Alan Moore, Miracleman

Miracleman, Book Three: OlympusMiracleman, Book Three: Olympus by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1980s, Alan Moore, the most celebrated writer in the history of mainstream Anglophone comics, made his name by telling the same story four times.

In Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen, a commanding male figure, superior of intellect and sometimes even god-like, remakes the world, or at least part of it, into some version of utopia.

In two cases (V for Vendetta and Swamp Thing), the reader is invited to celebrate this transformation, generally because Moore keeps the ideology of the hero and his utopia within the remit of the political left; in two cases (Watchmen and Miracleman), the reader is invited to question this transformation, generally because Moore surrounds the hero and his revolution with echoes of fascism.

In each case, including the more positive ones, doubts dog the utopian narrative; even the anarchist V and the environmentalist Swamp Thing trample ordinary people and democratic institutions, and all these utopian men, whether metaphorically or literally, attempt to control or fall to degrading women, with the female body seeming to stand in Moore’s imagination as a metaphor for ungovernable reality.

Evidently grasping the problem of his attractions to inhumane and even inhuman utopianism, Moore attempted a correction in his opus of the 1990s, From Hell: here the utopian hero is Jack the Ripper (AKA royal physician William Gull), his victims working-class prostitutes. Surely, we are not asked to sympathize with this vivisectionist-misogynist-revolutionist?

Yet Moore himself was quite literally ensorcelled by his hero-villain’s rhetoric, persuaded by his creature’s own monologues to become an occultist. In the final chapter but one, Gull ascends the Tree of Life into the white blankness that is God while his final, escaped victim Mary Kelly remains below with only those human appurtenances of flesh, family, and nation (to be more politically specific, female flesh [her murder-spared body], female family [her daughters, named for Gull’s other victims], and colonized nation [Ireland, occupied by the English power Gull served]) to console her.

The balance of Moore’s career shows his increasing efforts to synthesize magic and revolution with democracy and humanity, some more persuasive (Promethea) than others (Lost Girls), even if rather severe problems remain (why in the name of Glycon is the figure of love at the center of the universe in Promethea an image of Pan raping Selene?), and I’ll certainly get back to you if I ever finish Jerusalem.

My goal today is to account for Miracleman, which I have just re-read in part and in part read for the first time. As an adolescent I was never able to assemble all the out-of-print back issues and graphic novels, so I have only now read the whole saga in Marvel Comics’s recent reprints.

Miracleman was originally titled Marvelman. Marvelman was a 1950s English superhero created by Mick Anglo (whose Anglicized surname sounds like that of an English superhero) modeled on Captain Marvel, AKA Shazam. Both characters are boys gifted a magic word by a wizard, a word that when spoken transforms them into superheroes.

Marvelman spent the 1950s having adventures with his companions Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, and then went into publishing dormancy. Moore, an ambitious up-and-coming writer, was given a chance to retool the character in the early 1980s for the British comics anthology Warrior (in which his anarchist dystopia V for Vendetta also appeared).

Upon publication in America, the series’s title was revised to Miracleman under legal threat from Marvel Comics. The publication history of the series is dispiriting and complicated, with Moore publishing first in Warrior in Britain, then in an American series published by the indie company Eclipse. Moore turned over the series to Neil Gaiman after he completed the story he wished to tell, and Gaiman managed to publish six issues with Eclipse. Then the series and characters got caught up in an unfathomably complex legal entanglement, the result of which allowed Marvel to republish Moore and Gaiman’s work only in the last decade, with the anti-corporatist Moore’s name removed at his own request. His work is now credited to “The Original Writer.”

The difficulties of publishing the series means that it took almost a decade to get Moore’s whole story out, with a changing crew of artists. The story, though, was evidently planned from the first as cohesive whole by the meticulous Moore, and showcases his brutally realist-revisionist approach to superheroes in the 1980s.

Miracleman, according to Moore, is not really a 1950s superhero; his Mick Anglo–penned adventures were a Matrix-like delusion fostered by the crypto-fascist intelligence program, headed by one Emil Gargunza, which created superhumans by repurposing the technology found in a downed UFO. Once Miralceman learns this truth, defeats the corrupted Kid Miracleman, dispatches Gargunza, and has a baby with his mortal wife, the aliens return to discover what earthlings have made of their tech.

