It’s been several years since I read Neil Gaiman’s astonishing, sprawling, ambitious The Sandman – long enough that even though much of it instantly impressed itself on me permanently, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to properly appreciate his long-awaited prequel, The Sandman: Overture. Many prequels rely so heavily on dramatic irony – on us knowing where the story goes – that to approach them as an independent tale is folly and absurdity. Moreover, that over-reliance on foreshadowing and setting things up is often their undoing, as there’s little sense of life or spirit to a prequel; instead, it’s all inevitability and putting things into place.
Luckily, Overture suffers from none of that delivering an exhilarating, surreal tale that manages to set up the opening of the landmark series while still functioning as its own exciting, unpredictable story. Indeed, one could almost approach it before you read the series, and it would work fine; then again, that means being thrown into Gaiman’s complex, labyrinthine mythology without much of a guide, which can be a little much to take in.
Because, make no mistake: this plunges you back into the world of Dream and his siblings, avatars of ideas such as Desire, Delight, Death, and others. Much of the joy comes from the way Gaiman slowly reveals the nature of his story, of course, but suffice to say that Overture revolves around a crisis that threatens the nature of the universe – a crisis that Dream himself may have caused, through an act of mercy. Now, he has to face the consequences of that action – consequences which could quite possibly lead to his own death.
As always with Gaiman, the ideas here are astonishing ones, and a joy to explore. Gaiman’s magic has always lay in his own expansive mythologies, and Overture allows him to dip back into one of his greatest accomplishments, simultaneously playing in it and expanding it in subtle ways. And every bit as complex is Gaiman’s approach to morality and story-telling. There are no easy answers, no clear cut villains or heroes. Everyone is flawed; everyone is noble in their own mind. Sacrifice costs; duty matters; good deeds can haunt us. It’s wonderfully complex, thoughtful material – as though Gaiman is capable of much else.
But what may be the most astonishing part of Overture is not Gaiman’s prose; no, that honor belongs to the mind-blowing, convention-defying, utterly original art by J.H. Williams III. Gaiman’s world is magical one, where time can stop and start, reality can bend, and our perceptions cannot always be counted on. And Williams matches that in every way, eschewing traditional panels, rotating frames to emphasize surreal moments, plunging you into shadow before overwhelming you with explosions of color, and more – and that doesn’t even touch on his forays into the worlds of dreams. I’ve truly never seen art like what Overture has to offer, and, by definition, words can’t convey their impact. But rest assured, its ambition and surreal (but comprehensible) nature matches Gaiman’s world perfectly.
The result is the ideal, perfect union of artist and writer, combining Gaiman’s ambitious, sprawling universe with an art style that pushes against the very boundaries of the form whenever possible. It’s beautiful, unnerving, surreal, a little mind-bending, and oddly evocative – and every single one of those words could apply to Gaiman’s story as well. All of it combines to make a truly remarkable, interesting prequel, one that expands the universe, tells one last story in this incredible world, and explains a little while leaving a lot more unsaid. And the story it tells is nicely self-contained, giving all of the feel and scope of a typical Sandman arc while feeling like its own saga. It’s a joyous return to one of the great comic sagas of all time, and a worthy follow-up to a series that changed comics, delivering a great story, incredible art, and imagination to spare.