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Welcome to the 'Nightmare Country': James Tynion IV talks horror and stories in 'Sandman' series

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Welcome to the ‘Nightmare Country’: James Tynion IV talks horror and stories in ‘Sandman’ series

The existentially-terrifying tale drops this week.

There’s no denying, in the wake of several global tragedies and a prevailing sense of dread and anxiety, that horror comics have had a resurgence in recent years. And one of the bigger creators helping to lead that charge has been James Tynion IV. Between titles like Razorblades, The Nice House on the Lake, and Department of Truth, Tynion has told stories that expertly capture the end-times energy, existential uncertainty, and pervasive worry of our times.

And Tynion will continue to do so with his latest project, The Sandman Universe: Nightmare Country. With art from Lisandro Estherren and Yanick Paquette (as well as rotating cast of guest contributors), the story follows the Corinthian, the “Dream’s greatest nightmares, and a proven serial killer when set free in the past.” This time around, though, the Corinthian becomes entangled with a young woman named Flynn as part of of a “dark cat and mouse game” that explores the nuances of modern American society (including “white supremacist militia camps” and “galleries specializing in the art of horror”). The ongoing series serves as a compelling “travelogue through a nation both recognizable and obscene” in what should be a new and daring chapter for this singular comics universe.

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Before the book debuts today (Tuesday April 12), we caught up with Tynion as part of a roundtable discussion. The extended chat saw Tynion talk about his life-long love of the Sandman universe, how his other projects prepared him for this title, his favorite parts of the larger mythos, what to expect from this series, and much, much more.

Welcome to the 'Nightmare Country': James Tynion IV talks horror and stories in 'Sandman' series

Courtesy of DC Comics.

On his favorite Sandman stories/arcs

“Top level, Sandman is my all-time favorite comic. It’s the comic that made me want to write comics. It’s exactly why I do long-from stories — I’m chasing that high I got from reading Sandman My favorite Sandman storylines were always the ones that were a little more grounded in the real world. The one that really made me fall in love with the entire Sandman myth is the second storyline, A Doll’s House, which is, big surprise, the introductory arc of the Corinthian. That’s probably the biggest influence point for my series that centers around the Corinthian. It’s not something that we’re going to be leaning into too heavily but it is something where I wanted to capture that feeling. I wanted the main characters of the series to be human characters who are brushing up against these little touches of the fantastic and then having that completely devastate their lives.”

On his development and work as a horror writer

“[Razorblades] really brought brought to my attention a bunch of the incredible people working in horror illustration. It was really about absorbing all of those influences and keeping my brain fresh and sharp in terms of my my horror sensibilities. The thing that I’ve always loved about horror is that it is, as a genre, it most immediately reflects the world — the best horror always comes out of deep cultural fears. Cultural fears can be such an immediate thing, and we’ve had a lot to be afraid of over the last few years. And, consequently, I think we’ve had a real resurgence of the horror genre.

What I’m trying to capture in Nightmare Country is a similar thing that have I’ve been trying to capture in books like like The Nice House on the Lake and Something is Killing the Children, which is I’m not looking to do something that’s nostalgia-driven. I’m not trying to write a story that’s just an ode to horror stories that I’ve read and loved before. I want to write something contemporary that feels like it speaks to the moment because I think that the best horror does that.”

Welcome to the 'Nightmare Country': James Tynion IV talks horror and stories in 'Sandman' series

Courtesy of DC Comics.

On the power and influence of The Corinthian

“I think the answer here is pretty straightforward. I think the Corinthian is one of the best horror images ever to come out of comic books. That smiling, teeth for eyes or mouths for eyes, is just an incredible image that stays with you like the best horror images stay with you. And it has that perfect uncanny valley element where it’s just like this is someone who looks entirely human. Except there’s one thing wrong with him. And that one thing just makes him so, so scary.”

On the lessons of modern America provided by Department of Truth

“I’ve been sort of walking the dark corridors of conspiracy thought and the dangerous ideas that have been spreading in the background of the 20th and 21st century in the writing of Department of Truth. And so all of that influence comes funneling in here.

Particularly in a thread that I haven’t touched on as much in Department of Truth, which is serial killers. In the original Sandman, the Corinthian was like the patron saint of serial killers. This is someone who helped inspire and kick off the peak moment of serial killings, all culminating in the serial convention in that story. And one thing that in doing all of the research into the most messed up corners of American history, it’s actually really broadened my appreciation of going back and rereading through Sandman and seeing how many little subtle references [abounded].

