So — you probably weren’t expecting me to finish up my contributions to TTSL’s Halloween horror round-up with a review of a horror comic, as opposed to a horror movie — or, hell, maybe you were — but let’s be honest : the debut of Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III’s The Sandman : Overture (which, I suppose, might be more accurately categorized as “myth” or even “fairy tale” than actual “horror,” per se, but what the heck — The Sandman started out life being billed and marketed as a “horror” series, and it’s certainly always maintained a strong following among horror fans, so — that’s good enough for me) is an honest-to-goodness event in its own right, and something tells me that a lot of folks who haven’t set foot in a comic shop in a very long time will be back to pick this one up ( guess we’ll see how well those former black-clad goth kids have aged), and, Sandman fans being by and large a pretty hard-core lot, I don’t think we’ll have a repeat of the type of precipitous sales declines between the first and second issues that we saw with, say, Before Watchmen, which was the last big “bring the old readers back” push that DC/Vertigo undertook. It also helps that The Sandman : Overture is probably going to be a good comic, of course, as well — at least if the first issue is any indication.
Notice, however, that I didn’t quite go so far as to say that it’s going to be a great comic. Frankly, it’s just too early to tell. I’m certainly hoping it will be, and have no real reason to doubt Gaiman or Williams, but — for the time being, I think it might be smart to leave myself just a little bit of wiggle room by not pronouncing its greatness too early. There’s no doubt that I absolutely enjoyed each and every word and panel in this book, and that it made me smile from ear to ear and cover to cover all three times (so far) that I’ve read it, but it’s also not without its (small, I grant you, but still — ) flaws.
I’ll tell ya what, though — the art’s not one of them. This is probably the first Sandman comic where the illustrations have outshone the script. Which is no knock on the script, by any means — it’s just to say that Williams, who employs literally dozens of different styles here, really knocks it out of the park. Whether he’s doing lush dreamscapes, black-and-white etchings, watercolor historical pastiches, or magnificent cosmic two-,three-, and even four-page spreads, he’s entirely and majestically at the top of his game. Honestly, his work on this first issue puts even his best efforts on Promethea to shame. This is a consummate and visionary professional at the height of his creative powers. Feel free to “ooh” and “aah” profusely — I sure did.
The variant covers (by, as pictured, Williams, original Sandman cover artist Dave McKean, Williams again, McKean again, and DC head honcho Jim Lee — yes, even his looks cool) are all quite a sight to behold, as well, even if McKean’s “two” amount to different iterations of the same painting. There’s no doubt that these lavish works do much more than just celebrate the 25th anniversary of this series (shit, I suddenly feel really old), or herald the arrival of a major new story, or even reintroduce a fan favorite with the proverbial “bang” — they all complement the issue itself about as perfectly as one could hope — dare I say dream — for. Each says “welcome back, old friend — you’re in good hands, this was crafted with love and we’re pleased that you’ve joined us.”
Not to be too overly- effusive with my praise, mind you — just calling it like it is.
So what’s holding me back from saying that this is the best thing to come down the mainstream comics pipeline in a decade or more, at least? Well, to be honest, the book does have a few minor problems. Gaiman seems to have hung the framework for this introductory chapter over a couple of really neat ideas that, for whatever reason, he never really delved into much in The Sandman‘s original 76-issue run — namely, what dreams are like for alien life forms and what a gigantic conclave of all the various iterations of Morpheus/Dream’s anthropomorphic “selves” would play out like. Between all that we have brief but welcome appearances of beloved characters like Destiny, Death, Lucien, Merv Punkinhead, and The Corinthian, but so far all we really know is that this six-issue “prequel” is going to end where The Sandman #1 began and finally tell us exactly how the Lord of Dreams was able to be captured by mere human dabblers in necromancy in the first place.
It promises to be an intriguing and dare I say wild ride, to be sure, but — we also knew that’s what this book was going to be about going into it. I mean, the Overture part of the title pretty much gives things away, doesn’t it?
In all fairness, there’s nothing here in the first issue that will dissuade anyone from sticking with the series to its conclusion (although Gaiman’s intuitive knack for sequential pacing appears to have slipped a bit in the first few pages, he quickly regains his old form and is firing on all cylinders by about the fifth or sixth page) — quite the reverse — but it’s also neither particularly accessible to new readers nor of much value, story-wise, as a “stand-alone” piece. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it strikes me that the very best issues of the original Sandman series were either stand-alone works like the magnificent “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or “August,” or individual segments of sweeping, multi-part epics like “The Dolls’ House” and “A Game Of You” that also could be read and enjoyed (although, admittedly, not enjoyed, or even understood, as completely) when read on their own. The Sandman : Overture #1 really only works when considered within its context : as the opening salvo of a story that readers have been waiting a quarter-century to be told.
In all honesty, though, it’s probably well-nigh impossible for me to separate this book out from my own personal context as a reader either. I picked up The Sandman #1 back when it first came out and stayed with it right up to the end. The years of its publication coincided with my heaviest period of comics collecting, and though my tastes changed radically over the course of its run — I was subsisting on a steady diet of then-current Marvel and DC pablum when the series started and had all but given up on the mainstream in favor of titles like Hate, Eightball, Yummy Fur, and Palookaville by the time it was done — my love for Gaiman’s characters, concepts, imagination, and sheer storytelling prowess never dimmed in all that time. Reading The Sandman : Overture #1 is like catching up with a long-lost friend or family member that, if pressed, you’d have to confess you probably thought you’d never see again. I can’t even accurately describe how fucking good it felt to see a new Sandman comic on the shelves at the shop today, nor how great it felt to immerse myself in its pages after buying it.
The book itself may not be perfect, but life sure felt perfect while I was reading it. That. my friends, is as good a textbook definition of “magic” as you’re likely to find right there. Pinch me, please, because I must be dreaming.