Thursday, August 4, 2016

Review - The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III

Short review: Dream is abruptly called away to a distant part of the cosmos to deal with a problem he caused. In his quest he is accompanied by himself as a cat and a girl named Hope.

Error of mercy
Unavoidable summons
To quench the stars' ire

Full review: Serving as both the finale to, and prequel for the Sandman series, Sandman: Overture is a perfect send-off for the series. Set prior to the events of the first book, but dependent upon the lore that Gaiman has built up over the previous ten graphic novels and short fiction collection, Overture is something of a love note from the author to fans that includes nods in the direction of previous volumes while also carving out a new story mostly unrelated to the old. With beautiful artwork provided by J.H. Williams III, and a story that is at turns gloomy, depressing, and tense, this book is a colorful and somber finale to Dream's story that explains much and yet still allows enough room for a few tantalizing enigmas.

At the outset, one must be clear that despite being a prequel, and thus the telling of the very first portion of the "story" of Dream, this is probably not a particularly good entry point into the series. Overture is littered with references to people and events that appeared previously in the series. In most cases, these cameos are just that, providing small Easter eggs as a nod in the direction of fans of the series and supplying some additional depth to the story for knowledgeable readers. In several other points, the plot of this book depends in part upon understanding who these characters are, or how a particular piece of established lore works, which is fine for people who have read previous books about Dream and the world he lives in, but potentially confusing for anyone unfamiliar with the Sandman series. The very nature of who Dream is, who the Endless are, and how they operate is simply taken as a given in this volume, and without explanation, these elements are likely to make much of the story opaque at best to a reader who is not already familiar with these elements.

Overture is one of the most straightforward of the stories featuring Dream, and at the same time, one of the most alien. After a brief introduction, Dream is pulled away from Earth by an irresistible summons that compels him to journey to a distant part of the universe. Once there, he meets with a myriad of other versions of himself, and learns that the very fabric of existence is threatened by an ill-advised act of mercy he had performed in the past. From there, Dream sets out on an expedition accompanied by a giant cat that is allegedly himself in cat form. Along the way he finds Hope, an ordinary girl whose family was killed by vandals. Dream's quest takes him to the city of the stars, his father's home, his mother's domain, and eventually, to his brother Destiny and a ship that shouldn't exist. Eventually, Dream manages to set things right (this being a prequel, the entire existence of the remaining stories pretty much depend on this being the case), but almost fittingly for the series, does so in such a way that no one - not even Dream - remembers the crisis or the sacrifices made to avert catastrophe.

All of the Sandman stories have a dreamlike and almost surreal quality to them, and Overture is no exception. In fact, Overture takes these qualities and elevates them to new heights - driven largely by J.H. Williams' brilliantly evocative artwork, Dave Stewart's vivid colors, and Todd Klein's inventive lettering. Every element of this book builds on the others, yielding an end result that is at times merely as vaguely unsettling as an actual dream, and at others reminiscent of a nightmarish hallucination. The choices made in illustrating and presenting this book are bold - ranging from the brilliant light of the city of the stars to the entirely black page representing the inside of a black hole. Each piece of the book is chosen to create the maximum effect. Art styles shift between locations with, for example, Father Time's domain drawn in a simplified, cartoonish style that contrasts it with much of the rest of the book. Even the fonts selected for certain characters and way the various panels are framed and presented are used to further immerse the reader into the story.

The book does have some flaws: Because the bulk of the story takes place in an entirely alien environment, it lacks the humanizing element that made so many of the previous stories in the series so visceral and emotionally compelling. The background explaining how Dream came to make the error of mercy that set this plot in motion is handled in a fairly perfunctory manner, a decision that results in scant attention being given to what probably should have been given a more prominent position in the story. The epilogue following the resolution of the crisis is handled in an almost offhand manner, with the reconstruction of the entire universe, including presumably Father Time and Mother Night, as well as all of the Endless, and associated commentary upon these events, taking up a mere handful of pages. For the most part, these issue are the result of trying to fit so much story into a single volume's worth of pages - after all the story is cosmic in scale, and universe-spanning in scope.

In the end, these flaws are minor, and stem from having too ambitious of a story, which, in my opinion, is generally the direction err when creating speculative fiction. This is, despite being named Overture, a fitting coda to the Sandman series - in a way, this book feels like a well-loved defunct rock band getting back together for one last farewell concert, with Dream, Death, Destiny, Delirium, and even Desire taking the stage for a final bow. In the case of Overture, this is a reunion concert that is well-worth attending.

Previous book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 10: The Wake

2015 Hugo Award Winner for Best Graphic Story: Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt
2017 Hugo Award Winner for Best Graphic Story: Monstress, Volume One: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

List of Hugo Winners for Best Graphic Story

2016 Hugo Finalists

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  1. I need to read this just being a huge Gaiman fan.

    1. @fredamans: If you liked the earlier parts of the Sandman series, you will almost certainly like this volume.