The Dreaming creators say goodbye to Neil Gaiman's fantasy world with mind-blowing art
"And then you woke up." It's a phrase that recurs throughout the original run of The Sandman, the iconic '90s fantasy comic created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg. Since the protagonist of The Sandman is the literal king of dreams, the comic spends a lot of time in his world. But that's the thing about dreaming: Eventually, you're bound to wake up. That's true even of Si Spurrier and Bilquis Evely, who have been writing and illustrating the current-day comic The Dreaming ever since it was relaunched in 2018 as part of DC Comics' new "Sandman Universe" of books related to Gaiman's original. This week sees the release of The Dreaming #20, the final issue of Spurrier and Evely's run on the series. One thing's for sure: This dream is ending in style.
Over the course of The Dreaming so far, Spurrier and Evely have explored what happens to the titular realm without its king. With Dream missing and/or incapacitated, the task has fallen to supporting characters from The Sandman to keep the Dreaming together in the face of would-be usurpers. The latest of those is Wan, the first artificial intelligence to appear in the Dreaming. But though Wan seems innocent enough, like the Great Forest Spirit from Princess Mononoke this god also has a dark half. His evil incarnation wants to erase the inhabitants of the Dreaming one by one, so that human beings will no longer be so distracted by frivolous fantasies and instead value only efficiency and logic. Sounds mind-crushingly awful, right?
In The Dreaming #20, the task falls to all the book's major and minor characters to combine their dreams to vanquish this robotic pretender. The result is some of the most mind-blowing splash pages you'll ever see. Evely and the rest of the art team (colorist Mat Lopes, letterer Simon Bowland) have been producing gorgeous two-page splashes since the beginning of the series, which helped inspire EW to name Evely the best comics artist of 2018, but this one takes the form to another level.
EW caught up with Spurrier and Evely to discuss this gorgeous art and their take on the world of The Sandman. The Dreaming #20 is available now from online comic sellers; check out those magical pages below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Sandman is a formative comic for a lot of people. What was your relationship with it before working on the Sandman Universe?
SI SPURRIER: I didn't really get into comics until I was 14 or 15 when I came in via 2000 AD. After you discover comics, there's a moment when you have a revelation that this isn't just printed material. This is something that people have actually sat down and made, and you recognize the names of the people whose work you love, artists and writers. So many of the names that I was beginning to recognize from 2000 AD were at that exact time heading over the pond and doing an awful lot of work in the U.S., with most of them ending up at Vertigo.
So without any thought, I just started gravitating to Vertigo and was immediately immersed in Preacher and Swamp Thing and Hellblazer and of course, Sandman. When I think of comics, I don't think of superheroes and capes and all those things, I think of Sandman, Preacher, and Swamp Thing. So it had a huge effect on my life. For a slightly weird outsider kid like me who never really felt like he was being marketed to or written from the perspective of, it was mind-blowing to discover. It felt like coming home, you know?
BILQUIS EVELY: In my case, my relationship began somewhat unusually. Unfortunately, comics weren't so accessible for me at a young age, so even now, I'm trying to keep up with the list of books I would love to read. Sandman was one of those books.
So when I expressed to my editors my wish to work on a fantasy story, they offered me The Dreaming. It was several months before I started on the project, which gave me a comfortable amount of time to read and study everything I could, from the mythos to the line art style. Discovering an almost unknown universe for me, and knowing I would become part of this in the near future, was a very unique and exciting experience.
As a Sandman fan, I yelped every time you guys brought in a classic character or artifact from the original series, from Destruction's sword through Rose Walker. But just as impressive as your use of those characters is your introduction of a new character into the Sandman mythos, Dora. At this point, I’m totally in love with Dora’s character design and personality. How did you guys design her?
SPURRIER: She arose as the answer to an awful lot of questions I asked myself when going into the project. Some of them had to do with, how do I waltz into this world and bring with me new characters who aren't familiar with all those wonderful old stories so we can sort of see it through fresh eyes? So introducing a new character and making that character kind of the central point of view made total sense. In tonal and character terms, I thought about it long and hard. It would've been very easy to do a sort of bad pastiche of Gaimanesque prose. I think one thing among many that he is so very good at is presenting purple prose in a way that it doesn't feel like purple prose. It feels earnest, poetic, peaceful; nobody rolls their eyes and goes "ugh, too many adjectives."
Whereas when I tried to do that, I find myself rolling my eyes. If you’re not careful, the whole thing threatens to become a little bit pompous, like something that takes itself way too seriously. So it made sense to create a character who could pop the bubble, who could be blunt, rude, and sarcastic. That felt like a smart way for me to tell stories in this world and absolutely pay my respects to this world but also allow my own cynicism and sarcasm to come creeping in. It's always tempered, of course, by the fact that at the end of the day Dora realizes that this is a good place and a good thing. She’s sort of slowly learning to be less brittle. So all of that went into it. I loved the idea that she's a mystery unto herself; even she sort of doesn't know who all she is.
