Book Reviews, Graphic Novels

Neil Gaiman’s the Sandman: Overture (2013 – 2015)

a limited series of six issues

It took nearly 20 years for Morpheus to return with a proper follow-up to his final farewell. Overture‘s is a six-issue tale bridging the gap between issue one’s ambitious, faulty start and the present-day doings of Daniel. Just as well, Overture thematically follows in familiar footsteps to long-time readers, delivering a strong sense of closure for the mythos while answering many lingering questions (like, why exactly does Morpheus don that dorky helmet as battle-gear?).

The Dream Hunters (1999) provided a stunningly-beautiful fairy tale that just happened to feature Morpheus, and Endless Nights (2003) gave us a collection of mostly-cute short stories complementing the Endless’ original run rather than building upon it. Overture is more successful in connecting the loose threads that have hung over the series ever since we first spent those 72 years locked in an occultist’s basement. It’s both fitting as a conclusion, and a posthumous introduction for Morpheus’ maxiseries.

Overture‘s is a story that, more than ever before, binds the Sandman to the greater DC mythology. In many respects, this is a sequel to the parliament of a young universe seen in Endless Nights‘ ‘the Heart of the Star,’ with returning figures, themes and stories. The background is peopled with scores of unique mythopoeic monsters — wonderfully realized by artist J.H. Williams III — styled after the otherworldly creatures of comics past.

A parliament of Dreams.
A parliament of Dreams.

Like in Dream’s 2003 story, a parliament is held over the whole of the universe: It’s a meeting of Dream’s own shadows, of his own fragments from every corner of existence, all aspects of a single idea — or not. It’s difficult to say; and they argue this way and that while agreeing on everything and nothing with Dream’s trademark attitude. It’s a surprising exercise in verbosity for Dream, but he only has his own ego to conflate by doing so.

Early in the series, this multitude of Morpheuses struck me as discomforting. It seems to contradict the series’ mythology, or at least the feeling it evokes. The idea of Dream’s siblings also being fragmented into an infinite number of aspects doesn’t hold right. The final issue offers some recompense for these frustrations; although, as always of the Dreaming, it’s delivered nebulously and we’re left wondering the possibilities. We see multiple Deaths here, and we have before: Are they one and the same, simply seen under different skies? How does this translate to the two Despairs, Daniel, Fox-Dream of Dream Hunters, or Delight’s transformation? I don’t know. It may just be that the Sandman mythology is too heavy for its own good at this point, especially when we start thinking about worthwhile spin-offs like Lucifer.

“Because it is the nature of Dreams, and ONLY of Dreams, to define Reality. Destiny is bound to existence. Death is limited by what she will or will not accept.”

Dream’s oldest aspect acts as his own mentor here, pushing Morpheus towards the path he must take: He exists as the original romantic vision of the earliest gods, formless things that writhed over a black nothing since time’s first breath — beings (I like to think) we saw the restless stirrings of in Mike Carey’s Lucifer: The Morningstar Option three-issue limited series. His direction effects the reconvening of Dream into the mostly-singular entity of Morpheus, the mostly-singular entity of our cats’ Dream, and the quick adoption of some blue-skinned humanity to act as a side-kicks and reinforce the hero’s goals.

J.H. Williams III’s art is consistently jaw-dropping throughout all six issues.

Along the way, stories occur. Destiny finally flirts with a plot, if only for a couple pages (before going back to whatever it is he does in his boring garden); insight into Delight’s mysterious transformation is teased for the briefest of moments; Desire plots his/her mischief seen in the maxiseries; and we meet Dream’s parents.

Destiny’s story is more of a joke, interrupting the every-time and the all-time of the ‘Endless Nights’ prose-poem. The familiar reading of Destiny’s occupation is interrupted by the intrusion of a boat — intrusion because it doesn’t exist within his book. Destiny actually expresses an emotion.

Delight’s appearance is merely a reference. She’s distraught and ‘transforming’ within a story within the story. Nothing’s explained, though I suspect the parents may be involved.

Endless Nights‘ explanation for Desire and Dream’s petty rivalry was unsatisfying: Far too mundane and small a moment to account for billions of years of character development. Their distaste for one another is handled incredibly-well in this series. Rather than a reaction to a cruel joke, their hatred was inevitable: Written by destiny because Desire and Dream are two pieces of a singular function. One’s maybe a bit more or less romantic than the other, but they’re both too arrogant, self-interested and creative to get along when the concepts themselves are so similar.

Overture brings the Sandman series full-circle, tying the end to the beginning.

Introducing the Endless’ parents — (suggested as) Time and Night — was a really creative, if daunting, way to expand the scope of the mythology and its power. Time, the father, feels safe within the confines of the DC multiverse tropes and characters (e.g., mostly envisioned as an old, depressed, arrogant Alan Moore-like occultist). Mother Night is fascinating in her sinister, if comforting, allure, and appears to us as the body of the galaxies themselves, and the dark space between them. They remain as daunting, however, because their power diminishes that of the Endless–is Death no longer the final period on the universe?–and the mythology established by Lucifer.

The main quest echoes much from the maxiseries: Dream’s past mistakes have created a vortex tearing apart the fabric of space, and it falls to him to correct the failures of his station. His parents refuse to feed into the storybook deus ex machina reunion he so desires for himself. (I rather suspect their reunion would simply end the universe rather than heal it…?) He’s also alone among his siblings — only Desire wishes to help, and we know how likely that could ever happen. It’s Destruction’s power that’s needed, and he’s not even available to ask. Dream must exert the creative abilities of his brother at great personal cost, destroying history and creating it anew. This exertion ultimately pushes him into his earliest predicament, bridging the lore of the past 27 years.

Time, with his red hair and classical appearance, gives his rarest of appearances to the Overture arc, appearing as the father of the Endless.

The destructive vortex and Morpheus’ mistakes make for a cute prelude to the Sandman series. The characterization of our sister-brother, Desire, whose complexity has only grown alongside her/his original author, is especially benefited by this story.

A relaxed release schedule (6 issues / 2 years) evidently worked to the advantage of artist J.H. Williams III — though that would have driven me nuts as a reader — and gave us perhaps the finest art this series has ever seen. It’s a style akin to Will Eisner or Craig Thompson, ditching traditional panel layouts in favor of using every inch and corner of the page — of every page — to share something worthwhile with the reader.

Despite serving as both a prequel and a sequel to the main series, Overture doesn’t function well as an introduction. Even its preludes are often written with the knowing reader in mind; every page is drenched in references and nods to the greater lore. More than anything, Overture fits as an extension of the maxiseries’ final issues, and the best continuation fans could ask for. Like ‘the Wake’ chapter that ended the original series, Overture‘s an exercise in mourning — for its players and the author — but it also shares a much bigger sense of energy and excitement for a 75-issue story to come, a type of energy we’ve rarely gotten out of Sandman.

Here’s to hoping Overture isn’t the period at the end of this world. There are as many stories to tell as there are grains of sand, I imagine. In the mean-time, read Overture; re-read the maxiseries; read or re-read Lucifer; read the Unwritten, if you haven’t: The world’s full of good stories to share. Enjoy them.


There aren’t enough words to describe Williams III’s artwork.
reviewed November 2015, revised January 2017

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