With 'The Sandman: Overture,' the book that launched a business returns

"The Sandman" became a phenomenon at the end of the 1980s as it singlehandedly catapulted the graphic novel into the spotlight. 25 years later, author Neil Gaiman talks up its prequel at Comic-Con.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
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Preview: 'The Sandman: Overture' (pictures)

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SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- It's hard to overstate the importance of Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" to the comics.

In creating a comic that attracted droves of noncomics readers, especially women, at a time when comics were on the pop culture radars of very few people, Gaiman also inadvertently made graphic novels into a business. "The Sandman" was a book that lent itself to having its story arcs collected into book format, and those graphic novels sold so well and to such a wide audience that other comics soon followed suit.

Today, it's harder to find monthly comics that don't eventually get reprinted into graphic novels than the other way around. On the occasion of the book's 25th anniversary, with not only graphic novels but also digital comics now established as another comics reading format, Gaiman has teamed up with renowned comics artist J.H. Williams III to tell one more Sandman story.

Neil Gaiman at the San Diego Comic-Con 2013. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

From a hotel room overlooking San Diego Harbor, Gaiman, in town for Comic-Con, recounted the experience of returning to characters he hasn't written about in more than a decade.

"There was definitely a worry with the characters that they would've gone away," said Gaiman, a New York Times best-selling author known not only for his writing of long-form fiction but also for his early adoption of Twitter (where he became one of the first people to crack 1 million followers). "The last time I wrote the Sandman characters was for 'Endless Nights' in 2002. There's been several novels, there's been the discovery of Twitter, meeting my wife, getting married."

"So the idea of these characters are there. The first five pages I wasn't sure if they were right, and then I got to page six. There was Death and there was Destiny, and they sounded like themselves. It was wonderful," he said with a smile.

As the cosplaying masses of Comic-Con swarmed the streets of San Diego's Gaslamp District below the hotel room where we talked, both Gaiman and Williams were nattily dressed in suits.

Williams, known for his intricate and creative layouts, said that he doesn't start with the intention of drawing his comics with an atypical layout. "I don't consciously say that every page has to be a double-page spread, but I like anything that can make the reader slow down and live with it for a little bit."

Digital comics are a relatively new way of reading comics and Williams' art doesn't always translate well to the screen.

"I've had some complaints," he said, from people who read the comics digitally, but his original worries about how his art would translate to the digital format have been assuaged.

"I was concerned that [the publishers] would want me to change what I do," he said. Following feedback from them and his print-reading fans, he decided not to change anything.

"The technology needs to catch up to me," he said, laughing.

The pair had never collaborated on a comic before "The Sandman: Overture," which tells the story immediately preceding the first issue of "The Sandman," collected in a book titled, "Preludes and Nocturnes." The title character, Morpheus, is captured by dark magic and imprisoned for 70 years. The prequel overture, Gaiman said, will tell the story of how Morpheus, the personification of dreams, became weakened enough to get captured in the first place.

Writing his protagonist, Gaiman said, is tricky. "There's the one who escapes in Sandman 1, and then there was the one before Sandman 1. He's much prissier, much more hidebound," he said.

"In many ways, the entirety of Sandman is a meditation on how his years of imprisonment actually changed him. So," the author concluded, "Morpheus himself is kind of weird."

At the time that the original comic concluded, "The Sandman" was outselling major superhero titles like "Batman" and "Superman." Though it's possible that on some alternate Earth, Gaiman's prequel will be a flop, there's nothing weird about people expecting this to be the best-selling comic of the year.