The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman & J.H. Williams III

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Editor’s note: Won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story

Reposting to include Stuart’s new review:

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman & J.H. Williams III

SANDMAN OVERTUREMost monthly comics come out, well, monthly, but DC decided to drag out The Sandman: Overture and release it every other month, and that seemed reasonable given how long it takes for J. H. Williams III to create his exquisite artwork. However, the comic ended up taking a full year longer than announced — from October 2013 to October 2015. After the first three issues, I quit reading because I just couldn’t stand the anticipation. As of this week, however, nobody needs to wait again. All six issues of The Sandman: Overture have been completed and released. The collected trade edition won’t come out until mid-November, but until then, you can either pick up the individual issues at your local store or buy them at Comixology and read them online. I encourage you to do so if you are a fan of The Sandman.

Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Overture tells the story of what happened to Morpheus-Dream-Sandman before he was captured by an Aleister Crowley-type mage in England at the beginning of original Sandman series. Gaiman, in a video trailer he recorded as a teaser for the comic, told his fans that he has always wanted to explain how the Sandman, such a powerful figure, came to be caught by such a petty and merely human magician. Gaiman’s point is that Morpheus could be captured only if he were in a weakened state. And he promised to tell us of the great struggle the Sandman endured prior to his capture. What, we were led to wonder, could possible tax the powers of Dream to such an extent that he could become so weakened? Who, or what, could threaten one of the mighty Endless?

sandmanoverture111An important question is if you should read this “prequel” if you’ve never read The Sandman before. In my initial review of Issue #1, I argued that other than having some basic background information I gave in that review, readers could enjoy The Sandman: Overture even if they had never read The Sandman. Now that I have finished reading all six issues, I’m a little less sure. I think Neil Gaiman clearly wrote the Overture for an audience who already fully understands all the references to the original series; however, I think that somebody new to The Sandman might still enjoy these six issues as an introduction to the world of The Sandman. As long as one keeps in mind that this story arc will seem a little less impressive than it will to long-time fans and as long as one returns to the story again after finishing the series, or after finishing Volume One of The Sandman at the very least, then I think it couldn’t hurt to read this prequel first.

The best reason for reading this story arc before any other Sandman stories is for the art of J. H. Williams III. Most comic book fans will agree that his art is some of the best in comics, and personally, he’s my favorite artist out there. I’ll read anything written in comics if he’s done the art. I like him that much. In fact, I think that along with a few other Sandman stories out there, The Sandman: Overture ranks with the best Sandman art, and since Neil Gaiman selected and wrote his Sandman stories and story arcs with specific artists in mind, artists who were the best in the field at the time, saying that the Overture is at the top of the list of the best art in the series is making quite a claim. Along with an award-winning issue drawn by P. Craig Russell, in fact, I’d say it’s the best art in the entire series. The first issue alone, I believe, provides enough evidence for this argument.

sandmanoverture444While the art is of the highest quality, the storyline, while solid, is not the best one Gaiman has produced, either as a novelist or as a comic book writer. I would place it the middle-to-lower range in terms of quality compared to all the other stories and story arcs in the entire Sandman series. I think the art makes the story seem better than it is. That feeling is aided by a fan’s excitement at seeing a favorite character written again by a favorite author. Finally, all the major and minor allusions to the original series produce in the reader another type of enjoyment.

The story itself, however, just is not as good as many of the other stories to be found in The Sandman. The best moments in the Overture are individual scenes between characters. The overall story, while it does give a reasonable explanation for the Sandman’s weakened state, does not impress me as that interesting overall. My favorite scenes, both in terms of writing and art, are those involving Dream’s confrontation with his mother and father. Who might they be, you may be wondering? Well, that would be telling. You’ll just have to read The Sandman: Overture for yourself. It may not be the best story he ever wrote, but mediocre Neil Gaiman plus art by J. H. Williams III is far better than most comics.

~Brad Hawley


fantasy and science fiction book reviewsNeil Gaiman’s epic Sandman series began in 1989, following the adventures of Dream, one of the Endless. The seventy-six-issue comic played out on a vast canvas of space and time (Dream is, after all, Endless) and introduced scores of characters. Since the story ended in March, 1996, many of us have wondered, “What could have weakened Dream so much that a group of mere human sorcerers chanting in a basement could actually ensnare him?”

