By:James Busbee
Date: Wednesday, October 18, 2000

What do our dreams dream? It's the question at the heart of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, the critically acclaimed Vertigo series from DC Comics. And, in the wake of that completed series, Vertigo creators continue to take cracks at the question in The Sandman Presents, an interconnected group of mini-series and one-shots featuring characters from the Dreaming, the land where we meet our dreams.

The breadth and depth of Gaiman's creations are astounding: Morpheus (and later Daniel), the Sandman, witness to a billion billion dreamers, but unable to dream himself; Death, the seductively cute goth chick who awaits us all; Lucifer, ex-master of Hell and now an L.A. piano bar owner. And then there's Merv Pumpkinhead. In the somber symphony that is Sandman, Merv Pumpkinhead is the kazoo.

A sort of jack-of-all-trades handyman for the Dreaming, Merv's smartass, man-on-the-street approach balanced out the often-unrelenting darkness that often permeated the rest of the Sandman series. While you wouldn't trust him to watch over your soul, you couldn't find a better beer-drinking buddy. Ironically enough, in the ever-shifting world of the Dreaming, Merv Pumpkinheadblowhard, tale-spinner, braggartmay have been the only character who was exactly what he appeared to be. And now, just in time for Halloween, Merv gets his chance to live out his own dreams, courtesy of writer Bill Willingham and artists Mark Buckingham and John Stokes, in The Sandman Presents: Merv Pumpkinhead - Agent of Dream.

'Merv thinks he's the guy around which everything and everyone revolves,' says Willingham. 'He's the center of the universe. He thinks, why have something like the Dreaming, the waking world, and the vast and glorious universe if not specifically to be his playground?'

Pumpkinhead, Merv Pumpkinhead

Agent of Dream began life as an intentionally ridiculous Hollywood-style high concept: Merv as James Bond. The idea started as a two-issue arc in The Dreaming anthology series, then became a two-issue entry in the Sandman Presents line. 'Sometime after that, Paul Levitz hijacked me in the hall and said, 'Let's make this a 48-page prestige book,'' recalls Willingham. 'Who am I to argue with that?'

But of all the characters in the Dreaming to feature in his or her own special, why Merv? 'Merv knows who he is and what he's all about,' says Willingham, 'and it's just too bad that everyone else hasn't caught on. You have to admire that kind of confidenceespecially because by the end of this book, maybe he's right and everybody else is wrong. Maybe he is all the things he claims to be.'

The special also introduces a new character, the intensely disturbing Quivering Annie. In Sandman, Gaiman created the concept of dream archetypescharacters who served as the physical embodiment of different types of dreams. Most notorious among those was the Corinthian, the fiendish, murderous personification of nightmares.

'If there are going to be archetypes of nightmares in the Dreaming, obviously there's an archetype of the erotic dream,' says Willingham. 'And that's Quivering Annie. She's a nasty little piece of work.'

Quivering Annie's so nasty, in fact, that she dares to transgress one of the Dreaming's sacrosanct boundaries: She steals from Daniel himself. 'Quivering Annie breaks into the Sandman's bag of magic sand and steals some of it,' says Willingham. 'She then takes off to waking world, and things get more complex in a hurry.'

All A-Quiver

Enter Merv Pumpkinhead. A crime has been committed, precious artifacts have been stolen and it's all up to him (or so he'd have us believe) to set the entire matter straight. Merv goes in search of Quivering Anniebut with Merv, matters are never as straightforward as they seem.

'As we'll see, Merv tends to have an interior dialogue that doesn't actually reflect what's going on,' says Willingham. 'There's a much more dramatic adventure in his mind than what may actually be happening. He narrates the entire story, but you can't quite trust what he's telling you.'

'I love the blatant cheek of the guy,' adds Buckingham. 'It's nice to see him talking in such rambunctious tones about all the things that he's achieving, and then seeing him begging.'

Even so, Merv will take readers on a heck of a ride. In the chase for Quivering Annie, Merv ends up in a spy-movie stew that mixes a plot for world domination, the lost colony of Roanoke, the destruction of one of the greatest monuments in history, shark attacks, yacht battles, and heaping helpings of sex and violence. 'By the end of it, you can't quite tell whether he's telling the truth or not,' says Willingham. 'Hopefully, the readers end up being as thoroughly confused as he is, wondering what things are real and what things are entirely made up.'

The story's wide and quickly altering scope made working on the book both fun and challenging for Buckingham. 'I love the frivolous subject matter that treads the line between cartoony and realistic,' says Buckingham. 'The constant changes of location, the bizarre subject matter, like adventures on yachts, strange machines and giantsthat all made it difficult to stay focused on one part of the book because I kept wanting to leap off and design things that were coming up later on!'

Future Dreams

Although Gaiman closed down the original Sandman series after 75 issues, he remains an integral player in the ongoing development of the Dreaming mythos. 'In an essential way, he's like one of the editors,' says Willingham. 'He's in the line of about thirteen hundred people who get to say yea or nay on any idea that has to do with the Sandman. The freedom was a little greater than I expectedthe only rule I had to adhere to was that [Gaiman] didn't want Daniel used, so he doesn't show up. Not that Merv doesn't take a verbal swipe at the guy, but he won't be there in person.'

Following Merv's adventure, Sandman fans can look for several more installments of The Sandman Presents in the coming months, including The Deadboy Detectives by Ed Brubaker, Bryan Talbot and Steve Leialoha; The Thessaliad, by Willingham and Shawn McManus; and Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Dreams But Were Afraid to Ask, by Willingham and a host of artists. Each series will feature covers by famed Sandman artist Dave McKean.

And, with any luck, they'll also be seeing a little more Merv. 'Merv has the potential for stories in every other genre that's been conceived of,' says Willingham. 'Next time, he may be Indiana Jones, some fabulous superhero, the sheriff of some town or whatever. We could go on a Merv excursion once a year, then put together a lot of prestige format books in a nice slipcase.' Merv would be disappointed with anything less.