Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III, The Sandman: Overture

The Sandman: OvertureThe Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My thoughts on the original 10-volume Sandman series can be found here. Overture, Gaiman’s prequel, serialized between 2013 and 2015 and now collected in a deluxe hardcover, does not refute my thesis that Sandman narrates a contest between absolutism and pragmatism, but complicates it by showing how pragmatism may actually lead to absolutism, as I will explain below.

Though Overture is the prologue to the series that began in 1988, I would not recommend that anyone begin with it. It depends for its effects on a prior acquaintance with the characters, and many of its emotional peaks work primarily because the reader is learning new information about long-familiar figures: we meet the Endless’s parents, find out about Dream and Alianora’s doomed love affair, explore the basis of Dream and Desire’s mutual antagonism, discover why Dream has such faith in hope, and hear more about dream vortexes. If none of this means anything to you, then start with Preludes and Nocturnes. (Incidentally, Gaiman’s metafictional wit is in evidence with these titles: an overture to multiple preludes—Laurence Sterne would approve.)

Sandman occasionally suffered from Gaiman’s collaboration with multiple artists, some of them fill-ins due to the unforgiving schedule of a monthly comic book. Gaiman’s postmodern worldview—his insistence on as many realities as there are subjectivities—allows for such artistic variety, and the series was unified by his lyrical but sly narrative voice; by the delirious, surreal, and sometimes abstract covers of Dave McKean; by the bravura lettering of Todd Klein; and especially, though this is insufficiently appreciated, by Danny Vozzo’s muted wood-and-wine-and-night color palette. But the series was definitely stronger toward its end, when Gaiman could work on discrete chapters of the overall saga with individual artists whose styles were unique as his—Jill Thompson (Brief Lives), Marc Hempel (The Kindly Ones), Michael Zulli (The Wake).

In Overture he is joined by J. H. Williams III, who has perhaps the best design sense in mainstream comics. Williams made the pedagogical tour of the Kabbalah in Alan Moore’s Promethea intricately beautiful even when it was not quite comprehensible or persuasive. Here, Gaiman puts Williams—and colorist Dave Stewart—to work on an epic no less grand, cosmic, and mystical, if much less didactic, than Promethea.

Williams can draw or paint anything, and in Overture he does: the dreams of sentient alien plants, the squalid violence of reavers, a war of extraterrestrial armies, a swarm of artist-beetles longing aesthetically for the end of the universe, an asylum with screaming faces in its architecture, an elegant office in Edwardian London, a star-inhabited city made of light, a three-master sailing the universe. He does double-page spread after double-page spread, and he does four-page foldouts. His pages are images in themselves—a mouth (the panels are teeth), a building (the panels are rooms), Destiny’s book (the panels are panels—Destiny is reading comics right along with us). He includes brilliant little touches, as when Dream’s smothering mother serves him a dish of astoundingly phallic and vulvic victuals. He makes you turn the book 360 degrees. He does Van Gogh, stained glass, Maxfield Parrish. He does Kirby, Eisner, Moebius. To watch him do it all is exhilarating, and then it is exhausting. I do not want to seem ungrateful for his extravagant visual imagination, but I began to long for an image as simple, heartfelt, and profound as Jill Thompson’s picture of the blood, blown from Dream’s hands by the wind, turning into rose petals after he kills Orpheus at the conclusion of Brief Lives.

Unremitting grandeur is also the chief feature of Gaiman’s writing in Overture. This is dour, roaring epic (I use the term in the generic sense—this is a worlds-spanning journey of a hero among humans and divinities—not as hyperbolic praise). From a strictly literary standpoint, it is like Kirby’s New Gods if only Kirby, in addition to his other gifts, had been capable of writing Borgesian paradox-parables in evocative, rhythmic prose:

The monks of Klaa know that the universe is a distraction in the mind of God: As God meditates, seeking to clear its mind and achieve perfect enlightenment, ideas drift across the void. The monks of Klaa seek to remove all that is, molecule by molecule, in order to allow God to meditate undistracted, and to move on to the next state of being divine.

