All the most ridiculous stories are true.
And so we must believe that yes, in 1987, Neil Gaiman lost half the first draft of the original Sandman proposal to an electrical outage during a “once in a century” storm, and the proposal submitted was written after he was holed up in his house with no electricity for a week. There’s no reason to disbelieve this version of events; it’d be embarrassingly on-the-nose if he’d made it up.
Gaiman was already working for DC at his point, brought over by Karen Berger on the recommendation of Alan Moore. This is an incredibly simplified version of events, but I’ll leave the details to my betters. He’d worked with Dave McKean on Black Orchid, a three issue re-imagining of a C-list DC Comics property, along with a couple scripts for Swamp Thing that wouldn’t see print for another decade.
The Sandman pitch was Gaiman’s big swing at DC, and a remarkable amount of what he imagined ends up on the page. What’s interesting is his mission statement for the book:
I see the comic as chiefly a book walking territory touched on in places in Alan’s stint on Swamp Thing. It would have superheroic elements, and it would be firmly rooted in fantasy, and it would be a horror title, with a Mature Readers tag. But I hope it would be the combination of horror/fantasy/superhero that would make it work. Perhaps the horror has the edge.
We’ll get to the genre stuff in a minute, but it’s somewhat necessary, early on, to understand Sandman as the most commercially successful book in a triad made up of itself, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and Grant Morrison’s Animal Man (a case could be made for Doom Patrol here rather than Animal Man). All three are re-imaginings of lost and forgotten DC properties. Morrison follows Moore in literally taking the title character apart and putting them back together as something “more meaningful,” but both (Morrison moreso) retain a recognizably version of the character they’re fucking around with.
This is the first spot where Sandman gets interesting, less in a story sense as in a legal sense. Gaiman creates Morpheus whole cloth. There are previous Sandmen in DC’s catalog, most notably Wesley Dodds, Garrett Sanford, and Hector Hall, not to mention a Spider-Man villain who is LITERALLY A MAN MADE OUT OF SAND, but Gaiman’s Morpheus is a new character entirely, tied to previous iterations in ways yet to be seen, and that will allow Gaiman—while not holding the rights—to exercise almost unprecedented control over the use of the character in comics.
More on that (much) later.
The one plot element in the initial pitch that doesn’t make it into the book is in issue two, which Gaiman suggests will feature Dream battling against “something” the Order of Ancient Mysteries (called “A Black Magic Organization” in the pitch) has sent after him following his escape. Literally, the proposal describes it as “something”, and later “whatever the thing that Burgess’ mob sent after him.” That this never happens, that Gaiman tidies up the Order of Ancient Mysteries in the first issue without a lingering “thing that must be fought” and gets where he wants to be at the start of issue two (Dream exhausted, “rescued” by Cain and Abel—and Gregory of course) indicates the crumbling of the first of Gaiman’s imagined pillars for the series: that of a superhero book. This one entirely falls away—except to return as very dark satire—leaving the series to lean on fantasy, with horror as an occasional crutch.
I don’t want to deep-dive into the early-stage art just yet, but it’s worth talking about the visual conception of Dream, who ends up (let’s face it) costumed a whole lot like late 80s Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s first sketch puts Dream within the visual aesthetic of DC’s magical characters, and the initial designs by Leigh Baulch are basically “what if David Bowie was also Nick Cave.” The odd and ultimately brief addition of Sam Keith (with inker Mike Dringenberg) establishes and defines Dream’s aesthetic, despite Keith only staying on the book for five issues. But let’s wait for that.
The Sandman Proposal is ten pages of text, with a couple early sketches thrown in. It ends after the outline for issue eight, with the ultimate understatement: “I’ve got a few ideas for this stuff.” It’s a good time to mention that Karen Berger okayed this proposal, and for that along with the rest of her work, she remains one of the most influential people in comic book history.
And Neil Gaiman? Neil’s a twenty-seven year old kid pitching to the (second) biggest comic book publisher on earth, despite the fact his published output could be held together with one of those big alligator clips. But that this pitch, written during the blackout following a once-in-a-century storm, happens to massively alter the comic book industry.
All the most ridiculous stories are true.