A great story takes time, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman fans have been waiting a long time to find out the answer to one of the biggest questions in this universe: what led to the imprisonment of Dream? Now, almost 27 years after Sandman #1 published in 1988, Neil Gaiman and artist J.H. Williams III answer the question in The Sandman: Overture—and spectacularly so. The very busy Mr. Gaiman had time for three key questions from us regarding the writing process in Overture and his collaboration with the artist. (Bonus! J.H. Williams III shares an exclusive image from his sketchbook below.)
Amazon Book Review: The events that occur in Overture lead directly into Dream’s first story, Preludes and Nocturnes. Did you always know what was going to happen in Overture’s events—or once you began writing it, did anything change from your initial plan?
Neil Gaiman: Well I always knew exactly how it was going to end. I knew the last page, and I was pretty sure of all the pages before then. Other than that, I had an idea of—I sort of knew the high points. It was the equivalent of going, okay, if you’re driving from New York to Los Angeles, you kind of have an idea of the places you’re going to visit on the way, but you don’t know what’s going to happen on the journey, and you don’t know the diversions.
So, you know, I always knew, for example, that we were going to have that amazing gathering of dreams at the end of issue one. I knew we were going to be meeting the parents. I knew that we were going to be understanding things that happened a long time ago and were referred to in Sandman but were never actually explained, so things like the original dream vortex. Those kinds of things would be explained, would become real, would become solid, and I knew that he would survive everything I threw at him. That stuff I knew. But what was going to happen page to page, I had absolutely no idea and it was a delight to find it out.
ABR: How different an experience is it for you as a writer to know the ending, and to know the reader knows the ending?
NG: It made it really interesting. People ask me how Sandman Overture fits into Sandman. Should they read it before or should they read it afterwards? And I say it fits like a weird little Mobius strip that actually attaches the back of Sandman to the front of Sandman again, because you should absolutely read it having read all of Sandman. Then, having read it from beginning to end, you should read all of Sandman again, because things are going to be different. There will be scenes that will mean different things, there will be moments where you go, “Oh my God I know what they’re talking about.” There are things that happen in Overture that resonate into Preludes and Nocturnes, solidly into The Doll's House, and show up again in places like Brief Lives. It’s like, if we were going to give it a number, I don’t know if this is the eleventh book of Sandman or if you just want an infinity symbol on its side indicating that you could just keep going with this one. It’s Sandman #0 and Sandman Infinite.
It was very strange because when I finished writing the very last issue of Sandman Overture, and then I sat down and re-read, trying to pretend I’ve never read them before, you actually now understand the condition he was in, the shape he was in, what happened to him in Sandman #1 and also how completely trashed he is at the beginning of Sandman #2
ABR: Where did your script end and J.H. William III's work begin in terms of overall design, page layouts and effects work?
NG: I would write the script, and then he would go down the rabbit hole. And sometimes he would be doing things I had asked him to do, and a lot of the time, he would have decided that he would create a page bordered with teeth, that kind of thing, but then there was also a weird feeling of ping pong, table tennis, because I would write something that I would think, “He’s never going to be able to pull this off, but let’s see what he does.” Then he would do something that took that beyond what I had asked. I would start going, “What else can we do?”
For example, the thing where you have to actually turn the page over to read it in the middle of Sandman #4, that was actually me, but that was based on seeing the kinds of glorious things J.H. was doing anyway and knowing that he would enjoy it. Also, there’s a certain amount of mischief in the idea of saying, “Okay let’s look at some of the things you can do in paper comics that are going to be a lot less fun digitally.” I kept thinking, the whole idea is that you can’t turn over an iPhone, you have to put it on a table and walk around it. There’s a little bit of that, too. I would ask him to do the impossible and he would always do something weirder than I’d asked for.
The Sandman: Overture releases November 10th, and Gaiman’s complete Sandman works can be found here. Our thanks to Mr. Gaiman, DC Comics, and Vertigo for this opportunity.
P.S. J.H. Williams III nicely shared the below-left image from his sketchbook to compare against the finished page. Click both images for a larger, high-res version!