By Christian Holub
August 22, 2020 at 04:46 PM EDT
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Thirty-one years after the first issue of The Sandman hit stores, the dark fantasy series created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg almost feels more popular than ever. In addition to ongoing Sandman Universe sequel comics, Gaiman recently narrated an audiobook adaptation from Audible. Plus, there's a Netflix TV adaptation still in development. All of these were touched on at The Sandman virtual panel at DC FanDome on Saturday, hosted by Yvette Nicole Brown and featuring appearances from Gaiman, The Dreaming: Waking Hours author G. Willow Wilson, audiobook director Dirk Maggs, and actor Michael Sheen.

Gaiman kicked things off by discussing his pleasant surprise "that a 30-year-old comic still has relevance." It certainly wasn't common back in the late '80s and early '90s for a non-superhero comic to accumulate the kind of passionate audience that The Sandman did. Most comics barely even made it a year, while The Sandman ended up running for 75 issues over seven years.

"Issue 8 is usually when they would call you and tell you they were canceling you," Gaiman recalled. "You had a year total, so you had four more issues to wrap it up. My whole plan was for an eight-issue storyline and then four short stories, and then we'd get canceled. Except, we weren't canceled!"

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Not only did The Sandman survive past issue #8, but the eighth issue is particularly beloved for introducing the character of Death, the older sister of series protagonist Morpheus, a.k.a. Dream. Although The Sandman introduced a host of fascinating characters over the course of its run, Death is one of its most iconic twists on a classic mythic archetype. This incarnation of Death was not a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper but rather a cute goth girl with a spunky attitude and a pretty ankh symbol. Death made an immediate impact on pop culture, especially for a young G. Willow Wilson.

"I first read The Sandman in the late '90s as a teenage goth," Wilson said. "For me, what's interesting looking back now is that by the time I read that series, it was already part of the culture. And so I was already wearing the Death outfit without knowing what it was. So to pick up the series and be like, 'Oh, this is where this comes from,' was really interesting for me. It had a huge impact on my sense of how you tell stories in the graphic medium, of the scope of the kinds of stories you can tell, and the way that you can put a twist on legacy characters to make them relevant and fresh again for a new audience. All of those tools that I was sort of unconsciously picking up, reading that series at that age, I think have been tremendously to me in my own creative life."

One Death-focused issue of The Sandman finds her helping a character named Element Girl process the end of her life. The series' focus on marginalized characters like that is one of the things that has helped it endure for so many decades.

"What was really astonishing to me about The Sandman, especially the first time that I read it through as a teenager, was that unexpected people were at the center of the story," Wilson said. "We're kind of taught to look to the most obvious figures to be heroes: The politicians, the famous people, all of this. Whereas in Sandman, the guy sitting next to you on the bus could be Lucifer or the King of Dreams. And as such, you get stories about characters who were kind of pushed to the margins, especially at the time, in other types of stories. Here they were at the center and that makes you look twice at the world around you."

Wilson continued, "It makes you sort of question who is telling the story, and what point of views are we missing, and who is unmourned? I mean, that also really struck me — this came out in the middle of the AIDS epidemic when a lot of people were trying to push these deaths and this terrible thing that was happening under the rug. And Sandman said, 'No, pay attention. This is important. These people are important.' I think that's part of the reason that it still feels so relevant because it kind of reminds you, there are still stories we haven't heard, and there are still things we're afraid to talk about, and it's the people around you who could be the true spinners of tales."

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In addition to Death, another of The Sandman's signature takes on a mythic figure is its depiction of the devil Lucifer. Rather than sporting horns or red skin, this Lucifer looked a lot like David Bowie, which was one of the reasons Sheen was so eager to voice the character in the recent Audible adaptation.

"The Sandman both reinforced what I was already interested and introduced me to all kinds of stuff. It just blew my mind," Sheen shared. "Certain things really stayed with me. One of those things was the character Lucifer, because when you first meet him early on in the story with that kind of young Bowie look, that image really stayed with me. I love the idea of someone like that who looks very angelic. I mean, he is an angel, a fallen angel, and that young Bowie with the curly blond hair is very angelic and sort of chirpy. It takes you by surprise. You're expecting Lucifer to be a certain way, but Neil is so brilliant at surprising the audience and pulling the rug out from under their feet."

As the panel wrapped up, Brown begged Gaiman for anything he could tell fans about the Netflix adaptation. He teased that the show will be set in the modern day rather than the late '80s/early '90s of the original comic.

"Due to COVID, with every other piece of television being made around the world right now, somebody pushed a giant pause button and we've taken advantage of our pause button just to try and get the scripts as close to perfect as we possibly could, which has been really fun," Gaiman said. "Right now, as the universal pause button is starting to come off, we're starting to cast again. I'm getting these inspiring and wonderful emails with production designs of places that I've only ever seen in the comics before, now being rendered in 3D, and I'm being asked to comment on it. That's amazing."

Gaiman continued, "There's not a lot that I can say, but something that I will say is part of the joy of doing the audio adaptation was going, 'This is going to be the nearest thing we can do to an audiobook over those first three graphic novels, and hopefully all of the graphic novels.' We're going to start it in 1988, and it's going to end in 1991 or 1992. The Sandman is a very compressed story; even though it takes place all through time and space, that's where that story takes place. So now what we're doing with Netflix is saying, 'Okay, the time this story starts is not 1988, it's now.' And how does that change the story? What does that give us? What does that mean? What's that gonna do to the story? That is very liberating."

Stay tuned for more coverage of DC FanDome at EW.com this weekend.

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