The Sandman is one of the best comic book titles ever published. That’s an indisputable assertion. It’s also one that had a definite beginning, middle and end. It started with the Lord of Dreams, Morpheus of the Endless, waking up to find that he’d missed much of the 20th century after being imprisoned by occult artists in early 1900s London. It loops in and out of history, while still holding a tether to the present, and ends as satisfyingly as anything I’ve ever read. Neil Gaiman, the mind behind the entire series, used just the right amount of reverence to end Morpheus’ story. After 75 issues, the story finally being over only felt natural.
Now, 25 years after the series debuted at DC Comics, Gaiman has come back to fill in the only real blank left in the story’s tapestry. The reason Morpheus was captured, as Gaiman alludes to in the very first issue of Sandman, was because he had been off somewhere in the galaxy fighting a war. Other than that, it’s been left to the readers’ imaginations what that war looked like. Until The Sandman: Overture #1, Gaiman’s latest return to the series. And this time, he’s brought along one of the best artists working in comics to help him sell the scale of the story, J.H. Williams III. The results are a book that immediately feels familiar, but at the same time unique to what’s come before.
The most important thing about the book right off the bat is that Gaiman steps back into this world, and into writing the voices of characters he first breathed life into 25 years ago, without ever missing a beat. Morpheus himself reads just as distant and pious as he did in that first issue. He’s a being with immense responsibility, who also knows just how powerful he is, yet he refuses to let himself truly become devoid of all human interaction. Seeing him in London garb from the early 1900s immediately recalls the one-off stories in the original series where Dream would be in Renaissance England, Ancient Greece or Feudal Japan, looking undeniably like himself, but also undeniably of the time. Gaiman uses that one device to immediately anchor this new miniseries back to the original book. The actual plot of the first issue moves relatively slow, but it’s the first of six parts, so that’s bound to be the case. Dream does get pulled into the galactic conflict that’s the centerpiece of this tale by the final pages though, so it does move things along at a respectable rate.
But what really sets this book apart from the original series is that Gaiman might finally be working with an artist that’s his equal in terms of imagination and beauty. Sam Keith, and especially Marc Hempel towards the end of the original run, were responsible for the primary look of the series. While each of them did great work, comic book art and storytelling has evolved so much since Sandman first came on the scene that when you go back and reread the book now, the art always looks a bit dated. It’s still wonderful, and an absolute must-read, but Overture is a Sandman story that’s finally as visually alluring as Gaiman’s writing. J.H. Williams delivers in every setting Gaiman gives him in this issue. Whether it’s old London, Morpheus’ kingdom, the Dreaming, or the galaxy far, far, away, this book looks simply phenomenal. He draws Dream to look like he should, but the lines are so smooth and sinewy that he looks reinvigorated. Same thing with the Dreaming. Under Williams’ pencils, it has never looked more majestic. Also at one point, he draws a version of Dream that looks like a Jack Kirby New God. So there’s that. Gaiman might have actually picked the only partner who could keep up with his direction in Williams, and the book goes from being a ‘lost tale’ to an essential one because of the seamless collaboration between them both.
The Sandman: Overture is one of the biggest releases in years, and the first issue does not disappoint. It’s the beginning of a larger tale, but it feels so good to be reading something new set in this world that it doesn’t really matter if the pacing is slow to start. I haven’t read anything Gaiman’s written with Sandman in the title that hasn’t seemed like it was written by an author that’s put every effort available into the story and his craft. This is no different. Pick it up.