The 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.