Illuminated Manuscripts: The Sandman Overture (1 of 6)

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I’ve been meaning to review Sandman: Overture, the highly-anticipated prequel to Neil Gaiman’s original magnum opus, for more than a month now, but seeing how the second issue of the series has been delayed by two months now, I can afford to be a little easier on myself. If Neil Gaiman can make mistakes, so can I! [Warning: Here be spoilers.]

The original 75 issue, 10 volume limited series of Sandman is a masterwork, one of many gems of illustrated storytelling/mythmaking produced by DC imprint Vertigo Comics during the early to mid-90’s. Few contemporary comics rival Sandman in either its ambitions or its achievements.

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The stories of Morpheus, Lord Dream, the anthropomorphic ruler of the Dream World and familial member of The Endless, are some of the most exciting and literary (yes, literary) significant adventures to ever have been committed to a comic page. His twice -lifetime imprisonment, hi subsequent escape. The reclamation of his kingdom, the resolution of his past campaigns, the redemption of his past slights, etc.

Now after nearly 25 years following the series’ conclusion, Gaiman has returned to tell the story of the battle directly preceding Morpheus’ imprisonment in the comic’s first issue, “the triumph that left him tried beyond all endurance”, too exhausted to withstand even the amateur sorcery of an defiant codger grasping desperately to ensnare Death Herself.

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Issue One of Overture opens with what we assume is Dream, in one of his many forms, cultivating the dream-scape of some alien planet far and away from Earth. Readers of the original series are aware that Dream is  the anthropomorphic caretaker of the dream world. But not ONLY the human dream world, but the collective unconscious landscape of all intelligent life capable of dreaming. Dream takes the form of a sentient plant, encountering a local inhabitant named Quorian. But something is terribly wrong here.

Dream, like a certain Obi-Wan Kenobi, senses the terrible death of someone before erupting into a screaming pillar of fire. The omen was for Dream. The death was his own. The rest of the issue is devoted to the machinations of one of Dream’s unfortunately more  hostile creations and a conference between Death and Destiny, two of Dream’s siblings, to talk about what has just transpired. And of course there’s Dream, Our Dream, completely unaware as to what has just transpired, but intimately aware that something is amiss, aggressively pulled forward by some strange compulsive force alien even to him.

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The plot leapfrogs back to Earth, twentieth-century London, where the Corinthian, an nightmare aspect created by Dream and a familiar antagonist to Sandman enthusiasts, stalks his next target. If there’s one thing apart from subject matter that sets Overture #1 apart from its contemporaries, it’s the panel structure and arrangement.

This two-fold spread in particular is so brilliant, so damn-near exquisite, when it finally dawned on me what was going on and what exactly I was looking after a repeat reading, I couldn’t chuckled out loud with how ingeniously Gaiman and J.H. Williams III both subverted and met my expectations. Such structural decisions are to be expected of Williams regardless, his panel work on Alan Moore’s Promethea and Dan Curtis Johnson’s Chase to his penchant for elaborate, mobius-like illustrations.

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One of the staples of the Sandman series has been that every storyline (and every individual volume) is drawn by a different artist with their own distinct yet overlapping depiction of what Dream looks like. Dream’s appearance, true to his nature as the monarch of the ephemeral world of sleep, constantly changes sometimes from issue to issues, sometimes panel to panel. That being said, I love how Dream is depicted in this issue. He goes from a regal monarch-esque depiction with gaunt cheekbones and impenetrably sunken eyes to a youthfully handsome face, almost androgynous in its features. It’s the little things that make this comic special, and the mutability of Dream’s appearance is a testament to the impression that he contains literal Multitudes.

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One of the great strengths of this issue is that it readily recognizes and rewards the readership of past-Sandman fans while at the same time retaining a sense of comprehensible peril and intrigue to pull in new readers as well. There’s Mervyn “Merv” Pumpkinhead (Groundskeeper and Janitor for the Dream World) and Lucien (Chief Librarian of the Dreaming). There’s tons of other incidental, memorable callbacks (or callforwards, in this case) to the original Sandman series as well as a few intriguing new faces.

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VERDICT:   Sandman Overture # 1 is an incredible reintroduction to the world of Morpheus and The Endless. Williams’ incredible visual variety balanced with the endless captivating narrative skills of Gaiman is a sight to behold and not to be missed.

originalHowever, the first issue (and presumably the entire limited series) is unarguably focused on appealing to fans of the original series , but there’s plenty new plot-points to draw in curious readers and bring them roughly “up-to-speed” with the barest need-to-know information (Though I HIGHLY suggest that you read the original series, as it is one of my absolute favorite graphic novels and I strongly believe it merits the readership of any and all enthusiasts of speculative fiction.)

The cliffhanger ending of this issue was so earth-shattering, it took me two subsequent reading to fully grasp just a semblance of the implications this might have on the next five issues. Believe me, you’ll never look at Dream quite the same way again, Guaranteed. Issue Two, and February, can’t come soon enough.

Illuminated Manuscripts is a column dedicated to spotlighting one of my many great passions, Graphic Novel Storytelling. I look forward to updating this series as frequently as I come across more new and exciting comics that continue to push, defy and define the boundaries of what the medium can do.

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