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The Sandman Creator Neil Gaiman Reveals Biggest Payoff In Adapting Comic For Netflix, And Why It Made Him Cry

Spoilers below for The Sandman, so be warned if you haven't yet watched!

The Sandman quickly shot to the top of Netflix’s Top 10 rankings upon its long-awaited release, with the streaming adaptation at last bringing Neil Gaiman’s seminal DC Comics series to life after years of unsuccessful attempts. The well-deserved attention stems in large part from Gaiman himself co-developing the series alongside fellow executive producers David S. Goyer and showrunner Allan Heinberg, with all the attention possible dedicated to preserving as much of the source material as possible in the transition from page to screen. And for the award-winning comic writer and novelist, one episode in particular stood out as the biggest payoff in finally bringing The Sandman into live-action. 

Neil Gaiman and Allan Heinberg spoke with CinemaBlend and other press ahead of The Sandman’s debut for Netflix subscribers, and they both had much to say about the streaming series being an idealized iteration that likely couldn’t have been accomplished in past years, given the scope of it all. As seen above, when I asked Gaiman what the biggest payoff was for him from the start of the process to seeing it in its finalized form, he didn’t hesitate before explaining why the sixth episode, “The Sound of Her Wings,” had such an emotional impact. In his words:

I think I'd have to point to the whole of Episode 6, because it made me cry. Because it made me cry not once, but twice - once during the death scene when we meet Harry, and once right at the end of 'Men of Good Fortune,' when Death and Hob get together in the pub. And that took me by surprise each time. I'm sitting there thinking, 'I wrote these words. I plotted this out in 1988.' This has been part of my life, these stories, ever since. I've read and reread them every time we reprinted them, or I was checking the color or anything like that. I know them like the back of my hand. And yet watching this thing that we've shot is bypassing all the thinking bits of my brain and is going straight into the emotion bits, and I can't believe that's happening.

As comic readers are aware, Episode 6 is an astonishingly faithful combination of issues #8 and #13 of the comics, and it’s one that absolutely tugs at one’s heartstrings throughout, though in ways that weren’t so much soul-crushing as soul-uplifting. Which isn’t necessarily what one might expect from an installment that’s half-filled with Death, Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s empathy-oozing Endless, delivering final moments for a line of one-off characters. 

Meanwhile, the other half of the episode focused on a centuries-strong friendship between Tom Sturridge’s Dream and Ferdinand Kingsley’s Hob Gadling, whose everlasting survival was spawned by him just outright refusing to succumb to death. (Or Death, as it were.) Neither case is an exact recipe for how to create an unforgettable slice of entertainment, but such as it goes with any Neil Gaiman project.

Neil Gaiman praised the attention to detail given to the “Men of Good Fortune” side of the episode, which balanced the real world of Death’s journey with a constantly changing setting that spanned hundreds of years. Here’s how he continued:

There was so much pride in what Allan and what the actors had done in every part of that. I mean, you look at the pub every 100 years and look at production designers, costume designers and costume makers - everybody came in to give us that for what, in the end of the day, is about half an hour of television. We shouldn't have been able to do that, and we did.

It'd be one thing if The Sandman's production process involved tons of CGI work for its settings, but just about every location that viewers see on the screen is completely authentic and created for the show, with digital effects kept to a minimum. But just as impressive than any of the settings, if not more so, is the wildly calming performance from the always excellent Kirby Howell-Baptiste.

Dream and Nun Death in The Sandman

(Image credit: Netflix)

On that note, Neil Gaiman continued with much high praise for how Howell-Baptiste embodied Death for the series, particularly with her soothing portrayal in Episode 6. Here's how the comic co-creator described her work:

What Kirby Howell-Baptiste brings to death in just making you go, 'Oh, yes, when I die, I hope you're there. You'll make things better. It'll be okay.' That thing - you know, I don't care that it took us 1,000 auditions to get to Kirby because we got Kirby at the end, and it's like, 'Okay, that thing is the thing that we wanted.' That feeling of speaking truth. That feeling of being the person at the end that you love and you care for, the person you would like to imagine was there for your child for your parent, for your sibling, for your loved one at the end.

Rarely have I agreed with anything as much as I side with Neil Gaiman's belief that Kirby Howell-Baptiste's Death is what should be there at the end of the metaphorical road for everyone. (Not to mention that it was worth all the efforts to make sure she ended up in The Sandman’s ensemble cast.) That might not be the takeaway that fans go into The Sandman looking for, but it's certainly there in full when all is said and done, as is the desire to see way way more of Gwendoline Christie’s superb take on Lucifer.

The Sandman’s 10-episode first season is currently available to stream in full on Netflix (opens in new tab), and comic fans have no doubt been rewatching to catch all the awesome details. Head to our 2022 TV premiere schedule to see everything else popping up on the small screen in the months to come.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.