The Sandman: Overture may define itself as a prequel, but what author Neil Gaiman and artist J.H. Williams III have crafted is far more ambitious and indescribable. A missing puzzle piece to what many consider the best comic book series in the history of the medium, Overture charts the dire conflict that left the master of all dreams, Morpheus, weak and imprisoned in a debut issue that launched the same year Taylor Swift was born. But Gaiman and Williams III have also spun an intoxicating story that addresses questions not only about the first story arc of Sandman, but around tales laced throughout the epic’s 76 chapters.
Within Overture, Gaiman weaves a complex algorithm that’s both an independent story and a complement to stories he wrote decades ago, an articulate narrative man o’ war. Who’s the tragic princess ousted from her homeland at the end of “A Game of You?” What’s a Vortex? What was the Corinthian up to before embarking on his eye-opening murder spree? Gaiman answers these queries with skill and grace, following a domino path back to origins lying captive in his mind till freed in this book. And though Overture is a ravishing story about one anthropomorphic entity attempting to save creation from an unhinged celestial body, its pleasures are all the more tangible after reading through the original series. (Take the day off work—your bosses should understand, and if they don’t, maybe Morpheus will condemn them to eternal waking.)
Released today in bookstores, The Sandman: Overture Deluxe Edition collects all six comics into one gorgeous hardcover with back matter detailing J.H. Williams’ III stunning art. Gaiman took a few moments from tending to his new son Anthony (whose prequel can be seen here —stick around for 45 seconds) to discuss why he chose to dream another dream.
Paste: There’s so much connective tissue in this story to a comic series you began more than 25 years ago. I loved the fact that one of the first images was a red flower, echoing the tragedy of Nada and Orpheus. Was there anything that surprised you about these characters or the plot, revisiting it after so many years?
Gaiman: No. But the thing that genuinely did surprise me was when I finished it, I sat down and read the first four issues again and was amazed at how much [of the overarching Sandman series] they changed for me. And I thought, I wonder what it’s going to be like for other readers, because there was stuff that I’d always known when I was writing it. Now you’ve followed the journey that Morpheus was on before Sandman #1 starts: what happens and who he is in Sandman #1, what happens the next chapter in “A Hope in Hell,” which was originally Sandman #2, changing what happens when he’s in hell playing his game with the demons. That kind of thing absolutely fascinated me. I’d wanted to do something that might pull that off, but was genuinely impressed. This is working for me, who knows what it’s going to do for other people. If they read Overture and then go back and reread Sandman, they’ll see oh, this is how that plugs in, and this makes sense of that.
But it was very strange writing something where the story takes place before the story begins, but you are—as a writer—assuming that your readers have read the whole thing. There’s a point in the last issue that actually relies on you being familiar with “A Dream of a Thousands Cats.” There’s a point in earlier issues where you understand what a Vortex is and what happened. When you read Sandman #15 and #16, which are the last two parts of “The Doll’s House”….once long ago, you as a reader might have gone, Oh [Morpheus] is being a bit of a dick, as he explains to Rose Walker that she’s become a Vortex and he’s going to have to kill her. And now, coming at it from this direction you go, oh no, he’s not being a dick. He is absolutely, 100 percent doing the right thing, and that’s a terrible thing to have to do. And, Oh my God, I see what the plan was.
But J.H. and I built in tiny Easter Eggs all the way through as a reward for observant and careful readers. But we didn’t want the thing to feel like one giant fetid Easter Egg. Here is a free-wheel narrative; here is a story that you didn’t know, although you’ve seen segments and it was hinted at. And now, hopefully, it will change your reading of Sandman.
The Sandman: Overture Deluxe Edition Cover Art by J.H. Williams III
Paste: Having answered all of these questions, does Overture bring a sense of closure for tales that had been in your head for so long?
Gaiman: It was definitely closure for all the stuff that was sitting in my head that I was keeping aside for Overture, including some things I never even wanted to hint at. I knew that if I didn’t even imply that they were out there when they turned up in Overture, people’s jaws would simply drop—like getting to meet the parents. The wonderful, weird thing about writing Sandman has always been that you answer one question and it throws up two, and the whole process of Sandman has always been one in which you answer questions and the answer implies a further question, and implies a further story very often.
If it works well, it’s kind of like you’re planting a crop that leaves the ground more fertile. The nice thing about Overture for me is having told that story. I definitely feel like if I decided to do a Sandman 35th Anniversary story or a Sandman 50th Anniversary story, there are stories to be told. That’s never the problem. You never feel with those characters like it’s all used up. You just mostly feel like this thing could go on forever in all directions.
Paste: Morpheus fosters a far more intimate relationship with Hope than he ever did with his actual son. Was that relationship inspired in any way by the arrival of your new son, Anthony?
Gaiman: No, because Anthony’s five weeks old, and when I started writing Sandman: Overture he was three years away from being conceived. Because of the gloriously long production schedule, driving everybody mad…it was one of those things where it was a perfect storm of me and J.H. Williams. But it was also the fact that in each issue J.H. wanted to outdo himself. And he did. He was making these amazing, absolutely glorious things that nobody had ever seen in a periodical comic before, but they were taking about four months to do.
I loved Morpheus’ relationship with Hope. He is always more fun to write when there is somebody next to him who can call bullshit, and who doesn’t know as much as he does, but who can also go why the fuck are you doing this? If Matthew the Raven had been around in 1915, it might have been Matthew. Because I didn’t have a raven, and because by definition the cat he was traveling with was so much like him that they really couldn’t have a conversation, I thought, I need somebody. And Hope suddenly gave me a way in to the rest of the storyline.
The Sandman: Overture Deluxe Edition Interior Art by J.H. Williams III
Paste: J.H. Williams was perfect for this series—his paneling literally encapsulates the theme of stories within stories on multiple levels, whether it’s through The Corinthian’s teeth or Hettie’s crumbling mansion. How much of this layering and visual approach was collaborative?
Gaiman: It was both. Sometimes there would be things that I would ask for, mostly he would go off and he would give me something back that was better than I had ever asked for. And sometimes we would end up on the phone, plotting, and we’d come up with something glorious and ridiculous. There’s a point in chapter four where you have to turn the page all the way around. You read it upside down for two pages and then it turns itself the right way around. We do things like that because we can.
One of the weirdest and most wonderful things about working with J.H. Williams was I’d start out asking him to do things that I thought were impossible. And then he’d give them back to me in a way that was weirder and deeper than I’d ever imagine. And so it becomes this giant game of ping pong, like OK—if you can do that, I bet you can’t do this! And he would do it, and he’d throw in his own spin.