Sandman: Overture #1
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by DC Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Since its debut a quarter of a century ago, Neil Gaiman's Sandman has never stopped finding its way into the hearts of new fans, banking on Gaiman's vision of a distant, but relatable cadre of demigods, his knack for finding the heart of every literary trope he could lay his hands on, and a wealth of legendary artistic contributors. With Sandman: Overture, Gaiman, along with fellow narrative innovator J.H. Williams III, has crafted an imperfect but promising love letter to those who cherish the Endless and all the creatures and worlds they embody. Those yet to find their way to the Dreaming, however, may not find its entrance here.
Let's start with what works in Sandman: Overture. Gaiman recaptures the essence of this world as if it hasn't been 14 years since he last set foot on its soil. His vision of a "story of stories" is as present as ever, visible in the way Morpheus casually flits from one incarnation to another, spanning realities, galaxies, and narratives, fitting easily into each new guise. Morpheus's monologue captures the same detached, dramatic bent as it did at the height of Gaiman's run, bolstered by J.H. Williams's dreamlike, yet surprisingly subdued art. If any complement can be paid to Sandman: Overture, it's that it doesn't feel like an afterthought, or a cash in. It feels like an untold story from somewhere in Gaiman's original run, right down to Williams's art, which would have been well at home alongside the original series's many gifted artists.
At the same time, Sandman: Overture isn't perfect. Many of its gambits, such as introducing Morpheus first as a sentient flower governing the dreams of plant life may be baffling for some, especially since Williams's depiction, well-rendered as it may be, fails to carry the weight of many of Dream's other incarnations. Like many of the admittedly limited flaws of Overture, the problem is less with the concept - Dream appearing as a flower is no less salable than many of the original series's conceits - but more with execution, in that it's the type of idea that would probably have worked more convincingly in prose. It's easy to see how Gaiman's writing has changed since the end of Sandman's original run. Though he recaptures Morpheus's voice with ease, there is a decidedly prosaic tone to this story, which occasionally translates to cumbersome dialogue boxes. While Gaiman has always had a more literary narrative style, there are pages where the script does less to serve the story, and more to weigh it down.
Bearing in mind that this script was written with J.H. Williams III in mind, it is a little disappointing that Williams doesn't bring more of the mind-bending, panel twisting style of some of his previous work to the table. While there are moments of Williams's usual brilliance, such as the sequence where Morpheus confronts the Corinthian, or his spiraling, sprawling depiction of Morpheus's interstellar travel, Williams's double page spreads are decidedly pedestrian in this opening volley. It's likely, especially based on the book's final pages, that later issues will see Williams branch out, exploring new worlds and new ideas. Still, Williams's less electrifying work is still often better than many other artist's best, and that's the case here. With a painterly sheen from Dave Stewart balancing psychedelic colors with deep blacks and almost pulpy grays, Sandman: Overture may go down as one of the best-drawn chapters in Sandman's already legendary run.
It would be easy to accuse Gaiman and company of simply returning to the Sandman sandbox for a money-grab, but considering how rarely and with how much care Gaiman still curates these characters and their minimal appearances, it's difficult to see Sandman: Overture as anything but a nod to Morpheus's longtime fans, and a fitting way to celebrate a milestone in the history of a monumentally important work. Nothing in Sandman: Overture tells readers to "forget what we know," or shocks them with cheap ploys, but rather Overture invites readers to return to the Dreaming for one last chapter, one more tale left untold.
While it's hard to say that Overture's first issue is perfect, that it even comes close to living up to the impossibly high expectations set for it is almost miraculous. Sandman: Overture presents a new chapter to the story of Morpheus, one that feels at home with the rest of Sandman's canon, but not one that feels as much like the start of something new. Those already familiar with Morpheus, the Endless, Cain, Merv, and the rest of the many wonderful characters that populate this world will find much to love, if only for one more fleeting glimpse at a story that, for many, was a definitive literary experience. For the uninitiated, there is still the gorgeous art of Williams and Stewart to feast on, but Gaiman's magnum opus is still best begun like all stories - at the beginning.