The Cartoon Art Museum's exhibit, "Grains of Sand: 25 Years of The Sandman," celebrates Neil Gaiman's comic-book series like never before. For the first time, original proofs of pre-publication pages are on display alongside original art from the series, which is considered one of the most important graphic novels ever published.
The exhibit runs through April 27, and when it opened, SF Weekly spoke face-to-face with Gaiman and, by email, with artist Mike Dringenberg, who drew many of the early Sandman issues. Here are excerpts from those interviews:
Q for Neil Gaiman: As you look back at the series, how does it stand out for you in terms of innovation, style of art, and other ways?
A: What really stands out for me is just the fact that, somehow, we managed to hit a level of quality that, with some ups and downs, we maintained over seven-and-a-half years. And we never did what people expected. It's amazing just walking through here, it's like traveling in time -- seeing the original art, which I had never really seen. For Sandman 1, watching what that evolved into. Watching Mike Dringenberg come into his own. By the time we get over here, we're into Stan Woch, and ink by Dick Giordano. We're into Bryan Talbot, ink by Stan Woch. And it's so interesting. Sometimes a rather wonderful thing that happens with original art -- it wasn't actually created to last through time. He was using essentially a marker. It's 20 years, and it's faded. Twenty-two years ago. It adds a strange color to it that was not there in the original.
It's remarkable, seeing it all in one place. You forget that there were 2,000 pages of Sandman. I have almost never seen the original art here. What I would get were black-and-white Xeroxes, back in the day when there were Xeroxes, or the art, normally when it was lettered. Sometimes I'd get some advanced stuff. But normally I'd get it when it was lettered, and I'd do my final proof- reading, and my final changing things, moving things around. Toward the end, there wasn't a lot of that stuff. In the beginning, if you look at the early Sandman art, you'll see whiteout and things moved around. Sometimes just the story was there.
I guess, mostly what I feel is pride having been involved in something that's still not just interesting but still just unique, 25 years later. When you create comics, you kind of expect them to, especially starting out, it's a medium that's transient, it's a medium that's disposable. And, suddenly, seeing it here, seeing it on the walls of a museum, seeing it in a way that everybody gets to appreciate every line, every brushstroke. Looking at some the Dave McKean stuff I've never seen before. The Mike Dringenberg stuff. It's really haunting. And it's really beautiful. And there's always art that nobody's ever seen. It's gorgeous. Mike was so much a part of the beginning of Sandman. He's such a stylist.
Q for Neil Gaiman: Stephen King once said that Sandman turned graphic novels into "art." Is that a fair assessment?
A: I've always felt that graphic novels and comics either were or could be art. There's never been a feeling that they weren't art or that there was anything art-deficient. From that perspective, it's lovely for Steve to say that. I think I could list dozens of comics that are art. For me, the joy of something like this is a Yoshitaka Amano Sandman painting. There's a David McKean Sandman painting. There's a Matt Wagner Sandman painting. As far as I'm concerned, it's art. There's a beautiful Chris Bachalo stuff. It feels like art to me. And I'm very happy with it.
Comics exist in the area that fine artists have problems with, because it is obviously commercial. Fine artists have problems with illustrators, let alone with comics. I've talked to people who say, 'Well, I wish I could be taken seriously by the art establishment, but my stuff is considered more illustration, even though it's a huge success.' And I say, 'Oh, you guys don't know. Wait till you start working in comics.' The joy of comics is art style in which panel follows panel follows panel. There are 2,000 pages of Sandman. If we probably average six panels a page, you're talking 12,000 drawings. That's what it took to create Sandman, and as far as I'm concerned, a lot of that - it's art. And it may not necessarily be art from the point of view that if you're looking at things purely as drawing, if you're looking at things purely as how the words are put together.
For me, if you look at something like this, you have Colleen Doran just doing a slow push-in on a character who's basically not saying anything for six out of the eight panels on the page. And it's hugely, emotionally - the emotional kick is what it's all about. And for that, it's definitely art. Also, if you're talking about someone like Mike Dringenberg, you're talking about someone who, if absolutely he had wished to head off in that direction, or if he still wishes to head off in that direction, would be considered a fine artist like any fine artist.
