Producer Dirk Maggs explains how the second installment of the audio adaptation of Neil Gaiman's classic comic expanded in the age of COVID-19.

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It's almost time to return to the Dreaming. While fans of The SandmanNeil Gaiman's classic comic series about Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams — await updates about the coming Netflix show, Act II of the innovative audiobook adaptation hits Audible this Wednesday.

The first act, which hit the audio platform last year, was fairly straightforward as dark fantasy epics go: Morpheus (voiced here by James McAvoy) is imprisoned by human sorcerers for decades, during which time his nocturnal kingdom known as The Dreaming falls into disrepair. Once he finally escapes, Morpheus (also known as Dream) sets about recovering his powerful artifacts and disciplining runaway nightmares. 

Act II has a much bigger scope. Based on The Sandman volumes Season of Mists, A Game of You, and Fables & Reflections, Act II has added even more starry names to its cast. New roles include Jeffrey Wright as Dream's older brother Destiny, Kristen Schaal as his younger sister Delirium, Rege-Jean Page as Orpheus, Brian Cox as Augustus Caesar, and Emma Corrin as the witch Thessaly, among others.

The Sandman Act II
Credit: Audible

It doesn't take long for Wright and Schaal to appear, because Act II begins with a family meeting of The Endless that also includes Kat Dennings' Death and Justin Vivian Bond's Desire returning from the first season. Though Dream thinks that he's totally recovered from his imprisonment, his family reminds him immediately that he still has unfinished business to take care of — mistakes he made centuries before he was ever captured that must still be righted. 

"In Act II, Morpheus begins to realize he has obligations," producer Dirk Maggs tells EW. "He's back in his wheelhouse, running the kingdom of dreams, and so he thinks he's set, but then he has a forcible reminder that actually he's left quite a few strings hanging — not least Nada, the African queen that he condemned to Hell for not wanting a relationship with him. Morpheus is a pretty unreconstructed guy at the beginning of Act II. I'm particularly pleased that Act II begins with us meeting all the Endless, which means we get a sense of their collective responsibility — or indeed, their lack of responsibility. So we start by picking up the pieces Morpheus has left by the wayside."

Act II differs from Act I in other ways as well. In addition to thematic evolution, character development, and a bigger cast, this installment of Audible's The Sandman was also entirely recorded during the age of the COVID-19 pandemic (whereas Act I was mostly finished by the time lockdowns went into effect last year). This necessitated strict safety protocols in the recording studio. It helped that Act II covers many of The Sandman short stories collected in Fables & Reflections, which often involve only a handful of characters each. Sometimes even Morpheus barely appears in them.  

"We had COVID rules in studio, so we could only get up to nine actors at a time," Maggs says. "You can imagine for something with 200 speaking roles per act, it got a little tricky. So Season of Mists and A Game of You we had to record out of sequence, but when we got to the individual stories we could go back to what we did for Act I where half a day meant one story. We would just have the cast reading the story like a live performance. That was really fun because the actors stay in the room for it. There's an energy in the room when everyone's together for a story, and actors love to see how it pans out. It's a really rewarding thing to do."

Not every voice actor had to show up in studio, though. In a fun turn of events, this EW writer ended up contributing a few line readings free of charge — taking on the role of Jim Morrison. No, the famous rock star is not a character in The Sandman; this character is a New York City resident who calls into a late-night radio show as a gigantic storm descends on the Big Apple in the climax of the A Game of You story. You can hear the clip exclusively below.

The huge storm is not the only wild visual in A Game of You, which was originally illustrated by artists Colleen Doran, Shawn McManus, and Bryan Talbot. That story also involves Narnia-like fantasy creatures running amok in the streets of Manhattan. But capturing images and sequences like that in an audio-only format is all in a day's work for Maggs, who has previously worked on audiobook adaptations of superhero comics and A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, among others. 

"I don't think there's anything you can do in pictures that you can't do in sound, one way or another," Maggs says. "I did Adventures of Superman for BBC, I did Batman for BBC, and they were pretty straightforward. So when we're in Sandman suggesting a giant dog-like creature arriving on Fifth Avenue, in the end it's the background action that helps — like the cops and what they're saying. If a cop is on the street giving directions, you have to make sure it's what a New York cop would sound like. Sometimes if you describe everything around something incredible, then the incredible thing is defined by the hole you've left for it. If you have a really good voice actor playing the part, then you've got all the elements you need to create a picture in the listener's mind."

The Sandman: Act II premieres on Audible this Wednesday.

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