This alien incursion draws Earth into the Cold War between two rival interstellar empires who eventually agree to make our planet the staging-ground of their détente. Meanwhile, Miracleman and his fellow superheroes (now including a newly-discovered Miraclewoman as well as his own daughter, Winter), transform earth into a utopia without money, poverty, disease, war, or oppression. Such transformation is all the more necessary after the aforementioned Kid Miracleman returns to destroy London in a gruesome episode before his final defeat.

Moore’s story ends not only with miracle people but with a miracle world, even as the hints that this utopia is really a dystopia from the perspective of ordinary mortals become increasingly hard to ignore.

Completed between 1982, when Moore was just starting out, and 1989, when Moore was at the height of his powers, Miracleman displays extreme variations from beginning to end in the quality of its scripting. The early episodes are clumsy, with corny comic-book narration a cut below even that of contemporaries like Marv Wolfman or Chris Claremont. I am being cruel, but here is one egregious narrative caption:

A can of worms has been opened. A can of worms called “Project Zarathustra.” And every time you open a can of worms…you need a bigger can to get them all back in. (ellipses in original)

Why would you need a bigger can for the same amount of worms? This is prototypically bad writing: choppy, portentous, clichéd, and nonsensical.

Moore’s style improves exponentially, though; the final chapters, making up the narrative’s third division, Olympus, are almost an illustrated text as much as they are comics, with Miracleman himself narrating retrospectively in an epic (some say purple) prose-poetry that one might compare, among writers of the 1980s, not to Marv Wolfman but to Cormac McCarthy or, in the SF genre, to Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin.

Consider this passage, which stunned me when I was 14; it is Miracleman’s elegy to a fallen alien warrior, its fantastical imagery passing into a sighed diminuendo as binary code becomes the mourner’s cry:

And Aza Chorn, so swift that by compare the thunderbolts crept earthwards with the speed of stalactites…? Why, Aza Chorn is dead. Just dead. About his monument, the ghosts parade, the zephyrs shriek and howl and tear apart the clouds, rail uselessly at death and in frustration snatch up blossoms shaped like human lips, and fling them like blood-red confetti from Olympus to those mortal pastures far below, a rain of angry kisses showering down upon those tiny, distant lives…[11010000]: the And/oroids use this term to denote the sorrow that is felt on realising sorrow is a thing one can no longer truly feel. One one, oh one, oh oh, oh oh. (ellipses in original)

The art shows similar variations. The first artist, Garry Leach, is an excellent but rather literal illustrator, while the final artist, Moore’s Swamp Thing collaborator John Totleben, provides a moody, mixed-media extravaganza, often applying legendary pulp artist Virgil Finlay’s psychedelic pointillist technique to provide a visual corollary to Moore’s high rhetoric.

So what can all this mean? Is Moore on the side of his miraculous utopian revolutionary? Despite the unevenness in quality and the pains of production, is Miracleman a cohesive statement worth reading as political speculation?

Despite the overused term “graphic novel,” the novelistic texture of the work is thin. The characters are flat archetypes, except for two disruptive figures of the early episodes, Miracleman’s fascist “father,” the scientist Emil Gargunza, and the black assassin (with sapphire teeth) Evelyn Cream.

heidegger
Art: Alan Davis

Gargunza is a Mexican displaced by the Revolution and its aftermath; he later sojourns in Germany and then comes to England to birth superheroes by mingling alien technology with captured orphans. Physically unattractive, intellectually brilliant, and wishing for immortality, he is a genuinely poignant figure. The chapter where he tells his life story (which oddly takes its title from Warren Zevon’s “Veracruz”) is more successful than anything in V for Vendetta in humanely and anti-fascistically rooting fascist ideology in actual human fears and needs.

