Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 9
Overall Plot: 7
Audience Assumptions: Familiarity with the Sandman series or my reviews of it.
The Sandman: Overture
Part One: Holy Shit, They Did It Twice
I wholly expected this to be some spinoff of the Sandman original graphic novels, a series of short stories or it’s own little tale involving the same characters. I understand there were a few other Sandman stories released after the series’ official conclusion. Perhaps I’ll check out those sometime, but I don’t have plans to do so in the near future.
Overture surprised me by being not only one of the most visually spectacular entries in the series, but also in being unusually amusing and self-aware. It has a lot of the character of Brief Lives, which is a vast improvement on where the series leaves off and a good mark overall. The book takes an encompassing retrospective and presents an image I regret the final series didn’t fully convey. In fact, it manages to improve it in crucial ways.
The plot is fairly complex, especially once side characters get involved, but it’s essentially a prequel to the events of the first book in the series. On some distant planet, a version of Dream, a carnivorous plant here, burns up and dies. The version we’re familiar with, good ol’ pretty boy vanilla Dream, is compelled to a meeting with other versions of himself – facets of alternative worlds and places. All of them convene and determine the source of the plant-Dream’s death to be a rogue star that resulted from one of Dream’s forays years ago. When he refused to destroy a Vortex, a world collapsed in on itself and Dream had to destroy everything in that system. However, he left the sun alive, feeling guilty about getting others killed, and now it has returned, wreaking chaos on the known universe. The versions of Dream return to their respective realms and pretty boy sets off on an overland journey with the version of Dream from that cat short story back in the Dream Country compendium.
The setup is pretty generic and not especially deep; the idea of a character impeding destruction and inadvertently leading to more of it is a bit of a cliché. This sort of story element can become fatalistic in the wrong hands. Overland quests are also a staple of the fantasy genre, so their purpose can’t merely be the physical journey itself if they want to be original.
Overture manages these pitfalls admirably. The setup is characterized as the result of Dream’s perpetual internal conflict: his struggle between compassion and apathy. It’s both of them that makes things problematic — his compassion for living things that he’s since supposedly lost, and his apathy toward the big picture. As Delirium later says to him, “You don’t care that it’s ending…. You care that it’s your fault.” Dream didn’t just refuse to kill the vortex — he became attached to her. He wanted to keep her for himself, regardless of her wishes or the ramifications of his inaction. He held onto her as he holds onto Orpheus. Dream did not feel that his role in the world was to destroy, but to create, and this, coupled with the latent empathy he so readily tries to hide, prevented him from destroying the Vortex. In the present timeline, those same feelings prompt him to charge forward, unapologetic and ignorant of the consequences of his actions until their ramifications physically hurt him.
The journey to the City of the Stars is likewise more interesting than it appears on the surface. The story posits the idea that legions have gathered in preparation of the destruction of the world, some looking to hold it back where possible, some looking to join it out of religious compulsion, and some merely looking to rummage among the scraps. Dream and the Dream-Cat wander through an environment much like a desert and encounter the results of war in the form of a destroyed town, where they find a young child to be the sole survivor. The child (subtly named “Hope”) asks to go with them, to which Dream disagrees and his cat counterpart allows. After considerable prompting, the child allows Dream to open up about things he would ordinarily never talk about, such as origin of his distinctive helmet. Recounting these stories and reflecting on the child’s questions places Dream in a mindset that is necessary for his encounter with the star; in order to resolve the issue, he needs to embrace the problem rather than avoid it. It’s a fairly clear-cut resolution – destroy the star – but success comes at an emotional cost that Dream hasn’t been ready to face. Even now, as he starts to accept his own failures, he still doesn’t realize what’s at stake nor how it will affect him.
The girl’s decision to join them in the world of the stars gets her killed and Dream trapped in a black hole. His parents little help, he’s pulled free by Destiny, who leads him to an odd transexistential ship that has landed itself very inconveniently in Destiny’s garden. There, Dream learns that the cat he’s been travelling with is not another version of himself, but Desire, who has gathered a thousand beings together to re-dream existence once it’s destroyed.
Yes, the last portion of the book is exceptionally surreal.
The plan formulated and Hope revived as a ghost, Dream agree to use his abilities to reshape reality. The effort leaves him exhausted and unable to resist the pull of magicians trying to summon Death, bringing the story full circle and landing him in a bauble.
