This text was originally presented at the International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference in Bournemouth last June. In keeping with the conference’s interest in memory and nostalgia, this paper analyses the long-lasting influence that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman had on the Vertigo imprint. Over the last 25 years, Sandman has inspired countless spinoffs and rewritings, and played an important part in Vertigo’s editorial identity. Through an analysis of Lucifer, one of Sandman‘s most important spinoffs, I suggest that Gaiman’s work is treated with reverence, but also sometimes questioned, subverted and used as a support for the writers to develop in new directions.
Sandman and the Vertigo imprint
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which ran for 75 issues from 1989 to 1996, was one of the most critically and commercially successful series of its time. Its appeal has endured well into the 21st century, so much so that if you look at the charts of bestselling graphic novels, Sandman #1 is still 58th in 2017, more than 25 years after its initial publication. The series had had a lasting impact on popular culture, and references to it can be found in the most unlikely places (not the least unlikely being TV show Rick and Morty to Image comics series Sex Criminals). I do not have the time in this presentation to explore Sandman’s tremendous influence on the comics medium and the American industry.
What I’d like to focus on is the role played by the series in the birth of DC’s Vertigo imprint. Vertigo was founded in 1993 to house the titles edited by Karen Berger. As the imprint developed, Sandman remained a constant point of reference, and after its end in 1996, the editorial team understandably tried to build upon its success, not only by encouraging projects that resembled it, but also by developing spinoff titles that would act as a direct continuation of Gaiman’s legacy. So, at editorial level, it worked as a point of reference for what Vertigo did and what the imprint was. At an individual level, for creators, remembering and re-imagining Sandman is also a way to engage with the influence Gaiman had on their work, and to pay tribute to a major work.
In this presentation, I will be looking at the notion of remembering both as a commercial strategy and as an aesthetic principle; I will begin by providing some data about the Vertigo imprint and the influence that Gaiman had on it. Then I will move to the analysis of a specific example, that of the spinoff Lucifer series, in its various incarnations, and finish with some close reading of a passage that is explicitly framed as a rewriting of the original. In so doing, I will show that Gaiman’s work is treated with reverence, but also sometimes questioned, subverted and used as a support for the writers to develop in new directions.
In the shadow of Mr. Gaiman
The impact of Sandman and more broadly the importance of Neil Gaiman’s authorial presence is attested by the number of titles derived from it. Let’s look at a family tree :
- 1 in red) one-time returns to the series by Gaiman himself
- 2 in green) spin-offs of The Sandman, like The Dreaming (1996-2001, beginning immediately after the end of the main series), or the various “sandman presents” miniseries
- 3) in blue spin-offs of spin-offs and continuations of spinoffs,
- 4) in purple spin-offs of other works by Gaiman, like Books of Magic (1994-2000), which derived from a 4-issue miniseries by Gaiman
- 5) in yellow; the unrelated but partially homonymous works like Sandman’s Mystery Theater (1993-1999), whose partial homonymy with The Sandman certainly did not hurt its popularity.
If we look at this development in chronological terms, there is a peak of Sandman-related material in the late 90s and early 00’s, at the end of the publication of the original series:
This is due to the fact that although Sandman was not creator-owned, Gaiman had obtained the right to end the series when he wanted, and also a measure of control on what happened to major characters.
then the trend seems to abate around 2005. Vertigo’s bestselling series at that period are Vaughan’s Y the Last Man (2002-2008) and Willingham’s Fables (2003-2015) which are very different from Sandman: more action, hero-driven stories, more comedy, less verbose narration, higher stakes, and graphically a tendency to emphasize clarity and legibility over experimentation. Of course, and this is where this period becomes interested, Fables is also hugely indebted to Sandman in its concept: fantastic creatures from traditional folk tales, that interact in a modern context Let’s not forget also that Willingham has worked on some of the spinoff miniseries for Sandman Presents. So in this period, Gaiman’s influence is present, but not treated strictly as a model.
