Expanding on the world of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, August’s Sandman Universe 1 served as the launchpad for four new ongoing series from DC Vertigo — The Dreaming, House of Whispers, Books of Magic, and Lucifer — each promising to explore different corners of that Universe. Just before Lucifer 1 released this week, we sat down with writer Dan Watters to go through his Sandman Universe 1 sequence page by page, so get your copy out and join us on the Commentary Track.
Retcon-Punch: I’m curious about what the collaboration process looked like between all of the writers and how you all handled passing the torch between each of your segments.
Dan Watters: The main body of the thing was outlined by Neil and Si [Spurrier], The Dreaming being the first book that was coming out and being the lynchpin of the whole thing. But, as a whole narrative, it sort of came together after an initial sort of summit, where the four writers and Neil sat down. It was a really great opportunity to just sit with him and just talk about Sandman, and storytelling, and where we wanted all the things to go. Just pretty much entirely Sandman-focused. After that they sort of went away and came back with this sort of outline which basically had these chunks free for us to sort of do what we want and push it where we wanted to go. My one was probably the most sort of divergent, I guess? Because the story we were doing was about Lucifer going missing. I think I’m alright in saying: all the books run in the present day, and that’s kind of what’s different from what we’ve seen before. All these books are set right now. It’s like the way Vertigo has always had this sliding timeline. Stuff is happening 25 years after Sandman originally started. With Lucifer’s story, he’s already gone missing and he’s been missing for a good while, so to even have him in the story meant we had to use a further framing device to flashback from. So I guess I made it the most difficult out of anyone. (Laughs)
RP: Your segment connects to previous continuity kind of as a way of breaking from it. It’s interesting, for example, that this is set in his club even as it’s kind of inventing its own past for the character.
DW: Yeah, I mean, the nice things about Lucifer is that he very much invites more and more and more stories that don’t necessarily have to contradict anything that came before. But also, they can be entirely fresh and unconnected to things that have come before. He’s a character who — not even just within Sandman, but in general — has thousands and thousands and thousands of different stories. He can be a big red thing with massive horns, or he can be a sexy, six-packed version that we get in a lot of the engravings from Milton. There’s all these different ways of looking at him, but also him in himself, and the version we’ve seen before in Sandman and Mike Carey’s and all the other runs — the nice things about it is he’s the character out of all characters, he gives the least shit about any of his supporting cast. To sort of abandon them, or to start afresh with new supporting characters doesn’t really go against anything in the spirit of the character.
RP: I was really struck by the mid-page flashback here. Can you describe to what extend was that scripted and to what extent you’re collaborating with artists Max and Sebastian Fiumara on figuring out the visual language of your series?
DW: Because this is the first time we worked together at all, the script here was definitely quite a bit tighter than stuff I would write for them now. There’s always that process when you’re working with a new artist, or artists in this case, where you’re feeling each other out. I’ve worked with artists who’ve been amazing in the past but who aren’t necessarily from a comics background. And sometimes they need a little bit more direction in regards to making things flow, drawing narratives as opposed to drawing visuals. That’s definitely not the case with the Fiumaras. This script was quite tight — it was all written on the nine panel grid, which was also partly just a practical thing, because I knew we had quite a lot of story to tell in seven pages. That just gives you a bit more panels to play with. But they did come back to me right out of this script, “Oh, we’ve loved doing this script, but you’re not going to do the whole thing on a nine panel grid, right?” (Laughing) And I was like, “Alright, yeah, fair enough.” Because part of what I know they were excited to do with the Sandman Universe is that you always have these different artists playing with different panel types and different shapes and pages, and these guys know exactly what they’re doing when they layout a page. But here, it was all quite tightly scripted. It was very much “This will be the center panel on the page and it will be the beginning of the flashback.” Which, to start a flashback in the middle of the page is quite a risky maneuver. But I think they really pulled it off there.
RP: I’m also curious about how good the Bowie likeness is…
RP: That’s always been a part of that character design. It seems like some artists aren’t as good at likenesses, or aren’t as interested in likenesses and kind of shy away from it a little bit, but this one feels reall like I’m looking at David Bowie. Was that something that you discussed with them? What that a choice they made? Was that a choice you really encouraged?
DW: I’m almost a little bit hesitant to talk about the Bowie thing because yeah, it’s in there, but I think people definitely see it more than I do. But we definitely want to go back to that attitude in the character. I think over a lot of the stories that we’ve seen, at least, they’ve been like really really big. And he ends up saving the world or saving some reality and things. And it means he has a lot more weight on his shoulders, and I kind of wanted to go back to this…if he’s not necessarily always the trickster version of Lucifer, he’s definitely more of the rockstar version in that he’s very confident in what he’s doing. He’s very his own sort of thing, he doesn’t give a shit about anything around him. I think that’s pretty much where the Bowie/Thin White Duke thing comes in. When you have him looking like Bowie, that’s when you’re going back to the Sandman stuff, rather than the other Lucifer comics most of the time. That was our big thing, to go back to Sandman. So what you were saying before about it starting in Lux as well. Lux is in Sandman. The Mazikeen is in our book because she’s from Sandman. These are things that aren’t from the other Lucifer comics, they’re from Sandman. That’s kind of what we wanted — it’s all still rooted in Sandman. It’s a Sandman Universe Lucifer, rather than from any other interpretation.