This is Mike changing the history of comics. Sandman #8 -- this is where everything changed, in a lot of ways. Sandman up to that point was a horror comic that sort of recapitulated other DC horror comics. It existed in a very solid tradition. Sandman #8 -- it found its voice. I found my voice. I think Mike found his voice. And we did something that was not like anything anybody had done before, when you're just watching Mike drawing pigeons and a rather depressed Lord of Dreams.
Talking to my old editor at DC Comics, she would always say, this is where it changed. And I think she was right. And that was Mike. I don't think with all Sam Kieth's genius, he could have done this comic and had it feel like this. Once I realized that Mike gave me these real-human beings who could sit around and talk. Sam's genius -- I could say to Sam, give me 10,000 demons from horizon to horizon, and make them all different. And he'd go, 'Whoa. not only does that sound like fun, I'll ink it myself because that's so much fun.' Whereas Mike couldn't have done that, or wouldn't have wanted to. But Mike can give me someone sitting around and feeding pigeons for three pages in a way that's interesting. Which I think Sam would have been forced to do, would have been forced to distort. How do you make it funny? Mike just tells it. That, I think, was really the point where Sandman as a book found its voice. It's wonderful seeing some of this stuff. Wonderful Shawn McManus. All these artists in different styles. The thing it gave us an amazing freedom. It was a case of life giving you lemons and making lemonade out of it. In this case, normally the idea was that you'd stick with an artist. You have a writer-artist team, and you guys do the comic and you stay together. Except that Sam quit at issue #3; he hung in there until issue #5, when Mike took over. But then Mike would go off and do other stuff and I'd do some fill-ins. Almost by accident, we wound up with Mike having done the majority of The Doll's House storyline, and Kelly Jones having done Season of Mists, and that was the point where we said, 'OK, this is obviously a thing that we do.' We have a different artist for every storyline. And we have different artists on the short stories that come in. That I was allowed to get away with it. That having failed to have one consistent artist through the whole thing - it was like, then if we're allowed to have all the artists, let's just find the right artists for the right storyline, that pushes to their strengths.
Here's Gary Amaro having to draw two pages when my computer had crashed when I was in the U.K. My computer was completely dead. And it wasn't until three days later that I realized that the computer was dead because I was in the kind of hotel room where all you have to do is close the door and leave with your key and the power goes off. I didn't know this. So I thought my computer was dead and would not charge. Because I'd go in and it would be dead. I'd charge it for eight hours and my computer was dead. So I remember having to phone Gary and describe this panel to him. He did such a beautiful job of it.
I'm so pleased that Mike Dringenberg is getting his due. He's such a remarkable artist. After Sandman, he hasn't done any thing that's all in one place that's attracted attention in the same way that Sandman did. I love that he's still making beautiful stuff.
Q for Neil Gaiman: Any final thoughts?
A: There's never been anything like it before. And there's never been anything like it since. Which in some ways kind of surprises me, because I'd think there would be. But it came along at the right time.
Q for Mike Dringenberg: In the article about you on Wikipedia, it says that your "understated, realistic style did much to establish the tone" of the Sandman series. Can you talk about what accounts for your style?
A: I'm not sure if any artist is really in a position to comment about their own style; style is very subjective and constantly in play. However with regard to the style of Sandman, I felt a naturalistic approach would be better as a departure point to render the phantasia as truly fantastic. Most (good) writers will readily tell you that they only offer the minimum of detail with regard to characters and settings; they do this in order for the reader to fill in the surroundings with their own imagination. In The Sandman, I tried very much to keep the fantastic elements either highly stylized or a bit vague for these same reasons. Some aspects of the style came from punk posters and band flyers and from my own Dadaist tendencies towards visual non-sequitors in order to jar the audience into paying attention to what they were reading (I'm a huge fan of Alfred Jarry but, looking back on it, I'm very glad I hadn't read much Lovecraft, Dunsany, or Machen: my whole approach to the series would probably have been more traditional & frankly less interesting for it).