However, the recent decisions made by DC seem to suggest that there is a return to Sandman as one of the key properties of the imprint: Sandman Overture began in 2013 and coincided with the return in the same period of titles such as Dark Knight (frank Miller) and Watchmen, with the Before Watchmen miniseries. This coincides with deep-seated changes in the editorial structure of the imprint: Berger left the imprint in 2013. There were recent developments a few months ago with the announcement of the launch of Sandman Universe (House of Whispers, Books of Magic, The Dreaming, Lucifer), complete with a video featuring Gaiman in his long coat, capitalizing on fan’s sympathy for Gaiman and on his author persona as a storyteller. In this context, I’d like to look at the history of the series Lucifer.
The series, with its various versions, has received little critical attention so far (except, rather predictably, from people in religious studies). However, it is emblematic of Gaiman’s impact on the market and of the way his influence is negotiated by creators operating in his wake.
Lucifer began with a miniseries (Lucifer: the Morningstar option), scripted by Carey with art by Peter Gross. Like all subsequent Lucifer titles, it bore the inscription “based on characters created by Gaiman, Kieth and Dringenberg”. The title proved relatively successful [raked 83 overall, 31st best DC title, and second best for Vertigo sales, after Preacher, falls to 93 then 108], and therefore was followed by an unlimited series, Lucifer, which ran for 75 issues from 2000-2006, and took up many of the themes and questions that Gaiman developed in The Sandman (Carey explicitly positioning himself as a fan of Gaiman’s work), such as responsibility and the importance of stories.
Lucifer works as a tribute through its themes, but also through its structure: as in Sandman, the titular character does not necessarily take an active part in the story and relies much on developments related to other characters. Like Sandman, Lucifer comprises exactly 75 issues, with issue 70 marking the resolution of the main plot and issues 71-75 offering a series of short stories that tie up loose ends concerning secondary characters. #50 is a double-sized special issue, illustrated by P. Craig Russel, which directly appeals to the memory of the reader.
The series was then revived ten years later, in 2016, as part of a cross-media strategy that also involved the adaptation into a TV series by Fox (the show is advertised in the comic). This led to 19 more episodes scripted by Holly Black then Richard Kadrey. Black positions herself as a fan of both Gaiman and Carey, developing what appears to be an authorized form of remembrance; More than Carey’s, the series uses a web of intertextual references to the original Sandman, culminating in the reproduction of iconic scenes directly taken from Season of Mists (the passage where Lucifer asks Morpheus to cut his wings, or Lucifer kissing Mazikeen’s half-demon face). These function as nostalgic nods to the original series.
The TV series took a different direction by altering many characters beyond recognition, and yet, in a recent episode, Neil Gaiman was cast to voice the character of Lucifer’s father, God, which I think tells you a lot about how Gaiman’s run is remembered today. The idea of the author-as-god is of course commonplace in Vertigo comics since Morrison’s run on Animal Man, but it is also a nod to Jack Kirby’s guest starring as God in Fantastic Four #511 (that is actually the reference cited by the showrunners). And just like Kirby and Lee back in the day, many young artists taking up sandman-related series claim to be huge fans of Gaiman’s work (true both for Mike Carey and for Holly Black): the pattern of influence that was broken in the 1980s by the British invasion seems to be repeating itself, although on a smaller scale.
From Sandman #23 (1991) to Lucifer #75 (2006) : an example of Carey’s complex rewriting strategies
In this final part I’m going to look specifically at Carey’s Lucifer, which I think is think avoids the pitfall of imitation while at the same time being true to its heritage. This is particularly visible in Lucifer #75, in which the devil decides to abandon Creation after bestowing his Morningstar powers to Mazikeen. The decision echoes Lucifer’s decision to close down Hell, initially depicted in Sandman#23, Season of Mists, and so the character is reminded of what happened to him then. This passage functions simultaneously as a nostalgic remembering of Gaiman’s work (capitalizing on the popularity of the original series) and as a rewriting – or, perhaps more adequately, re-envisioning – that operates visible changes in the original text to emphasize Carey’s own narrative agenda.