Evelyn Cream is even more compelling, his complex character one key to the meaning of the whole book. At first, the reader fears he will be a dire racist stereotype out of James Bond, but his rich inner monologues provide much-needed political reflection on the meaning of Moore’s fable. Here one aspect of his psyche accuses the other in an instance of racial double consciousness:

Really, old horse! These antics smack of the daubed face and the ostrich plume. It seems one cannot take the jungle out of the boy after all. What do you say, Mr. Cream? Educated at Rugby. Trained at Sandhurst. You read the untranslated novels of Collette [sic] and own an original Hockney. Good God, sir, you are practically white! […] And yet you follow this white loa, this Miracleman who leaves a trail of dead and fisheyed fellows in his wake! Can it be that you have gone native, Mr. Cream? Mr. Cream, do you at last believe in juju? Great grandfather, pass me down the gris-gris and the pointing bone, for I have opted at this late stage to become another crazy n—–.

I believe, by the way, that the last word, censored by Marvel, was spelled out in the original publication. But this linguistic whitewashing cannot conceal Cream’s ambiguous assessment of Miracleman as a survival from before modernity, the white atavism the Nazis often dreamed of. Moore’s words above perhaps don’t pass racial-justice muster today, but note, in mitigation, Moore’s (or the letterer’s) own poignant failure of upper-class white-imperialist cultural-capital mimicry signaled by the misspelling of “Colette.” Race is obviously not the only variable at work here, and Moore is as little superhuman as are his human characters.

In Cream’s second and final major monologue, he reverses the meaning of the first and finds in Miracleman not a white atavism but a white ultra-modernity, even a kind of ultra-colonialism, as he laments his own postcolonial compromises:

I wanted the white miracle. I wanted to touch the pale god that they had birthed in their machinery. The thing they had which we had not. And thus I reached out for that ivory promise, as did my father, as did his father before him…and I learned that thing which I must tell: That whiteness which we pursue through the dark trees of our inner continent…it is not the whiteness of hot steel, or of sanctity…it is the whiteness of bone. It is death. (ellipses in original)

So is Miracleman (or Miracleman) pre- or postmodern, emancipatory or oppressive, anti-fascist or fascist? Cream’s confusion, or Moore’s confusion about what a man in Cream’s subject-position would actually say and think, extends to the whole tale. One of Moore’s weakest major works overall, Miracleman is nevertheless productively confusing. It brought to my mind many conflicting political philosophies, all the “smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls,” in Orwell’s words.

I thought, for instance, of the Marxist theorist Christian Thorne. In a sharp essay occasioned by the carnivalesque and French-Theory-infused elements of the various alt-right subcultures that helped bring Trump to power, Thorne warns that fascism is not merely cultural conservatism or political authoritarianism. Thorne implores the American left to reckon with the bohemian, anti-bourgeois, avant-garde, and even authentically multicultural and queer commitments of historical fascism lest the fascism in the left’s midst, in its very anarchist pedagogy, be overlooked:

Does anyone really think that the fascists were right-thinking squares who always did what they were told and wanted to punch queers in the face? The German catastrophe was an awful lot weirder than that—uncomfortably weird if weird is what you like. A critical theory that preemptively declares itself a Zona Antifa gullibly deeds over its stances to the very movement it opposes.

Faithful to Marxism, Thorne doesn’t make the other half of the argument, which I have done in my writings on, for example, Lukács and Camus: namely, that Marxism often just is, like the stereotype of fascism Thorne repudiates, a disturbing doctrine of political authoritarianism and cultural conservatism.

Both of these befuddling ideologies, a radical fascism and a reactionary Marxism, came to mind as I read and re-read Olympus. Miraclewoman introduces polymorphous queerness into the erotic life of the general population as a prelude to her superman-breeding eugenics program, which, while more democratic, is not a lot different from what Gargunza had intended. Is this sexual emancipation or sexual domination?

Miracleman, for his part, abolishes money and takes central control of the economy. When a frail-looking and sympathetic Margaret Thatcher protests, he curtly implies that, in her own words, “there is no alternative.” Thatcher here briefly occupies the position of Rorschach in Watchmen: in both books, written by an avowed leftist who at the period of composition liked to be photographed in a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, conservatives and conservative ideology come to stand in for nothing less than humanity’s free will.

