Hang on, we've been doing this stuff for years.'"

To the extent that people know Gaiman's background, they treat the move as a step up; not just in size of audience, which it is, but in craft. "People say that after comics it must be really hard to write TV. No, no, no. Comics are hard. I have six panels on a page; I have 35 words in each panel; I have 24 pages in an issue; I have static images to create a moving story. That's hard. Dialogue and actors and cameras? That's a doddle."

The fact that comics are hard to do yet command little respect matters to Gaiman. The idea that it is an easy medium in which to succeed irritates him. "The first Muppet movie has a scene in it where Kermit and Fozzie Bear are in their Studebaker driving to LA to become movie stars and they pick up the Great Gonzo. They ask him, 'Where are you going?' and he says, 'I'm going to Bombay, India, to become a rich and famous movie star,' and they say 'Why don't you come along with us? We're going to Hollywood, California, to become rich and famous movie stars,' and he looks at them with scorn and pity: 'Oh, sure, if you want to do it the easy way....'

"Writing comics to become a literary phenomenon is like going to..." he considers, "... like going to Reykjavik to become a movie star. I began writing comics because I felt I had an awful lot to prove. I wanted to show that Alan Moore was not a unique phenomenon, and I wanted to do something, or a variety of somethings, that showed what you could do with comics. I was fascinated by what you could do with pictures and what you could do with words, and the way things could occur at the interface. I'm learning more about that right now, doing things in other media. I'm now going back and re-inspecting the comics and saying 'Oh, that's what was happening.'"

What is happening is a strange mixture of subjectivity and objectivity; Gaiman sees it as a marriage of novel and film. "A novel is an experience that occurs inside your head. You read the words, you translate them into pictures and sound, you translate them into an authorial tone of voice. A novel basically goes right into your head and fiddles around at the back. One of the first things that I remember learning [when] reading novels as a child is that I was not the only 'me' in the world. You go around inside other people's heads in books and suddenly realise there are millions and millions of 'mes' out there. Everybody is a me. And it's one of the most wonderful realisations.

"Film is not something that you learn that from. Film occurs at a distance. With films you learn about 'thems' and you watch and experience 'thems'. That doesn't mean film is unabsorbing. Some of those 'thems' have exciting times; some you'd like to be. But it's always a 'them' experience. It makes you look not into someone's head, but out of it. "Comics are a bit of both. A comic is something that you as a reader construct, because you're taking a picture, you're taking words, and you're laying them together.

"Illustrations exist in space, and comics exist in space and time, and the spaces between the panels provide, in the main, the time - and the contribution from the reader."

Alan Moore's great gift was in finding new ways to play with that created time - letting it move backward, jump at random, form little rhythmic patterns on the page. Gaiman's strength lies in the emotional tone of the readers' contribution. He has mastered a type of jump-cut whereby one crucial frame or phrase can make the rest of the story suddenly look different, making the reader reinterpret everything that happened between the frames. He uses the spaces not so much to add time as to add depth.

Consider as an example the ending of Signal to Noise, one of the books Dave McKean collaborated with Gaiman on. Signal to Noise is the story of a director creating a film in his imagination while he is dying of cancer, and later scripting it. McKean's art depicts the film (about the end of the world) as the director envisages it. After he dies, the script is delivered to the director's closest collaborator, his producer. She reads it and, as she does, we see what she reads: the imagined movie, just the way he intended it, just the way we saw it before. Except, on the final page, a previously faceless peasant turns and smiles, with the director's face. The objective and subjective worlds shift. He is in there, looking out at us. Smiling. Gaiman says it's a "pure comics moment". It's certainly a pure Gaiman moment. And it really works.

Soon we will know whether such magic can be achieved elsewhere. Part of Gaiman's move into the non-comics, non-book world is a reinterpretation of his old work. Signal to Noise, for example, is headed into two new media: a radio version already recorded, with music by McKean, to be broadcast on Radio Three; and a CD-ROM, coming soon as one of several Gaiman-related BBC projects.

The radio experience made him very happy, after a nervous hiccup. The cast came into the first read-through very confused by the script. "On the page it was a director doing voice-overs and another character talking under him and all these cuts moving back and forward in time. The kind of thing that is technically a doddle in comics but very complex in prose." But when the cast actually started going through the script together, everything fell in to place.

Gaiman tells this story with great enthusiasm. He is clearly chuffed to discover that he can make still another medium work. It doesn't sound as though the CD-ROM has yet produced the same sort of satisfaction, but as an experiment in a new sort of interactivity, he's interested in it. "I told the developers I'd like a bunch of parameters you can set going which ensure that you will never have the same experience twice. I want the signal-to-noise ratio to be something you can set at the beginning. I'm less interested in the clicking as you go on."