The ending of the story brings to mind the rather obvious question of why go through the trouble of journeying to the star if Desire already has a plan laid out seemingly unrelated to it? The book provides a half-assed answer to tie up loose ends involving time travel, but that bypasses the question somewhat clumsily. As with most stories, the characters’ physical journey mirrors an emotional one and this is core to the story’s purpose. Whether Dream can save the world is never in question, especially as this is a prequel and the audience knows that the main character survives the ordeal. There are worse things than a grand failure, things like being broken, physically or emotionally, and the smaller failures that add up over time. These are the things that affect Dream and make his character interesting. Him saving the world is mediocre; the events that make him want to save the world are enthralling.
The key to a good prequel is to provide a story that re-contextualizes a character’s actions and makes them deeper in retrospect. Overture ends with Dream realizing the damage he’s wrought and giving everything he has to make things better. Dream is a usually selfish character, frequently impulsive and rarely reflective about his actions. His arc for the main story is largely about him coming to take responsibility (and failing, largely), but more than that, embracing empathy. We see the origins and synthesis of that arc here.
Part Two: NO ONE TOUCHES DESTINY’S SHIT
One of the oddest but most welcome features of the book is its comedy. Jokes come up infrequently, but those that appear are delightfully insightful and recontextualize the entire series. I’ve lamented how self-serious The Sandman is, especially when it has little reason to be. Comedy isn’t the right answer for most scenes – in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the wrong answer for most scenes, as comedy done poorly is grating – but I have a soft spot for it when it’s used well. In a series like The Sandman, which is inherently absurd due to its appropriately dreamlike logic, humor can be sewn carefully between dramatic events to prevent the series from getting too full of itself. Surreal stories and aesthetics can easily run wild with their own concepts, taking absurd turns in their progress that can leave the audience lost. Humor doesn’t necessarily ground the story or untangle its absurdity, but it gives us a sort of bearing by telling us it’s okay to be lost. If something seems odd or pretentious, a joke confirms that it’s supposed to be like that.
The three decades between the release of the original series and the release of Overture allows the book to reflect on the characters of the original story. Mostly, this comes in the form of reiteration of the series’ main themes and development of the narrative that could only come after the series had concluded. Because The Sandman was released episodically over several years, it’s unlikely that the author or creative teams ever really had a complete grasp of the project’s trajectory. This results in discontinuity within the cohesive structure of the series, but Overture has the benefit of hindsight. I’m not sure what Gaiman saw looking back on the original series as a whole, but evidently he thought it merited some humanity.
This is the only part of the Sandman canon I can recall where Dream is the narrator. His voice and personality are altered from the original series, but in a manner that still feels consistent with the tone the books are going for. He loses much of the pretense and become a much more vulnerable character — still mystical, but far less enigmatic and more of the sort of character we see in the rare times he bothers to emote. By breaking down the barrier between the audience and the character’s internal dialogue, the story makes him a much more dynamic character.
Dream confronting many versions of himself and being irritated at how unbearable they all are is a bit of tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation that seems odd coming from this character as written in the original series, but works quite well. It calls back to moments when Dream’s pomp and circumstance has been bipped on the head by his siblings, and yet manages to remain thematically consistent with Overture‘s narrative by foreshadowing Dream’s reflection on his personal failings. Small moments like this aren’t constant, but they’re frequent enough to manages to make the characters feel more complete than they have been in other stories.
No one gets that treatment more than Destiny.
I have stated before that Destiny is easily the most boring of the Endless. I stand by that claim, as the other Endless, love them or hate them, are at least designed to have unique personalities. Destiny is very generic, having only three noted characteristics – being symbolically blind (he’s perfectly capable of seeing), carrying a book in which all of reality is written, and following his book religiously. That’s it, that’s Destiny. He knows everything that will ever happen and wanders around aimlessly offering cryptic advice, but only when his silly book tells him to. The audience might conclude other things from his rigidly-defined lifestyle, such as that he’s lazy, uncreative, placid, and perhaps somewhat dim-witted because he’s never challenged. Maybe we would be wrong in these conclusions and it’s a conscious lifestyle, that Destiny is actually highly disciplined and makes a constant effort not to interfere with anything. However, given no evidence to the contrary, we’re left to conclude that he’s the Endless equivalent of an exceptionally dunderheaded goldfish.
So what happens when you take away Destiny’s book? This is not a question Overture has to ask, but boy am I glad it did. Apparently the answer is, Destiny completely loses his fucking shit.
