Recent Dorkiness

Beautiful Dreaming: Sandman Returns in Grand Style

Back from vacation (had a great time, thanks), and what did I find awaiting me at the funnybook store?

Sandman: Overture 1, by Neil Gaiman, JH Williams III, and Dave Stewart

 Williams Sandman 1 Cover So. It's been awhile. Something on the order of 17 years, in fact, since the last issue of Neil Gaiman's Sandman hit the stands. It's astounding, then, how much this book reads like the original series. It's like Gaiman picked things back up where they left off without breaking stride. I know he's moved on and changed as a writer since then, and not always for the better. Nothing he's done in the intervening years has been as good as Sandman, though, so I'm doubly shocked at how much I enjoyed this comic. All the lyrical touches and dreamlike weirdness are there, as well as Dream's just-slightly-alien demeanor. It's a heartening return to form for an author I've sometimes wanted to like more than I have. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Gaiman is aided and abetted on this new Sandman story by one of the finest artists in the business. I've gushed about JH Williams III's skills ad nauseum in the past, of course. But only because... you know... he's actually that good. Embiggen that cover above, for instance, and marvel at not only the lush brushwork on Dream's leaf-cloak, but also the level of detail on the plants. That's repeated and expanded upon inside, in an opening sequence set on a far-off planet of sentient plant life.
click to embiggen

click to embiggen

I love the design of that little guy. Before he wakes up, he's convincingly plant-like, something that might actually exist. Then he comes to life, and he's weird and alien but still recognizably sentient. That's a difficult balance to pull off, but Williams does it with aplomb, and it helps Gaiman's story considerably. If he's too alien, we won't connect with his distress in the panel above, but if he's not alien enough he could easily seem cartoonish and we won't care. Williams hits the perfect note, though, and so the scene gets across the danger while still feeling pleasingly weird. That's the sort of pitch-perfect collaboration this comic delivers throughout. Whether it's a case of Gaiman upping the dreamlike weirdness by writing to Williams' penchant for inventive layout...
click to embiggen

click to embiggen

...or Williams turning in crazy-go-nuts layouts to enhance scenes that don't necessarily call for it...
click to embiggen

click to embiggen

...the Gaiman/Williams team is a funnybook match made in heaven. That second spread is particularly nice, using the Corinthian's mouth(s) as a lurid framing device for those grey washes. And the washes themselves set the scene apart from another black and white sequence, set in Dream's “London Office.” This is a place he's established with one foot in the Dreaming and the other in real-world London. He doesn't use it often, though, and when he's not there, it's kind of... sketchy. Complete, but lifeless. Like the setting of a half-remembered dream. Williams has chosen to illustrate that with highly-detailed and heavily textured line drawings, using lines so paper-thin that some of them don't even reproduce properly. But when Dream enters, the place slowly fills with lush color (courtesy Dave Stewart, who like Williams is among the best in the business). That's all going on in the background as Dream confronts the Corinthian, and then this happens:
click to embiggen

click to embiggen

They've spent just enough unspoken effort establishing the rules of the setting that when Dream vanishes, and the color blinks off rather than fading away, it sends up a red flag. Something is definitely wrong, and they didn't need to say a word to get it across. Hrm. Speaking of things being wrong... I've been doing an awful lot of talking about the craft behind this book, but it suddenly occurs to me that I haven't told you what the story's about yet. Well... It's a prequel, based on a throw-away line from the first issue of the original Sandman series, telling us that Dream was just returning from a hard-won victory in a distant galaxy. Overture is the story of that battle, and (at least in this first issue) what Dream was doing before he went off to fight it. There's very much a “life, interrupted” feel to the proceedings here that was perhaps lacking in the original series. Much of that book revolved around Dream cleaning up his mistakes, and now (in the above scene with the rebellious Corinthian) we see that process had started before he ever went away. Overture also plays off Sandman's over-arcing theme of death, as we discover that Dream's demise actually started long, long before he pissed off the Furies. So this isn't just a tacked-on prequel explaining away a throw-away line. I mean, it is. It most assuredly is. But that's not all it is. Assuming that Gaiman follows through on the themes he's introduced in this first issue, Overture also serves as... well... as an overture to Sandman, an opening piece that encapsulates the main story's themes and concerns in short form. That's its potential, anyway. Time will tell if Overture lives up to it. Of course, with Williams and Stewart along for the ride, I have high hopes...
click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Grade: A+   Aaannnddd... You know what? I really wanna leave you with one more example of eye-melting beauty from Williams and Stewart. But it's pretty SPOILERY, so I'll just leave it here for you... after the jump.

Okay, so here it is. The thing that makes this little floppy masterpiece worth the five dollar price tag: JH Williams’ four-page fold-out spread of Dream and Dream and Dream and Dream and Dream and Dream and Dream…

click, obviously, to embiggen

click, obviously, to embiggen

Lots to love there, and even more to pick apart and annotize. Many of these Dreams seem inspired by Dave McKean’s Sandman covers, but not all. My favorites are probably the big-head Dream in the top mid-right, the Klimt Dream just  beside and below him, and that crazy open-shirt Kirby Dream over in the middle left (because it’s always nice to nod back toward the inspirations). It’s a great illustration, no matter which ones you like most, and a bit of bravado publishing that this sort of anniversary prequel special calls for.

That’s right. I just praised a DC Comics publishing decision. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, I suppose…

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About Mark Brett (414 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

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