Return to The Dreaming with Simon Spurrier & Bilquis Evely
The Vertigo Collaborators Discuss the Flagship Series in Neil Gaiman's Sandman UniverseMain Art by Bilquis Evely & Mat Lopes Comics Features Neil Gaiman
Earlier this year, in celebration of the beloved Vertigo imprint’s 25th anniversary, DC Comics revealed The Sandman Universe, a continuation of Neil Gaiman’s mythology overseen by Gaiman himself and written and drawn by a host of fresh talent. Last month’s same-named The Sandman Universe #1 introduced each series: Books of Magic, House of Whispers, Lucifer and The Dreaming, which hits comic stands this Wednesday. The Dreaming, written by Simon Spurrier, drawn by Bilquis Evely, colored by Mat Lopes and lettered by Simon Bowland, is the most direct continuation of The Sandman out of the four; in the prelude one-shot, we discover that a book is missing from The Dreaming’s infinite library, and that Dream has seemingly decided to vacate his throne without any warning to his realm’s inhabitants. Things only get more dire in The Dreaming #1, where we catch up with dedicated librarian Lucien, lovable curmudgeon Merv Pumpkinhead, faithful raven Matthew and new characters like Dora as they adjust to a Dreaming that’s beginning to crack and crumble around them. In advance of the stunningly executed first issue, Paste exchanged emails with Evely and a phone call with Spurrier to find out more about their collaboration, the responsibility of entering Dream’s domain and whether or not their own dreams and nightmares will make their way into the series.
Paste: Vertigo comics, and Sandman in particular, are often cited as major gateway comics for readers who may be less invested in capes-and-tights superheroics. Did Morpheus or any other Vertigo icons make a mark on your comic education growing up and entering the industry?
Evely: It’s funny, because I started reading comics with superheroes books, and it’s not even my favorite genre. I mean, I loved it, but after this initial debut as a reader, my background in comic books became more alternative—like when I read Julia, an Italian comic book from Bonelli Editore. But Vertigo is still new to me in some ways, including Sandman, which I read after I was invited to the project. It’s a crime that I hadn’t read it before, I know.
Paste: The amount of worldbuilding the creative team is doing on this book is, frankly, staggering. What’s your design process for The Dreaming? Do you work most of it out on the page or have you been hunkering down for months designing realms and creatures and characters?
Evely: I started my studies for the series one month before I got the first script. But honestly, it wasn’t that hard. For some reason, I felt completely comfortable. I just needed to create a base, a logic to build up the realm rich with crazy things. But, at the end of the day, if I respect the iconic foundations and specific characteristics of the Sandman atmosphere, I can do literally anything. It’s a dream. It’s changeable and malleable.
For the characters, the process was a bit different. Based on all the artists of The Sandman, I have an amalgamation of ideas of how all the classic characters should look. I know them—all the mannerisms, expressions, postures—and then I just needed to add my own style.
Paste: What’s your collaboration like with Mat Lopes and Simon Bowland? How much do you weigh in on Mat’s choices and Simon’s placement, and how has this working relationship affected your own approach to the line art?
Evely: Mat and I are good friends, so we discuss the pages, the scenes and the characters all the time. I give him suggestions and vice-versa. I think that’s why our work together looks so homogeneous. But, at the same time, working together as a team is new, so we’re still learning what works better with each other’s art. Which means that what was good before is now getting even better! We always say, “I’m proud of our work. Yeah, we’re very proud of our work.”
As always with Sandman, there’s a lot of text, which can be tricky to manage sometimes as an artist. Respecting the storytelling and layout, I try to create compositions with “open” camera angles and space. Not dead space, but space to let the scene “breathe,” and that’s where Simon does his magic.
Paste: Without digging too deeply into process talk, what kind of approach do you use these days? Are you purely physical, all digital or a hybrid of the two?
Evely: I always draw the thumbnails digitally, because it’s easier to edit and revise. Otherwise, all my process is traditional with pencil and brush.