Destiny’s book essentially defines him. When a ship arrives at random in his realm and appears to transcend the definitions of reality, Destiny is lost. His book won’t tell him there is a ship there, and yet he can see it right in front of him. You can see the circuits in his brain pop, confronted by incomprehensible information. Destiny doesn’t know what to do. He does, however, know who to blame.
He pulls Dream to his realm, black hole imprisonment be damned, and demands an explanation like a stuffy parent who’s discovered their bottled ship collection has been smashed. Dream, of course, is understandably confused, not the least because he has no idea how the ship got there.
It’s the single best direction anything in this series could have gone. And it stars fucking Destiny of all people.
Part Three: I Want This Book in Poster Form
The synthesis of this book creates a much more pleasant structure than much of the original series, with ends tied up and narratives more or less complete. The series has never really concerned itself with full conclusions, even though it has had a lot of them over the years. Much of the oeuvre of the series encompasses a mood of perpetual conclusion. Gothic as it often is, especially in aesthetic, characters are constantly dying or grieving. The artistic choices within this novel realize the concept of ongoing conclusion better than I think any of the main books in the series.
Two new characters, Night and Time, represent this concept and its importance within the series. I don’t think they’re fully utilized within the novel, especially as they seem to be late additions, but conceptually, their character designs are superb. Night and Time are the parents of the Endless (yeah, I’m not quite sure how that works in the established lore either). As their names suggest, they each rule over part of the vast dominion of spacetime, apparently external to the Endless, but comparable to them as well. Their realms are surreal and notably dreamlike, Night even offering to provide Dream with an alternative to his own realm in her own at one point. They each have qualities and appearances similar to the various Endless, as fictional parents must because of the laws of magical genetics, but more importantly, they’re just as petty and self-important as Dream and his siblings can be. Dream spends most of his time with them playing the unfortunate child messenger to divorced parents, which is especially amusing given the dire nature of the plot.
The parents contribute somewhat to the plot at the very end, coming together to aid Dream in steering the ship, but their function in the story is much more symbolic than anything else. They’re emblematic of reality, offering their meager contribution to a new version of reality and, through their comparison to Dream, implying a continuity between the world of fiction and the world of reality.
It is fitting, then, that the end of this book leads into the main series, and also that this one comes after the rest of the series is complete. Overture is meant to be read as a later installment, a true prequel that connects the series in a cycle. It’s an accomplishment few series can boast, and I’m pleasantly surprised it comes out of this one.
Okay, then it’s bereft of pretentious drivel?
Eh… not quite. It’s a pretty damn pretentious graphic novel if my description of its plot didn’t tip you off. The Sandman is and always will be pretentious. Even this and the seventh book, arguably the most grounded of the series, are mellodramatic, flowery, and terribly self-serious at times. The series wants to tell a story about the universe and the human condition, the two most pretentious topics there are. And it wants to do them in graphic novel form. It would be nearly impossible for it not to be at least a little pretentious, and it revels in the light of its own brilliance.
The important distinction in this book is that it has the clout to back up its pretense. One only has to look at the art to see Overture‘s strengths.
The Sandman has always had rich artistry to tell its story, and I’ve often considered it more of a style over substance sort of series. That is doubly so for this book, and I say that in full confidence after gushing about its narrative structure.
Pretty much every single page in this book would be worthy of a print. The colors are spectacular, the textures are vibrant, and unlike some of the original series, which took care with its panels but less with its composition, the artist make full use of the page space as well. It’s not even just the regular comic conventions or the detail of the art that makes it so appealing; it’s highly readable as a comic and the structure is sound, but it’s also surprisingly creative in its layout. There are angles and frames in this novel that I’ve never seen in graphic novels before and rarely ever in other art pieces.
At times, the attempts at creative transitions in the narrative can get a little out of hand, such as when the artist decides to turn panels into reflections in the teeth of the Corinthian. However, the majority of the book knows just how much it can get away with. This is the first of the Sandman series that I feel likely couldn’t fit effectively into any other format.
While I’ve listed this book as separate from the main Sandman canon in my review system, I almost think it’s a necessary component of the series. It provides newly-realized context that greatly clarifies and expands upon concepts of the original, and it’s enjoyable on its own. If you happened to find The Wake disappointing but, like me, appreciated The Sandman series as a whole, then Overture might be worth a read. It’s pretty and has an epic Destiny meltdown scene if nothing else.