The Sandman: Overture 1

Sandman-Overture-CV1_SOLICIT_sxvqsdoynu_This is the first installment of a six-issue prequel to Neil Gaiman's 75-issue run of The Sandman, which ended in 1996. It's an awfully well-constructed comic book. Gaiman and artist J.H. Williams get at least four plot strands going: The story begins with the dreams of a "carnivorous plant" called Quariam on an unnamed planet; then it's on to a discussion between Death and Destiny; next it's 1915 and Dream has summoned something he created, The Corinthian, to tell him he will be "uncreated"; onto the next scene, and Dream is back in his kingdom until he is called "halfway across the universe" and encounters a crowd of versions of himself. Throughout, we're tailing Dream on his travels. Each segment carries enough information and narrative momentum that it feels very much like a well-placed piece in a larger whole. Williams is an inventive and assured draftsman who can move from turn-of-the-century cross hatching to gothic dread to Maxfield Parrish-land without any trouble. It's hard to argue with a piece of work so elegantly produced; carried off with grace and charm and all that good stuff.

But that assuredness is problematic. I haven't read a Neil Gaiman comic in a very long time, so it was kind of a pleasure to find his tone, so authoritative, so full of the adult whimsey for which he's known, was still intact. I say "kind of" because it's an authority and tone I find off-putting. That's not Gaiman's fault. He is doing what he's does, and doing it well. He's completely in control. But it's a control that actually works against his premise.

Too much construction: A book within a book within a book.

Too much construction: A book within a book within a book.

There's a comic in here that could be evocative and bring the reader into a world, but instead we're on the outside looking in. That stifles actual engagement, which, with all that exposition, and J.H. Williams' details, I assume is what Gaiman is going for. I don't take him for a writer unconcerned with his audience. He's actually over-concerned with everyone getting every last detail he has to offer. So when Death cracks a joke I know I'm supposed to get it because Gaiman has Death say "Joke". I know that's a nod at the reader, but a nod is only a nod when it invites, not when it tells. The first page of the comic, with its lilting melody and precious repetitions is so full of a "let me take you by the hand and tell you a story" kind of feeling that I nearly stopped reading:

It was a small planet

It had everything a planet could ever need, although it was small

It had a star system containing six other planets, four of which were gas giants.

It had two moons, one of which had coalesced when it did, the other it had captured.

It had three continents, an archipelago, and two trim ice caps.

This is pedantic and cloying prose.

SND_1_2-630x484The Corinthian is first shown entering through panel borders constructed of desiccated teeth because, you know, he's scary and has teeth in eyes, too. When Destiny is on the page the panels turn into pages from his all-knowing book. Dream's gatekeeper is, of course, named George Portcullis, and he "has a most peculiar recurring dream." It's not just the pun of the name, but the "most peculiar". Why not just tell us the dream? And when Dream begins to travel, the panels spell out "MORPHEUS" because that's his other name, get it? All of this is rendered as well as any corporate comic outside of, say, All-Star Superman. But it is also obvious, screaming "look at me, are you catching this?" instead of actually adding to the story.

Sandman-overture-1-gaiman-williams-02aAnd that's just it. The whole thing is so clever that everyone involved forgot what I always took the premise of The Sandman to be: the Romantic imagination. And in that imagination there ought to be some kind of room for the reader, some kind of mystery in all those mysterious doings. But there is not a hint of it. Instead there's the depiction of mystery -- Gaiman and Williams continually show us things that are meant to signal mystery and wonder (books! creatures! Victoriana!) but never actually create same in the reader. Sandman: Overture 1 is highly polished and fully entertaining, and what more could I want? Maybe a little room to move, a little room to think. It's almost as though that idealized imagination that Gaiman is so taken with is too much to allow in his readers. We're only permitted to gawk at Gaiman and Williams' professional virtuosity, but that's it. What an oddly disappointing experience.