But what is Overture about? It is about the end of the universe: a star has gone mad, and its mad dreams are invading all other life, because it is a dream vortex. (The vortex is a regular occurrence in the world of Sandman, first appearing in The Doll’s House, though on a much more poignant and human scale there. Vortexes—beings whose dreams break the boundaries separating individuals, so that all dreams blend into one, threatening the integrity of both dream and reality—regularly arise, and one of Gaiman’s protagonist’s grave responsibilities, as Lord of the Dreaming, is to kill them.)

We learn in Overture that this star’s universe-destroying potential is Dream’s own fault, because he hesitated too long in killing the first vortex he encountered—because “[s]he was a good person. Generous, kind”—and allowed her to sicken her entire star-system with her metastasizing dreams. Even when he finally did kill her and her world under protest, he spared the star itself, saying, “I have killed enough living things this day.” Overture‘s conclusion thus turns on a time paradox: Dream recruits a crew from all corners of the perishing universe to dream into being a new universe wherein Dream has always already killed the star before it can destroy the universe.

It was this cosmos-saving mission that fatigued Dream so much that he allowed himself to be captured by the petty occultists in Sandman #1. But Overture also goes some way toward explaining how Dream came to be the hard, dutiful man of the series. Under his sister Death’s sternly pragmatic counsel—she says, “Everybody kills, little brother. They even kill their dreams”—he has had to force the entire universe to reconstruct him as a man who never wavered in carrying out the most appalling and inhuman responsibility. (By the way, I remain convinced it is possible to read all of Sandman so that the winsome, charming, fan-favorite Death is its villain.) That story of Dream’s fall—and not the cliched, sentimental subplot about the plucky little Dickensian orphan, Hope, which I could have done without—is the heart of Overture.

It is the story of how we lose our lyricism, our faith, our youthful ardor, of how it is necessary and terrible that the most tenderhearted adolescent must compromise with the killing demands of adult life. Gaiman ruthlessly hammers home the lesson when Death tells Dream, “You could have just killed one girl. Instead you are killing a world.” Sentiment and good intentions sometimes only make things worse. Overture‘s governing metaphor is cancer, its plot the development of a therapy so drastic that it almost kills the patient. In an epilogue, we learn that all this manipulation of the vortex has been Desire’s plan, as it will later be, has already been, in The Doll’s House. Desire leads Dream into life, and therefore inexorably toward Death. There is a sliver of ice in the heart of Overture.

But the book is ultimately too cold, I think, even for this moral (and the bathetic sentimentalism of the Hope subplot is another symptom of the main story’s unintegrated emotion). Art-wise, the experimental McKean is minimized in favor of the masterful Williams, who does even the cover and book design, making it all look more like an effects-laden sci-fi graphic novel than like Sandman. McKean’s witty, scary, sometimes illegible surrealism was the aesthetic ground of the series: the intersection of the everyday with the divine, supernatural, demonic. Magical libraries, wine with gods, divinities onstage in strip clubs. In a supplement in the back of the book, Gaiman states his intention for Overture to pursue a cosmic and design-heavy style inspired by Steranko’s Op Art adaptation of the Kirby legacy, rather than continuing with Sandman‘s more Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, derived from Barry Windsor-Smith. This moors Sandman more firmly in the tradition of mainstream super-hero comics, but some of us loved the original series so much precisely because it showed us other traditions just when we needed to see them.

Overture in its time-paradox way recalls/anticipates so much of Sandman‘s themes and plots—Williams even directly incorporates panels from the series—but stretches its triumphantly coherent aesthetic beyond its capacity. In a foreword, Gaiman notes that a preface, written last, is a “tombstone” for that work it introduces. This is even truer for a preface to an overture to a set of preludes. But Overture, while dazzling, is deader than it ought to be.