We all enjoy speculating about the importance of a character who doesn't know who they are. That's a really nice story. Not only because we are trained after years and years of mainstream fiction and superhero titles and big quest narratives to assume everybody who is special at something is special because they were born to be special, but because there's also that useful moment when you realize you're maybe not that special; the thing that makes you special isn't your identity or your birth, it’s what you do and what you say and who you say it to. There’s an awful lot of metaphor bound up in this one character about identity, pride, and mental health, all sorts of stuff I end up telling stories about again and again. It felt like a nice, strong, badass woman character with an awful lot of folkloric mystery surrounding her, who fits perfectly into the scenery of the Dreaming while also being quite different and new. That ticked all the boxes for me.
EVELY: Sometimes, a good character design comes out very quickly, just like a miracle. Dora was like that. Si is always brilliant in describing inventive visuals. He suggested some of her attributes and pointed out some references, including the best one: The wings of Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep. It was definitively the best start. From there, I focused on working on her looks, her clothing style, her hair — which I named as a "Modern Mullet" — her physique, her pantomimes, etc. The first idea was to create a character who brings a punk attitude with her looks, or at least, what a modern punk would be. In the end, she turned out to be more like a sloppy, boyish woman, but the punk feeling is still there.
Bilquis, from the very beginning of The Dreaming, you were blowing readers away with these incredible double-page spreads featuring a bunch of characters. The first one I remember is the Judge Gallows one that conveyed his whole history and character in one spread. How did you get from there to the incredible multi-page spread in this final issue that brings together practically every character from across the series? How did you keep building on these layouts and making them even cooler? Si, how did you learn to take advantage of Bilquis' strengths over the course of the book?
EVELY: Oh, the montages, yes! This is a collaboration with the whole creative team. Starting with the insane descriptions and bold ideas from Simon's mind. Also, there's a lot of merit to the amazing colorist Mat Lopes who always brings his balance and clarity to the composition and the wise lettering from Simon Bowland, placing the text in order to help the flow in between scenes.
All this insanity started with that Dora dance scene on Sandman Universe Special. That was the tip of the iceberg of a malleable concept that embraces the entire series. The dance scene seems very ordinary today, but being a new experience for me then, it took me ages to create the layout for it. Same for the Judge Gallows double-page spread, but that one was the first real challenge, and consequently, the hardest one to create. I don't remember exactly, but I think it took me a few days to finally understand what I needed to do to make the layout work. I was very nervous and confused, honestly. Then it finally dawned on me that it was a logical process, which was, trying to figure out first where the text should be placed, connecting this with the scene itself. Creating composition for each scene while having in mind this also needs to be a single composition for the whole page with all the elements together.
In the course of the series, those layouts got easier and easier. It would seem impossible for the Bilquis from two years ago, but that big montage from the last issue came together very quickly, like a puzzle, or the steps to a dance that I already knew well. I mean, at least the layout was fast, because, for this last one, the pencils and ink took five days of hard work. Hard work, but also a delight.
SPURRIER: Bilquis is the cream of the cream. The challenge is the way we're telling a story in a realm that has no physical aspect, where anything can happen, where there's no oxygen in the air and there's no ground on the ground. I probably could have been a little bit kinder to her, because if somebody gives me a world like that, I’m gonna run with it. But the challenges I set her, she just blew them away. I mean in issue 20 there's essentially a four-page spread that’s a round-up of everything we’ve done. It’s a race back to the start where we dash through all the highlights in this remarkable visual representation of a magic spell being performed. By the point we got there, I had no worries. The first time she does one of these mad double-page spreads was from issue two or three where we first meet Ezekiel Gallows in all his glory. We ended up just getting into this sort of private language where I’d just say, “Bilquis, it’s another one of those DPS’s," and I could hear her halfway around the world groaning “Oh, you bastard.” But they were just so spectacular and she never failed to find new ways to juxtapose images through organic movement and organic forms.
So much of the beauty of those early Vertigo books, and Sandman in particular, is looking at the ways that the artists have arranged information on the page. And it's so rare that they just do a standard layout of boxes, and if they do it’s because of, say, the claustrophobic nature of the scene. Whereas we're dealing with a world made of the human subconscious: It’s going to be hazy, amorphous, nebulous, constantly shifting. Those double-page spreads, which Bilquis does with such aplomb, are the purest distillation of what that would feel like in the real world. By the way, she's also just casually knocked off some Mobius-esque sci-fi and some 1950s noir and some sort of batshit Jack Kirby crackly stuff. She just handled it all with such grace and dignity and even her ugliest characters are beautiful. Working with her is by far the greatest memory of this time to me.
EVELY: I'll miss all this creative freedom and organic distortions. After understanding the foundations that I mentioned before, it's pure joy. Maybe it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, And I'm proud of it as well. I believe our team has great chemistry together on creating distinct visuals in balance with this universe that we love so much.