33 Responses to The Sandman: Overture 1

  1. Bob Ralph says:

    Sandman has always been garbage. Anyone who has ever taken Gaiman seriously is to be disdained. That art doesn’t look especially well crafted to me… repulsive, yes. I’m sure Cory Doctorow and his ilk will love it.

  2. Danny Ceballos says:

    This “Hokey Shit” is somebody’s hope and dreams!

    Sun Ra (via Ron Rege Jr.’s CARTOON UTOPIA, page 111)

  3. nitpicker says:

    Wow. Is this the Bob Ralph?!

  4. Grant says:

    I mostly agree with what you say, but a quick correction is that George’s dream is what we see. It confused me at first too, but George as the person who works in Dream’s office IS the dream, and we do not know what he is really like in the waking.

  5. Dan Nadel says:

    Oh, good point. Thanks. Of course it is. All the more reason for us not to need the “most peculiar” bit.

  6. Bob Ralph says:

    You’re thinking of Bob Clark, perhaps?

  7. Patrick Allaby says:

    This felt like a classic rock band’s reunion tour. All the best character’s show up, everything is top-notch, but it’s not the same. After finishing this issue, I couldn’t help but wonder if Neil cared at all about writing this or not.

  8. AaronFG says:

    “After finishing this issue, I couldn’t help but wonder if Neil cared at all about writing this or not.”

    Oh come on.

  9. David says:

    “I’m sure Cory Doctorow and his ilk will love it.”

    What is this even supposed to mean?

  10. Bob Ralph says:

    It means rampant consumerism of adult toys in the guise of lightweight science fiction, it means being a perpetual adolescent, it means being stupid

  11. Bob Ralph says:

    It means the Boing Boing “lifestyle” sucks

  12. Lightning Lord says:

    You’re really, really mad about other people’s tastes, aren’t you?

  13. Bob Ralph says:

    Middlebrow genre material is not teh best the medium can offer, though you’d never know that from all the attention it gets, is all

  14. Lightning Lord says:

    I actually think this is a great time to be a Sandman fan, mostly because the obnoxious “This is the best comic ever published, ever ever ever” hype from the early 90s is gone, and most people recognize it for what it is: a good fantasy comic.

  15. David says:

    I don’t know… the hype still seems to surround that series.

  16. Lightning Lord says:

    Sure, if you absolutely despise the series, the small bit of leftover hype will bother you. But I remember people absolutely flipping out over the Sandman back in the day, people penning glowing reviews about how it was the only legitimate work in the entire medium of comics, etc.

  17. steven samuels says:

    RE: That bottom page-

    So Morpheus is Jack White? That’s ok. I’d sooner read “Sandman” than listen to White’s singing voice any day of the week.

  18. Bob Ralph says:

    Fuck hype, I’m talking about quality, which it lacks entirely, period.

  19. Memo Salazar says:

    I have no doubt that everything our reviewer says is accurate enough- Gaiman’s inherent style is show-offy and pretentious… but when he has a great yarn to spin, it’s worth reading anyway. Sandman was a great yarn, most of the stuff he’s done since was not (I stopped following him a long time ago, so I can’t really speak for everything he’s done, but certainly everything I’ve tried since.) However, the “Endless Nights” book he put out a few years ago was still quite entertaining (the unpretentious artsy-fartsy stories, that is) so what this review doesn’t mention is where on the scale this falls. I’d like to think he puts out his best foot for his beloved Sandman storyline. Great story? Boring story? Enquiring minds want to know.

  20. Dorian G. says:

    Contra some of the comments above, I think the issue doesn’t measure up to Sandman exactly because it’s riding on that series’ pedigree, and depends completely on a full beginning-to-end knowledge of Sandman to build any sort of tension whatsoever, which seems to be its only goal in the first place besides looking pretty (which it does) and getting adventurous with layouts (which was more fun to me than it was to the person writing the review, I guess).

