With Sandman: Overture, Neil Gaiman returned to the world of the Sandman for the first time since Endless Nights. He gives us the prequel to Preludes and Nocturnes, and tells us the story of what Morpheus was doing right before he was captured by Roderick Burgess. How could such a powerful entity be snared by a cut-rate Aleister Crowley? When he spoke to Junot Diaz on Monday, Gaiman said that he didn’t want to add anything to Sandman that would make it “less.” Now that the series is complete, I can say that Overture certainly doesn’t lessen anything—instead it adds depths and nuances to the larger Sandman arc that are startling, terrible, and heartbreaking.
It’s not an easy read, but it might be a necessary one.
Overture is clearly a book written by an older man. Here the inevitability of death and the inexorable nature of fate hang over every action, no matter how small. Where some past Sandman stories were lightened by humor and humanity, here the characters are all gods, concepts, stars gone mad. This is not a fun book. It is a beautiful miracle to look at, and often to read, but it is not fun. Even Death herself, when she shows up, isn’t able to lighten anything. Her role here is to be the antithesis of the perky Goth readers met in the eighth issue of Sandman.
The plot itself is simple, and an echo of the main arc collected in The Doll’s House: Dream has to deal with a Vortex that’s destroying the Dreaming. Because he falls short in his duty, the insanity caused by the Vortex is now spreading across the Universe like a cancer. If Dream can’t find a way to stop it, the entire Universe will be destroyed. (So, OK, when I said “simple” I guess I meant “Gaiman Simple”…) He meets with himself to figure out a game plan, which looks like this:
And then he, the Dream of Cats, and an orphaned girl set off on a quest to heal the rift in reality. Along the way they encounter metallic bugs, stars, The Kindly Ones, and a few of Dream’s family members, and things become more and more complicated as Dream wrestles with his responsibilities.
I’ll just say immediately that this is a great book. While a few of the thematic elements are overstated, the writing is gorgeous, and the art is breathtaking. I only had one real problem with the book, which is that it ties the story up so neatly—it’s amazing, that Gaiman was able to do it at all, and it does add to that sense of fate I mentioned earlier. But it also makes the entire arc so neat, the I ended up missing some of the looser feeling of earlier books. Where reading, say, A Game of You had that sense of “What’s going to happen next???” reading Overture I found myself saying “Of course this had to happen. And that will have to lead to that. Oh, no.” But I also think that that’s the function of this book. Overture is about responsibility, the way we create ourselves with our choices, the way even the tiniest mistakes can destroy a universe.
If I could, I would talk about the art literally forever, but there’s a rumor that I’m mortal, so I’ll keep this brief. This is probably the most beautiful Sandman. The only one that comes close is Dream Hunters, and that is a single book with a single, flowing style. Here J.H. Williams blows the roof off the muther, trying new styles in each panel, ignoring the panels, telling the panels that they don’t actually exist and then bringing them back in a new, even better form…it’s sheer joy to watch the art play across the pages. Even Endless Nights, with its great variety of artists, wasn’t as inventive and visually audacious. I mean, look at this:
The panels break apart spill into each other, fold back. Time is meaningless, so moments that occur halfway thru book are suddenly revealed to have happened twenty pages earlier, in between two panels you’ve already read. And a particular highlight is the way Williams uses inset panels to give us close-ups of characters or inner monologues, while still keeping the cosmic nature of the conflict in focus.
Here’s the part where I warn you that the next few paragraphs are slightly spoilery. Read with caution, or skip ahead a few paragraphs.
We meet Dream’s parents, and hey’re exactly as warm and loving as you’ve always assumed. JK they’re actually unfeeling monsters! Well, they’re Night and Time, so they don’t really know how to feel the way in the way humans do, or even in the way their Byronic jerk of a son does. But, they understand him better than he understands himself, which is fun to watch. Actually, the bit with Dream’s mom is the only time the book cracked into being purely fun. Neither parent is too interested in helping Dream, even though his mission is literally to save the Universe. Actually, the end of the Universe is kind of a plus for Night…
There is also a character named Hope, and she’s both centrally important, and much too on the nose for my taste. I might change my mind after I think about her some more, and I do love the way her character, and Dream’s promise to remember her, plays into Preludes and Nocturnes’ confrontation in Hell, but I also felt like her introduction read too much like a Firefly homage. There is also a lot of thematic weight hung on her shoulders in very few pages, and it’s the only bit where the writing seemed slightly strained.
Finally, we get to see what Delirium meant when she told Destiny there were things not in his book!
So, the big question here is: Is it necessary? Nineteen years after the last issue of The Wake hit shelves, and fifteen since the last collection, Endless Nights, is the Sandman story still worth telling? Does this new chapter add anything we need? Welllll…. This is going to sound like a cop out, but I think it depends on the reader.
Honestly, speaking only for myself, I really loved the mystery of beginning with Preludes and Nocturnes, knowing that Morpheus was just returning from some unspeakable task, only to find himself captured by a hedge magician. Beginning a story with such a striking character totally out of his element appealed to me. However. This story works. It adds new depth to the larger Sandman arc, shades in some nuances on Dream’s character that will make a Sandman reread extremely interesting, and, best of all, gives us a new view on one character in particular that I think many fans will love. I’m not sure if a new reader should start here, though. Obviously this is a difficult call for me, since I read Sandman in a specific (completely accidental) order that ended up feeling like the best possible way to read it, but I still think that a lot of the weight of this book will be lost on a person who doesn’t already know the characters. The more I think about it, the more I think it will work best as a sort of mid-point prequel, like the way The Two Towers begins with Smeagol’s first encounter with the One Ring.
I was nervous going into this book. I was worried that Gaiman wouldn’t have the voices, or that the story would feel like forced nostalgia. Instead, this is a rich book that will add a new dimension to the Sandman universe. While the central message is a bleak one—even our best intentions can create terrible consequences—it’s true to the world he created. I cannot wait for my next reread of the series.
The Sandman: Overture Deluxe Edition is available now from Vertigo.