First Impressions – THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE #1

The Sandman Overture #1 by Dave McKean

“Where some dreams live…but…sometimes dreams die”. Celebrated writer/author Neil Gaiman returns to the realm of sleep he built. THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE #1 takes readers back to before the events of The Sandman, when Dream of the Endless presided over the lands of slumber; before his capture, imprisonment, release, rise…and fall. Vertigo’s greatest series resurrected for a new generation of readers.

Back in the late eighties/early nineties, DC faced a quandary. They desired to produce new stories, ones with a more mature bent to them. No one could argue the wisdom of doing so, but to make such stories a part of the regular DCU would invite complications. Can’t have little kids – ones who most certainly shouldn’t read adult oriented material – jumping to the hard stuff because it crosses over with more all-ages material. This new breed needed its own space, where it wouldn’t taint the regular comics dominated by colorful superheroes, and where the colorful stuff wouldn’t stifle the mature tales that needed telling.

Out of this pressing creative need came the Vertigo imprint. And it’s greatest single franchise was a book called The Sandman.

Spun out from the Golden Age superhero of the same name, The Sandman seized the moniker and tangented it to a different concept entirely. Not an uncommon practice at Vertigo – many of the works coming out at the time were darker, more mentally taxing reinventions of old DC comics. The Sandman told the tale, not of a gas-mask wearing vigilante with a penchant for sleeping sprays and prophetic dreams, but the figurative Sand Man himself. Morpheus, god of sleep; or, as he was more simply known, Dream.

Dream of the Endless, cosmic figures that govern fundamental aspects of the universe. All beginning with the letter ‘D’, The Endless are as follows: Destiny, Desire, Despair, Destruction, Delirium, Death, and of course Dream. They are the first and the last, and will exist until the end of time (I know this for a fact, because of another Neil Gaiman comic, The Books Of Magic). But just because there will always be each of them, doesn’t mean they are all powerful. Doesn’t mean they can’t be affected by forces within the universe.

Doesn’t mean they can’t be bound.

Such was the fate of dour Dream, forced into a cage of magic and glass by a secret society. They had hoped to snare Death, but their craft proved too weak to snare her, and instead they caught Dream. And so he remained in captivity for decades until those still alive slipped up. Until he finally escaped, absconding to his now tattered realm, weak and without his powerful effects. He would have to rebuild, and remind creation who rules sleeping man’s fancies.

That, by the way, comprised the first two or so issues of The Sandman. The series as a whole lasted 75 issues, not including (the many) spin-offs and miniseries.

The Sandman challenged its readers with abstraction and allusion, with reference to myth and literature and religion and contemporary culture of the day. It was the stuff modern myths are made of, for it took every cue from folk tales, steeped in mysticism and symbology and everything under the sun. And it was, in the end, an old-style Tragedy (capitalized to remove it from the paltry modern “tragedies” whose sole claim to the title is a bummer ending). Won’t spoil a thing, except that The Sandman series plays the long game when it comes to establishing its ultimate capital-T Tragic end. For though some things have no end, that doesn’t mean they cannot die.

THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE #1 confirms this fact; the problem of course is that the are, apparently, levels to dying when being an abstract apotheosis.

This work is a prequel, set before the time when Dream was snared. When he was at the height of his classic power. It’s 1915, and Dream tries to attend to business – business with a certain mouth-eyed nightmare he created and which is doing things he shouldn’t. But it’s business Dream will not have a chance to finish until after his fateful capture, for he’s called. No, not called; Called, capital-C. And it’s a Call he cannot ignore.

Death just took one of him – the rest of him needs to figure out how and why.

If it hasn’t caught on yet, yes, THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE is that kind of story. The kind of cosmic drama rarely witnessed by people, whether fictional or reader.

The writing, naturally, comes to us from Sandman creator Neil Gaiman, reprising his role as teller of Vertigo’s most iconic tale. He does not disappoint. Simultaneously flowery yet blunt, capable of shifting tones depending on the situation, the dialogue and narration is pure Sandman. Pure Gaiman. The returning characters come off exactly as they should, albeit shifted into a different time period for added variety. It’s a virtual reunion tour, a who’s who of iconic archetypes. One would almost think that Gaiman, Vertigo, and their masters at Time Warner were trying to butter fans up. Or pander to them.

Sorry, I just have a sore spot for pandering, and am sensitive to the smallest whiff. I won’t hold it against OVERTURE.

But it’s the artistry at work that blows my mind. J.H. Williams III provides the visuals for this pageant, and it’s absolutely amazing. I always sit up and take notice when comic artists play with the layouts, incorporating panels and divisions into the art itself. I’ve seen it done well in The Flash and Swamp Thing (the ones I can recall off the top of my head), but this takes it to a whole never level. Every page something new, from panels set in teeth to pages straight out of Destiny’s book…literally. Colors – and when appropriate the absence of color – are vivid and wonderful. And the crown jewel of the issue: a jam-packed, fold out, four page spread! That my friends is how you pull off a big reveal!

This is the kind of stuff legendary works of sequential art are forged from. If The Sandman is anything, it’s legendary, and its OVERTURE looks to be a fine addition the tale. I heartily recommend this book to all readers. Existing fans of The Sandman and Gaiman have no choice in the matter, and those who have never read it have no excuse not to read this. The issue explains everything one needs to know to understand what’s going on. Knowing the series proper just adds to the experience.

THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE #1 runs more expensive than most issues at five dollars, but it’s worth the price. And unlike Before Watchmen, one need feel no guilt about an obvious cash grab on DC’s part. Gaiman himself is doing it, and he’s not slouching at the task.

And if you’re interested enough to learn about the original series, Vertigo re-released the first issue at one dollar as part of their “Essentials” money grab. I mean feature. And the trades are easy enough to find if that’s not enough.

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