REVIEW: “Sandman: Overture” #1

(Vertigo Comics, 2013)

Review by Shawn Warner

Written by: Neil Gaiman
Artwork by: J.H. Williams III
Color Artwork by: Dave Stewart
Lettering by: Todd Klein

Someone turned back the clocks too far this Day Light Savings Time, instead of one hour time has been turned back to the 90’s. That’s obvious because Sandman is still on the racks of our local comic shops and just as amazing as ever. Is this an episode of The Twilight Zone? No, in fact Neil Gaiman has challenged the age old adage, “You can’t go home again” and proved it incorrect. Gaiman has masterfully returned to the characters and universe that for many comic book readers defined an era, what could be called The Vertigo era of darker, more ethereal subject matter and he has not missed a beat. Not only is this one of the most lyrically poetic comic books of the year, it is easily the most gorgeous looking book hands down courtesy of the brilliant artist J.H. Williams III.

A wonderful endeavor such as this is inevitably met with cynicism because people want to compare the entirety of the original run to a single issue, which is more than unfair, lest we forget Gaiman is a writer of prose novels predominantly so to make such a rush to judgment is tantamount to judging War and Peace after the first chapter. There is no doubt that the original run has set the bar astronomically high in so many ways; the creation of a completely new and original mythology that has yet to see its equal in modern comics, although I expect Grant Morrison to give him a run for his money when Multiversity is published, the significance and inventiveness of this work vastly transcended the medium in which it was created, all of these are viable reasons to expect great things from this book but it cannot do in a single issue what the original did in seventy-five. So, note to hipster cynics please reserve clever critiques until Mr. Gaiman has had a chance to tell his story.

Overture is written as a prequel to the original series and it immediately captures that immense expansive feel of the Endless universe both in content and visually. Williams III uses the double page spread throughout the book giving the work an organic feel as if the art is actually growing and devouring the page. Gaiman calls on many familiar faces to weave this tale including Lucian, Death and The Corinthian all of whom feel just as they did when they were introduced to us decades ago. That is not to say that they seem old or uninteresting, quite the opposite is true. Like a fine wine, time seems to have served these characters well, their absence from any DC continuity has kept them fresh and viable hence making their return all the more satisfying. It is more than nostalgia that Gaiman relies on to make these characters endearing to us; the fact that we already know them just gives us that much more of a vested interest in their continued adventures. Ultimately it is Gaiman’s superb writing that makes this such a great first issue and gives it the significance it warrants. The characters and their interactions with one another are at the heart of every great Sandman story and that seems to be the plan for this story as well, the dialogue has that lyrical meter that defined the original series and made it impossible for anyone other than Gaiman to write these characters.

Overture has the ethereal tonal quality of a fairy tale; with its metaphysical and fantasy elements it bridges the waking world with the Dreaming yet the familiarity we feel for the characters gives us the comfort of a spirit animal or some sort of other-worldly guide. Gaiman very successfully infuses this issue with all the things that we loved about the original series. I remember buying every single issue when they came out and that same magic that was almost a tangible thing back then is here again for an even wider readership to enjoy. I was a young idealistic teen-aged nihilist back in those days, it was a different socio-political climate for sure, the economy was much stronger but when I read Overture I was immediately in that place and time where I grew up and that experience in itself is worth far more than the price of a comic book, even at today’s prices.

J.H. Williams has created a masterpiece on every single page of this book; I’m talking about the degree of genius that belongs on museum walls. The sprawling layout he employs spreads the narrative out visually allowing it to flow freely from page to page, panel to panel. Williams III expertly guides you through the work so that you more experience the work with him than simply examine the pages one after another. He very precisely directs your attention so that your focus is on the action because the pages are so lush and full of twisting, weaving imagery that you could easily get lost in the ornate borders or meticulous backgrounds.

Long-time Sandman colorist on the original series Dave Stewart adds his touch of visual brilliance providing the vivid vivacious colors to Williams III sending the already amazing work to staggering new dimensions. The colors are alive and glowing from cover to cover; the contrasts of the inky blackness of space to the cosmic glow of tails of flame and points of starlight paint the universe with a limitless spectrum of unearthly hues.

Overall Sandman Overture is a stunning success on every level. Neil Gaiman returns to the characters that made him mandatory reading for a generation of not just comic book fans but artists of all kinds. Gaiman defined the Vertigo era that one could very easily say has spawned the current Image style of comic books, certainly he paved the way for books like Saga, East of West and Pretty Deadly. So if you are looking to re-capture some of the magic of the original series or if you are just interested in reading an incredibly beautiful comic book both visually and story-wise go ahead and pick up the first issue of Sandman Overture, you will be very happy you did and while I don’t think anyone who hasn’t read the original series will get the deep level of enjoyment that those of us who have read it will, new readers will certainly enjoy this book and perhaps be prompted to pick up the original series in trade form. A book this good makes me sorry I can only give it a 5/5 surely this one is off the scale. And with that kids, now you know, and knowing is half the battle. See ya at the comic book store.

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Follow Shawn Warner on Twitter:  @shawnwarner629

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