COMIC REVIEW: The Sandman: Overture #1

THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE #1/ Written by NEIL GAIMAN/ Art by J.H. WILLIAMS III/ Colors by DAVE STEWART/ Letters by TODD KLEIN/ Published by VERTIGO COMICS

SandmanHello darkness, my old friend. Nearly 20 years after Neil Gaiman and company wrapped the 75-issue run of “mature reader” masterpiece, The Sandman, the Vertigo flagship title returns this week in the first of a six-issue limited series, The Sandman: Overture. With gorgeous art and an engrossing story that plays to longtime fans and new readers alike, Overture is a strong entry in the Sandman oeuvre and one of the best comics of the year.

That’s due in no small part to Eisner Award winning artist J.H. Williams III. Williams brings Gaiman’s world of the Dreaming to life, providing intricate, beautifully rendered pages that flow throughout the oversized issue. It’s hard to believe Overture is the first time these two have collaborated, as the finished product delivers a seamless fusion of story and art that feels like two longtime partners striking up the band again. In fact, the entire production has a reunion feel, with longtime Sandman colorist Dave Workman and letterer Todd Klein also on board. There’s even a funky mixed-media Dave McKean variant cover that harkens back to the title’s pre-Vertigo glory days. Sandman aficionados know how integral Workman’s colors and Klein’s iconic lettering are to the overall feel of Sandman, and readers who are venturing into the world for the first time are in for a treat. Overture showcases old school comic book production of the best kind. Gaiman’s script demands a dynamic range from Williams, Workman, and Klein, and they embrace and execute on that scale masterfully.

The Sandman: Overture is a reunion, yes, but not one that spends much time mired in reflection. The remarkable thing about the first issue is how it balances reintroducing Gaiman’s large cast of Dreaming characters while presenting an entirely new, original narrative. The deft skill of serial storytelling is on full display here – Gaiman drives a deep, nuanced story while also hitting craft benchmarks like introducing characters by name and giving his world time to breathe and unfold. Recognizing that every issue is somebody’s first is a sadly perishing ideal in comics, with many book impenetrable by all but the longest reader. If any book could rest on its laurels and shun off the regiments of introduction, Sandman is it. Issue one of Overture does not, and is reminiscent of the first chapter of one of Sandman’s previous monthly format story arcs. Like the “Doll’s House” or the “Kindly Ones”, Overture presents a new reel in Sandman’s ongoing Republic Serial; an enticing kickoff that rewards those who have been along for the ride up to this point while whetting the appetite of new readers who want to know more about Dream, Death, Destiny, and the Corinthian. Gaiman takes the time to set the table and shines a light on the magic tightrope walk between serving legacy readers and newcomers that comics navigated for decades. “Rules. There must always be rules,” Dream says to his creation the Corinthian in issue one. Those words serve the story yet ring equally true as Gaiman’s nod to the comic medium at large. The variety of Overture’s plot and the ceaselessly inventive use of the page is a love letter to comics itself. It’s as if Gaiman is telling creators and fans alike, “Look at what you can do with this form, with all its unique rules and trappings.”

sandmanThe story shifts wonderfully from cosmic expanses to World War I era London to the ethereal kingdom of the Dreaming and beyond. An ensemble of strange characters is folded in, each bringing tantalizingly distinct personalities and voices. The art follows suit, alternating from psychedelic to monochrome, with stunning page turns between scenes. Williams pays equal duty to flushing out Gaiman’s universe-spanning palette as he does to giving each character a wholly developed look and feel. The best bit of character interaction in both art and story comes in the form of an exchange between Dream, the eponymous Sandman, and his terrible creation the Corinthian. Their terse back and forth is laden with British officiousness and sly humor. Williams portrays body language and poise, Dream carrying the air of a troubled aristocrat and Corinthian playing the role of rogue subject, injected with a streak of stubborn and horrifying obstinance. It’s a lovely exchange that disturbs as it makes one laugh.

For all its masterly execution, Overture stumbles a bit in its last pages, where an extended multi-page gatefold monstrosity closes the issue out. Similar to the tactic deployed by DC in the first issue of Superman Unchained, the poster-ish end pages of Overture unfurl to show a massive spread of comic art. The idea, presumably, is to showcase the unique capabilities of print comics, leveling a snarky, “Try this on for size, digital” across the bow. The end result, however, is more gimmick than gain, a mechanical distraction from the organic flow of the book. Williams’ art on the spread is fantastic and gives the eyes much to explore and absorb, but it could have easily been rendered in normal individual pages. In the end, the folding and flipping throws up more speed bumps to the reader than it does to enhance the experience. It’s a minor yet wholly unnecessary detraction from an otherwise superb issue.

The Sandman: Overture marks a tour-de-force return to form for Neil Gaiman’s most beloved creations. With artist J.H. Williams producing stellar art and Gaiman working the monthly comic format for all its worth, this sadly limited series is a must-read for fans old and new. Twenty-five years since its debut, Sandman is still pushing the limits of the comic form. Even if you’ve not read the backlog, the $4.99 cover price of The Sandman: Overture is money well spent to begin exploring this expertly crafted world of dreams.

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