With regard to the page/narrative design, I did my best to keep the layouts fresh and the 'visual grammar' invisible: eliminating panel boarders & relying on word balloons as timing devices, breaking up typically British page-grids full of talking heads into pans, tracking shots, & continuous backgrounds. Text, like speech, tends to have a natural inner rhythm- like music; I try to base my layouts on that rhythm, if I can find it, often despite a writer's conception of how a page should look. While I'm working, I try to listen to music that suits a particular scene, whose style and tempo matches the action. Sort of an adjunct to this is that any given work does sort of have its own soundtrack and the resulting layouts read more smoothly than the imposed, artificial rhythm of grids and panel borders.
I prefer unruly pages as much as unruly conversations. Further, I could say that in the manner of Japanese manga & gekiga, I used as many full-bleeds, & double-page spreads as I could get away with. Sanpei Shirato (Kamui Den) was a major influence on my layouts, on the way a story flows from page to page & across multiple page sequences; as were Moebius, P. Craig Russell, & Dave Sim.
For what it's worth, I never read How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way or Will Eisner's Comics & Sequential Art. I paid more attention to film, theater, & narrative theory -- Artaud, Deleuze, & Truffaut's interviews with Alfred Hitchcock. I can't remember how many times I reread Hitchcock/Truffaut in those days.
Q for Mike Dringenberg: There's a photo, from 20 years ago, of you posing with a woman who, I believe, inspired the Sandman character of Death. Can you talk about how real people inspire the characters you originate?
A: None of the characters are direct renderings of individual people; they're composites emerging from my memories; case in point, while my friend Cinnamon was a primary visual inspiration for Death, she never actually posed for me as the character while I worked on the series. Most of the time, my girlfriend Givette and my friends McAnn and Nyssa actually posed and they each brought their own personalities to the task. I should also note that Nyssa also posed as the Sandman; she's very tall & very lean, and if you'll notice, the Sandman occasionally has Nyssa's hips; just a faint, subtle point of androgyny.
The Sandman himself is even more of a composite. Certain well-known people influenced the design -- his mop of hair came from Robert Smith and ballet dancer Farukh Ruzimatov was always in my mind for his dramatic physique, but face wasn't so much Bauhaus' Peter Murphy, but rather a type of English face, of which Murphy's is a shining example. That face can be averaged between Dirk Bogarde, as he appeared in the 1959 version of A Tale of Two Cities; the young Terrence Stamp of Billy Budd, and David Bowie in the '70s, with a dash of Syd Barrett.
As for his bearing, he's an amalgam of half a dozen guys that I knew slightly in the old punk/ club scene and didn't want to know any better: they were all tall, pale, beautiful, and serious sleazebags who used women like toilet paper. They had the lizard-king sexuality of Jim Morrison and never had any shortage of stunningly beautiful women on hand who wanted to reform them, party with them. . . . fuck andforget them, whatever-- while invariably being two (or three, or even four)-timed and used to support some locally infamous drug and heroin habits. I observed the way these guys moved, the vibe they gave off; how they walked, stood, dressed, leaned against a wall, sat, put on a coat, their hand gestures when bummed a cigarette & smoked it; tipped their heads just 'so' when they looked at their next victims . . . . Sexy trash.
Q for Mike Dringenberg: In comic books, there are divisions among "pencillers," "inkers" and "artists." You've done all three. Can you talk about the importance of those three specific skills to The Sandman series?