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(via)

By contrast to these evocations of fascism and communism, Peter Y. Paik, in his brilliant (conservative) study of superhero and science fiction narratives as political philosophies, understands Olympus to prophesy the triumph of liberalism after the Cold War, and liberalism’s becoming in turn an unaccountable hyperpower. On Paik’s view, Miracleman is not Hitler or Stalin but rather an amalgam of Bush and Obama, smugly insisting that their reign of surveillance and imperial global dominance is on the right side of the end of history:

Miracleman: Olympus, completed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, envisions the predicaments and crises that would follow when an interminable stalemate gives way, when the sources of catastrophe become more elusive and thus more alarming and ominous. Moore’s shattering of the geopolitical taboo accordingly serves to give flesh to the ineluctably revolutionary dream of an unconstrained expansionism and unlimited power that has been dreamt—and become magnified—within liberal democratic society.

The value of Moore’s Miracleman as political speculation, then, is that it can support Thorne’s anti-fascism, my anti-Marxism, and Paik’s anti-liberalism, not to mention Evelyn Cream’s anti-colonialism, because its real philosophical function is to warn of the severed head at the base of every capitol and all capital, the et in arcadia ego of every utopia, the murderousness of every politics, even as it also, through Moore’s soaring rhetoric and Totleben’s visionary illustration, refuses to deny the gorgeous attractions of our revolutionary dreams.

Roaming the preserved killing fields of London, ravaged by his former sidekick, Miracleman considers just this theme:

These charnel pastures serve as a reminder, a memento mori, never letting us forget that though Olympus pierce the very skies, in all the history of earth, there’s never been a heaven; never been a house of gods…that was not built on human bones. (ellipses in original)

And while Marvel Comics trolls Moore by printing in the back of Olympus a never-before-published Miracleman story by his rival and nemesis Grant Morrison (whom I read as a crypto-moderate in politics), Morrison’s story is slight. The true repudiation of Moore’s radicalism comes in the work of his hand-picked successor, Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman’s Golden Age is a collection of short stories portraying (via the intelligently mixed-media artwork of Mark Buckingham) the private lives of those in Miracleman’s imperial utopia. I find it to be gimmicky and precious, as much of Gaiman’s work, so impressive to me in adolescence, reads to me now.

In the interests of critical fairness, I will quote eloquent praise for what Gaiman does in The Golden Age from Samuel R. Delany’s introduction to the original collected edition (not reproduced in Marvel’s reprint, but available in Delany’s Shorter Thoughts):

The last movement of the previous Miracleman book [i.e., Olympus] was a raging panegyric, a dithyramb, a jeremiad dancing, hot and searing, right up off the sizzling griddle of language. There was no place to go—so Gaiman threw the whole machine into reverse. His six entwined tales here come like sapphires afloat on a supercool liquid, like shards of sea-ground glass, shadow-cooled; these understated stories almost hide their theme: For Miracleman is a book that is largely, generously, compassionately about mourning.

Delany’s sentences, which I am tempted to call better than anything actually found in The Golden Age, repay the tribute of Gaiman’s own allusion in the book to Delany’s classic short story, “Driftglass.”

The highlights of The Golden Age are two. One is a Dick-style tale about a city populated entirely by spies, overseen by the resurrected Evelyn Cream, a homeopathic dream-world meant to bring spies out of their mirror-halls of suspicion so that they may enjoy an honest life in the perfect state of the superheroes.

warhol
Art: Mark Buckingham

The second highlight is based on one line in Moore’s series (Balzac’s praise of Stendhal for writing entire books on single pages might apply to Moore). A resonantly mythological feature of Miracleman’s Olympus is its underworld, where the recent dead are resurrected using alien technology. At the conclusion of Olympus, Moore mentions the arrival to this underworld of Andy Warhol, which Gaiman takes as an occasion to do a comic-book rendition of “A Dream” from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, a Warholian monologue on the meaning of this science-fictional world. Considering Miracleman’s abolition of money, Warhol laments:

He stopped [money]. Said it was bad. That’s fine, I suppose, but how do you know if you’re more successful than anyone else? How do you know if what you’re doing is working? You’ve got to keep working.

Spoken like Margaret bloody Thatcher: without signals from markets, how can you know your art is good or your society free?

