‘The Sandman’ showrunner Neil Gaiman discusses toxic fandom

A photo portrait of author Neil Gaiman, shown looking up at the viewer from what appears to be an ancient large tome
Courtesy Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is no stranger to the toxicity that happens in the sludgier depths of comic book fandom. After all, The Sandman author has been writing comics on and off for over thirty years. And while he has focused more on his novels and television products, that doesn’t mean he isn’t fending off “fans” who believe they know his own work better than he does. But he does have some sympathy for them nonetheless.

The American Gods author recently sat down in comedian Marc Maron’s garage to record an episode of Maron’s popular WTF podcast, and the two discussed their mutual experience with toxic fanbases. Maron, who has often been dismissive of tentpole superhero movies, described fanbase culture as aggressive, hostile, and “possessive and weird.” Gaiman, who has fended off quite a few misguided fans online due to his rather large Twitter presence, said that he really hadn’t had to deal with Sandman trolls up until recently.  

“The weird thing about Sandman is I didn’t have to deal with those guys very much over the last three decades, because Sandman demanded a certain level of literacy, and it wasn’t really a pre-adolescent power fantasy,” Gaiman told Maron. “That’s where they get captured, they get sort of stuck in early pre-adolescence and it matters so much to them.” However, Gaiman recounted an experience at a convention where he learned to have some sympathy for the hurt some fans feel when their favorite heroes are changed.

Gaiman recalled a fan complaining about writer/Artist John Byrne’s relaunch of Superman in the Man of Steel miniseries in the 1980s:

“He said ‘John Byrne did all the stuff and it just destroyed my life.’ and I said to him ‘Well, why did it destroy your life? Because you were the world’s number one Superman expert, and now you’re not? Or what is it?’ And he said, ‘Well it’s a bit that, but it’s much more. He brought back Superman’s — Clark Kent’s mom and dad, and they’re dead in the comics, and my mom and dad are both dead and I can’t bring them back.’ And I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, you’ve been using Superman all your life as a way of holding onto reality and holding onto the world and using it for order, and the fact that you knew all this stuff was what gave you protection against the world and now something fundamental has changed and it’s hitting you in an incredibly basic way. And that sort of gave me an enormous amount of sympathy for these people who just get over-invested and angry and upset.’”

— Neil Gaiman

And while Gaiman isn’t above swatting off the occasionally-annoying online fan — and honestly, when you tell a writer he doesn’t understand his own characters, what do you expect? — he still can approach them with a degree of compassion. “Look, you’re somebody who’s been using, whether it’s Iron Man continuity or Superman continuity or whatever to hold onto and understand the world,” Gaiman said. “And now something is somehow threatening the thing that you thought you knew, and you have to try and fight back, and you just want to tell everybody that you can’t bring your own parents back from the dead.”

The Sandman will debut on Netflix on August 7.