Paste: For a character like Balam, who’s introduced quite spectacularly in this first issue, how much of his look and mannerisms are spelled out by Si in the script and how much is left up to you? What kind of research and inspiration goes into realizing a Duke of Hell? Or Dora, our complicated protagonist?
Evely: For Balam, Si provided me with all the references needed, and how the character turned out is a mixture of ideas from both of us. And it’s the same with Dora, but my studies were more detailed for her, since she is one of the protagonists of the book. Si brilliantly suggested the wings on her head, the punk posture, the skinny body and, in a subtle way, a sad demeanor. And I added with the mannerisms, the features and the style. Of course, there are also mythological references in her background, but I won’t spoil anything.
Paste: The Dreaming has such an expansive cast of characters. Both the original series and Sandman changed artistic hands quite a bit. Do any previous depictions stand out as particularly influential in how you approach the world? And are you putting your own visual spin on any of the mainstay cast?
Evely: Even with the variations of artists, I think the mannerisms, the postures, the expressions of the characters are always there, it’s all very natural. So I added my own style on top of those familiar foundations.
Paste: So much of The Dreaming revolves around dream imagery. Are you working any of your own dreams (or nightmares) into the book?
Evely: Yes, there’s a specific extra character that appears in issue #3 which is based on a recent dream.
Paste Magazine: The Dreaming, the original series, ran for dozens of issues throughout the ‘90s without Neil Gaiman’s direct involvement, but The Dreaming as a concept is of course totally married to Gaiman. Did you have any “sacred text” concerns or anxieties you had to get over to sign on with the Sandman Universe?
Simon Spurrier: Only in as much as the original series, The Sandman series, had such a profound influence on me from the moment I read it. When somebody comes and presents you with the opportunity to play with their toys, it’s obviously hugely intimidating, so the project could only be approached with a sort of mingled sense of utter joy and excitement and privilege with a kind of deep, deep terror. [Laughs]
I confess I didn’t ever read any of The Dreaming series, and when this opportunity came my way, it was discussed whether I should actually go and do that. And what actually happened—and I think this is a rather lovely way of dealing with what is often a dirty word, which is “retcon”—when we all sat down with Neil in New Orleans to have this creative summit, he said what we’re going to do is we’re going to treat all the kind of “expanded universe” stuff of old with huge respect. We’re going to—the way he put it—we have this privilege in this world of saying that there exists a library where exists literally everything that has never been written. So we simply mentally re-portion to the old series The Dreaming the role of mythology: it exists as a book on the shelf in the Dreaming, where it’s a different version of events. And instead we get this chance to say, okay, in a version of this world, that stuff happens and it’s valuable and wonderful and those are great stories, but in our version of the universe, in this version of the universe where Neil wants to tell his stories, this is where it starts again. And I guess the biggest thing that came out of that summit in New Orleans was the sense that he was giving us permission to stop seeing these characters as his toys and start seeing them as toys that anybody can play, [that] in this case, we get to play with, and to stop tiptoeing around them and to stop being terrified of doing profound and perhaps long-lasting changes to these characters.
Paste Magazine: Like most the original Vertigo “British Invasion,” you have a history at 2000 AD and other British publishers. Was Sandman or other Vertigo series a big part of your comics education coming up, or were you more focused on work being done in the U.K. at the time?
Spurrier: Yeah, it was huge. I mean, there’s almost a direct causal line between the kind of 1990s Vertigo stuff that you mention and 2000 AD and I think when I was getting into comics, and I came to comics a little bit late, probably in the early to mid-90s honestly, at that time, to read 2000 AD was broadly the same as reading Vertigo. They were the same voice, they were the same tone, they touched on a lot of the same ground. The only major difference was that one of them was an anthology title with stories chopped into a five- or six-page segments while the other one had a sense of pace and languidity that those of us who grew up on British comics often felt was a sort of luxury.
