Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review: The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman, J.H. Williams III, and Dave Stewart et al

Cover of Sandman: Overture, featuring a person dressed in dark robes and a long-nosed helm. They stand in a field of burning red flowers, an orange planet visible against a starry red and dark blue sky behind them.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Fair warning: I’m about to use the phrase "religious experience."

I know, I know. It’s overblown and hyperbolic and it’ll prevent you from ever taking me seriously.

Worst of all, I mean it without a shred of irony or exaggeration. THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE [Amazon | The Book Depository | comiXology] was, for me, a religious experience from the second it was announced until the moment I read the last page of the deluxe edition’s extensive back matter.

This is partly because stories are at the very core of my religion, for reasons I'm never comfortable elaborating on in public. Whether we're talking sacred or secular, I'm forever fascinated with the way life-defining stories shift according to who’s doing the telling--and according to what comes to light, and what stays hidden from whom, as the story unfolds.

THE SANDMAN shares my preoccupation. It never loses its bone deep awareness of stories as a vital, ever-shifting, highly subjective force.

"Religious experience" is also apt because because SANDMAN was the first of what I think of as the comics; the ones that reach into my very soul because something in them calls to something in me. The world is never the same after I’ve discovered one of the comics. It hasn’t been the same since I discovered SANDMAN in the pages of a massive coffee table book about DC Comics, or since I scraped together $19.21--a hefty amount to Teenage Me--and ordered a steeply discounted1 copy of PRELUDES & NOCTURNES from Amazon’s fledgling Canadian operation.

I’ve returned to SANDMAN over and over in the decade and a half since then, and I can’t wait to reread it again with OVERTURE under my belt. Because this final/first volume casts everything that came before (or after) it in a new light.

For those of you who don’t keep up with such things, THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE is a prequel to the ten-volume series that ran in single issue form from 1989-1996 and helped revolutionize the world of non-superhero comics. OVERTURE, best read after the core series unless you're a rebel2, explains why Dream, the anthropomorphic representation of same, is in such a weakened state at the beginning of the first volume, and it hands out a thousand other answers and questions along the way.

And like I keep saying, it was a religious experience.

I almost want to let "it was a religious experience" stand as my full review because so much of the book’s appeal lies in the thrill of discovery. I am ecstatic about it, and when I get ecstatic about things, I want to share every little detail of the experience in a great, long gushfest.

This approach is a lot of fun for me, but it's a disservice to anyone who wants to discover every little thing for themselves.

So let's talk about why THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE is my best book of 2015 (so far) with as few concrete examples as possible.

Ie, by highlighting the four vague things that make it supremely wonderful.

Wonderful Point the First: it’s intensely self-referential. Even though OVERTURE takes place before (much of) THE SANDMAN's ten original volumes, Neil Gaiman and penciller J.H. Williams III continually refer to what the reader, if not the character, already knows. They pepper the text with visual call backs to previous/future events, and certain things we learned about in the core series and in ENDLESS NIGHTS provide us with the cues that'll help us parse what happens here. And every so often, they take a question readers have held close for decades and answer it once and for all, in such a way that it breeds a thousand new questions even more enticing than the old.

Everything meshes beautifully with what's come before, even as it give the reader a new lens with which to view a familiar story. Which, really, is the best thing about SANDMAN. It’s a massive puzzle that looks a little different every time you assemble it.

Wonderful Point the Second: it’s surprising. Over and over again, I gasped because some detail slotted into place in such a way that I had to rethink everything, or because I couldn’t believe I’d never, ever asked the question that might’ve led me to the answer on the page.

Like, why did I never question where the Endless came from, or what was out there before they arrived on the scene? And how does Neil Gaiman always, always couch these revelations in the most perfect way possible?


Wonderful Point the Third: the art is phenomenal. Damn, does J.H. Williams III ever know his way around a page. His layouts knocked me flat on my ass with their refusal to conform to any of the established traditions. Squares and rectangles aren’t totally absent from his repertoire, but he's far more liable to use organic forms in unexpected yet intuitive ways. Each page is fluid, dynamic, and perfect for the script it illustrates, and Dave Stewart’s colours elevate everything to new heights.

I don’t want to tell you a word more than that. You need to discover this brilliance for yourself.

Wonderful Point the Fourth: this all goes off without a hitch. The script is perfect. The art is perfect. The resolution is perfect. The way it expands the story that came before it is beyond perfect.

Yeah, yeah, nothing's perfect, and I've overused the word besides. It's the "religious experience" conundrum all over again--in splashing it around, I've made it hard for you to take me seriously, but I can't replace it with anything else because it fits.

I stand in awe of this comic, and I value it all the more because I know I barely skimmed the surface with this first reading. I’m going to see a thousand new things in these pages every time I revisit them. I’m going to see a thousand new things in the first ten volumes and in ENDLESS NIGHTS because of what I learned here. And it’s only going to get deeper, and more emotional, and better over time.

Thank you, Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III; Dave Stewart, and Todd Klein, and Dave McKean. This was everything I hoped it would be and then some.

  1. Trade collections used to cost the earth; ie, $30+ per paperback. Those of you who’ve gotten into comics over the last decade or so are really frickin’ lucky. Those of you who live in countries where they still cost that much and more have my sympathies.

  2. I bought PRELUDES & NOCTURNES first, but I read THE WAKE a couple months before that. Starting with the last volume didn't kill me, and I suspect staring with OVERTURE won't kill any of you, either--but you're liable to enjoy it more if you're properly prepared, just as I enjoyed THE WAKE more after I knew what'd happened in the previous nine volumes.


  1. I have the googliest of eyes over The Wake. Maybe because The Kindly Ones was so painful and Greek and tragic, The Wake seemed unexpectedly -- merciful? I don't know. The story where Hob and his girlfriend are at the Renaissance Faire always makes me sniffly.

    This exists in trade paperback too, right? I know it came out in hardback, but I also know that if I buy Overture in hardback, I'll become angry and jealous that I don't have the other Sandmans in hardback too. It's not like I can ever, ever exchange my Sandman trade paperbacks for better copies, when I bought them with my high school graduation money and such.

    1. YES. I love it whenever Hob shows up. I'm all, "Yes, good, let us have more Hob."

      Alas, I don't think they're doing trade paperbacks yet. :( It looks like it got a fairly standard novel-style release, with the hardcover first and a paperback edition to follow (hopefully). Maybe you'll just have to get the hardcover and shelve it slightly to the left of your trade paperbacks, right beside your hardcover copy of ENDLESS NIGHTS (which is what I plan on doing).