Gaiman, whose early work did so much, by affirming marginalized identities, to portend today’s social-justice revolution in comics, never pretended to be an anti-capitalist or a radical. He aspired to, and after writing Miracleman ascended to, the Olympus of the bestseller list. His watchword was “the personal is the political,” which is true, but not true enough for the philosophical ambitions proper to Moore’s Miracleman.

As for the Original Writer, he always was aware that the market, no less than those utopians who would overthrow it, might err. We are left, as ever, with his second thoughts, imperfectly expressed. This is, in its way, as it should be, since with his second thought, if not his first, he cautions us in this flawed epic against the pursuit of inhuman perfection.

winter
Art: John Totleben

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Greg Carpenter, The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book WriterThe British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer by Greg Carpenter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes, not often, I see a non-fiction book that makes me want to slap myself because I wish it had occurred to me to write it. This was my reaction on learning about The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer, Greg Carpenter’s study of the three British writers who, beginning in the 1980s, permanently altered American mainstream comics, not only aesthetically and institutionally but also with respect to their connection to the culture at large. Though other factors and other important creators were and are at work during the ongoing careers of these men, it can nevertheless be said that without these three writers, there would probably be less academic and literary respect paid to comics in general, fewer regular female readers of mainstream comic books (as opposed to indie or manga), and fewer if any serious or adult-oriented movie/TV treatments of certain generic material originating in such comics, to name only three developments led by the authors of Watchmen, From Hell, Sandman, Mr. Punch, Doom Patrol, and The Invisibles. Because the influence of Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison extends so far beyond comics to film, literature, and academia, a book on this topic was necessary, and Greg Carpenter has in general done an excellent job.

The British Invasion is not quite literary criticism and not quite biography, though it contains elements of both; its focus is less on close reading (and much less on the personal lives of its three subjects) and more on their negotiation of the world of comics. It traces their professional fortunes and examines how those fortunes informed their writing. Carpenter’s signature move is to suggest comparisons between the authors themselves, considered as striving and occasionally beleaguered working writers, and their fictional characters—Carpenter reads Gaiman’s Morpheus, for example, as a surrogate for Gaiman in that both writer and character struggle with performing their duties while remaining grounded in authentic human emotion.

This method reminds me of one of my other favorite books on mainstream Modern Age comics, Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why; Klock tends to see the characters of Moore, Morrison, and other comics writers as sharing their authors’ fight to create a space for their visions in a world already crowded with other people’s meanings. But whereas Klock’s study is a psychodrama influenced by Harold Bloom’s poetics of influence, Carpenter neglects psychology and the weight of tradition in favor of sociology and the institutional factors (the market’s demands, as interpreted by editors and publishers, above all) that made Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison the writers they were; a corollary in academic literary theory to The British Invasion would not be Bloom’s work, then, but Pierre Bourdieu’s studies of the development of autonomous art in nineteenth-century France in The Field of Cultural Production or The Rules of Art—appropriately enough, since the revolution carried out by the British invaders aimed to turn comics away from profit-driven sensationalism and cliche and toward such aesthetic values as realism, formalism, and experimentalism.

But The British Invasion is, for better and for worse, not an academic book. Carpenter writes in a loose conversational style modeled on the type of public pop-culture criticism that flourishes on the Internet. He also assumes an audience mostly already familiar with comics history and lore, as when he makes knowing references to No Prizes or casual deployments of McCloud’s taxonomy of panel transitions. Despite the occasional solecism (call me stodgy, but the misuse of “begs the question” causes me to squirm), this is mostly to the good, as it allows Carpenter to stress events and circumstances that may well be beneath the awareness of many academic critics, such as the rise of Image Comics and the creator rights’ movement, the speculator bubble of the early 1990s, and the major editorial role of Karen Berger in these writers’ careers (in an appendix, Carpenter interviews Berger herself).

Relatedly, Carpenter is at his best in analyzing not such much-criticized works as Watchmen or Sandman but more minor and overlooked works in the three writers’ oeuvres, to include such flotsam as Moore’s early Star Wars stories and Gaiman’s Future Shocks shorts, texts I was not even aware existed; I doubt the dreck Moore wrote for Todd McFarlane, which I recall tossing aside in disgust when I was thirteen, will ever receive such a nuanced critique again! And I especially appreciate Carpenter’s emphasis on three crucial, neglected early-’90s graphic novels by his subjects: Moore’s A Small Killing (with Oscar Zarate), Gaiman’s Signal to Noise (with Dave McKean), and Morrison’s The Mystery Play (with Jon J. Muth).