Nostalgia is materialized by the choice to literally frame the passage – there is a golden frame around each page that is inspired by Gaiman’s Season of Mists. This serves both to signal the value of the passage, which is framed the way one would do with a photograph, and to separate Gaiman’s words from the rest of the sequence written by Carey, as if they had a different status. This is interesting because it specifically clashes with Gaiman’s own intertextual strategy, which was to borrow from very different sources and put them all on the same level, both narratively and visually. But the framing device also allows Lucifer to reflect on its own derivative nature, and to problematize its relationship to Gaiman’s influence (to use Bloom’s understanding of the word).
The issue begins with an explicit mention of its intertext; “special thanks to Neil Gaiman for the dialogue on pages 19-23”. This suggests a direct quotation. However, if we look more closely it becomes clear that neither the dialogue nor the scene is directly borrowed from Gaiman. First, the sequence being considerably shorter than the original (five speaking pages instead of seven), with less dialogue. The decision to edit and shorten the original dialogue fits with the narrative preferences of the 21st c (the verbose dimension of early Vertigo series is one of the features that was most derided over time). The shortened version retains the most memorable sentences but adapts the rhythm of delivery. Punctuation was also altered, specifically with changes from suspension marks to full stops, again adapting it to new conventions. The omissions also make the story relevant in the new context: while in Gaiman’s version Lucifer was simply a mirror for Dream’s dilemma (tempting him to abandon his realm), in Carey’s he becomes the center of attention, and so the dialogue lacks passages that served to establish points about Lucifer that the reader already knows.
Visually, the sequence is quite different. In each case, Dream follows Lucifer as he closes the last doors open in Hell. The places visited are not the same (except for the first and last one, the sequences begin on the shore of a red sea and end before a monumental gate): Gaiman’s version has a torture room, pillars made of human flesh, a wooden gate between two fields, a modern-day businessman’s office. Carey’s, on the contrary, has a staircase outside a tower, an iron gate, a bridge, and a trap door.
That’s because Gaiman’s hell functions like the Dreaming: it is not a physical place; Hell is wherever people’s suffering is orchestrated (hence the businessman’s office) – it has no temporal or spatial continuity. Visually, it is a Gothic combination of the medieval and the modern, in keeping with JH William’s use of heavy shading (you even find the gothic motif of the Other, with Lucifer being the model that Dream refuses to follow). On the other hand, Carey’s hell is a much more tangible place, which looks like a prison for the devil (it’s difficult not to notice that in Carey’s version, they lock themselves in, not out). Spatial motifs of imprisonment (through the iron gate) and fateful decisions (through the bridge) are used to emphasize the devil’s specific situation, with Dream as merely a silent witness.
In other words, this sequence is more than merely a tip of the hat to Gaiman, or an elaborate way to please the fans; it emphasizes memory as a diegetic process (it is the devil who remembers) and endows it with new stakes within his own story.
We have looked at how Gaiman’s Sandman is remembered within the Vertigo imprint, focusing specifically on how spinoffs use and rewrite the original iconotext created by Gaiman and the artists that worked on the original series. We have seen that memory and the acknowledgement of influence can serve different functions and are treated in different ways; beyond repetition, invocation of Gaiman’s name and characters, explicit acknowledgement of authorship etc., we also find texts that negotiate this anxiety of influence in more complicated ways, using Gaiman’s work as the groundwork for their own creative efforts.
Lucifer paves the way for Carey and Gross’s later creator-owned title, The Unwritten, which, twenty years after Sandman’s beginning, builds upon the legacy of Sandman’s aesthetics, suggesting new ways of dealing with fiction and the role of imagination in comics.