Tradewaiting: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Overture

Tradewaiting: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Overture

This time around, Tradewaiting is reviewing The Sandman: Overture, from DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, written by Neil Gaiman with art by J.H. Williams and Dave Stewart.

I’ll preface this review by saying that I’ve been a fan of Neil Gaiman since before I really knew such a thing was possible… Way back in the summer of 1988, I was neil-gaiman-minkicking around the Virgin MegaStore near Oxford Circus in London. I hadn’t realized, but tucked away among all the music, the store also had a book section, and there, looking out at me from the racks of paperbacks, I spotted it – Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion by Neil Gaiman. Now, at the time I fancied myself the world’s biggest fan of Hitchhiker.  And from the looks of it, some hack named Neil Gaiman had churned out a quickie mix of trivia and biography, but it 32_11-minmight be a fun way to pass a rainy afternoon.

Today, almost 30 years later, I’ll admit that the book wasn’t great… but it had charm, and a keen sense of humour. I tried looking up more of this Gaiman fellow’s books, but the only thing I could find was Duran Duran: The First Four Years of the Fab Five. Sorry, I think I’ll pass.

But flash forward a year, and suddenly this Neil Gaiman fellow is bursting onto the American comics scene… His initial claim to fame was a kind of goth/emo/fantasy series called Sandman from DC Comics.  It followed the wanderings and musings of Dream, one of seven siblings making up the Endless, a family of godlike archetypes both shaping and shaped by human existence. It’s hard to overstate the impact of Gaiman’s Sandman today… Along with the work of Swamp Thing Alan Moore, e9635c9baf83b441e13de420b0567340-minit kicked off a “British Invasion” of American Comics, as UK-based writers brought a new, more adult sensibility to mainstream comics. The mature nature of these titles also prompted DC Comics to launch the Vertigo imprint, a home for a kind of storytelling far removed from the tired tropes of superhero universes. But above all, Sandman showed that it was possible to tell subtle, sophisticated stories about small moments and big ideas in the comic book format.

Gaiman eventually drifted from comics, and has become a hugely successful novelist. His books range from the riveting urban fantasy of American Gods (soon to be a television series) to the insanely funny tale Fortunately, the Milk… which has become my children’s favourite book.

This literary success made it something of a surprise, then, when Gaiman announced a return to Vertigo for one more Sandman story. Sandman: Overture is a prequel to the original Sandman series, but it functions reasonably well as a standalone story. In the distant past, dreams-minDream spared a mad star-being from death, but the star’s madness has spread, and that single act of mercy now threatens to unravel all of creation. As war is waged at the end of time, a corps of Sandmen from parallel worlds meets to discern a way to save reality, ultimately placing their fates in the hands of a dead girl named Hope. Like the original Sandman series itself, it is all very angsty and overwrought, but leavened with twee moments and a sweet, slightly askew sense of story. If you’re a fan of the original Sandman, you’ll find yourself in familiar terrain… but if this is your first visit with Dream of the Endless, you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve wandered into a late-1980s video from Norwegian pop band A-ha, with all the big hair, simple melodies and painful earnestness.

Of course, this assessment is a bit unfair. I actually enjoyed Sandman: Overture a great deal, but sometimes you really can’t get the band back together. This story will always be a coda or an afterword to the real story of Sandman, and while it’s always nice to visit with old friends, the SandmanOvertureInterior-minfeeling here is that we’re already onto the fifth epilogue in Peter Jackson’s Return of the King movie… It’s been great, but it’s time to go home.

Having said that, there are wonderful moments, as one expects with Gaiman… Dream’s parents – the personifications of Time and Night – are striking characters, and the role of Dream’s sister Desire is well-crafted and nuanced. The story drifts a little in the beginning, but soon settles into the kind of dream-like and melancholy arc that made Sandman so successful in the beginning.

It must be said, however, that if Sandman: Overture is not a tour de force on the writing side, it may well be one of the most incredible artistic achievements in recent comic memory.  The art itself is by J.H. Williams III, and the book is coloured by Dave Stewart. If you haven’t seen it yet, I can promise it looks like nothing else on the market today. It’s a staggeringly beautiful series The Sandman - Overture (2013-) 001-009-minof images and effects that travel from the deepest depths of a black hole to the scattered twilight of lucid dreams, passing through a polychromatic seascape of sailing ships, alien messiahs and brightest starshine, all filtered through a riotous assembly of alternate universes and realities. And if that last sentence makes no sense, well, neither does this story in some ways… but the art makes it all real, and all true, and all believable.  Stewart’s colouring sings on the page, adding dimension and strength to William’s art. The original Sandman series is perhaps remembered for a somewhat muted colour palette, but not here. A lesser colourist might have buried Williams’ art in greys and browns, retreating in the face of lovingly chaotic detail. Instead, Stewart embraces the otherworldliness, and uses his colour work to bring it all to the fore.

This is perhaps the greatest irony of Sandman: Overture – that a series best known for the impact and success of its writing is here to be most celebrated for image, shape and colour. I will continue to be a huge fan of Gaiman and his work, but in this case it is the art of Williams and Stewart that makes this book a “must have”.

Overall rating: For a pleasant reunion with an old friend, told through spectacular art and colour, I’ll give Sandman: Overture an 8 out of 10.

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