Neil Gaiman has been talking about the story of Sandman: Overture for years. He always said that he wanted to show us what happened right before Preludes and Nocturnes, and that the story behind Dream’s weakness was as interesting as the stories that followed it. So, 17 years after The Sandman’s main arc ended, we have that story.
First things first: is it good? So often prequels and revisitations fall short. I went into the Star Wars prequels and Prometheus wanting to love them, but…well, my vitriol has cooled over time.
With Overture, I think I’m going to cautiously, in much fear and trembling, say that this is….good?
*Mild Spoilers Ahead*
We learn in The Doll’s House that Unity Kinkaid was meant to be a vortex, that vortices destroy the mind of dreamers, and tear the Dreaming itself. Morpheus tells Rose, “It happened once… A world was lost, Rose Walker. Aeons ago, and half a universe away. I… failed in my duty. A whole world perished. It will never happen again.” My assumption is that Overture is that story, the story of Dream’s failure, which will tell us more about his nature and the structure of the Dreaming itself. We may learn not just why he was physically weak enough to be captured by second-rate magicians, but also what sort of soul-deep tragedy Morpheus was forced to confront while trapped in Burgess’ cell. In other words, the events that laid the groundwork for the changes that come in the original series.
This would mean, then that both of the first two Sandman collections are about Dream dealing with the fallout from this universal collapse—just when he’s retrieved his helm, sand, and ruby, he has to face down another vortex. No wonder he’s so exhausted...
My favorite bits of The Sandman were always the occasional check-ins with the dreamers. Todd Faber in Fables and Reflections discovering that sometimes a fall turns into flight; the thousand cats plotting to take the world back from their human oppressors; the poor confused couple that ends up waiting on Dream and Del in Brief Lives; Hob Gadling’s appearances; the entirety of The Wake. I love the care that Gaiman takes in showing how this epic story impacted ordinary humans, in the same way that Death’s appearance in The Sound of Her Wings shows us what her day-to-day interactions with mortals were like.
So it is in Overture. We meet two dreamers in this issue. One, a plant named Quorian, dreams in a distant galaxy; the other, George Portcullis, is a resident of our own. George Portcullis (who is only George Portcullis once a month, when he dreams this particular dream) is witness to a conversation between Dream and The Corinthian. This conversation would be absolutely terrifying if George Portcullis understood it, which fortunately he does not. It would also be much too direct for those of us in Readerland, so Portcullis’ presence serves to refract the information in a way, remove us from it, and make the whole scene feel, well, dreamlike. This conversation, which weighs the boundaries between dreams and reality, is set in the center of the issue, and give us a core that touches on some of the themes Sandman always explored, but with a slightly different tone. The more I think about it, the more this Dream feels different—more like a philosopher than the moody artist of the main Sandman arc.
Which is goddamn fascinating. I’m extremely interested to see how Gaiman is going to write Dream as he is before imprisonment, while both giving the character room to grow, and honoring the versions of him we’ve already met.
Death and Destiny co-star, and both seem exactly the way they always do. And I might be totally off, but I’m pretty sure Death is dressed in homage to Mary Poppins, which would be a wonderful call-back to her conversation with Dream in The Sound of Her Wings. Her appearance does lead to one huge question, though: where is her Eye of Horus? Mervyn Pumpkinhead and Lucien are also on hand, and while Mervyn gets a great gag, Lucien... well, he hears a crashing sound off-panel noise, and says, "I had better investigate,” before literally running to the throne room, which just seemed hugely out of character for stately Lucien. But again, this issue takes place decades before we meet these characters, so I should probably calm the hell down and give them some room.
Now, the other great moment, the moment that fans of the series are most likely freaking out about this morning, comes at the end. As the conversation between Dream and The Corinthian serves as a thematic lynchpin, so the four-page-spread at the end of the issue gives us a glimpse of the scope this arc is aiming for. We see many Dreams, Dreams from different galaxies, in a dozen different shapes and guises.
It’s quite possible that we see all the Dreams.
It’s impossible to overstate how good the art is, and this spread, as well as being dramatic, is a great showcase for it. J.H. Williams uses lots of tricks in the issue, like reflecting action on The Corinthian’s teeth, using color and its absence to represent different points of view, and, in the case of that marvelous foldout, giving us interpretations of Dream that are each unique, yet capture the spirit of the character perfectly. But it’s also the small moments—like Death’s too-cheerful expression when she’s trying to make jokes about her brother, and Dream’s own face when he meets the other aspects of himself—that give this issue weight, even in these opening moments of the story.
I’ve been worried about this book for months, but now I can say, while I’m still a little worried, I’m also excited.
Notes and Questions:
Dream takes his ruby and helm with him to the other galaxy, and we see then that about half of the other Dreams also have rubies—or at least red jewels of some type. What is the connection between these stones and Dreams? And why do some have them, but not others? I assume that there’s a connection with the line from the Book of Job that’s quoted in P&N: “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man knoweth not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living … for the price of wisdom is above rubies.” But for this galaxy’s Dream, wisdom came only with the destruction of the ruby. So why does his kind cling to it? When I looked through older issues, I noted that in nearly all of his pre-20th Century stories, he’s wearing the jewel, so I’m really hoping that Gaiman delves into it a bit more.
Death is wearing her ankh as a brooch rather than a necklace—I think that’s the only time I’ve seen that. She also doesn’t have her Eye of Horus makeup! She didn’t always wear that, but it was a pretty common look for her, so I’m intrigued by its absence here.
Destiny is chained to his book, and has his usual jolly sense of humor.
We know that Dream appears to mortals in a guise they can accept, so it was interesting in the four-page-spread to see that some of his counterparts seem to have some of these same guises as their base state. For instance, there’s a large Feline Dream—is Gaiman positing a galaxy of large cats? And if so, does he have any note on the possibility of travel to such a galaxy? Does anyone recognize any of those other Dreams from other stories, DC Comics, films, etc.? I’d love to see if Gaiman is practicing his usual cultural cross-pollination here!
And for a brief note about the issue itself… There were seven ads in the body of Overture. One each for Dead Boy Detectives, Hinterland, Coffin Hill, and the upcoming run of The Unwritten. There were two for Gaiman works: one for trades of The Sandman, and one that featured Black Orchid with Midnight Days, Mr. Punch, and Death: The High Cost of Living in a sidebar. The last one was for Alan Moore’s Promethea. So, that’s three new series (one of which is Sandman spin-off) versus one continuing book and three ads for complete works. The new books also had the new “Vertigo DEFY” tagline prominently displayed, eg: “DEFY Superstition” for Coffin Hill and “DEFY Origins” for The Unwritten. The older books, luckily, did not—what could they possibly say? “DEFY The Furies” for Sandman? “DEFY The Greater Arcana” for Promethea?) It just felt weird to me to see Vertigo, after all of its talk of looking to the future, so obviously promote work from the mid-to-late-90s, even if it was thematically related…
So that’s my take for the moment—what did all of you think of this issue? Did it live up to all of your dreams?
Leah Schnelbach is not one of those people who got into comics because of Sandman... she got into comics because of Black Orchid. Follow her 140 character thought balloons on Twitter!