There was all this stuff I was about to glean from the surface reading it for the first time as a teenager, but going back as an adult with a deep or pool of knowledge, it’s just such an impressive work. So they definitely influence each other in terms of I want to be able to explore strange corners and I want to use every bit of messed up history that I’ve learned across all of my titles. Like, some things fit Department of Truth more and some things fit Nightmare Country more. And for the specifics, you’re going to have to wait and see.”

Welcome to the 'Nightmare Country': James Tynion IV talks horror and stories in 'Sandman' series

Courtesy of DC Comics.

On creating Mr. Agony and Mr. Ecstasy

“So these are two antagonist figures who show up towards the end of the first issue, and they’re really scary. They’re not nightmares, which I think makes them even scarier. To really understand what their role is in the series, you’re going to have to stick around and see. But one thing that I kind of wanted to do in in building Nightmare Country is take the Noah Hawley Fargo approach to this series, where I’m pulling from my deep well of Sandman references, but I’m also pulling from my entire library of Neil Gaiman references [including Neverwhere], which is another work of incredible urban fantasy horror, which is the genre that I’m really trying to embody in this book. I’m trying to put my Neil Gaiman hat on a bit with all of this.”

On writing an introductory comic to the Sandman universe

“It’s definitely difficult, and it’s a big, complicated idea. The idea of The Dreaming and the all of these nightmares, and all of these characters that have a 30-year publishing history at this point.

I wanted the central characters in this book to be human characters who have not really bumped into the figures in the Sandman mythology before. So it’d be their first encounters with this mythology, and we would experience it with them. Consequently, I think in the first few issues, we’re going to see a a lot of strangeness and a lot of mystery as the characters are in over their heads and they don’t understand the world that they’ve just fallen into. But I wanted to take the time to slowly unpack that rather than really throw us in the deep end and explain too much upfront. I want to I wanted the readers to explore and learn this world alongside the characters. Over the course of the series, I think the goal is that fans of my other books will go and pick up the full run of Sandman trades if they haven’t already and get to experience that for the first time.

If you you go back and read the first couple of trades of the original Sandman series, ‘The Doll’s House,’ explains the Corinthian in a big way. And you know that if you’re looking for more Corinthians, that’s where you’re going to find it. And you’re also going to read a really, really good comic book.”

Welcome to the 'Nightmare Country': James Tynion IV talks horror and stories in 'Sandman' series

Courtesy of DC Comics.

On what version of The Corinthian appears 

“He is the Corinthian that was remade towards the end of the Sandman series. But we are going to play with what he remembers from his previous life and how he interacts with those memories and the repercussions of the initial version of the Corinthian. So you’ll have to wait and see.”

On working with Estherren and Paquette

“It’s been absolutely incredible. Lisandro is someone whose art I have absolutely loved for years, and has sort been on my shortlist of artists that I’ve wanted to work with. Once Chris [Conroy, DC’s assistant editor] and I started talking and kicking ideas back-and-forth of what we wanted this book to look like and feel like, we really wanted to bring, bring him on board. And he has just knocked every page out of the book.

Yanick Paquette is someone whose art I like. Yanick is legendary and is one of the best artists working in the medium. He’s someone that I’ve intersected with a bit in my superhero work, but I’ve never done anything like longform with him, and I still haven’t — he’s doing the ‘Nightmare’ section of the first issue.

The one thing that we’re going to be doing through Nightmare Country is every issue is going to have a few pages by a guest artist that expands some of the backstory of the Corinthian, and explains a bit of the world that we’re living in. In the first issues, those sections are by Yannick Paquette and Nathan Fairburn, and they really really knocked it out of the park. It’s really, really creepy. It’s the only glimpse of the Dreaming we have in the first issue, a it’s a really stunning one. I’m really excited for people to see this section, but also all of the incredible guest artists that we’re going to be bringing on to the book. You know, because the Corinthian looks so damn cool. I wanted to see a bunch of different artists draw him.”

Sandman

Courtesy of DC Comics.