So I guess my gateway drug was Preacher. I came to Sandman a little bit later. I went in through the iconoclastic, black comedy, tear-everything-down-and-then-make-rude-jokes-about-it approach and circled back to the more whimsical poetic voice that one finds in Dream. Which is a bit weird because I know a huge number of people who ascribe to Vertigo the origins of their comic book love. A lot of people say that Sandman is the thing that persuaded them that comics were for them. It’s sort of lovely to have approached it from the back door rather than seeing as the thing that lured me in from prose.
Paste: Of the four Sandman Universe titles, you’re taking on the biggest pre-existing cast. Have you found yourself at all surprised by which cast members you’re gravitating toward?
Spurrier: Uhm…ish. That’s a very good question. I think perhaps what has surprised me more is the characters who I feel are more sacrosanct and the characters who I really want to analyze and shine new lights upon in a way that may be surprising. To expand upon that, the two central characters for the first arc, certainly, are Lucien, who is familiar to everybody who has read The Sandman and The Dreaming spin-off from back in the day, and a new character called Dora. Dora is a new character. She’s my creation, she has existed in The Dreaming for some time. She has an awful lot of confused memories. She doesn’t really know who or what she is. All she really knows is that she has a somewhat fearsome temper and she feels somewhat betrayed by Dream, the owner of The Dreaming, who promised her once that he would help her and just didn’t do anything about it. So she’s this big bundle of punky, angry attitude, and I suppose if you want to get a little bit wanky about this whole thing, in as much as I am entering Neil’s playground, no matter how much he gives me permission to play with his toys and to treat them like they’re my own, the only way I could find it in myself to do that is to approach it with a sort of new-kid-first-day-at-school attitude. To an extent, Dora is my—she’s not me, she’s not my voice, it’s nothing quite so crude—but she is my permission to myself to look upon this whole world with slightly different eyes and to take it apart and to see it in strange new ways. And we quite quickly drift from her point of view, and one of the beauties of working in the Gaiman-esque mode is that you can drift with your perspective and you can find interesting new narrative voices. But the one thing that, whether or not we’re seeing this world through Dora’s eyes, the one thing that is constant is that I’m quite fond of looking at characters that we may think we know and finding new things about them.
So Lucien is an interesting one. He is just the most perfectly organized mind in existence and yet as we find him, his mind is decaying. And I’m fascinated with how that’s going to affect him and the world around him. But then as we go further on there are characters, and I’m thinking right now about Cain and Abel for instance, old-time favorites, I love those two—they seem like such perfect crystallizations their own mythology. And yet when you give it any thought, you realize there’s an awful lot more to them than meets the eye and their story doesn’t quite add up. So it’s little things like that. Merv’s another one, Merv Pumpkinhead. He’s either a terrible white-collar cliché waiting to be ridiculed, or he’s something rather more deep and profound than that. You can sort of take all of these characters and treat them in a way that is very lazy, which Neil never would, or you can find new angles on them. And that’s the approach I’m trying very hard to take, if only because it throws up so many interesting plot points. In fact, there’s something I said the other day when I think I was just wasting time on Twitter: of all the projects I’ve written, The Dreaming is the one where frequently the scripts emerge as a byproduct of what I thought I was trying to write. You sort of find your way to it. The analogy I gave is that it’s a little bit like setting out as if you’re going to go to the pub and then ending up on a beach somewhere. And that’s sort of a wonderful thing that I’m just not used to. That’s true of all the characters and all the stories.
Paste: Beyond his actual creations, it feels like one of Gaiman’s biggest contributions to comics—and the same can be said of many of his British peers—is a wealth of outside influences, from myth and folklore to pop culture and music. Outside of comics, what is inspiring your work on The Dreaming?
Spurrier: Oh gosh, too much to mention. You’re absolutely right, by the way. Of all the things a kind of esoteric collector of trivia could ever write, The Dreaming is like wringing out a sponge. If I happen to read an article about, I don’t know, 19th-century frog rain or whatever, I can find a way of inserting that into the story in such a way that it makes sense. I have an awful lot of eccentric nonsense floating around in my brain. It’ll be no surprise from a lot of the stuff I’ve written before; Cry Havoc, I’m thinking of, and stuff like that. I have a huge amount of folklore ringing around in my skull anyway so it’s lovely to be able to revisit a lot of that stuff.
