The Overture

smSpoiler disclaimer: this post discusses certain events in The Sandman (although it doesn’t divulge the ending).

The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s seminal dark fantasy graphic novel series, which ran 76 issues from January 1989 to March 1996, is finally over.

It might seem strange making that statement now, in 2015, but it isn’t. From 2013 until this past September, The Sandman had returned to us in the glorious form of The Sandman: Overture, a prequel to the original stories.

In the first issue back in 1989, Morpheus, the lord of dreams, was captured by humans. The story alluded to some great cosmic struggle that had weakened his powers and allowed for his capture, but the series never touched on the backstory more than that. This is the story that Overture endeavours to tell, and it does so with majesty.

The problem with prequels is that they usually have nothing to say. Often, they come in the form of a weaker storyline riding on the coattails of nostalgia, answering questions the reader never cared for, and painstakingly filling in pieces of backstory already covered in a few lines in the original. Prequels tend not to be able to show or develop anything new about the characters involved or give any sense of tension to the proceedings. Most of the time, the prequel never holds a candle to the original—as say, in the case of many a George Lucas film.

The Sandman: Overture, however, has none of these pitfalls, and has instead ended up being one of the best and most powerful stories Gaiman has ever given the world—and this is high praise from someone who has memorized all 200,000 words of American Gods.

Part of the credit goes to the art. Artist J. H. Williams III (of Batwoman: Elegy fame) is by far the best match possible for Gaiman’s otherworldly cast of characters. The reason it took nearly two years to publish this single volume is probably in part because Williams won’t rush perfection. There might not be anyone in the industry who can match Williams in respect to pure beauty, creativity, or skill. I don’t think that there is a single page in all six issues which resorts to the boring rectangular boxes comics are so often stuck in. Williams is capable of crafting panels in the reflections of teeth, in the empty landscape of space, or the already-drawn page of a book. His art is all at once magical, surreal, and astounding, each page an intricate painting. Credit must also be given to his use of many and varied colours, which pop off the page, making Overture one of the most colourful books of the modern era.

This is to say nothing of Gaiman’s writing. Even though the entire original series was written without knowledge of the backstory, Gaiman never fails to makes Overture feel like something absolutely necessary to The Sandman saga. His utilization of scope and understanding of characters makes for both a grand epic and a quiet character study. It is obvious that this version of Morpheus is not privy to the lessons his later self will learn, but at the same time it’s apparent that he is not static in this story. He changes and moves towards an inevitable end, yet is still undeniably the character that fans remember.

The Sandman: Overture chronicles the story of Morpheus, also known as Dream. Something is wrong in the world of the Dreaming, and when Morpheus encounters alternative versions of himself, it all becomes clear. The multiverse is dying; it is being consumed by the spirit of a star driven mad by uncontrollable dreams. This is Morpheus’s responsibility, as he should have killed the mad star long ago, and now it might be too late. Aided primarily by an alternate version of Dream in cat form and a little alien girl, Morpheus must find a way to fix his mistake, or everything that has ever lived will pay the price.

I’m not going to spoil the ending; this is very much a book that you should read for yourself. But it is worth noting that this is the only story which divulges the existence of Dream’s parents, who are revealed to be Father Time and Mother Night. Their appearance helps to give readers the impression that in this story, while Dream is already ancient beyond belief, he is something of a child, whose maturity is still being developed. Time and Night’s brief scenes are the most psychedelic of Williams’ art in the series, and are just short enough to leave an air of mystery while revealing something new.

Dream’s siblings—Death, Desire, Despair, and Destiny—also make guest appearances, but they are mostly incidental and Gaiman does little to develop them further (except with a slight surprise at the comic’s end). This is a story focused squarely on Dream, and, given its limited nature, it’s a blessing more than anything else. It’s also fun to note that barely a page takes place on our Earth or our time. This is a story that spans galaxies and it has no time for any Earth-centric bias.

It was seventeen years between the end of The Sandman and the beginning of Overture. But this was a story well worth the wait, with all the feeling of a grand finale and a final bow from Gaiman and company for a character and a mythos that has defined two generations of comics.

In only six issues, The Sandman: Overture is a near perfect display of what can be done with the graphic novel format.

Contributed by Ben Ghan

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