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This is the one-hundred and fifty-eighth in a series of examinations of comic book urban legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous one-hundred and fifty-seven. Click here for a similar archive, only arranged by subject.
This week also marks the third anniversary of this feature, so to celebrate, I figured I’d treat you all to something a little special – not just a DOUBLE-sized edition, but double-sized plus ONE! Why lucky seven? Because I thought that a nice way to make this a STAR-STUDDED anniversary would be to have one legend for each of the writers of the top five comic book runs. Since there were two co-writers in the top five, that makes seven!
COMIC URBAN LEGEND: Neil Gaiman reworked his Phantom Stranger proposal into Sandman.
STATUS: Basically True
It is fun to think of DC Comics in the late 1980s, where there was this influx of British writers who also brought with them an influx of creativity. This creativity was displayed with great effect as Alan Moore took a popular (but not THAT popular) DC character, Swamp Thing, and turned it into a critical darling.
In the late 1980s, DC wanted to know if similarly talented British creators could do the same, and writer Neil Gaiman’s first shot at doing a new take on an established DC character was 1988’s Black Orchid.
After that was a success, Karen Berger asked him to pick a new ongoing project.
Gaiman’s first answer was the Phantom Stranger.
He was told no, as DC did not think he was enough of a “hero” to sustain an ongoing series (and he had just had a mini-series anyways).
So Gaiman suggested the Demon.
Nope, just used by Matt Wagner.
Okay, how about Green Arrow?
Nope, sorry, Mike Grell is doing a Green Arrow series.
How about the Sandman?
Free and clear!
However, the specific wonder that reader RR Duran sent in to me a year ago was did Gaiman turn his Phantom Stranger idea into the Sandman?
And here, I’m going to give a tentative yes, but perhaps not the way that Duran is asking me. I believe Duran is asking whether Gaiman had a solid storyline all planned for the Phantom Stranger, then when that was rejected, Gaiman just changed the characters to Morpheus, et. al. Duran suggests this because of what he felt to be similarities between Gaiman’s initial Sandman plots and unresolved plots from the Phantom Stranger’s previous ongoing series.
Instead, what I think happened was that Gaiman had a certain amount of fantastical ideas, and where he initially planned on using the Phantom Stranger to achieve his goals of telling these stories, he instead came up with Morpheus. The two are really a lot alike, in the sense that they both mostly facilitate other people’s stories.
In an interview with Universo HQ a few years back, Gaiman goes into this point deeper, by discussing the similarities between Morpheus and the Phantom Stranger (he details a scrapped plot where he had the two talk for awhile before he realized it was just like the same person talking to himself – so decided against the idea), and specifically saying that any ideas he had for the Phantom Stranger series he had used up during his Sandman run.
So while it was not a direct “replace all usages of ‘Phantom Stranger’ with ‘Morpheus'” reworking, I think it is close enough to give it a basic true.
Here is Neil Gaiman himself clarifying the situation:
As I remember both Grant and I pitched our Phantom STranger stories on the same day, and they both involved Cassandra Craft . That time it was turned down because they’d just commissioned the Kupperberg series. I don’t honestly think that anything in the pitch I did was reworked in Sandman. Some months later, when I was asked what I’d like to do as a monthly series, I asked for the Stranger, and was told no, because he wasn’t a Hero. So took enormous pleasure in writing a series about someone much less a hero than the stranger ever was.
Sandman was plotted from the ground up, starting with the character, not reusing anything. I’m sure that if I’d done a Phantom Stranger series it would have covered as much history as Sandman did. But I got most of my desire to write Phantom Stranger characters out of my system in Books of Magic…
I’ve still got the Phantom Stranger / Morpheus scene from Sandman 24 somewhere, and you can see why it didn’t work – they stand there being gnomic at each other, and it really doesn’t make for drama, so after a page or so I gave it up as a bad job and just started the story a few moments later. But it wasn’t a plot, just a scene.
Thanks to RR Duran for the question, and thanks to Universo HQ and especially, Neil Gaiman for the information and clarifications!
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