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.
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.
The 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.
And 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.