The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have two confessions to make: 1) I don't like Neil Gaiman's fiction. I . . . just . . . can't. So kill me. 2) My single experience with Neil Gaiman in person left me feeling a little snubbed. Long story, but I met him at the World Fantasy Convention, where I approached him and tried talking to him, but I found him rather cold and uninterested, constantly looking for important people to talk to. I don't want to go on and on (I could) about the whole experience, but that is the summation of my feelings. I frankly didn't like him much. In fact, I think he was kind of a jerk.
So why did I want to talk to him at all, you ask? Well, in the comics desert wasteland that was the 1990s, his comic The Sandman was a bright spot in a rather dull universe. It was one of my favorite comics of that decade.
The opening story of the '90s Sandman series begins with the main character, Dream, being captured via an occult ritual. The iconic image of a black-cloaked figure wearing a gas mask lying in a fetal position, surrounded by magic sigils immediately caught my attention when I first saw it, as it caught the attention of tens of thousands of other readers. Like Morpheus, I was smitten.
The Sandman: Overture is an accounting of events in the world of the Sandman mythos that led up to this imprisonment. I hate to use the term "prequel," as that term is tainted by a couple of really bad examples of retroactive storytelling wherein the original (which occurs later, chronologically) is demeaned by the "prequel". Two movies should clearly demonstrate this: Phantom Menace, and The Hobbit. But I digress.
As I said earlier, I don't care much for Gaiman's long-form fiction. I tried Anansi Boys and just couldn't. I've dipped my toe in a couple of others, as well, but have found myself growing bored quickly and have had to move on to something else. I hear American Gods is good, and maybe I should read that someday, since part of it takes place in a setting that is a forty-five minute drive from my house.
That said, here Gaiman hits his stride. As you would expect, it's a strange story, full of subtleties and deception. Political intrigue abounds, and there is some moving pathos there, especially when the character Hope enters the picture, then exits, then reenters . . . changed, yet much the same.
But let's not kid ourselves. While you may forget all the intricacies of the story, one thing you will not forget is the art. At this point, this is the most beautiful graphic novel I have ever laid eyes on.
J.H. Williams' art is absolutely stunning. At times, the illustrations will make your head spin - quite literally, if you're not willing to turn the book around a few times to follow some of the more serpentine configurations. A few fold outs invite the reader into the book - as immersive an experience as you are likely to have reading a graphic work. And Dave Stewart's colors are a roiling phantasmagorical dream in vivid color. The difference between this work and so many other graphic novels is that the illustrations and color here were designed. Not just drawn and inked, but designed, carefully. There is a craft happening here that is a ritualistic invocation of the imagination. It is a solemn, nearly worshipful thing to read this work, and utterly immersive.
It is obvious, from reading the book, that Gaiman is a much deeper person than I give him credit for. Maybe he was having an off day and needed some more familiar faces or he was sick of fans or whatever, I don't know. At the least, I can't hate him, after reading this. I might pity him, as I do Morpheus, but I can't hate him. I love this work too much.
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