Tag Archives: graphic novel

Sandman: Overture

The Sandman: OvertureThe Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was the Dream of the first created things: those that sleep in the sleep beneath space.

Neil Gaiman is the Sandman, can we all agree on that? In as much as the character has created him and he has created the character, Morpheus—he of the brooding visage and the black shirts—is in some sense certainly Gaiman’s idealization of aspects of himself. And it’s also true that Gaiman gets to create the world of Dreaming, gets to guard and define it, just as the Sandman does. It’s a narrative artistry that works here. On the canvas of a comic embellished with incredible artistry, Gaiman’s strength in creating idealizations of form and dialogue is untouchable. Lines like the one above float on pages of color and wonder. They are, I think, much harder to carry off in a novel.

They say every story must be told at least once, before the final nightfall.

As a kid I loved Marvel’s Infinity War, in which cosmic forces like Order, Chaos, and Infinity went to war in full color spreads across the panels. This is more or less what we get in Sandman: Overture, a six-issue collection that is faster and more epic but with less subtly and texture than was developed in the full seventy-five issues of the Sandman series itself. Of course, this prequel lacks the scope of the entire series, but it also plays for higher stakes. Gaiman was relatively unknown at the start of his run in Sandman; now he’s a legend returning to his homeland.

These stakes are reflected in the narrative: Dream has to save reality itself. Yet the collection of powers at play here teeters on the baroque: the enigmatic First Circle (should I know who they are?), Dream’s parents, the Endless themselves, and the potential death of the universe. I read the original Sandman series years ago, so this straightforward read was more for the epic wonder and beauty of the thing; a closer reading would probably bring to light all the nooks and crannies Gaiman has filled into the texture of the original Sandman. Even the lapsed fan though can appreciate finally learning how Dream came to be captured at the very beginning of the series.

Dream attempts to save the universe, with the help of a little girl named Hope. Trite? A bit, if it wasn’t so gorgeous. Only Gaiman, aided and abetted by the overwhelming artistic genius of J. H. Williams III, can get away with lines like this, Dream explaining his situation to his mother:

I was expelled from the universe, by stars caught up with rhetoric and infection. I’m currently inside a black hole.

Does it work? Of course it does; it’s Gaiman. But it works because Gaiman gets to make his own rules. In a story that deals with embodiments of psychic principles projected on a cosmic scale, you don’t have to worry about self-consistency. Not matter what finality with which Dream is cast into a black hole at the end of one chapter, his mother can stop by for a chat and his brother can tug him out with relative ease a few pages later. How did the ship get into Destiny’s garden? The simple answer is magic, and it’s the magic bleeding off the pages of this work that makes it all right.

There is (of course) a dreamlike quality to the whole thing. It hangs together while you’re reading it but upon waking the logic starts to unravel and—like a dream—you’re left with only memories and images of beauty.

Which is probably the point.

X-Cutioner’s Song

X-Men: X-Cutioners Song TPBX-Men: X-Cutioners Song TPB by Fabian Nicieza

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m not a fan of crossovers. At the core, what is a giant comics crossover other than simply an attempt to get you to buy more comic books? If done right, I suppose, a crossover might also be a chance to bring different characters together and spin a story that spans a couple universes or intertwines a few storylines, but honestly—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crossover done well. (The Great Fables Crossover was certainly a disappointment, and I’m viewing Dark Cybertron as an unwelcome interruption in my favorite regularly-scheduled comic book.)

There’s so much that can go wrong. Crossovers often have the feeling of being written by a committee and then being put together on the page by a subcommittee, or an entire handful of subcommittees. And this is often I imagine exactly how it’s done. Because each comic title has its own writers and artists, usually with their own vision for the feel of the series and where the stories are going, the pacing and how they’re developed, and oftentimes slamming them together ends up just feeling like a train wreck. Now imagine trying to do that with something as huge and unwieldy as the various X-People Marvel lines, in their early-90s heyday. That’s pretty much exactly what you get with X-Cutioner’s Song.