On Flynn, a new human character introduced

“Flynn, and ultimately the other central human characters in the story were going to tell, I wanted to build contemporary characters that felt like they were coming out of 2022. That was the thing that was so striking about Rose and Barbie [from ‘The Doll’s House’] is that they felt real in a way that a lot of comic protagonists in the ’90s did not. They felt like they actually stepped out of the vibrant real world, and it made you love and care for them tremendously. That was, first and foremost, the thing that I wanted to capture with Flynn.

I also wanted to start in an arena that I’m very familiar with, which is someone in their early 20s just wrapping up college in New York. I went to school just outside of New York, and spent my early 20s living in Brooklyn. I wanted to capture that feeling, and the sense of what socializing actually feels like in the modern era. So you’ll see people will see different facets of that as we move forward. And each of the central characters, and we’ll be introducing more of them as the series move forward, kind speaks to a different aspect of the world of Nightmare Country. Flynn in the first vantage point, and that’s a young person who’s given up their hope for the future. I wanted to start with the idea of someone who can’t really dream up a better future for herself anymore, because I think that that’s something that speaks to a lot of young people today.”

On writing existential versus traditional horror

“I say why not have it all? The thing I love most about the original Sandman comics is that you get your cake and eat it too. This is something where all brands of horror can really come together. This is a book that’s going to be bloody and horrible in places because I like bloody and horrible comics. And it’s going to lean into the fantasy in places and it’s going to lean into classic horror tropes because that’s the essence of Sandman — it plays with the idea of story and different types of horror stories and how they blend together. We’re going see lots of different aspects of horror here. But to really create that emotional connection, I do think it has to be existential. I think that we’re living in an existential horror kind of moment. That’s what I’ve been trying to tap into it across all of my books.”

Welcome to the 'Nightmare Country': James Tynion IV talks horror and stories in 'Sandman' series

Courtesy of DC Comics.

On exploring more figures in the Sandman universe

“I will say that there are definitely other Sandman characters that are going to show up over the course of the book. There are corners of the mythology that I particularly love. I love Neil’s approach to demons and hell in particular. There are definitely threads of that I want to touch on over the course of the series. There are also specific characters from the original Sandman who will pop up here — there’s one in particular who’s coming up in issue #6 who is one of my favorite characters in the entire Sandman universe. Then there’s some big ones that you won’t find out about for a long time. But all the seeds are planted from from the start.”

On the themes of “raw esoteric evil personified”

“There is a thread from the original Sandman, which is best embodied by ‘A Dream of a Thousand Cats’ that’s central to the DNA of series like Department of Truth and Something is Killing the Children. And it’s the idea pf manifesting a figure based out of your emotions and reality. It’s human will and imagination in creating something dangerous that speaks to the fact that oftentimes we create the horror in our own lives. We bring it into existence, and there’s a self-destructive streak in a lot of us. That’s something that really speaks to me. And it’s something that I’ve explored from a number of different angles in my different work, but now I get to explore, like, the prime version of it in the mythology that inspired me in all of my other titles. Like, my Justice League Dark run — the Upside-Down Man is the embodiment of all the bad thought taking form and kind of manifesting in reality. There’s definitely a thread there.”

On the limitations of the Sandman universe

“Honestly the Sandman universe is so vast that I don’t find it particularly limiting. I could write 100 issues in this world, and I don’t think I’d scratched the surface of what I’m interested in discovering. Or even just scratch the surface of the things that have been kicking around the back of my head since I was 15 years old.

But it is intimidating. You know, this is a world that matters tremendously to me. I’ve pretty much stepped away from writing you licensed books entirely. I’ve got, like, one more issue of Joker coming out, but I don’t really intend to go back into the superhero game for a good long time.

Last summer, I made the decision to step away from all licensed books, and I had finally finalized all of that. Then Chris Conroy, who I’ve worked with for the majority of my DC Comics career, who was my editor on Detective Comics… he texts me one day, and it’s just ‘I’m looking to start up a new round of the Sandman universe, and do you want tp run the show?’ My first reaction was, ‘F--k you.’ It’s the toy box that, in 10 years of working with DC, I desperately wanted to play with and never really had the chance to.

Sandman was the one thing that could sort of pull me away from my own worlds and really cut to the heart of the core emotions that made me want to be a comic book writer. So I want to do something worthy of that. That responsibility and that self-inflicted pressure can be a lot sometimes, but it is something where, in my heart, I feel what the book is and I want to express that to the best of my abilities. I just hope that I do Neil Gaiman proud in this incredible, incredible world he built.”

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