The Sandman, as any right thinking comics fan will tell you, is one of those comics that you have to read. Like Watchmen, like Maus, the 10 volumes that comprise Sandman are about as essential as comics get. Neil Gaiman could do nothing but churn out substandard collections like Trigger Warning for the rest of his life and it would detract not the least from the fact that he is a colossal genius (co)responsible for one of the greatest comics series ever written. I first read the whole kit and caboodle straight through about fifteen years ago and have read it maybe another five times straight through since then, it being one of those abundant pleasures the devouring of which never grows old. There are hundreds of reasons to praise Sandman – and we could easily spend a few thousand words doing just that, the strength of the story and the strength of the mix of different artists being such that it’s virtually incomparable with any other graphic novel – not least the fact that it is a clever book that makes you feel clever as you read even as it makes you more clever by just being so damn clever. If that makes sense. Which it does.
Given how good Sandman is, and how much of a pedestal our dog-eared copies are placed on, you would think we would greet the return of Sandman with unfettered joy. The fact that it’s new Gaiman Sandman and not some Before Watchmen landgrab style horribleness is a big plus and yet, even so, the plus of new genuine Gaiman Sandman was offset by the one word guaranteed to stab terror into the heart of any fan of any major cultural artefact: prequel. Sandman Overture was to be a prequel (we can’t even say the word without getting a mouthful of sick), which explained how Dream came to be the prisoner of Roderick Burgess, in the issues now collected as Preludes and Nocturnes. In the months leading up to the release of issue 1 of Overture, I can genuinely say that my take on the thing was also one word: unnecessary. (And isn’t it interesting how those books we anticipate frequently let us down and those books we expect to disappoint frequently surprise and enthral us?) The only thing that stopped us out and out dreading the book was the presence of JH Williams III (which is a strange because we would describe ourselves as Gaiman fans and we usually look forward to anything he does but on this occasion – we questioned him, we doubted him, we thought Overture was more likely to be terrible than not terrible), whose work on Alan Moore’s Promethea series is a terrific reference point for what he does here on Overture (if you remain at all nervous as to whether Overture is necessary and have yet to dabble, do yourself a favour and pick up Promethea in its entirety; once you’ve devoured that bad boy you’ll want to lap up Overture. I kid you not).
So: JH Williams III. He is responsible for the gloriousness that is Sandman Overture. I can honestly say I have not read many books like this. Check out some of those spreads. Time and time (and time and time) again, you turn a page and you see a feast. That is what these comics and this book are: a feast for the eyes. You don’t always know where to look. And this serves to work a switch: normally, when I read a comic or a graphic novel, however good (or interesting or different or whatever) the art is, it comes second for me to the words or the story. I’m a words and story man. Sandman Overture is a piece of art in which the story and the words come second. Is that because the words and the story are lesser? Is Gaiman not as on the ball as JH Williams III here? Is that a pertinent question? It’s certainly a question. Sandman Overture (at least after a couple of reads) remains a feast for the eyes first and foremost. At the same time (and crucially – this is a crucial thing), nor does it feel like a backward step or a failure or the weak link in a longer series or apart or not of a piece. I would stand, hand on heart, and declaim (from one of those soap boxes on the corner of Hyde Park) that Sandman Overture could be read first, as a lead-in to that longer masterwork and I genuinely think you wouldn’t come away thinking: well, that Sandman Overture was a load of old bollocks.
What does happen, though? Well (that ‘Well’ feels like an enormous ‘Well’, a ‘Well’ that straddles universes and centuries): Dream discovers that a part of him has died and that the end of everything is imminent and quests (Overture is definitely best thought of as a kind of quest book), in the company of the cat version of himself (he gets to meet the various incarnations of himself across every dimension too), to get to the bottom of the thing, interacting with various characters familiar to Sandman fans (such as the Corinthian – yay! – and various members of his family, including his mum and dad) and traversing a narrative that comes to resemble nothing so much as the Daffy Duck cartoons where Daffy flies out of the edge of the film reel, hanging in white space until someone intercedes to restore balance to the universe. It’s an epic tale in other words that nevertheless feels as if it unravels against truly hallucinogenic artwork. One other point that is worth making: we read this book issue by issue on an ipad and there has not been a comic before this that has so suited the digital medium: not only does the swipe allow you to clearly follow the narrative and navigate the occasionally bewildering waters of the spreads themselves, the medium also allows you to pinch and probe into the very atoms of book itself, which proves a useful device as you make your way through for the second or third time. Which we think you will. Certainly you will if you’re a fan. We’ve held off on re-reading the saga in its entirety for this but the next time we do, Sandman Overture – best thought of as Sandman 0 to Preludes and Nocturnes Sandman 1 – is where we will start.
Any Cop?: One of those books that you can’t satisfactorily review because it definitely repays additional re-reading and, given the monumental nature of the Sandman saga as a whole, it feels like it will take time to settle and readjust around the new work. So read it, certainly, but come back to us in a year or two for a more resolute answer.