But yeah, literature—there’re a lot of cute little flourishes that I don’t know if anybody will ever notice. A character in the kitchens of The Dreaming called Anatole which is just a direct lift from the Jeeves and Wooster books, and dozens of little things like that. If ever I found myself with a spare moment, I’d write writer’s note for each issues, but I probably never will so it’s kind of a cute little Easter egg for people to go hunting for. You just absorb what you can. The one influence that is probably making the biggest impact of the moment is a magazine called Fortean Times. It’s a monthly magazine and it’s just a sort of roundup of weird news, but not handled in a tabloid-y the way. It’s written by a species of fact-collector which I would best describe as “disappointed optimist.” They really, really want there to be a Bigfoot but they’re not about to buy any bit of cockapoo crap evidence to believe it. It’s sort of seeing the world with jaded eyes that really want to find wonder. As a result, they often find wonder where they least expect it. I think that’s not only a very Gaiman-ish attitude, but particularly a Dreaming attitude.
Paste: You’re working with Bilquis Evely and Mat Lopes on art. How has that collaboration affected your scripting approach to the series? How much direction do you give Bilquis on the designs of new concepts, characters and settings?
Spurrier: It’s funny, the basis of a good working collaboration in comics, in my opinion, is that you as a writer artist start out with huge amounts of description because you don’t know how well [the artist is] going to handle it, and very quickly, you realize that one word will do. And that’s actually been the case with Bilquis. It’s reached the point now where I just can’t imagine anyone else illustrating this book. Mat converting her ink into colors is the same situation. My metric is usually this: if I write a script and when I get the pages, if I can remember what the script said and how I imagined in my head, then the artist has failed. Every day, I get a new piece of art in my inbox from Bilquis and Mat and I have no idea what I would have written in the script because it’s just immediately eclipsed by these wonderful images which are just so perfect. They’re better, more perfect representations of what I was trying to say, rather than whatever it was I actually said. So when you are writing a story which is literally about the realm of the subconscious, it’s obviously going to be hugely important that the artist is able to respond to that. In fact this is the sort of book where there’s no argument, there’s no question, which is the more important role. The art is absolutely the thing which is going to make people pick up this book and go, holy shit, that’s amazing, let’s read the story now as well. And I couldn’t in greater hands. There’re only so many superlatives I can throw at you, but they’re all totally fitting for Bilquis.
Paste: I asked this of Bilquis too—so much of The Dreaming revolves around dream imagery. Are you working any of your own dreams (or nightmares) into the book?
Spurrier: As yet, no, but there are a couple of things coming down the line which, very much, yes. People have asked me about my own dreams. This is going to sound slightly weird, but I don’t remember my own dreams. I haven’t for the past five years. I used to be quite a vivid dreamer. So I’m not sure whether it’s that I don’t dream anymore or that I’m not remembering them, but there is a strange, empty uniqueness about the way that I dream, I guess, and it’s something I’m probing quite carefully and slowly to look into. This is absolutely the wrong time to be doing it with a new child in my life. [Laughs] I’m not really getting any sleep, let alone getting any dreams.
But yes, there’s something—without spoiling, obviously, because why would I—there’re questions coming down the pipe about exactly what it is to dream and what dreams are composed of. Is it pure imagination, is it pure subconscious, is it just facts and experiences being jumbled? Is it some portal to a world of pure chaos where genuine, raw originality is spilling forth? Or is it all of those things? Or is it none of those things? And dot-dot-dot. So it’s interesting to me that I so rarely have access to my own dreams today. I have plentiful diaries from when I was younger to draw upon if I ever need some good quality weirdness, but the big question stuff for me, as far as this book is concerned, is what it is a dream and what composes a dream and how do you manipulate both the concept of dreams and the people who have them. So yeah, big stuff.