Review: Sandman: Overture: 30th Anniversary Edition trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Sandman: Overture is a more than satisfactory return to Neil Gaiman’s vaunted series. I don’t think even Gaiman himself would claim that Overture is exactly the beginning imagined at Sandman’s outset (rather the original beginning is indeed its beginning), but this is a fine imagining of the beginning as seen from the end. The extent to which the whole of Sandman changes by virtue of this prologue-epilogue is negligible, but Gaiman succeeds in shoehorning enough effects to make them seem convincingly like causes.

[Review contains spoilers]

Never, I think, has Sandman dallied so long in science-fiction as it does here. As such, it’s hard to regard this an overture (and it’s not, of course). Even if it adequately foreshadows the themes, it only charitably foreshadows the tone and aesthetic. Not that JH Williams' art here isn’t magnificent — it is — and not that Sandman hasn’t always been a multi-genre series. But that it enters a new genre here makes Overture an outlier, not a prelude.

Still, Overture comes full circle in the sense that it was Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Sandman that served as Gaiman’s jumping off point for his series, and it is very much to Kirby that Gaiman and Williams return with Overture — the weird, wild alien designs, the battle among the gods that will bring about Ragnarok. Not to mention what feels like heavy Grant Morrison stylings among the plot points, Sandman done in the wake of Final Crisis, events out of order and characters who pass themselves in time.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

What I did not want from Overture was an apology. When Dream begins to tell the tale of an even earlier imprisonment and a bargain made with sister Desire to be freed, I worried that some new fact we were about to uncover was that Desire had affected his ability to love — that Dream’s terrible behavior toward Nada, Alianora, Calliope, and others was all the product of a curse and not Dream’s fault. Fortunately no such revelation was forthcoming, though we do learn where Dream got his signature helm, and also that imprisonment seems a common problem for him — he’s imprisoned in Overture at least twice, and that’s before he runs afoul of Roderick Burgess in the finale.

Perhaps the most salient twist to come out of Overture is we see here the consequences of Dream not killing a “vortex” when he had a chance, nearly causing the destruction of the universe (or causing it, until reality was wholly rewritten over top). If there’s a difference between Overture Dream and “our” Dream, it’s that the Overture Dream has a compunction against killing; he does not want to do so or does so haltingly. In contrast — given the events of Overture and then 70 years trapped in Burgess' basement — our Dream seems almost callous toward murder, not just with vortex Rose Walker but also when he kills his own son Orpheus, blithely setting in motion the events that lead to Dream’s own death.

Indeed, as I considered in my review of Sandman: The Deluxe Edition Book Five, part of the power of Sandman is the thrum of inevitability — that each event moves Dream closer to his death, and he doesn’t fight back against it even when he could. Overture twists this, too. The affair with the mad star is Dream’s fault but not his business, necessarily — he could let nature take its course and live out his life in his mother Night’s realm, for instance — and yet because it’s his fault he feels compelled to get involved.

As one of the Three Witches tells Dream, “The path you are taking leads you, directly or indirectly, to your death.” Dream’s death was not certain, but in changing reality — undoing his sparing of the star as he’d done before — Dream then places himself in a reality where he’s bound to die. To a greater extent than we understood before, Dream’s choices, and his stubborn refusal to make different choices, assured his eventual demise.

Again, Overture is hardly an “overture” — Daniel’s presence alone ought cement Overture’s place as Sandman’s epilogue, despite that the recent 30th Anniversary Editions place it first in the reading order. But Gaiman offers some clever conceits that make Overture seem more prescient than it is, like an explanation for the unexplained and barely noticeable scar on Alianora’s cheek from Sandman #36, the sixth part of “A Game of You” from over three decades ago.

As well:

Among my sins as a Sandman fan is that, having come to Death long before I came to Dream, my cognition of the connection between Dream and “hope” owes less to the battle of minds between Dream and Choronzon in Preludes and Nocturnes and more to Tori Amos' introduction to the first collection of Death: The High Cost of Living, where she talks about what Death taught her about acceptance, and, after all, “she has a brother who believes in hope.”

And so I was thrilled and bemused in Overture’s final chapter — thrilled at the callback, bemused it took me so long — when I finally got it, as the ghost of the alien girl Hope makes Dream promise he’ll remember her name. She is the universe’s last chance, and Dream believes in Hope.

In Overture, Gaiman can have his cake and eat it too — an epic adventure that we know did not actually precede Sandman but who’s to say it didn’t; none of the characters ever mention the events, but then again no one remembers it happened except Dream, and he’s not talking. Except of course when he describes Overture’s events in vague but hauntingly accurate detail to Rose Walker some 32 years ago in Sandman #16, and when he defeats Choronzon by contrasting universe-destroying anti-life with “hope”; what we thought was simple wordplay now contains multitudes. These are brilliant slights of hand by Gaiman, no less genius for their trickery.

JH Williams' art in Sandman: Overture deserves all the accolades — and Absolute and gallery and deluxe editions — that it’s warranted. It’s rare that I think a book earns page after page of double-page spreads, but Williams' Overture does, and to his and Gaiman’s credit, many of these see scenes continuing across the page; not an inch feels wasted on overlong splashes. The extras in this deluxe edition shed particular light on Williams' influences, his thought processes designing certain scenes and so on. It was interesting to me to see Williams' pick, for instance, at the imperfections he can perceive in his drawing of an absurd, winding staircase that seemed quite perfect to my untrained eye. See also enlightening interviews with letterer Todd Klein and colorist Dave Stewart.

Now this talk of Death makes me think, do I go over to the Death deluxe edition, or give Sandman a break for a bit? (I’m about to turn on Netflix irrespective.) And what about Si Spurrier’s Dreaming, where I hear Daniel finally gets more than a few lines? Or back to the DCU, “Fear State” aborning and on and on. A too-tall reading stack can be an ominous thing — though better than the alternative.

[Includes original and variant covers, copious promotional images, interviews, notes, and sketches]

Comments ( 1 )

  1. "almost callous toward murder [...] when he kills his own son Orpheus, blithely setting in motion the events that lead to Dream’s own death"

    Fascinating reading of Morpheus! I've always taken it that Dream kills Orpheus, both knowing it is something he should have done a long time ago while accepting that it will lead to his own death. If anything, Dream is indifferent to /life/ at the time of Orpheus's wedding; his eulogy for Eurydice to his own son boils down to "Yes, she is dead. And you'll be sad about it, but you'll get over it."

    In true Neil Gaiman fashion, life is a story, and the point of the story isn't always at the ending. (Every Gaiman story is about storytelling.) Dream doesn't understand it for a long time, but eventually he realizes that his own story has done more harm than good -- and, accepting that he must change or die, makes his decision by killing Orpheus, knowing that it will bring the Kindly Ones to him, knowing he should have spared his son an eternity of suffering, knowing that it will end his story. But I think he also anticipates that his story will continue in the form of Daniel, having chosen him as his successor far in advance.

    It's really a genius book. The more I reread it, the more I find in it. Stories are like dreams; the longer you spend in them, the more sense they tend to make.


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