Nearly twenty years later, in 2014, Gaiman gave us the answer. The collection The Sandman Overture tells us what Dream was doing right before Roderick Burgess trapped him.

The story is excellent, and Gaiman’s line by line writing is brilliant, sad and funny, as always. I am a lover of words and a lover of Neil Gaiman’s words, but the artwork —

The artwork is astonishing.

I’ll go into more detail in a moment.

Because Gaiman loves to mess with time, this story, as he says in his preface, comes after The Wake (the final volume in the Sandman), after Endless Nights, a collection of short stories about the Endless, and before Preludes and Nocturnes. If this seems impossible, remember that Dream and his siblings are not bound by linear time. This story explains some of the animosity certain of Dream’s siblings have for him, and gives us some backstory about one of his most frightening creations, The Corinthian. Along the way in this story, we meet the parents of the Endless, which explains a lot, and Dream meets many variations of himself, or herself, or themselves. (It’s confusing.)

sandman overture deathOnce again the moral ambiguity of the immortals comes into play. In the past, a younger Dream failed to take an action. He might have stayed his hand out of mercy, but it seems more likely that curiosity drove his choice, at least partly. Now the entire universe feels the results of that choice… and those results are bad. In his attempt to correct things, Dream meets the Dream of Cats (which echoed, for me, like Sir Terry Pratchett’s Death of Rats, a bittersweet moment) and a little girl named Hope; he journeys to a city of stars, to the realms of each of his parents, and to the garden of his brother, Destiny.

Musically, overtures often “preview” the themes that emerge in the larger work, and there’s the feel of that here, particularly the source of the malice one of Dream’s siblings feels for him. Dream is a different character than the one we meet in Sandman; he is a little more impulsive. I liked this story, but I didn’t love it, and I would have felt fine giving this work four stars, if it weren’t that the artwork by J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart bowled me over.

There are two double foldouts in this collection, and the first is where Dream meets his other aspects. This is no surprise; we’ve seen Dream in other aspects before. It’s the virtuosity of the drawings and the composition, and the colors, that made the first foldout a hit. On the next page, we see our Dream remove his helmet, and see the perplexity on his face.

sandman overture 28The next chapter gives us a depiction of Daniel; so much like Dream and so completely different; more fluid, less angular, just as majestic as Dream, colored in shades of white and silver that look like they will dissolve off the page. All of this is in contrast to the grim, gray-toned scene in Dream’s “London office,” earlier, where he confronts the Corinthian.

Elsewhere in the book J.H. Williams III channels the 1960s/70 pop art master Peter Max, creating an iconic series of images. The images are fluid, brightly colored and two-dimensional; a sharp change from the other pages that drip with shading, perspective and the illusion of depth. This choice is perfect for the character it represents; just as the shimmery pastel pages of the city of stars really do look like light. The second double foldout is a splash of colors, nearly hallucinatory, and as your eye scans the page from left to right suddenly the style changes; it’s darker, it’s more structured, because in those four pages we’ve moved through space, time and dimensions. And it feels as if we have.

The back of the book is filled with juicy extras, with some great interviews and how-tos. I enjoyed the story that unfolded here, although I never warmed up to this Dream as much as I did the character from Sandman. The artwork made this something out of the ordinary for me, and I’m giving it four and a half stars.

Strangely, even though it’s a “prequel,” I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone who didn’t already know something about Sandman. If you’re a fan of that series, then you owe it to yourself to get this book; and get it in hardcopy, so that you can play with the images the way the artists want you to. And then take a good look at your gift list; at least one person on your list deserves this beauty.

~Marion Deeds


 

I re-entered the world of comics after a 30-year hiatus thanks to fellow FanLit reviewer Brad Hawley’s impassioned Why You Should Read Comics: A Manifesto! and his 10-part essay on Reading Comics. It was clear that Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN series was the gold standard for sophisticated, intelligent comics for adults. Having read Brad’s review of the entire series, Welcome to The Dreaming: An Introduction to THE SANDMAN, I embarked on the 76-volume epic. At that time, my only dilemma was whether to read it in hardcopy or digital. There are plenty of purists who would insist that comics must be read in physical form as originally intended. But having discovered Comixology, I learned that comics could be enjoyed anytime and anyplace on an iPad or iPhone, whether on lunch break or even while clothing shopping with the family (it saved my sanity many times over), with the ability to focus on each panel separately using Guided View. In the end, convenience won out.

