TV News: Preludes and Nocturnes (Or, the Disappearing and Reappearing TV Adaptation of The Sandman)

Sandman Neil Gaiman Dave McKean TV Adaptation News

Scarcely have I stopped talking about how happy I am that the mo-cap Yellow Submarine remake isn’t happening, when another project that I’m slightly concerned about starts hovering in the Schrodinger’s Box of Cancelled/Not Cancelled reality. In this case, it’s the potential TV adaptation of one of the most successful and well-known graphic novels of all time – Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.

Sandman Neil Gaiman Dave McKean TV Adaptation News Cover ArtA 75-issue series that started out as a top-down remix of an old DC Comics character and went on to redefine much of what you could do in comic books, all while delivering stories that were dark, melancholy, funny, twisted and utterly distinctive, The Sandman is a hell of a comic book. One of the most high profile successes in the comic industry over the last twenty five years, Hollywood has been circling it for a very long time – but the distinctive style of The Sandman is also the thing that makes it incredibly hard to adapt. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman stories are lyrical and odd in construction, often using fairy tale logic or confounding the reader with deliberately anti-climactic endings, while the protagonist,  the moody and aloof immortal being known as Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, is often more of a background presence. There are very few genuine villains in The Sandman’s world, and even the ones that are there don’t function the way you expect them to (or don’t actually receive any come-uppance), and the whole thing is about as far from Hollywood storytelling as it’s possible to get.

Sandman Neil Gaiman Sam Kieth TV Adaptation News ArtThere have been attempts since the early Nineties, but none have ever come to fruition – Roger Avary, Gaiman’s collaborator on Beowulf, came closest to managing a fairly faithful adaptation, but even his attempt eventually floundered, and ever since it’s seemed that there’d never be a way of reconciling The Sandman’s deliberately offbeat storytelling with the money it would take to actually make.

Then, in the middle of last year, rumours of a TV series started to circulate. Given The Sandman’s deliberately long-form storytelling structure, a TV adaptation isn’t an insane idea, and would certainly give the concept much more room to breathe. Plus, there’s much more potential to acheive something closer to the comic’s unique flavour on TV, rather than trying to do such a kooky story in the increasingly homogenised world of Hollywood Blockbusters. In an ideal world, a Sandman series developed by someone like HBO would be ideal – the original comic wasn’t afraid to go in some very dark, graphic and adult directions, and a series that was just as free to explore that kind of territory (along the lines of the recent AMC TV adaptation of The Walking Dead) could be a genuinely promising prospect.

Unfortunately, it seemed that Warner Bros were actually hoping for a replacement for their absurdly long-in-the-tooth ‘Young Superman’ series Smallville, and the Producer who was possibly going to transfer Gaiman’s work to the small screen was Eric Kripke, the creator of long-running fantasy/horror show Supernatural. This didn’t fill me with confidence – I’ve only seen one episode of Supernatural (and that was a long time ago) so I can’t judge Kripke’s suitability or not, but the idea of aiming The Sandman at mainstream network TV seemed, well, odd to say the least. It’s not impossible that such a project could work, but the potential for massive compromises and creative disaster was pretty damn strong, and it went down as something that I wouldn’t be upset about if, as with so much in the long history of proposed Sandman adaptations, it came to nothing.

Sandman Neil Gaiman Marc Hempel The Endless TV Adaptation News ArtSo, when I woke up this morning to find the internets ablaze with the announcement that Kripke had announced that it didn’t look like The Sandman was happening “at least for this TV season”, I have to admit I breathed a small sigh of relief. A TV version of The Sandman would be massively risky, and I’d far rather see it not happen than for a watered down, diluted version to shuffle its way onto the screen. The Sandman does strike me as one of those stories that, like Watchmen (despite all of Zack Snyder’s efforts) works best as a comic – its structure, its weirdness and its limitless imagination is simply ideal for the comics medium, and crowbarring it into another form risks breaking what makes it special in the first place.

However, it looks like I spoke too soon. DC’s Creative Chief Officer and Head Writing honcho Geoff Johns went on Twitter today, and tweeted: “Correction to world: The Sandman is AWAKE! Psyched to be working with @neilhimself on developing one of the greatest series ever!” It’s especially interesting, considering that according to Kripke, he had talked to Gaiman (aka @neilhimself) about the project, but wasn’t actually working directly with him. Of course, this could be general PR just to prevent people mistakenly thinking the project was actually dead, but for the moment it looks like the project is certainly active. Which means I get to keep being mildly concerned. Oh, hooray…

Of course, one interesting factor is whether or not a similar project makes it to the screen. Joe Hill’s brilliant dark fantasy comic book Locke and Key has been developed into a TV series – a pilot episode has been shot (directed by music video supremo and Never Let Me Go helmer Mark Romanek), and if it gets the green light, it’ll be going to a full series for the September 2011 TV season. If a project as dark and interesting as Locke and Key gets onto TV screens still with its weirdness and character intact, then I’d say the possibility of getting a Sandman TV series will definitely go up – but I’ll still remain to be convinced that this isn’t going to be anything other than yet another disappointing comics adaptation…

Comics Primer: What is a Graphic Novel?

500 Essential Graphic Novels coverGraphic Novel. I’ve heard that phrase somewhere before, haven’t I?

It’s a phrase that says, very clearly, “These aren’t just comics. They’re for ADULTS too!” It’s a phrase that’s been used with increasing frequency over the last thirty years. But what the hell does it actually mean?