A: That's a tall order. I suppose it could be best illustrated by analogizing these roles to their filmic equivalents. The role of the Penciller is more that of the director. Neil (Gaiman) used to think that role fell to the Writer but, just as in filmmaking, writers are writers. . . . . and that's about it: they can suggest things. Beyond the script, their power over the final presentation is entirely up to how dedicated the producer -- in comics terms, the Editor -- is to their final vision. In point of fact, the Penciller, like the director, concretizes the script into reality; the Penciller determines the actual shots themselves: the camera angles; how long to hold a shot, stretch a scene, compress a scene, how tight the close-up, how far to pull out; when to dolly, when to pan, when to cut; when to use tracking shots. That's ultimately up to the Penciller, as is all the costuming, set, and production design. The Penciller is also the entire cast- all the actors and how they act & interact with each other. He also has a hand, in filmic terms, in what would be the editing, and in the cinematography, although that's a role better left to the Inker and Colorist. Inkers act as cameraman, principal photographer, & lighting director since they have the final determination of how dark or light the shadow are, the contrast & texture of the final work; these roles that are to some extent shared with Colorists. The editing is actually done by the Letterers & Assistant Editors, since dialogue & balloon placement have a lot to do with the timing and pace of a comic book, with how fast you read it. The Penciller usually has a good deal of control over this, but it's the Assistant Ed. & Letterer who finalize the layout, quite often drawing in the panel borders prior to sending them on to the inker.
The Penciller is probably the most important tactical position on the team, although the senior Editor & Writer are the key strategic planners. If there's one thing the American comics industry needs, it's genuinely qualified editors. An editor's job is to keep a book on pace, and to nurture their talent, to act as a facilitator for their creatives, as their advocate & liaison to senior management, all to achieve the best possible book. It's a tough job, and very few "editors" are really qualified to do it.
Further, most comics editors don't have any real, functional design experience, which leads to serious problems in a mostly visual medium. A lot of them were writers of varying degrees of success and as such, they tend to favor other writers over their visual teams; it's a natural bias because it's a craft & process they understand. Far too many comics editors don't have film or even literary degrees, and came into the position from the accounting department- essentially just budget managers, or from marketing and really have no idea what's going on. Worse, they can behave like tin-plated dictators- the hallmark of the unqualified; the classic "toxic boss." Worse still are the scam artists, essentially pimps waiting at the bus station for 15-year-olds with suitcases; trying to squeeze the most possible work from shoe-string budgets, not in the least bit embarrassed to shaft their own creatives.
Q for Mike Dringenberg: You got started on The Sandman series in your 20s. Looking back on the series, is there anything artistically that you would have done differently? What are you most proud of from the series?
A: A very wise friend once said to me that, as we grow older, we don't really change so much as become more the people we already are. I could not have done the series any differently; I did what I could at the time, to the best of my abilities, as they stood at the time, under fairly miserable circumstances (but this isn't a forum for unpleasant details).
As it was, I drew most of the figures from life rather than referencing them via photography; before digital imaging, photography was costly in terms of the deadline; it was much faster to just draw on site, from live models.
The internet has made research endlessly easier and less time consuming than it was 25 years ago. At the time, I'd spend 8 - 10 hours/ week scrounging up ref., and half of that time wasted in driving to and from my university library and looking for parking on a crowded campus. These days, an image search will turn up more and far better ref in mere minutes. The internet's also made delivering the work easier, cheaper, and faster: no more last-minute races to beat the clock at the FedEx office; I can scan the work at in-rez right at my own desktop, send it 'camera-ready', and gain an extra couple of working days I the process, all at no extra delivery charge. I would have called that a small miracle in 1989.
Were I to have worked on the series even a few years later (let alone now), the art would have been quite different; sketchier, looser -- that's to say, less hide-bound to academic realism & formal process; more attentive to the tone of the text, to its inner rhythms and for that I think, more expressionistic at times. . . . maybe structurally a bit more like Shojo-manga, specifically more like Naoko Takeuchi's Vampire Princess Miyu, which is very well-drawn, but in a lighter style more fitting to emotional content and inner character monologues. It would have shredded any routine use of the grid layouts in favor of a more purely romantic approach. Of course, knowing me, it still would have been edgy, dark, & neurotic; like a disheveled geisha playing with rusty razor blades.
The thing I'm most proud of is that people still enjoy it 25 years later. I hope they still find something to enjoy 250 years from now.