All in all, The British Invasion is an informative and intelligent approach to these three writers, who (along with their American counterpart, Frank Miller) did more for mainstream comics than anyone since Stan and Jack. The following qualm, then, should not be taken to qualify my recommendation—anyone interested in this subject should certainly read this book. What I am about to say is more in the vein of those rambling, irritating comments at academic conferences whose subtext is, “Why didn’t you write the book the way I would have written it?”

An invidious question: is Alan Moore really on the same artistic plane as Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison? Twenty or even fifteen years ago, I probably would have said yes, but this century so far seems to have clarified matters, as both Gaiman and Morrison have in different ways capitulated to commercialism, with Gaiman’s becoming a kind of YA lifestyle guru and Morrison’s success as DC Comics company man.

The promise of their early masterpieces seems largely unfulfilled, as Gaiman opted for fans in lieu of readers sometime after American Gods and Morrison’s commitment to pop magic justified his almost total absorption by the corporate machine. In Morrison’s case, even the early work looks diminished in the rear view mirror; on the back of the final Invisibles trade paperback, Warren Ellis compared that series to a set of pop songs, and, like pop songs, Morrison’s work (in my experience) makes an intense initial impact but can only be nostalgically revisited rather than critically reinterpreted. That initial impact was enormous and sensibility-shaping for me (I first read Arkham Asylum when I was eight!), but the work does not to my mind meet the gold standard of endless re-readability. Gaiman’s Sandman perhaps does meet that standard, but does much else in his corpus? I suspect he sought too much contact with his audience, which made him (as it would probably make anybody) less tough-minded and independent than a visionary needs to be. Drawing inspiration from Carpenter’s taste for musical metaphors*, we might say that Gaiman and Morrison began as Radiohead and finished as Coldplay.

By contrast, Alan Moore’s much-decried self-isolation from the mainstream currents of Anglo-American culture, his obsessive pursuit of his own worldview, lends his work, even today, an intricacy and autonomy that beg for close reading and will not leave the mind. Moore has not finished experimenting or unfolding the implications of his nature and experiences, whether readers like it or not (and readers do not have to like it, as I do not like the nastiness of Neonomicon or the sheer tendon-straining weight of Jerusalem, a novel I will likely finish reading in about the year 2020; we need only be possessed by it in spite of ourselves).

Throughout his book, Carpenter expresses impatience with Moore’s old-fashioned (and sometimes personally and professionally divisive) concern to make a distinction between art and commerce, finding Gaiman’s and Morrison’s creative adaptations to the market more to his taste; but the actual careers of these authors may testify to the rightness of Moore’s uncompromising idealism. Pragmatism, as somebody once observed, is well and good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.
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* Carpenter structures his book by an analogy between comics’ British invasion and the best-known British invasion of American pop culture, that of rock bands in the 1960s. Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison are likened to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who, respectively (if not quite consistently), and each chapter is accordingly named for one of those bands’ songs when focusing on their counterpart writers. Leaving aside the aptness of the comparisons (while the Moore/Beatles and Morrison/Who conflations make sense, is there anything of the bluesy, dirty Stones in the more genteel Gaiman? I am not a music expert, but perhaps his analog should be The Kinks—isn’t he a dues-paying member of the Fiddler’s Green Preservation Society?), it is either an amusing and witty device or far too cute. I never did decide which!

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

The Sandman: OvertureThe Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[Spoilers.]

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 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 on an acquaintance with the characters, and many of its emotional peaks work primarily because the reader is learning new information about long-familiar characters: 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, and by the delirious, surreal, and sometimes abstract covers of Dave McKean, by the complex but clear 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 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; 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 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 all 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 “She was a good person. Generous, kind”—and allowed her to sicken her entire star-system with her metasticizing dreams. Even when he finally did kill her and her world under protest, he spared the star itself: “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.

So Overture not only explains the mission that so fatigued Dream that he allowed himself to be captured by the petty occultists in Sandman #1, but 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, 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—channeling Derrida?—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.

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