Good question. And aren’t we just talking about comic books, anyway?

If you believe your local bookshop section, then the answer is yes. After all, most Graphic Novel sections in bookstores are full of books that can safely be described as comic books – but there’s an insane variety. Unless the section has been shelved by someone who knows their stuff, it’ll probably be shelved in alphabetical order. Which is an understandable way of doing things… but is also completely and utterly crazy.

Why crazy?

Well, just imagine a bookstore where all the books are shelved alphabetically. All of them, regardless of subject matter, tone, whether they’re for younger readers or adults only. Manga will usually be shelved separately, but as far as divisions go, that’s usually it, and while the experienced comics reader will know where to look, for newcomers it can be downright bewildering. Added to that, not everything that’s in the Graphic Novel section is technically a graphic novel.

Alright then – stop beating about the bush. What is a Graphic Novel?

Okay – technically speaking, a Graphic Novel is a work of sequential art (i.e. comics) that’s self-contained (or which consists of several self-contained stories) and which is published all in one go. Technically speaking, anything which was originally published in a monthly/bi-monthly/quarterly issue format and was then collected together into a paperback/hardback edition should be referred to as a Trade Edition. (That’s where the now rather common phrase “Waiting for Trade” comes from, in comic circles – people who forgo the monthly wait, and want to get the story in the nicely bound collected edition).

So – my copies of Superman: They Saved Luthor’s Brain and Spider-Man: The Clone Saga V1 aren’t actually graphic novels?

Technically, no. If it was published first in issue format, then it technically doesn’t count. They’re trade editions all the way.

It’s really that simple?

Watchmen coverWell… actually, no it isn’t. If you make the distinction precise, then you know what isn’t a graphic novel? Watchmen. The most graphic novel of all graphic novels wouldn’t count, simply because it was originally published as twelve (semi-monthly) issues. Same with works like From Hell, and especially The Sandman – its status as a 75 issue story means it’s incredibly difficult to make strict definitions stick, especially when it’s very much a self-contained work that, for the most part, showcases the kind of structure, planning and execution you’d find in a Literary Novel.

‘Graphic Novel’ is, more than anything, a marketing tool. It’s been used since the mid seventies as a way of trying to prove that comics can stand on their own as a genuine art form, rather than simply being regarded as something rather juvenile. And, especially over the last fifteen years, there has finally arisen a market for genuine, artistic and risk-taking graphic novels that step outside the barriers set by mainstream perceptions (i.e. “All comics must feature men in spandex fighting”) and head in remarkable directions all of their own.

Care to name some titles?

Certainly. Alice in Sunderland. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy on Earth. Asterios Polyp. Persepolis. Ghost World. Palestine. Parker: The Hunter. And many, many more.

So, where did the name ‘graphic novel’ come from?

A Contract with God coverThere are actually examples of graphic novel-like editions going back to the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that things really started happening, with both Marvel and DC experimenting with different formats, and adult comic books flourishing in mainland Europe alongside the collected editions of strips like Asterix and Tintin. Then there’s Blackmark, by Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin, which has been retro-actively called the first graphic novel, although it wasn’t referred to at the time. There’s a handful of other works which could technically fall under the banner (including Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman and Father Christmas), but the first genuine graphic novels are usually looked upon as three books published in 1976 – Bloodstar by Richard Corben,  Beyond Time and Again by George Metzger (even though it was a collection of serialized strips) and Chandler: Red Tide by Jim Steranko. However, the first self-proclaimed graphic novel, and the first work which truly defined what a graphic novel could be, was A Contract with God by the famed comics artist Will Eisner in 1978 (Eisner often gets described as the ‘inventor’ of the graphic novel, despite the fact that he never claimed to be, and simply didn’t realise the term hadn’t been used before). It wasn’t until the mid-Eighties, however, and the arrival of both Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns that the term really caught on. But of course, not everyone likes using it…

Really? Doesn’t it mean that comics are all grown up and adult now?

Yes, but some writers feel that ‘graphic novel’ is trying too hard for prestige and seriousness, when there isn’t anything wrong with works being described as ‘comics’. The best quote to go to is probably from Neil Gaiman, who was once informed that he didn’t write comics, he wrote ‘graphic novels’ – according to Gaiman, “all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.”

Anyhow, so how do you tell if something is or isn’t a graphic novel?

Length is a good guide to go with. If it’s a work of artistic intent and a story with a beginning, middle and end that can be bound in one edition, then you can pretty much view it as a graphic novel (the wonderful Bone by Jeff Smith, for example, is just over 1400 pages long in its one-volume-edition, and collects over ten years worth of comics, but is still one continuous and contained story). Once you get beyond one volume, it gets tricky (and once you get to manga, the whole thing gets really complicated), but honestly, the best guide is artistic intent. There are plenty of grey areas, but most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell. For example – the Jack the Ripper saga From Hell is a dark and disturbing tale of murder that also acts as a chillingly intelligent dissection of the Victorian era, while the superhero event comic Blackest Night is (no offence, DC fans) a bunch of people in spandex vs Space Zombies.

Could you recommend some places where I can learn more?

Certainly. There’s 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide by Gene Kannenberg Jr, Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life by Paul Gravett, Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk, and the absolutely peerless Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, all of which will give you a brilliant grounding in the kind of remarkable comics that are out there, and exactly how they do what they do.

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