RP: I’m interested in the relationship that Lucifer is talking about with his symbolism. I guess I’m curious on two levels: both on what that means to him as a character and how your’e conceptualizing mythology, but also meta-textually, what that might mean to you as a writer who’s actually wielding these symbols and thinking about them.
DW: So with those three illustrations — the idea is that there are these paintings on the walls of Lux. The brothers have given a through thread with how they look, the ideas is that the first one is the striking down of Lucifer by Saint Michael the second one is from a piece of Irish folklore, and the third one is definitely nodding towards Edgar Allen Poe. So the idea is that you have Lucifer as a religious figure, you’ve got him as folkloric figure — that version of the devil is very different generally speaking than the religious figure of Satan. Those two never really got combined until Paradise Lost. The idea of Satan as the ruler of hell who is also the angel Lucifer who fell from heaven, that was entirely Milton. He slammed those two characters together and said, “Okay, this is one being now.” And so powerful was Paradise Lost that we’ve just run with that from there on. So that entirely comes from a piece of poetry. And that kind of goes into the third one which is the horror, fiction version, which probably is what most of us today deal with more than any of the other versions. So it’s definitely a case of wanting to look at all the different versions of Lucifer or Satan and try and amalgamate them. Or not even amalgamate them, but allow all versions to have the freedom to go into all those different arenas, which is something I was really interested in. It’s almost a little bit like with Sandman and when you see Dream from someone else’s perspective. You see it from a cat’s perspective it’s a cat, when you see it from Martian Manhunter’s perspective he’s a giant flaming skull. And kind of let Lucifer be a similar thing in that he’s this very fractal figure — he has all of these symbols but he sort of is all of these symbols. He stands for all these different things for different people and he looms in the background of all of our human darkness in any story. From a writer’s perspective the freedom that gives me is unbelievable, because any story about the dark side of humanity becomes Lucifer’s story.
If you want to talk about the more literal symbol from the comic — the raven thing — that was a very useful and convenient thing, with Matthew being the through thread of the entire thing. Ravens have historically been associated with the devil, and that ties it in all the more closely and very cleanly. I got very lucky (laughs). Yeah, there’s also another character who I can’t kind of talk about yet because it’s revealed later in the book, but there’s another character that ravens also represent that’s going to be a really major part of the first two books.
RP: Did that kind of spill out of the use of Matthew as this through line, or was that part of the concept before you were imaging scripting this first little teaser?
DW: Yeah, it was already there, essentially, but it definitely was a part of the decision to double down on using ravens as a major thing.
DW: This page is where the sort of impetus of what Lucifer’s doing becomes more clear. He sort of reveals to Hope, the Raven, that he has a son, and that he is searching for this son’s mother. That’s why he’s weakening himself; that’s why he’s about to go on this long journey. In my original draft, that wasn’t entirely clear. That was a big thing that Neil came back with, that this story is really atmospheric, but that it needs some push in a certain direction. But he didn’t tell me how to do that, he didn’t tell me where to do that, he just sort of left me to it with a note. And the really interesting thing from where I was sitting was, I went back and I weaved this thing into the story, and then when I sat back and looked at the finished script I went, “Oh, holy smokes, this feels like a Sandman story now,” rather than just one of my weird little vignettes. And that was a really amazing thing to look at your own piece and think, “Oh, this has that DNA in it now.” It felt like a Sandman story.
RP: I enjoy that Hope kind of manages to word play her way out, almost tricking Lucifer. But, you know, only gets so far as the door.
DW: Yeah, I mean, part of the real joy I find in writing Lucifer is that, like I was saying before, he’s this intrinsically mercurial character. You can’t really get a grip on him. So whether or not Lucifer knew that that guy was coming in the door and Hope was never going to make it anywhere or not, is also worth thinking about.
RP: It almost evokes the Persephone myth. Is that a thing you were thinking about at all in naming this character, knowing that Hope wouldn’t quite make it out alive?
DW: (Laughs) I mean, yeah, again it’s using the raven as a symbol. This specific raven taking on a specific symbol. I’ve made it quite clear, at least I tried to, that this is going to be a dark book. This is the darkest corner of the Sandman Universe — at least that’s being explored right now. Which, you know, by the nature of the character, by the book, I think it should be. It’s definitely a statement of intent.
RP: We have this extended flashback for the bulk of your sequence, and then we get a glimpse of Lucifer in the present day at the very end. And that’s also kind of laden with symbolism. I was struck by his shadow with the horns.
RP: Is that something you called for in that tighter script, or was the something the Fiumara’s added?
DW: Yeah, I mean it’s not the first time even in the story where he casts that shadow. But again, that’s a Sandman thing. He casts that shadow in Sandman. I thought that was a really lovely element in those books, so I can’t really take credit for it. It’s Neil and I guess Sam Keith who gave him that shadow, but I definitely wanted to bring it back. I thought it was a really nice element.
RP: It’s an especially nice touch here because the character is in a completely different state than we just saw him in the flashback, so it helps us have that kind of through line to say, “Oh right, that’s who this is.”
DW: Yeah, it’s still him. Even when he’s broken and blinded. Yeah.