Sandman: Overture Is the Best Birthday Present Ever

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman, my favorite author, turns 55 today, and as luck would have it, he has a new book out! Okay, it’s been slowly published in single-issue installments for nearly the past two years, but if you didn’t pick those up at the comic-book store, now’s your chance to get the whole new story in one volume. If you’re a fan of Gaiman’s work, reading The Sandman: Overture today is like attending the coolest birthday party in the universe. 

A friend on my high school bus first introduced me to Gaiman about 14 years ago. She was engrossed in a book with an interesting cover and an even more intriguing title: Neverwhere. She described a favorite scene she thought I’d enjoy, which involved two villains bickering about how best to murder someone—and also eating a dead rat. Since I had recently discovered and become obsessed with dark humor, I knew I had to read that book. Luckily, my dad had it and lent it to me. I was immediately hooked. Neverwhere is full of dark, dry humor, but the characters and the world they inhabit were really what kept me going. I cared about what happened to the heroes, Door and Richard. I wanted to live in the fantastical underworld of London Below. When I finished it, I almost started reading it over right then, just so I wouldn’t have to say good-bye to any of these things.

Sandman Overture_largeInstead, I embarked on a mission to get my hands on everything Gaiman had written. I devoured his short story collection Smoke and Mirrors, as well as his best-selling 2001 novel American Gods. And as a huge comic-book nerd, I was of course ecstatic when a friend told me Gaiman had written an entire series for DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint; he even let me borrow all 10 volumes. (Yeah, nerds make really good friends.) If you’ve read this brilliant epic, The Sandman (1989–1996), you know it starts off a little rocky. The tone and quality vary for the first few issues; sometimes it feels like a superhero comic, while at others it tries building a deeper, heavier mythology.

The series found its rhythm six issues in with “24 Hours,” one of the scariest books I’ve ever read and Sandman at its best. It starts off light and funny with some human characters you want to know more about. Then DC villain John Dee (a.k.a. Doctor Destiny) begins to use protagonist Dream’s mystical stone to control the patrons of a 24-hour diner. The darkly humorous manipulation descends into horror as Dee forces his trapped puppets to do increasingly terrible things. The tone changes almost directly after Dream defeats Dee, with Gaiman offering a light comic interaction between Dream and his sister Death. From that point on, I was hooked. Anything that could disturb me that much and then quickly release the tension with some well-timed comedy deserved my attention.

That brings us to Gaiman’s new—and last—Sandman offering. Overture is a prequel that depicts the battle that exhausted Dream and allowed him to be captured at the beginning of the Sandman saga. Assuming there really are no more Sandman comics after this, I have to say we couldn’t ask for a better final arc. There are no big reveals: We don’t see why Destruction left the family (i.e., the Endless, our emotional archetypes), nor do we see Delight transition into the chaotic Delirium. Rather, Overture is a self-contained story about Dream’s trying to prevent the end of existence. Along the way, we see multiple aspects of Dream personified in the same place, we visit a city of insane stars, and at last we meet the parents of the Endless—Night and Time. A summary would make the story seem impenetrable, but Gaiman’s masterful writing makes it easily digestible. He doles out complicated elements in manageable chunks, ensuring readers aren’t lost. The tale still runs on dream logic, but Gaiman makes it effortless to internalize.

I’m glad he waited so long to tell this story. His writing has improved a lot over the past 20 to 30 years; Gaiman now succeeds in being mysterious without seeming purposefully vague, a problem I had with the early Sandman books. Though Overture jumps between multiple planes of existence and even time-hops a little, you always know exactly what’s going on in a scene, and Gaiman eventually answers all questions in a satisfying way. It’s an engrossing read that often made me put down my tablet and exclaim, “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” drawing a few weird looks from, say, my fellow riders on the 2 train.

Sandman Overture

And let’s talk about the art: I’ve never seen a comic quite like this. Every page is a beautiful, complete picture, usually with a few smaller panels subtly blended in to direct the reader’s eye. Almost every time I turned a page, I had to spend a few minutes just taking in all the visuals. But it’s not only beautiful—the art excellently communicates the feeling of a walk through other planes of existence. It clearly shows you what kind of story this is and makes your brain instantly receptive to the dream logic. I’ll certainly be checking out anything else J.H. Williams III draws (e.g., Alan Moore’s Promethea).

Sandman: Overture has everything I love about Sandman and its author’s writing in general. All you Gaiman lovers should pick it up and wish the man a happy 55th while you’re at it. And you know what? I still don’t want to leave. Where’s my copy of Preludes and Nocturnes? I know what I’m doing this weekend.

Photo: Everett