Wednesday, June 22, 2016

To Squee Or Not to Squee: Sandman Overture

I slept and dreamt of Cautious Enthusiasm....

Sandman Overture begins with a carnivorous plant having a bad dream. It ends with two siblings abruptly forgetting what they were talking about. Believe me, I am understating the fuck out of this...but, then, understatement is one of the things Neil Gaiman does best. He’s a titan of fantasy literature, and there are many reasons why he’s so good at it, including his knack for dry British restraint. He can describe a cosmic battle between godlike beings with the same inflection you’d use to speak to the vicar at Mrs. Cumberfarthing’s tea social. All the while, his imagination is running at the speed of light. Look at American Gods, or Coraline. Better yet, look at The Sandman.

For it was Sandman that put Neil Gaiman on the map, and helped usher in a wave of adult-oriented comics under DC’s Vertigo imprint. Sandman is 75 issues of storytelling magic. And now, years and years later, Gaiman has returned to give us Sandman Overture, a prequel miniseries that’s now available as a single graphic novel. And that’s so, so awesome, and a little nerve-wracking, because in order to write about it, I somehow have to summarize Sandman. Can’t be done. I lose. So let’s be as brief as possible. Sandman is a comic about many, many things, but at its center are the Endless: seven siblings who aren’t mortals or gods, but personifications of certain aspects of our psyche. The Endless have been around since everything began. If one dies, a replacement is found to assume not only their duties, but their very persona. The names of the Endless are Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. Dream is the important one. He’s the tall, gaunt, raven-haired guy in the ragged cloak, also known as Morpheus...or The Sandman. At the very beginning of the original comic, Dream was returning to his realm after fighting a battle, the details of which we were never told. Weakened and distracted, he was captured by a bunch of dopey occultists. What manner of sturm und drang could leave such a powerful being so vulnerable?

Sandman Overture has the answers, although I was concerned that Gaiman couldn’t easily slip back into his old storytelling voice. He was a relatively young man when he began Sandman, and the early issues of the comic read more like pulp horror than epic fantasy; even the art style was reminiscent of Tales from the Crypt. Gaiman has come so far, and as an author, I know how shitty one’s older work can seem. I really shouldn’t have worried. Gaiman isn’t going for pulp horror. Why was Dream so bruised and battered when first we met him? Short answer: he was saving the universe. Long answer: don’t even ask me to summarize everything Gaiman crams into six issues. Basically, Dream learns that one aspect of himself -- an alternate Dream from a far-distant world -- has suffered permadeath, which is supposed to be impossible. He sets out to investigate, and discovers...badness. Cosmic unrest, which leads to cosmic war. Much of Sandman Overture is sort of science fiction, which is like saying that Mozart sort of wrote melodies. Sandman Overture is epic, operatic, mind-bending, and utterly glorious. It’s one of Gaiman’s greatest Sandman tales. Better late than never!

There are a couple of ways to make a lousy prequel. There’s the Star Wars thing where you fuck up your own continuity. Then there’s the “Who cares?” route where the prequel does not contain a single piece of new information. Sandman Overture avoids these traps admirably. Nothing in it contradicts Sandman, and more so, it sheds a new light on, well, everything. I plan to revisit Sandman with the knowledge that Dream is, from start to finish, numbingly tired. All too aware of his own mortality. His flaws. At one point, faced with a crowd of alternate-world Dreams, he asks, “Am I always like this?...Self-satisfied. Irritating.” Indeed, Dream always was unapproachable. We didn’t get inside his head enough. This new tale humanizes Dream to a surprising extent and, again, implies that his ordeal renders him a tired, jaded shell of his former self. Yeah, it’s a top-notch prequel. Its one (minor) sin is that Gaiman can’t resist bringing back a lot of the Sandman supporting cast for cameos, some of which contribute nothing to the story. (Hey, it’s the Corinthian! So what!) But he’s able to flesh out a few folks (Dream’s feline version, who only appeared once in Sandman, plays a huge role here) and introduce some intriguing newcomers. We meet the Endless’ parents, and I won’t spoil who or what they are, but they slot perfectly into the mythos.

Okay, let’s talk about the artwork, because holy shit. The comic is drawn by J.H. Williams III and colored by Dave Stewart, and they are an absolute dream team, no pun intended. Once it got past the pulp horror phase, Sandman featured a constantly shifting series of artists and a wide variety of styles, depending on the story arc of the moment. Sandman Overture sticks to one art style, but it’s...well, to call it “psychedelic” is a start, but not enough. It blazes across each page in great, grandiose whorls. Its eye-popping colors are a proud Fuck You to any grim, gritty aesthetic. At times it utilizes clear lines, and at other times the edges soften like watercolor. The layout of the panels and even the speech bubbles become part of the madness. I could compare it to Dr. Strange, or perhaps to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen once Alan Moore went completely insane. But it’s in a league of its own, perfect for visualizing such an epic tale. Anchored, of course, by that dry Neil Gaiman understatement. Certain double-page spreads contain so much goddamn detail that you could pore over them for an hour or more. This massive a story, coupled with such boundless artwork, would form the climax of many comics.

Here, though, it’s an overture. What’s an overture? An introduction that foreshadows what is to come. Yes, Sandman Overture answers some leftover questions from the original Sandman comic. The motives of certain characters. The placement of a key object or two. Old fans can appreciate each easter egg, while newcomers shouldn’t be scared off. But everyone will be a little lost, because Sandman never was straightforward. Reading it, you must understand that the Endless exist outside of regular time and space. They aren’t entirely linear, and although they appear tangible, they’ll always be misty around the edges. You can’t take them at face value. Who or what is Dream? Why, he’s dreams. All of them. And he’s a person, yes, and a figment of our imagination. He’s real, but he’s not. There’s only one of him, and there are a trillion trillion of him. He’s beyond human thought, but he’s also deeply human at heart. Sandman Overture hints that maybe, after many years, Neil Gaiman has come to understand Dream a little better. Enough to rewind the clock and tell a story that remixes the entire Sandman universe. That’s pretty damn impressive. And I hope Gaiman never leaves this Dream behind.

VERDICT: Endless squee!

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