But last Christmas in Hawaii, my daughter and I were enjoying the rare privilege of shopping at Barnes & Noble, the only English bookstore still surviving in Hawaii, which we can visit once a year since we live in Tokyo. We spent much of our time in the comics section, and when my eyes lit on the Deluxe Hardcover Edition of Sandman: Overture and opened it to a few random pages, the artwork just stunned me with its incredible richness and detail. I wanted to read more, but at the same time I didn’t want to spoil the story. In the end I bought this beautiful volume but carefully saved it until I had finished the entire 76-issue series, because I knew that I would appreciate the story more if I knew all about Morpheus before reading this prequel. I’m glad I waited — this comic is an amazing achievement, one of the most impressive stories I’ve read in a long time.

The story centers on why Morpheus found himself so weakened at the beginning of Volume 1: Preludes & Nocturnes that he could be captured by mere humans casting ancient spells. What takes shape is an epic adventure that goes well beyond anything that occurs in the 10 volumes that come afterward. The scope is huge, ranging throughout the universe, time, space, and numerous dimensions. There are very few mortal characters other than a little girl named Hope Beautiful Lost Nebula. The majority consist of immortals like Morpheus (quite a few of him, in fact), his siblings, various alien beings, and even stars themselves. Most interestingly, we meet the parents of the Endless — it didn’t even occur to me that was possible. But these parents are fairly distant from their children — the disfunctionality runs deep here.

The plot gets going properly as we learn that a star has gone mad and is disrupting the balance of the universe. Furthermore, the reasons for this have to do with Morpheus and the decisions that he did and did not make. Once again the theme of duties and responsibilities takes center stage. It also sheds much light on Morpheus’ dogged insistence on doing his duty later in the series. Decisions, consequences, and sacrifices — these ideas drive the characters of this big-canvas morality play.

As Brad and Marion have commented, the artwork is so luxurious and hypnotic that it may overshadow the story somewhat, or make it seem better than it really is. I would prefer to think that Gaiman crafted his story to take full advantage of the amazing skills of J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart. There are so many fantastic things that happen in the story, it’s clear that Gaiman wanted to push them to their artistic limits, and the results are truly awesome. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time simply poring over each page and panel of any comic before. It’s a visual feast with a color palette so rich it can be overwhelming. This could not have been done without the advanced digital technology of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. In fact, the Deluxe Edition includes a treasure-trove of extras at the back of the book in which the artistic process is discussed in detail by J.H. Williams III, Dave Stewart, Todd Klein, and Neil Gaiman. It’s like magicians revealing their secrets, and it is really fascinating for anyone who may be considering a career in comic book illustration and design. It’s truly a collaborative effort, much more than novel writing.

In writing this review, I thought I would just page through the chapters to choose particular parts worth noting, but the pictures and story were so enthralling that I actually ended up reading the entire book again. In fact, this is one comic I can see myself reading again and again since the artwork and story complement each other so well. It might be my favorite Christmas book purchase ever.

~Stuart Starosta


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BRAD HAWLEY, who’s been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad’s series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart’s reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle’s 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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7 comments

  1. I started buying the individual comics and then stopped, too, but I will reserve my copy of the collection today! Just the pages you picked to post show the beauty of the artwork here.

  2. Nice review, Brad. I, too, decided to buy the collection based on your review — those pages look amazing!

  3. Thanks, Terry! You and Marion are gonna love this book for the art alone. The story by Gaiman seems like a bonus thrown in with the great art!

  4. thanks Brad–I always planned on holding off for the collection, and then doing a full reread, but it’s disappointing to hear your (quite trusted) response to the storyline. Though I often thought the character interactions were the best part all along, even when some of the earlier storylines varied, so maybe it won’t seem so bad.

  5. Marion, than you for a great review, particularly your detailed review of the artwork!

  6. I ALMOST bought Overture the other day. Then I looked at my bank account, cried silently, and forgot to put it on the gift list. One day I will return to a book selling establishment and purchase it once and for all…

  7. Two great reviews, and the artwork is truly mind-blowing. Now I’m torn whether (eventually) I opt for the more portable digital copies, or the most delectable hard copies!

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