Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Fortissimo


J.H. Williams III channels Peter Max

The Sandman: Overture: written by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart (2015): I started reading Neil Gaiman's career-making Sandman series when it first started appearing in monthly comic-book form back in the late 1980's. And I don't recall ever wondering much about what this prequel details: what happened just before the events of the first Sandman to result in the Sandman returning home weakened from a trip across the universe?

The Sandman, mostly known in the series as either Morpheus or Dream, is one of seven Endless in Gaiman's conception -- god-like siblings who supervise seven conditions of existence (Dream, Death, Destiny, Delirium/Delight, Desire, Despair, and Destruction). The original series followed Morpheus over about 2000 pages of comics prior to ending in 1995. Subsequently, Gaiman has written 'side' pieces (among them Endless Nights, seven stories about the seven Endless; The Dream Hunters, an illustrated text novel in which Morpheus is a supporting character) but no continuations or major additions to the main Sandman story. 

But to mark the 20th anniversary of the end of the original Sandman, Gaiman and artist J.H. Wiliiams III created this six-issue miniseries, subsequently collected. It is a prequel, though the time-bending nature of the narrative means that it's also a sequel of sorts.

The book tells us what Morpheus was doing just prior to his fateful return to Earth that kicked off the events in Sandman #1. We meet hundreds of new characters. We visit, mostly briefly, with many characters we've seen before. And we encounter two characters I never thought existed prior to Overture: the mother and father of the Endless. 

All of this is rendered by the meticulous, cosmic J.H. Williams III, whose high point in wild, dense, expansive comic-book art comes on Alan Moore's Promethea. Williams throws an explosion of carefully chosen styles and some extremely complicated panel lay-outs at us throughout the pages of Overture. At points, the art really overwhelms the narrative. 

I'm not sure that's entirely a good thing. Gaiman had many fine artists on his original Sandman run, but they tended to support the narrative with relatively standard panel progressions and page-to-page continuity. In Overture, the reader deals with a wide variety of unconventional lay-outs, many of them confusing at first. Does it work? Does it serve the story? Not always. The 'tooth' lay-out associated with the Corinthian (I'm not explaining this!) in the first chapter is probably the lay-out that most pushes the boundaries of ridiculousness for the sake of being startling, though there are others.

But boy, the art is gorgeous and complicated and multi-vocal. There's an 'artist's edition' that renders all the text of Overture translucent so as to foreground the art even more, if you want that sort of thing. 

Overture is relatively essential to anyone who loves The Sandman or who enjoys the boundary-pushing art of J.H. Williams III. It's lovely stuff, though the art overwhelms the smaller charms of the narrative throughout. This foregrounds the fact that the original Sandman thrived on its smaller charms of characterization and description -- especially once Overture becomes the most apocalyptic story ever told by Gaiman about Morpheus. 

The resolution of that apocalypse depends on one character from the original run revealing major new depths, a minor character gaining a new plot function, and lessons to be learned from a couple of the old Sandman stories. I'm not sure how well these things work for one who hasn't read the original stories (or who has forgotten them). But I'm not sure why someone would read Overture without having read everything else Sandman-related first. This is a prequel that needs to be read after everything else, not before. 

Overture's art is splendid. The narrative connects a few too many dots that might better have been left unconnected -- there's a 2010 feeling to certain scenes and revelations. Still, far from being some sort of failure. Recommended.

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