Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Sandman: Overture Review (Neil Gaiman, JH Williams III)

It’s taken two years for Neil Gaiman and his art team to complete the six issue limited series prequel, The Sandman: Overture, but they finally did it! It’s easy to see why it took them so long when the results are so utterly impressive - high quality work takes time but it’s always worth the wait. 

There are about four hundred billion cells in the human brain - all it takes is for one to misfire and start a reaction where a cancer forms and kills the human. There are about four hundred billion galaxies in the universe - one star has gone mad and the madness is spreading like cancer. The whole of creation is at stake. It’s up to Morpheus the Dream King to save the universe. 

I wouldn’t have said a prequel was entirely necessary to The Sandman, but having read Overture, it now seems not just necessary but vital. The way Morpheus is written, it doesn’t seem possible that a being so powerful could be captured so easily, like he is in Preludes and Nocturnes, by a dilettante magician. Overture answers the question: how did Morpheus become so weak to be in that position? It’s also a great story too! 

I love how epic Overture is and yet weirdly small - sprawling with multiple connections to the series yet self-contained. Morpheus, along with a couple of new characters, traverse time and space doing impossible things in such a blase fashion, you’d think it would be nothing to Morpheus to stop a mad star and save existence itself, like your average "superhero punches supervillain" template! 

And while it sounds complex, and it is trippy at times, Gaiman’s written it in an accessible way that you can follow and make sense of. The ending especially is kinda brilliant as Gaiman almost defines Dream as the most powerful being of the Endless. After all, what can you achieve in dreams - everything? And Morpheus controls all the dreams everywhere… 

We also see how The Corinthian (Dream’s murderous nightmare) goes rogue and must be hunted down, which we see in The Doll’s House, and The Three make an appearance hinting at events that occur way down the line in, I think, The Wake (the final volume in the series). We also see how the structure of The Dreaming is created and the origin of Morpheus’ war helm. They’re little things but they underline why a prequel like Overture was such a good idea. 

What’s also brilliant is that this book also unexpectedly doubles as an ending to a story we haven’t seen, as well as being an introduction to the story we do. It’s an overture and a coda at the same time - bonkers! Those Endless are a tricksy bunch, eh? 

Sandman fans will love seeing old favourites returning like Lucien and Merv Pumpkinhead in The Dreaming, Mad Hettie, and, of course, The Endless themselves with everyone’s favourite goth chick, Death, appearing throughout the book. I also enjoyed see The Endless’ father and mother (both crazy) and one new character I know will especially grab people’s attention. 

As strong as Gaiman’s script is, my word, artist JH Williams III - I mean, really. I can’t imagine anyone reading this comic will have anything remotely bad to say about the art except to say the bar has been raised so high, they can’t enjoy regular comics anymore! It’s so good - I can’t emphasise that enough. If Gaiman brought his A game to Overture, Williams brought his A*** game - his alpha and omega game! This book is gorgeous! 

I’ll just mention some of my favourite images even though every page is stunning. The design of Dream as an alien flower-type creature was awesome - really all the various designs of Dream were outstanding, all displayed on a four page fold-out panoramic. The way certain pages are framed like Destiny opening his book, then the pages unfolding until they become the page you’re holding and Death is stepping out a painting... wow. 

There’s a splash page where a house is sort of a body, there’s a cosmic desert/rocky outcrop splash page where, as you follow the captions, you realise it’s being held up by a giant troll underneath! The imaginative layouts whenever Dream was speaking with his parents or the Endless, emphasising how differently they view reality, was masterful especially as they didn’t interrupt the flow of the comic or was hard to follow while also giving you the impression of being in the presence of something unfathomable. 

Like a musical overture, Williams’ art dances across the pages like a beautiful visual melody making the story sing. 

Dave Stewart’s colours are amazing as always, as is Todd Klein’s lettering - these two have who knows how many awards between them, but give them two more for Overture! Dave McKean makes a welcome return, once more doing the covers for each issue like he did for every issue of the original run.

The one thing I will say is that I re-read the first three volumes of Sandman earlier this year and… unfortunately found them lacking. So much so that I abandoned the re-read after Dream Country, unwilling to discolour my fond memories of the later books. Those comics were written by a writer 25 years younger - and 25 years less experienced - than the man who wrote this. New readers starting with Overture might be disappointed at the drop in quality if they read these books in order, starting with this one. Which isn’t a critique on Overture, it’s more of a backhanded compliment - this book is so good, it puts other books in this series to shame! 

The Sandman: Overture is a home run. It’s everything you want from a comic and more you wouldn’t think of. It accomplishes everything it set out to do and is a powerful addition to the Sandman library. It’s one of the best pieces of Gaiman’s I’ve read and a career high (so far anyway) for JH Williams III. Sandman fans will adore it and it’ll turn non-readers into believers. A wonderful dream of a book.

The Sandman: Overture

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