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Neil Gaiman talks about his experience writing The Sandman' in new prequel collection

“It was definitely very, very strange finishing what I began somewhere in 1987,” says the writer.

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Few works have become an integral part of pop culture over the years that are more prominent than Sandman, the epic graphic novel from Neil Gaiman and artist J.H. Williams (Batwoman, Promethea.) After 25 years, DC Entertainment will release The Sandman: Overture Deluxe Edition, collecting all six of Gaiman’s prequels following Dream’s life as it exists up until the events of The Sandman.

More than providing fans of the series with exciting new stories, the graphic novel marks Gaiman’s highly anticipated return to the series that changed the face of comics. EW spoke with the iconic writer about what it feels like to come back to Sandman after all these years, and what that creative process was like.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This prequel is a literal journey for you, going from your late 20s until now. Was that surreal for you, to be writing this while looking back on the experiences and memories that were a part of your life during the book’s creative process?

NEIL GAIMAN: It was definitely very, very strange finishing what I began somewhere in 1987. So, 28 years ago, I was a 26-year-old writer full of hubris and chutzpah and now I’m a much more seasoned, sobered person. Overture probably ended up doing the thing I wanted, taking you from the end of Sandman to the beginning of Sandman, and giving you a slightly different journey this time. But for me, it was really weird. I think the weirdest bit was writing the first issue. Because there was a real terror that none of the voices were there when I started. It was like, okay, I’ve started writing Sandman, but I haven’t really written Sandman for 12 years. And I haven’t really written Sandman for 17 years. And what if I don’t know what the characters sound like anymore? What if they’re not in my head? What if I feel like I’m making it up? There was so much relief the first time Morpheus started speaking and it was like, that’s him. He still sounds the same. [Laughs] And it felt the same for all of the characters. There wasn’t any time in the last issue I remember getting nervous before Delirium came up, with me thinking, oh god, I haven’t written her in so long. But again, they were all there. It’s nice to know that they’re all sort of…there are rooms in my head, the same rooms that were there when I was 26. With the same people living there. But I hope they are a little bit deeper and stranger than they were originally.

That was a question I actually was curious about — do you think all these characters changed from when you started writing them all those years ago?

That’s a really hard question. I think so. You can go back to some of these characters and go, they’ve changed. Delirium changed a little bit. She probably changed the most just because when I started writing her in Season of Mist, I had this idea she was just going to be an angry young woman. And she was going to be pissed and she was going to be grumpy. And I started to write that character, and she wouldn’t do it. And the very strange, slightly disconnected Delirium of today came out. It’s quite possible looking back on it, that Delirium became sweeter and more charming as a result of my friendship with Tori Amos. Because the young Tori just reminded me so much of Delirium. And I’d even occasionally steal things from her. I remember once she looked at me after one of her gigs, we were sitting on the floor of her hotel room and she said, “you’re doing so well and I’m doing so well. Now we must jump up and down on the bed and dance around and around!” And I thought, that’s perfect. The weird thing about Sandman is, especially if you’re looking at it as a piece of art created over an almost 30 year span, how consistent it is. And I don’t know if that’s because of any virtue on my part or if it’s just the characters really did know who they were from the word go, and as long as I just shut up and wrote that down, they got on very, very well.

One of the things that I love about this collection specifically is that it includes a lot of backmatter — as a comic fan myself, I love seeing different things from the creative team who help bring the story to life. I feel like for Sandman, this will allow fans to dig even deeper into the world, and maybe even learn something new about a story they already know very well.

I really hope so. It’s something that we’ve been trying to do ever since the third Sandman collection came out long ago, when I said look, I’d like to print a script. And we printed a full-length Sandman script in there, the script for Calliope. And we did it mostly because as a young writer, I wanted to know how you wrote comics, what a comic script looked like, and I couldn’t find anyone to explain. At that point, there were no resources. And eventually one day I ran into Alan Moore and I said, “show me what a script looks like.” And he did. So it seemed to be there were going to be a lot of other people out there who were like me, and for them, I printed that script. What I love about Overture is you’re not only getting that, but you’re also understanding how incredibly important the team who makes the comic is. Draw particular attention to the genius of Todd Klein. And Todd has been doing this with me since 1988 and I would rather have Todd lettering than any other human being in the world. I think he’s absolutely ingenious.

Sandman is probably one of the greatest influences in both comic culture and pop culture in general. Can you talk a little bit about the cultural influence of Sandman, and what that experience has been like from your perspective?

It’s weird. It’s in some ways, when asked a question like that, I wind up thinking about George Harrison saying, “We were the only people who actually can talk about the influence of other people…” and in many ways, I’m the worst person to talk about what Sandman did. Because I was, as Sandman was, the stone that was thrown into the pond. I get to see the ripples sometimes, because people will write books like “Sandman in the 20th Century,” but the more interesting thing for me is sensibility. What we were doing in 1988 was so far from the mainstream, and the weirdest thing about Sandman was how much mainstream it’s sort of become. Not because it normalized, but because people read it and went, “oh, of course you did that.” And then as an influence in comics…when we did Sandman, just the idea that we could do it was crazy. No one did that in mainstream comics. The goal was the same goal that people making sitcoms and soap operas have: you want your comic, like Superman, to go on forever. You want issue one to come out in 1937 and be on issue 800 today. And the lovely thing about Sandman is these days, people absolutely understand the idea that you can do a long form story in comic form. And there are some fantastic ones out there. It’s weird to think that so many of the things that have happened today that are just assumed to be normal in comics happened for the first time in Sandman. An obvious example is the idea that these beautiful, big trade paperbacks are coming out while the comics are still going. Once the storyline is finished, it’s going to be available in graphic novel form. And that was unheard of.

The Sandman: Overture Deluxe Edition is available now.