When Neil Gaiman announced in March that he would be returning to the world of Sandman, the comic that made his name back in the 1980s, fans were delighted. But the writers he chose to develop four new strands to the story of Morpheus – Simon Spurrier, Nalo Hopkinson, Dan Watters and Kat Howard — admit they were a little apprehensive.

‘We all went into the project with an understandable amount of trepidation to colour the enthusiasm,’ says Spurrier, who has joined forces with the artist Bilquis Evely on The Dreaming, ‘imagining ourselves politely borrowing Neil’s toys, respectfully spending a little time mucking about in his proverbial sandpit, but ultimately returning everything unmarked and unchanged.’

Gaiman isn’t writing the four new books himself – he’s busy with TV adaptations of the novels American Gods and Good Omens – but having picked the creative teams he conducted a brainstorming session in New Orleans, where he outlined a vision for the interconnecting series, and encouraged the writers to enjoy themselves.

‘Neil’s first set of feedback to our earliest ideas was to tacitly give us permission to stop worrying so much,’ Spurrier says, ‘to treat the toys with the sort of loving recklessness one really needs to build great stories. To add new toys and to break some of the old ones if necessary. He’s maintained an appropriately godfatherly posture ever since.’

Gaiman's Sandman sold more than 7m copies and was the comic book that brought a new readership to comics

One of the flagship titles of DC’s mature readers’ imprint Vertigo when it launched in 1988, Sandman ran for eight years and 75 monthly issues. Gaiman charted the adventures of Morpheus, the personification of dreams, and his otherwordly siblings who hold sway over realms such as desire, destiny and delirium. After a hiatus of 17 years, he returned to the character in 2013 for a prequel, The Sandman: Overture, and in March 2018 Gaiman revealed he had been feeling guilty that no one was playing with a story he described as ‘a huge sandbox with so many wonderful toys’.

DC helped Gaiman select creative teams to expand the story’s world with four monthly comics that would become a self-contained ‘Sandman Universe’ within the wider DC continuity – House of Whispers, The Books of Magic, Lucifer and The Dreaming. But Gaiman hasn’t left the writers without a map.

‘Neil has been a compass keeping the ship on course this entire time,’ says Dan Watters, the writer of Lucifer. ‘Neil basically gave me a nucleus that [artists Sebastian and Max] Fiumaras and I have extrapolated out into something else, which I think is exactly what Neil wanted us to do with it, and has been there since with a nudge and a suggestion to curate it into the best book it can be.’

Sandman, which has sold more than 7m copies, was the comic book that brought a new readership to comics; people who didn’t really read comics were happy to make an exception for Gaiman’s storytelling. In the 80s, its cast of characters was also notably diverse. That might have been new in 1988, but surely the world – and comics – have changed for the better in the last 30 years?

Whereas The Dreaming, Lucifer and The Books of Magic take existing and familiar Sandman characters, the fourth new Sandman comic, The House of Whispers, written by Nalo Hopkinson with art by Dominike Stanton, introduces a whole new realm to the universe, one populated by people of colour and infused with voodoo.

Hopkinson told the website io9 : ‘What’s wonderful is that Neil and the artists who did the original Sandman series wrote the roads into inclusivity. So, yes, it’s a white world ... But the spaces are there, the sensibility is there, and the support is there. Neil knows what I’m going to bring to it. He’s read my work and my pitch. That encouragement is there.’

The release of The Books of Magic means the debut issues of the four comics in the Sandman Universe are now all published, their unifying theme that the Lord of Dreams is missing. But his shadow hangs over all these new storylines, just as Gaiman’s does. So is this the old Sandman come back, or a new thing entirely?

‘Neither? Both?’ says Howard. ‘I definitely think new readers could pick up any of these four new stories and be perfectly at home. At the same time, Sandman is there, The Dreaming is there, it’s not as if those threads of story were severed. It’s a new thing that knows where it comes from.’

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