Artist: J.H. Williams III
Release Date: October 30, 2013
I have absolutely no hesitation calling The Sandman the best comic book ever written. I don’t consider it hyperbole or exaggeration: it’s a universal truth in my head, as unwavering as gravity or male pattern baldness. Other comics have certainly come close, but did Watchmen, Blankets, or Maus deliver sublime graphic literature over seven years for 75 issues? That’s almost two presidential terms. Neil Gaiman’s epic redefined calculated storytelling; the narrative sprawled and grew like a living thing, where cause could wait years before meeting effect. The original comic revolves around a moody Robert Smith-looking diety named Morpheus, the literal Lord of Dreams, who tips a series of plot dominos over that eventually leads to his destruction. One could argue that the entire story is about the nature of stories, but it’s primarily the heart-breaking portrait of a god who indirectly commits suicide. It’s also about dysfunctional families, irrepressible guilt, neglected lovers and sons, the perils of unyielding commitment, and the occasional metaphysical Shakespeare play. And much, much more.
But let’s try to forget about Sandman’s hagiography for a moment to consider the first issue of the refreshing new prequel, Overture. To attempt otherwise would be a recipe for disappointment and inequity. After all, Gaiman has revisited his beloved cult universe before in Endless Nights and The Dream Hunters. Both works are incredibly entertaining, if non-essential and slightly disappointing when compared to the work they derive from. Which is absolutely fine; they strike their own unique tone — artful vignette and legendary prose, respectively — without treading on the monster of a story that came before.
As much I tried to separate Overture on its own independent terms, it proved a mercifully difficult task. This debut issue reads like a missing piece of a work completed 17 years ago. This untold tale doesn’t feel as much like a distant satellite as an undiscovered continent to the Sandman myth, brimming with the same other-worldly delight that Gaiman revels in.
The 6-issue arc plans to reveal the mysterious scuffle that weakened Morpheus before a drugged-out mage captured him in the debut issue of the series back in 1989. Unsurprisingly, the script’s finest moments don’t focus on major plot points, but in establishing the up-is-down, down-is-up surrealist wonderland of The Dreaming, the REM nexus where every story dreamt by anyone, alien flower or human, crawls out of the purple ether. Morpheus isn’t the star here. Instead, the bizarre, hyper-creative asides steal the show. For example: new character George Portcullis leads a double life inside his dreams where he bears a descending gate for a face, and waits for a master he’s never met in a flat that perpetually transports. But, “Perhaps, when he is awake, he is a woman or a child. Or a butterfly.” So very Gaiman. So very good.
The art, as anyone with retinas might guess, is fanfuckingtabulous. J.H. Williams III delivers disorienting Victorian-tinged eye candy that’s as ingenious in its arch design as its detailed execution. Anyone who can frame a spread through a nightmarish maw where the panels double as teeth certainly knows what he or she is doing. And any company who catches Williams after this series and his dismount from Batwoman gains the most innovative mainstream comics artist in the business. His illustrations in tandem with Gaiman’s descriptions pack a metric ton of superlative in one property.
Even with the praise stockpiled above, it’s worth noting that The Sandman: Overture #1 isn’t particularly substantial, and it’s not difficult to see why. The Sandman doesn’t digest easily on a segmented issue-by-issue diet; it’s designed to be devoured wholesale in 3 AM reading frenzies where the lone panel you absorbed five hours ago makes so much more sense 26 issues later. Reading a single issue of The Sandman isn’t like eating a slice of cake — it’s like eating the flour before it’s mixed with eggs, sugar, and butter. Don’t get me wrong; this is fantastic flour, but Gaiman has even admitted that previous volumes, like “The Kindly Ones,” benefit from the holistic read. There’s a decent chance this is one of those.
Sandman: Overture #1 is a wonderful promise to enter the trapdoor of a haloed property once thought completely explored. At the very least, it’s an intoxicating dose of escapism whether you’re a veteran of the Dreaming or dozing off for the very first time.