Years ago, at one of his earliest opportunities to speak at a university, author Neil Gaiman was informed that the English department had elected to boycott the event. Their concern? He wrote comics—and one couldn’t write comics and be a real writer.
The decades that followed would suggest otherwise. Today, Neil Gaiman—the creative force behind an extraordinary range of imaginative books, including American Gods, Good Omens and Coraline—is one of the world’s most celebrated (and prolific) storytellers. Writing not just comics but novels, children’s books, poetry and more, he has topped bestseller lists, won Hugo and Nebula and Eisner Awards, and seen his work adapted for stage, radio, film, and television. And over the course of Gaiman’s long and consequential career—one that notably led Stephen King to describe him as a “treasure-house of story”—The Sandman, a one-time cult hit that converted millions, may well be his most beloved work.
First published by DC Comics in the late 1980s and now debuting on Aug. 5 on Netflix as a television series, The Sandman tells the story of Morpheus, the master of dreams, as he navigates the waking world and seeks to protect it from his escaped creations. Though set against a backdrop of gods and their cosmic conflicts, it is (in the way of all good myths) a story deeply concerned with what it means to be human—our frailties, our failures, and the possibilities we envision when we close our eyes.
Gaiman spoke to TIME about the challenges of adaptation, the power of speculative fiction, and what he has learned from his nightmares.
TIME: It’s been over 30 years since you first put pen to paper on The Sandman. What was it like to revisit one of your most celebrated stories all these years later?
Gaiman: It felt like we were doing something that was literally impossible. I’d spent 30 years waiting for somebody to make a bad Sandman film. And just hoping that if I was really lucky, maybe it wouldn’t be bad. So getting to a place where we’re given the money and the resources to make Sandman from the comics is unexpected and an absolute delight.
Was there anything that, upon rereading, you were excited to update?
Mostly going through the old comics reminded us all the extent to which Sandman had kind of been rather ahead of its time. Back when nobody commented on the fact that it was filled with gay characters, trans characters and Black characters and so on. And now we’re doing a TV series of the comic. It feels like we kind of in a weird way did all the work. We actually had gone and made something that felt pretty much of its time.
Superhero narratives are now among the most popular stories in the world. How has that changed the world of comics?
I don’t think that it’s particularly changed the world of comics. I think it’s made people very aware of comics as a source of intellectual property. And I think it’s also made people very aware that Marvel movies have become incredibly successful by doing what Marvel comics were doing for years—interconnected stories. The feeling that you have to see every one of the films because otherwise you might miss out on something that’s important to the film that you do want to see.
In one of the season’s later episodes, Morpheus tells a recently recaptured nightmare that a nightmare’s purpose is to reveal a dreamer’s fears so that they may face them. What did you learn from your dreams–or your nightmares?
I’ve learned to trust my dreams and nightmares. When I was a kid, I had terrible nightmares. And when I was writing Sandman, they continued. But whenever I’d get a nightmare, I would wake up thrilled and immediately jot it down and go, “Whoa, I can use that.” Fairly quickly, the nightmares just went away. My eventual theory was that whoever was giving me them was so disappointed by my reaction to them that they just couldn’t be bothered anymore.
There’s no shortage of horrors in The Sandman, but the character of Death offers some of the warmest moments in the show. What informed your creation of her?
When I came to create Death, I thought, well, on the one hand, I could do a standard that people are expecting, but where would be the fun in that? I loved the idea of a Death that was warm, a Death that was nice, a Death that you’d like to meet. I thought, that’s the Death I’d like. When it’s my turn to go, there’d just be somebody lovely there, saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry, you should have looked both ways before crossing that street.” That was the Death that I wanted.
Despite the many television adaptations of your work that you’ve been a part of in recent years, including Good Omens on Amazon and American Gods on Hulu, you have a reputation for trying to steer Hollywood away from—not toward—your work. Why?
From the age of 24 to 27, I was a film critic, and I saw a lot of bad films. And I couldn’t see the point in making bad films. I didn’t want to make things that were less than they could have been, which didn’t mean that I didn’t want to take chances. And sometimes the chances you take pay off and sometimes they don’t.
I’d like to get your thoughts in particular on fantasy’s role in this moment, which is, of course, defined by so many real-world crises. What does a genre like fantasy offer in times like these?
[Fantasy] sends us back to our lives with a different point of view. I think politics makes an awful lot more sense if you read George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books. You wind up realizing that actually, politicians are people, and they’re acting on their own motivations. And sometimes those motivations are beneficial and very often it’s going to wind up to be your village burned.
That’s on a macro level. On a micro level, I’ve spent 34 years now with people coming up to me and saying, your character Death in Sandman, she got me through the death of my child. She got me through the death of my parents, of my loved one, of my sibling, of my friend. I took Kirby Howell-Baptiste [who plays Death in the series] aside the other day at Comic-Con, and I said, “ You played Death as well as I could possibly hope. For the rest of your life, people are going to take you aside and tell you about somebody who meant something to them, and how the way that they coped with their death was to imagine you there, greeting them. And you there taking that person into an afterlife. That’s a huge responsibility.” I think Kirby’s up to it. But just the fact that a work of fantasy can actually help people shoulder that burden is huge.
Speculative fiction has at times been siloed from other genres. What do you say to people who look at an epic like The Sandman and don’t see literature?
I kind of like the fact that comics can still be looked down on and we’re still a gutter medium, because there’s always life in the gutter. It doesn’t really matter to me if people think Sandman is literature or not. What I care about is that people read Sandman, that it affects their lives, that it affects the way that they think, that it matters to them. At the end of the day, the people who will decide what the literature was of a period that actually matters, what speaks to them, what’s important—they’re hundreds of years away from here. From a contemporary point of view, Moby-Dick was a failed book about whaling. I would just be happy, honestly, if 100 years from now, 150 years from now, somebody picks up Sandman and finds something to enjoy in it. I would take that.
If you could talk to your 28-year-old self, the version of you that published the first issues of The Sandman, what would you tell him?
Oh, I wouldn’t tell him anything. I think the thing that kept him doing the impossible was a combination of terror and the knowledge that if he didn’t do this thing, it wouldn’t happen. I worry terribly that if I went back in time, and said to him, “Hey, it’s gonna be alright, you’re going to do everything you wanted to in Sandman. Everybody at the end of the day will love it. Thirty years from now, it’ll be in print, and we’re going to make the most amazing television series of it.” He would just go, “Oh, that’s good,” and he’d relax and stop working. In order to get where we are, I need him to be hungry and terrified.
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