    I mean, if I didn’t know that every version of Morpheus (not Dream) we’ve seen before now has expressly been the same individual with the same memories, and that it’s discombobulating that Death says Morpheus died recently when we know that “didn’t happen”, well, there wouldn’t really be much of a story at all in this issue for me as a reader, would there? There’d just be a series of very confusing events. The whole thrust of the issue depends on assuming that the reader doesn’t just know wh0 Morpheus is, but knows all those details that he or she wouldn’t know without finishing Sandman, and so has been thrown for a loop by what just happened.

    And really, that’s fair enough, because Gaiman and Williams can certainly depend on their readers having read Sandman, and on a goodly number of readers for that matter. I just wouldn’t introduce anyone to the series this way (of course) or view this as anything but an interesting ditty in the key of a long-finished piece of work that wouldn’t be at all interesting without it (naturally), and I don’t get the impression the creators would disagree with me.

  21. Dorian G. says:

    Well, I think Sandman is worth reading, if not exactly the sophisticated experience that’s sometimes sold to curious new readers, but even I have to admit that “there are actually a lot of potential versions of our main character and so even though he’s immortal we are now allowed to worry if he’s going to die” isn’t exactly new ground, and it doesn’t evince a lot of creative effort on Gaiman’s part.

  22. Careful Sandworm says:

    I have to echo the other comment, the goalposts just moved from

    “Morpheus is immortal because Dream is immortal! Uh oh, it turns out that Dream doesn’t have to be Morpheus, and our Dream just happens to be Morpheus, so is this the end of the line for our hero?”


    “Morpheus is immortal because he can’t die until the main Sandman series happens! Uh oh, it turns out that Morpheus doesn’t have to be Morpheus ‘A’, and our Morpheus just happens to be Morpheus ‘A’, so is this the end of the line for our hero?”

    A little disappointing but I’ll stick around to see what happens.

  23. R.B. Lloyd says:

    One thing that mystified me about this title….what’s it about? The dreams and wishes one has in life? I never picked it up because I thought it was a modern re-boot of Jack Kirby’s Sandman. Is one of those titles where the young and attractive people are the only intelligent characters in the story?

  24. Dorian G. says:

    1) It’s about dreams.
    2) No, it’s not.

  25. Colton says:

    Can you elaborate a little more as to why you find the series mediocre in quality?

  26. Tim Hodler says:

    Bob Ralph isn’t commenting here any more.

  27. Patrice Chevraulaix says:

    It’s about Scientology, let’s cut the bullshit

  28. Bill says:

    Every new Gaimen effort fills showers me with epiphany-inducing enlightenment. If he was more prolific it would be a new Golden Age of not just comics but of civilization.

  29. Bill says:

    oops – that should be Gaiman not Gaimen… (and yet I never spell Djurdjevic wrong)

  30. Bill says:

    The only two issues of the first SANDMAN that I didn’t sell off was #24 & 26. Now that Gaiman has returned to Marvel (Quesada is a huge fan of his work) I wonder if they will try to get him to write THOR based on his handling of the character.

  31. Matt says:

    My observation would be that Neil Gaiman is quite good at telling short stories, but that he has shown a lack of will to edit his longer pieces to give them the same economy and punch as his successful short stories have.
    A Six comic arc, while not over long is still longer than a good Gaiman story tends to be, as sometimes his plot lines show their workings a bit crudely even for all their camouflage.
    It’s a problem I sympathize with, but it is IMHO Gaiman’s down fall.

  32. Lord Portis says:

    Neil Gaiman seems to be throwing everything at the wall with little effect. Gaiman’s real problem is that he is vain, pretentious and has lost his innocence. He has cynically pursued the spotlight instead of focusing on his craft. He dances around on the stage with the awful and talentless Amanda Palmer and when he writes, any magic he possessed is gone. It’s almost as if he was granted a boon and that boon has been taken away. His stories are hollow and lack compassion or wisdom or depth, “pedantic and cloying” is an accurate description. I would add “tedious.”

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