‘What I like best is being able to go from TV to comics to prose to audio’: Neil Gaiman on The Sandman’s success

Author Neil Gaiman on the phenomenal success of The Sandman, audiobooks and how he handles fame

December 23, 2022 04:29 pm | Updated 08:56 pm IST

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Four weeks into its release on Netflix, in August 2022, The Sandman garnered 400 million hours of viewing time, becoming “one of the most watched shows on the planet”. And its writer, Neil Gaiman is curiously calm about the phenomenal success of the show. “Yes, it is amazing, you don’t get things like that often,” he says over a call, “but I think I am very lucky because The Sandman wasn’t an overnight success.”

Lucky because “I have watched people that I know be destroyed or injured by success. Going from nowhere to being incredibly successful incredibly fast is very bad for people. It came to me very slowly,” he explains.

Gaiman’s seminal fantasy comic series which tickled the imagination of the 1990s kids, took over three decades and several attempts to be adapted to television. When it came out (in 1989), published by DC Comics, it was popular among those who read fantasy fiction. “But not many people bought that kind of thing. We were always in the ‘Top 100’ of the best-selling comics. But we spent a lot of that time in the ‘70s, ‘50s, ‘40s, and ‘30s. And honestly, the first time The Sandman outsold Batman and Superman was in its very last issue — The Sandman #75. That was incredibly slow,” he says. It became the first original graphic novel on the New York Times’ bestseller list in 2003. 

Three-decade wait

However, he is pleased that the 30-year wait for a TV adaptation has produced something “wonderful”. “The first time I was asked about doing The Sandman movie adaptation was in 1990. And I have watched The Sandman adaptations try and happen, over the years and they didn’t and I was patient. Finally, we [writer, radio producer, director Dirk Maggs] got to make a TV adaptation with me in control and we got to make something that tastes and feels like Sandman and that, for me, was an important thing. I have had 34 years to get used to this. I’ve had 34 years of watching the crowds at the signing go from 12 adolescent boys to 3,000 people of all ages and kinds and genders. Basically, I love that I have had the time,” he adds.

Neil Gaiman, Vivienne Acheampong, Tom Sturridge and Allan Heinberg at The Sandman world premiere in London

Neil Gaiman, Vivienne Acheampong, Tom Sturridge and Allan Heinberg at The Sandman world premiere in London | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The first time Gaiman pitched The Sandman as an audio project, with Maggs to the BBC in 1992-93, they were turned down. “Over the years, we kept trying to get an audio of The Sandman adaptation together. But the important thing was that we were willing to wait. If it wasn’t right then we were not doing it. I think I made the right choice. I love the wait.” 

The audio adaptation of the book was launched on audio streaming platform Audible in 2020. “It was the fastest selling; I got these astonished phone calls I got after the first part of The Sandman was released — selling faster than Harry Potter adaptations ever did.” 

Advice to young authors
What has really kept Gaiman going is having things to say, he says. “I had stories to tell that wouldn’t get told if I didn’t tell them. My biggest tip to young writers would be that anybody can write 300 words a day. Three hundred words is one page in a printed book. You can do that. And if you do that every day for a year, you’d have written a novel the size of a normal book. If writing a hundred thousand words may be incredibly intimidating, writing a page a day isn’t.”

In his almost four-decade literary career, there are few genres the British author has not attempted — from comic to graphic novel, novels, film and screenwriting, radio, and his own blogs. He also performs readings of his poetry and stories. Gaiman is known for his works Stardust and American Gods. His 2013 book The Ocean at the end of the Lane was ‘book of the year’ in the British National Book Awards. “What I like best is being able to go from TV to comics to prose to audio. I love that freedom. But if you told me at gunpoint that I could only do one for the rest of my life, I would probably choose audio because I have things that I can do in audio that I cannot do in prose. I can have real actors bring characters to life, I can have music, I can force you to build pictures in your head,” he says. 

Making television is an incredibly slow process, he adds. “If you are making TV, if you are shooting six minutes a day, you are doing really well. And then once you’ve shot that six minutes, you have then got over a year of post production ahead of you.” 

A religion designer

If he were not a writer, what would he have been? “I used to love the idea of becoming a freelance religion designer. There isn’t a place for the sort of bespoke religions that get tailored made to individuals. I would love that job. It doesn’t exist, but people could phone me up and they would say, ‘we would like religion’ and I could say, ‘Good. Do you want one with lots of feast days and off days or do you want a hard-working religion? Do you want gods as natural beings or do you want one where it’s just about communing with you, I would go on and build them religion, and every now and then I would phone them up and ask, ‘how do you feel about guilt’? The job does not exist, but I would have liked that. (laughs).”

A two page spread from Vertigo’s The Sandman: Overture Deluxe Edition, written by Neil Gaiman with art by J H Williams III.

A two page spread from Vertigo’s The Sandman: Overture Deluxe Edition, written by Neil Gaiman with art by J H Williams III. | Photo Credit: AP

Gaiman’s books for children have been much loved for their ingenuity and he loves writing them. From the Graveyard Book, to the delicate horror story of Coraline and Fortunately, the Milk… each one has been a delight to write, he says, adding that there are two or three books in his head. “But there will only be another Coraline if I can come up with an idea that is as good as Coraline.”

Neil Gaiman at the global premiere of Amazon Original’s Good Omens in London

Neil Gaiman at the global premiere of Amazon Original’s Good Omens in London | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Gaiman is busy making Good Omens Season 2, which will be out on Amazon Prime in June-July . “I am really proud of it. It is funnier than Season 1. It has a lot more of Michael Sheen and David Tennant. I think it is really good!” Gaiman is also adapting his novel Anansi Boys into TV and working on The Sandman Season 2. “We have not yet started casting. But I can’t wait to go back to hell.”

The Hindi edition of The Sandman Act I is available on Audible, featuring Tabu as the narrator and Vijay Varma as Morpheus. Manoj Bajpayee plays Dr Destiny. 

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