Here it is at last, a real new Sandman story, beautifully illustrated by J.H.Williams III. Neil Gaiman describes this as a prequel, which is technically true, since most of the events take place before the first issue of the original series–emphasis on “most,” as time is a pretty flexible construct in the Sandman world, and reference is also made to events as far in the future as the final issues of the series. Overture is the story of how Morpheus came to be in such a weakened state that it was possible for Roderick Burgess to capture and contain him via magic. At the same time, it is very much about the Endless as dysfunctional family–something the reader would need to know about from previous reading to fully appreciate. The “Dream – The Heart of a Star” chapter from The Sandman: Endless Nights is also a background reference. And Daniel, Morpheus’s successor as Dream, plays a role as well. An awful lot of background for a prequel!
So I wouldn’t recommend the series as an entry point into The Sandman. But the big question for longtime fans was, could the creative team capture the spirit of the original? Gaiman has always said that characters in The Sandman had distinctive voices, and some of them–Delirium especially–just seemed to write themselves. He revisits several characters here, and they all ring true to me. In addition to the Endless, the Corinthian (the nightmare with mouths for eyes), Lucien the librarian, Merv Pumpkinhead, and Mad Hettie all figure in the action, at least briefly. One new character, an alien girl named Hope (for short: the full name begins Hope Beautiful Lost Nebula, and it goes on from there), is the story’s Everyman character, a bit like Hob Gadling in the original series. But in this story she stands in for every sentient being in Creation, which is a big job for a little girl, to say the least.
The central event driving the action is huge: an aspect of Dream has died, as the result of actions by a sun that has gone insane, precipitating a huge battle that will end the universe. In a sense it’s all Dream’s fault, because in the distant past he should have killed that sun along with a vortex he destroyed. In typical Morpheus fashion he accepts responsibility and goes off to resolve the problem, alone (or so he thinks).
The mission gives rise to substantial expansion of the Sandman mythos. As he begins his inquiry into his own death, Dream first speaks to “someone in a position of responsibility,” a member of the First Circle (who apparently set the laws of the Universe). This sets him off to the city of the stars, and meetings with his father (Time) and his mother (Night). Williams depicts each of these abstract realms in distinctive, visually stunning terms. He is the master of the impossible.
Spoiler alert: Dream saves the Universe, otherwise none of us would be here to read this, or so the storytellers would have us believe. But it requires a huge effort of will, which is how he becomes trapped on the way back to his realm. The final scene looks familiar. It depicts Morpheus, still dressed for battle, in the magician’s trap. The final caption (before a brief prologue) reads “It begins.” The Overture has literally depicted what Dream was doing right up to the moment of the beginning of the original series.
The Deluxe Edition includes more than 50 pages of “Accompaniments.” These are a feast for anyone interested in the creative and technical processes behind the series, with contributions from writer Neil Gaiman, artist J.H. Williams III, colorist Dave Stewart, letterer Todd Klein, editor Shelly Bond, cover artist Dave McKean, and interviewer Sara Miller. I found Klein’s lettering essay (in which he explains the process of making the lettering translucent) and Gaiman’s notes preceding each of the six chapter scripts especially interesting. He confesses to a bout of stage fright about the whole project, aware of the huge weight of expectations. I think the previous post-series Sandman graphic novel The Sandman: Endless Nights was easier in that regard. First, because it was not presented as a formal chapter in the story, just a collection of character sketches of the Endless. Second, because no one expected the kind of sales it had, hard as that may be to believe now. The section is worthwhile for the gorgeous artwork alone, including all of the alternate covers for the individual chapters and a Williams sketchbook.
I suppose the many delays in the monthly publication schedule should be mentioned–even though it’s water under the bridge now, and the collection is just gorgeous. Gaiman’s issue notes mention the delays more than once. As I said, he was definitely having stage fright, and at one point he implies that Williams was as well. I have to think it was easier for Williams, though. There were a number of great artists associated with The Sandman, but there’s no single one he could have expected to be compared to.