Which comes as no surprise. As an artist, his gift lies in matching a story to a medium and setting up a format for a story, as much as it lies in creating the story itself. "Ideas are odd things. You get an idea and very often you get the medium it goes in: 'Oh, what an interesting idea - that's a children's book.' That's how I think. I won't do something until I can do it in the right medium." He will translate ideas from one medium into another once he has worked them through, though. It's a process he's good at, perhaps because he has studied a master. His book, Don't Panic, is the definitive guide to the transmogrifications of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as it went from radio to book to TV to CD to computer game, one he loves because it tells a story and involves no clicking.

Other people's heads

Working in all these media means working with a lot of people. For Gaiman, that is perfect. He's not a writer who yearns to starve alone in a garret, nor one who enjoys writing or takes joy from his writings in and of themselves. He needs people with whom to share - collaborators both to create the art and to appreciate it. This trait made him well-suited to comics - Sandman's illustrators are almost a who's who of the genre - and well-suited to other media. One of the things he loved about the Signal to Noise read-through was the chance it gave him to enjoy the work in a new way, with the contribution of new people. That is also why he wants Radio Three to adapt a triptych of narrative poems he wrote last year: one ended up in an anthology called Year's Best Horror, one in Year's Best Fantasy, one in Year's Best Erotica; that has to be some sort of record. He wants them adapted so he can enjoy them again. "I don't enjoy what I write. I can't really read a short story that I've written with any pleasure. I just go, 'Why did I put that comma there?' But I like being able to enjoy what I've written. I've not yet watched the Neverwhere knife-throwing scene with-out laughing."

Gaiman's next novel will be, in his eyes, his first truly solo effort. He treats the light and nicely-paced Neverwhere novel as a collaboration between the Neil Gaiman who worked on the screenplay over five years and the Neil Gaiman who'll write the book in a few months. I asked him if lonely prospects scare him.

"Yes, I'm worried because it's completely on my own. But prose is so dissatisfying that I'm not really scared. I know I can write books. I just don't enjoy it. I enjoy having written one, and I like the way books go out to audiences and they like them, and I like the serendipitous moments when you're writing a story and something happens that you didn't expect and it's really cool, and I like coming up with lines that didn't exist in my head before I wrote them and all of a sudden I just sat there and wrote them."

Presumably he is getting the same thrills from the screenplays he is working on. Though Sandman is being filmed by Roger Avery, co-writer of Pulp Fiction, in a project with which Gaiman had no involvement, also in development is a spin-off from Sandman, a story called "The High Cost of Living". Gaiman will write the script as well as, if all goes according to plan, directing it. His other script is an adaptation of a novel he has loved since his teens, which he insists cannot be named for contractual reasons - but the novelist, too, is a Gaiman fan. Yet another fan, Rob Roth, director of the Broadway musical Beauty and the Beast, wants him to do a musical. "I'm thinking of doing three short stories in a longer story, using different musicians for the shorter stories. And I've got ideas for things I've wanted to do on stage which would take a big budget."

Gaiman doesn't need everything to be big. He has in mind some small projects: short stories, a novella illustrated by Charles Vess. He fantasises about directing a modest production of Farquhars's The Beaux Strategess. "Maybe I should just round up a bunch of actors and get a theatre for a couple of nights and do it. It's all exciting for me. They're storytelling media I haven't tried."

Gaiman has not yet made quite that much of a rush into the digital world, though. For the time being, most of his digital projects are, like Signal to Noise, other people reworking his old material: Dave McKean, always his most trusted collaborator, is producing a CD-ROM of Mr Punch, their most recent book together. This doesn't mean he's not interested in new technology. On the contrary, he's plainly fascinated by it, both as observer and as user. When Gaiman, who lives in the US, bought a PAL compatible VCR via the Web, he says he felt a real twinge of pride - not for himself, but for the medium. But he is smart enough to know that things aren't played out yet, that technology is moving ever faster. His observation in Neverwhere, "The sky was the perfect untroubled blue of a television screen tuned to an empty channel," deliberately echoes Neuromancer's famous opening, "The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel," but shows how far the techonology has come: blank channels are no longer a fuzzy grey but rather a featureless monotone wash.

At the moment, the technology is certainly good for games, and Gaiman can see how to use some of his work in that format. "I went to this meeting [about a Neverwhere CD-ROM] and I think they expected me to say, 'I want it to be the Dostoevsky of CD-ROM, understand what I'm saying?' And I said, 'Door's the thing you use to open things, to get from place to place. Hunter is what you use to hit people with. The Marquis has information and can trade things. Richard is the piece you play.' " So the Neverwhere characters fit into a classic game format, as does the subterranean setting. "I'd like something much closer to Prince of Persia than to Myst for Neverwhere: let's get through the Earl's Court level; let's get across Nightsbridge. In level 9 we're up against The Beast. The designers were delighted; it'll be a cool twitch game that's a lot of fun to play.

