Start with the beginning that comes at the end.
The idea was a nod toward the chronology of the narrative, but also novelty. I read Overture when it came out in 2013 but did not, from there, embark on a full-scale re-reading of Sandman. So why not, I thought, treat Overture as it bills itself and use it as a starting point.
It was a poor decision, but I’m also not sure where I could have incorporated this book in a re-read and had it feel satisfying, much less necessary.
Let me get something out of the way before I go any further: this is a beautiful book. It’s arguably JH Williams III’s best work, or at least a candidate for the title. In terms of visuals, it sits next to Promethea, which, before you cry sacrilege, let me explain. No one in comics writes to their artists’ strengths like Alan Moore, while, outside of a couple projects, Gaiman’s work is almost artist-agnostic. That is, you can imagine a lot of Neil Gaiman comics drawn by artists other than the ones who worked on them; not so with the bulk of Moore’s comics. The art in Promethea is mind-bogglingly dense, packed with jokes, symbols and sigils. But if Moore is interested in symbols, we might say Gaiman is interested in the idea of symbolism (this is, after all, a comic book with the anthropomorphic embodiment of an abstract concept as its protagonist).
The results for Williams are airier here than in Promethea. There’s more of a sense of play on the page, and the sense that not everything in the art has to mean something. It comes down to taste which of these you think is preferable, and I’m certainly not casting a vote for either side; there’s advantages to both. One thing I will say, Williams’s figure work and faces are stronger here. Maybe that’s because Williams is inking his own pencils, but the chunky blacks of Mick Gray’s inks give way here to delicate line work that evokes a bit of Michael Zulli. And having typed that, I wonder if the similarity is intentional, an allusion to Zulli’s art on The Wake, Sandman’s last proper storyline.
Having said nice things about the art, let’s talk about the story, what it is and what it isn’t.
Ultimately, the thing to note about Overture is that it makes for a very poor prequel, precisely because it does the thing that the modern prequel tends to do, which is to fill in blanks best left blank. It is the Sandman equivalent of “How did Han Solo get those dice?” The basic assumption of a prequel is that all questions need to be answered, and the presumption of a bad prequel is that it doesn’t matter if those answers amount to anything more than a shaggy dog story.
Like the Star Wars prequels, it’s hard to imagine someone starting Sandman with Overture and wanting to continue. It’s actually difficult to imagine someone starting with Overture and getting through it, except to gaze lovingly at the art. It’s not that the story is bad or incoherent—okay, actually bits of it make no sense without the context to the series—but the reasons to care are elsewhere. Moreover, it spoils a lot of what’s to come. The missing Endless sibling whose identity hangs over the first couple storylines? Revealed here. Dream’s incarnation as Daniel? Yep, right there in issue two. Most annoying is that the kind of self-reflection and self-awareness Morpheus spends the entire series building toward, he already has here, reflecting lucidly on matters that, in failing to reflect on the, lead to the tragic death that forms the conclusion of the series.
If Overture makes for a bad start, how does it work as a return to the series?
Eh, also not great.
Structurally, it’s doing three things, and for me at least, all of them are missteps. The first is a comic book trope I associate with Geoff Johns, which is highlighting a character’s unique qualities by making them less unique. During his run on Action Comics, Johns tried to show that Superman is special by dumping a couple thousand other Kryptonians into the narrative. On Green Lantern, he created a Skittles bag-worth of Lantern Corps, and when he briefly returned to writing Superman, he once again gave us a power-identical character to demonstrate the unique qualities of Kal-El.
Gaiman’s first hook in Overture is an abundance of Dreams. Whether they’re aspects or facets or iterations, we get a massive fold-out spread of Dreams, brought together because one of them has died. The ontology here is fuzzy, and that creates a serious problem. Because the arc of Sandman over seventy-five issues is a classic tragedy. A character refuses to change, and dies as a result. Morpheus’s death and re-iteration as Daniel is the culmination of the entire arc, but here, the death of Dream is also a barely-consequential beginning. So looking back (or forward, or whatever), does the ending of Sandman…matter? By making our Sandman merely one of many, Overture undercuts rather than highlights his uniqueness, his importance.
Another move Gaiman’s making here is one we’ll call turtles all the way down. Briefly put, once you posit the existence of a necessary being, you can chose to stop there, or you can continue on at infinite length. The stopping point becomes arbitrary. Is it valid to ask “who is the Judeo-Christian God’s dad?” Yeah, sure, it’s valid. It’s also incredibly boring.
So we get Dream’s parents, Time and Night. I can’t say I ever wondered who his parents were, and I can’t say it’s particularly interesting (or that these are great/revealing choices). But now that Dream’s parentage is established for me, as a reader I’m less satisfied than I am inclined to ask, “Okay, so who’s Time’s mom?” and so on and so on, just to be a jerk (or because I spend most of my time with a five year old, and this is how five year old logic works).
The last bit of the structure brings us around to what Overture actually is, rather than what it isn’t. It isn’t a particularly good prequel, nor is it a prelude—titling Sandman’s first collection Preludes & Nocturnes is a savvy and self-aware move, but we’ll get to that—it is in fact an overture. It contains snippets of stories we’ll get later, more brief here and rearranged. Sadly, it fails here too, by getting the formula reversed. In a musical piece, the overture seeds melodies so that when they return in full, there’s a sense of amplification. The repetition of themes and actual events in Overture produces two effects. The first is one of needless delay. Morpheus confronts the Corinthian, presumably because it would be cool to show the Corinthian, with accusations identical to those he’ll level in The Doll’s House, and concludes, “I will most certainly deal with you and the whole murdering people thing later, good sir.” Morpheus grapples with the same question of how bound he is to his role that will serve as one of the over-arcing problems of the series and comes to basically the same conclusion that serves as his revelation while he waits with for the Furies with Death at the end of The Kindly Ones.
The second effect is de-amplification. Overture presents the story of a dream vortex, the same threat that animates The Doll’s House. But this vortex is EVEN BIGGER than that one. It’s huge, you guys. Serious stakes, check it out. By leading with a massive, existence-ending threat—one we’ll revisit when it threatens…a boarding house in Florida—Overture cheapens the stakes for the rest of the series, without ever getting the reader to invest in the stakes it’s selling. The universe threatened in Overture feels unpopulated; there’s less at risk with this vortex than there will be with the one centered on Rose because the reader cares about the denizens of the boarding house in a way we don’t care about whole societies sketched out in one page. It’s a superhero comic “Worlds will die!” move the series itself would never attempt, and it falls rather flat.
The question Overture fails to answer is Why? Gaiman’s other returns to comics around this time are, let’s be honest, cash grabs. Cash grabs for a noble cause—both Eternals and Marvel 1602 were written expressly to build up a legal war chest and snake the Miracleman rights back from Todd McFarlane. The dedication on Marvel 1602 concludes “And, of course, to Todd, for making it necessary”—but cash grabs nonetheless. Maybe this project gets filed under the same. I’ve tried to imagine this as a story Gaiman was burning to tell, but there’s so little new here, and such a sense of its construction from parts rather than creation from nothing, it’s tough to reason out a motivation better than Gaiman wanting to play his old toys again, which, as someone re-reading a comic book he loved in his teens, I can’t entirely fault. It’s neither as harmful or as feckless as post hoc revisions by certain other fantasy authors, but it feels like an unnecessary epilogue, misplaced at the beginning.