There’s one reason I bought this volume: nostalgia. I picked it up at a Marvel-themed gift-shop at Universal Studios as a teenager because as a kid I had been on the ground-floor of the launch of Marvel’s second X-Men title. I think I still have issue #1 of that “mutant milestone” floating around somewhere. As a young reader though, I was the primary target of this, the first major crossover involving the title, which was engineered solely to get a kids like me to shell out money for not just the normal X-Men comics but also the Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, and X-Force. (They were doing the same thing with Spider-Man titles at the same time, calling it Maximum Carnage, and I remember a few of my friends scrambling to piece together the story through Amazing Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Men, and whatever other Spider-titles were running then.) Of course I couldn’t do this, and so there were always holes in the narrative. I wondered what had happened to my characters during their appearances in the other issues. And I had lost many of the issues I had managed to collect anyway, so I bought the volume.

I re-read it again this summer for the same reason: nostalgia. That’s really the only reason there is to pick up this particular collection. The train wreck analogy actually works quite well here. In fact, I think I may have stumbled onto the solution for the X-Men’s faltering transition to the big screen: get Michael Bay to make this into a movie. Everything is ready for him: the thin veneer of plot involving Cyclops and Jean Grey getting kidnapped, Xavier being nearly assassinated, no one knowing what’s going on, and a confrontation between Cable and his clone Stryfe. Pieces of information are dangled but never really resolved. (We learn pretty much nothing about the origins of Cable and Stryfe, though they dance around it the entire book.) The lurching narrative is liberally interspersed with wild melees in which X-Factor fights X-Force, X-Men fight X-Force, X-everyone fights various villains, and Cable and Stryfe fight each other. Apocalypse and Mr. Sinister make random, fairly inexplicable appearances and disappearances. Women (and men!) wear spandex. Cable, Wolverine, and Bishop hang out on a space station. Listing all these things actually makes it sound like more fun than it was.

I think part of the problem with the various X-Men titles is that there’s just so much backstory that at some point it gets nearly impossible to keep track of it all. I looked up the entries for Cable and Cyclops on Wikipedia after reading this, for example, to see if I could answer the questions that this volume did not. It was dizzying. There’s something very compelling to such a Byzantine history, but it also makes it largely inaccessible. It also makes something like X-Cutioner’s Song incredibly unsatisfying as a stand-alone piece. (Though at the end of the day, this is what comic book companies want, right? Because otherwise you might not buy the next issue.) This volume was especially maddening as it didn’t even tie up the crossover pieces that it developed. The story “began,” for instance, with the X-Force on the run because X-everyone-else though that the X-Force leader, Cable, had assassinated Xavier. X-Force, which consists of the younger, next generation of mutants, go head to head with some of their former mentors and trainers. This wrinkle was actually kind of compelling. There was also some good tension as the X-Force de facto leader, Cannonball, accompanied the X-Men to carry out missions while the rest of his team languished in captivity.

But you know what? The volume ended with absolutely no resolution on this score at all. Some of the heroes end up on the Moon to witness the final Cable/Stryfe confrontation, and then that’s it. We don’t even get a hint or an afterword or something explaining what happens to the kids in X-Force (or why Cable had abandoned them in the first place or what happens to them after he disappears). There’s a distinct impression that the compilers simply did not care enough to tell us. Another indication of this lack of care: a table of contents to help keep all the different issues in this volume straight and then the omission of page numbers from any page in the volume.

If there’s a bright spot in this volume (besides the nostalgia for trading comic books on the playground and creating our own X-characters during recess), it’s the art in the X-Factor issues. I don’t know who was drawing those issues and I don’t care enough to wade through all the names to find out, but it’s a marked departure from the generic (though not bad) comic book art throughout the rest of the book. I remember that as a kid though it drove me nuts. It was almost too noir, definitely not as realistic as the artwork in the other X-titles (using the term realistic, of course, very loosely). Looking back though, it seems the freshest and most original part of the book.

I wonder what happened to those characters after this chapter was complete. Because on the one hand that’s the appeal of long-running comic titles like these: you know the stories keep going on and on and on. On the other hand though, that’s the problem: the stories go on, but the characters never change, not really. Wolverine will always be the exact same person. Apocalypse will always come back. We’ll go through the same variations of the same stories over and over again, but—since (in some respects) I’m no longer twelve—I find I don’t have the patience to play.