"Sandman, if we do it, will have to be much bigger and stranger. Sandman will be about storytelling. I don't know how we'll do it. I have a few ideas. And it will be a lot of work."

"Would the users be making the stories?" I ask. "Or would the stories be making the users?" he responds. "I don't know. I really don't. It's the wrong sort of answer to give in an interview when you really should be able to bullshit, but that's it. There may be Web elements in it. There may be folktales in it. I like the idea of ravens flying out of the screen and pecking people to death."

Again Gaiman seems to be thinking about getting the format right, about setting things up, but not knowing quite where to go from there because no tradition yet exists. And Neil Gaiman is a very traditional person. What makes him a good author is that he is still a great reader in the way that only bright kids can be, especially if they're not entirely happy. Growing up as the child of two scientologists (Gaiman himself is not a member of the church) was not much fun in the '60s and '70s; it excluded him from, among other things, his local school.

Whatever the reason, Gaiman likes to be in other people's worlds. He absorbs them, learns how they work. He likes to be a part of something. Left alone - which he probably won't be - there might be something rather wistful about him, something incomplete, something of the sadness of a dreamer without a dream, or perhaps a dream without a dreamer. Neil Gaiman is to some extent creator and created, happy in others' interpretations of his ideas. If in any sense Neil is the Sandman, this is it.

Which is why this digital age of not-quite-storytelling media seems to frustrate him. He knows that they allow just that blurring of creator and created, objective and subjective, that makes him tick. He wants to use them and might end up mastering them.

Though his comics-honed ability to match ideas and formats to mixtures of media could serve him brilliantly here, he hasn't quite figured out how to do it yet. "I think there will be storytelling media there. But I don't think at this point that the digital world provides a storytelling medium. It may well be a living medium. And it may become a storytelling medium."

Gaiman often comes back to the image of the architect when he talks about collaborating. He draws the plans, someone else builds the house, and only then can he truly enjoy the creation he started. New media offer an opportunity to take that further, to have a party in the house - if only he could work out how to build houses using these untraditional materials. And that's the sort of creation he would love.

"If you said to me, 'Neil, OK, we want you to do an interactive project', I'd buy a huge old house in New York or London or maybe LA. It would have to be huge.

"And then I'd gut it and build secret passages in it. Turn half of it into hotel rooms. Create bars, restaurants, libraries and things. Hire staff who would also be actors and then have people come to stay who would never know whether the people they're sitting next to are actors or not.

"You might be sitting somewhere and all of a sudden you'd be in the middle of a plot or a scheme, or a beautiful woman would run up to you and kiss you passionately and say 'please pretend you know me - they're after me' and drag you through secret passages.

"That's my idea of interactive fiction.

"I'd write scripts and create scenarios, but I'd also try and encourage members of the public, so you would be sitting in the library and someone would come up and start telling stories or doing close-up magic tricks, and you'd think maybe they're guests, and then they'd be getting you to tell ghost stories, and maybe the other people would think that you were one of the staff."

It's the dream of a storyteller who loves hearing stories more than writing them, of a creator who needs to be half god and half team player, of a writer endlessly aware of the work that an audience does.

You can't help hoping that Neil Gaiman's dream comes true. Because if he can't tell stories using the new media, I don't know who can.

Oliver Morton is editor of Wired.

Sleep of the Just In which the Sandman's story begins; the Lord of Dreams is mistaken for his sister, Death, and imprisoned; a sense of the archaic and grotesque is evoked; moments of pathos and horror are lived through; and the seeds of much more are planted.

Lost Hearts In which Rose Walker is reunited with her family; Desire, one of Dream's younger siblings, fails in her plot to have her stuffy elder brother shed a relative's blood; the rhythm of the series, with multi-issue stories punctuated by one-off pieces, becomes set; and the Author shows that he has truly hit his stride.

Thermidor In which the dead sing of freedom; Lady Johanna Constantine retrieves from revolutionary Paris the severed head of Orpheus, son of Dream and the muse Calliope; the Author blends history, myth and characters from other comics with his customary ease; and Tom Paine makes a fleeting appearance.

"I woke up and one of us was crying" In which two lesbians (one pregnant), a witch and a princess return home; a trans-sexual is buried; many readers are deeply moved; and the "Concerned Mothers of America" disapprove of a comic that talks of such things.

The Kindly Ones, Part Nine In which many plots accelerate towards Dream's tragic death; Rose Walker meets Desire; the witch Thessaly thwarts her sometime lover, Dream; and The Corinthian eats the eyes of a god.

The Tempest In which Will Shakespeare writes his last play without a collaborator, and pays his last respects to Dream, his patron; one of the many great artists to adorn the series, Charles Vess, returns for a final bow; that which it is to relinquish something - be it an island or a story or a dream - is demonstrated; and the Author pays his last respects to the readers, his patrons.