Flowers, Fire, and Dreams in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Overture #1

An overture is traditionally the opening or introduction to an opera. Yet if anything in the past twenty-five or so years of the comics medium can be compared to an opera–as a masterpiece made up of grandiose themes married to some of the most powerful and subtlest of melodies–then Neil Gaiman’s Sandman definitely possesses this distinction.

I admit: I’m intimidated. Ever since I began writing for Sequart, I have been focusing on those works, themes, and creators that are relatively new by comparison to an established comics creator like Neil Gaiman. It usually gives me an advantage to write about the new: in that I can examine these stories and look at the possible sources that influence them. However, Sandman is not a new work and both it and its influences have almost been analyzed to death: if you will pardon that unintentional pun. My strength, when I look at a subject is that I tend to take something of an unorthodox view, or I look at sources someone might not peg as part of the ongoing discussion about the nature comics. But here we have Sandman–which has become very mainstream and canon in the literature of the comics medium–which, in turn, many writers have so much to say about.

Neil Gaiman asked himself one time, with regards to being a British writer writing about America, and in essay form no less: “How dare you?” But unlike him, I feel as though others will actually ask me this question. And yet, just like the Corinthian or huge carnivorous plants with beautiful minds I can’t help but really want to take a chomp out of The Sandman Overture “Chapter One” Issue #1 and really look at the wonderful aesthetics involved, the motivations and natures of the characters and, quite honestly, some of the new lore that Neil Gaiman has revealed about this universe that he–more or less and on and off–left long ago in 1996: Endless Nights in 2003 notwithstanding.

So I am going to do two things here. First, I am going to look at Overture #1 with regards to the Sandman stories that came before (or depending on your perspective “after”) it and then, as I did with Justin Jordan and Kyle Strahm’s Spread Teaser, I’ll admit that amid the flowers, the memories, and the flames there will also be speculations.

So I am just going to state straight off that I knew two things going into this venture. The first is that I knew, based on its title, that The Sandman Overture is a prequel to the events that lead up to the Dream Lord’s imprisonment by a bunch of hackneyed magicians in 1916: in which we discover why Morpheus becomes weak enough for them to capture him at all. Yet I also knew, based on something of a spoiler from Neil Gaiman himself–before I even read Issue #1–that on the fourth page (though really an expressive spread across pages four and five) that an Endless was going to die. These two facts, in themselves, made me come into the comic with some preconceptions: preconceived notions that were burned away with a particular kind of awe.

The story begins on “a small planet” that–when I didn’t read it too carefully–seemed a lot like a primitive Earth. It’s not the first time that a Sandman story took place somewhere in Earth’s or even the Universe’s ancient history: with “Chapter Three: Dream – The Heart of a Star” in Endless Nights as a prime example of such. Yet it becomes clear that this world is not Earth. Despite the fact that this world has a race of “red-furred, wide-eyed” humanoids “who believed that their planet was alone in the Universe,” and probably not unlike the ancestors of humankind, there are two other species to consider as well: a swarm of insect-like creatures moulding themselves in different forms of sentience and exploration at whim when they’re not too busy eating or “egg-laying,” and a race of the aforementioned “huge carnivorous plants, with limited mobility, but beautiful minds.”

J.H. Williams III, known for his work as the illustrator of Alan Moore’s metafictional Promethea–a comics series whose aesthetics essentially folded the envelope of comics panels into origami, when not rubbing them out entirely outright–applies this same sensibility along with his beautifully lush and colourful artwork to everything in this comic. From the depiction of the planet to the humanoids, to the insects, and the plants we see panels of concentric spheres connecting and interlapping with each other: vertically transitioning to the last small rectangular panel with our protagonist.

Now, in this rectangular panel we do not have an insect or humanoid but, you guessed it, a plant. In fact, this plant has a name: Quorian. And wouldn’t you know it: on page one “Quorian dreamed.”

Now Quorian’s species are very interesting. The inspiration for their design seems to be a cross between a form of tiger-lily and a venus flytrap that can retract and unfurl its leaves and stamen-tendrils. While venus flytraps represent a patient, predatory nature, lilies symbolize love and beauty, and tiger-lilies in particular tend to have attributed to them a variety of other meanings: not the least of which being wealth, pride, and prosperity.

So, on pages two and three–as Quorian’s safe rectangular panel transitions into squiggly lines of running black ink against barren grey soil and a dead white sky, with further panels melting into each other like an ink blot test prophesying bad psychological omens–we find our Endless: Dream … as a giant black stemmed, white-flowered plant. Now, we have seen Dream take on a variety of different incarnations in the past: in various modes of dress, as different ethnicities, an animal, and even a Martian deity. Yet this is the first time we see him as a sentient plant and, if you look at all the attributes of said plant listed before–particularly prosperity and pride–it suits this particular Endless well. It also left me with this unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach as, based on one fact that Neil Gaiman revealed earlier, I knew where this was going: but I didn’t know how it could be so.

The exchange between Dream the plant and Quorian also leaves us with more questions. Between pages two and three–which is practically a spread and appropriate considering the unfurling petals of the beings involved–we find out that, according to Dream on page two, panel three, that there is something “very wrong,” followed by him on page three, panel one stating that “something is VERY wrong. More wrong than anything I have encountered.” Bear in mind now: we are talking about a being that has dealt with “dream vortices”–beings whose very nature warps the Dreaming and threaten to meld peoples’ minds together in utter insanity and pretty much destroy reality–and eventually the Kindly Ones: as he crosses them. However, while the former is dangerous enough to allow Dream to utilize death against them, both “dream vortices” and the Kindly Ones are respectively natural functions and entities of the Universe in the similar way that he is. Whatever this threat is, it seems to be something horribly unnatural and very, very bad.

What happens on page four, panel five–for me–is the beginning of some ominous foreshadowing when Dream tries to sense the danger, stating that, “Something is hurting. Something is waking up. Something is damaged” and as he claims he can feel it, you can see smoke drifting up from his roots. It is really tempting here for me to say that these words could easily be applied to Morpheus both during his captivity and after he escapes: yet he never really slumbered or did anything other than stare at his captors and bide his time. Morpheus changed after his imprisonment and while perhaps on some level he was hurting from the inflexible nature he had evolved into and the isolation he’d in some part imposed on himself, he was never fully damaged and not really in the way he describes here.

But by pages five and six–in which we definitely have a spread both figuratively and literally of the same black outlined panels now arranged into organic branches being consumed by fire–we finally see an Endless die: and that Endless is Dream.

This in itself is … jaw dropping. We know for a fact that Morpheus doesn’t die until The Kindly Ones. Indeed, when I was informed that an Endless was going to die in the first couple of pages of Overture #1, I was toying with the idea that we’d finally get to see how the first Despair got killed or perhaps even another incarnation of the Endless that we didn’t know about. I wasn’t prepared to see Dream die–again–and before his future death: and I certainly didn’t count on watching him get burned alive. At first, I thought, ironically enough, it was just a vision or a dream that Quorian was experiencing: until you realize that it wasn’t a dream. It really was Dream himself.

The fact that Dream, in the form of something akin to a tiger-lily, is being consumed by fire when you consider what I mentioned before about some of the plant’s symbolism speaks volumes. And then consider Quorian. Unlike some of the beings that Dream visits, Quorian doesn’t even know who he is. But there is something very eerie in that while Quorian is described as an “it” in the captioned narrative of pages three and four, on pages five to six the captions refer to him as a “he.” To anyone else this could seem like an error, but it’s almost as though Quorian–by seeing some ancestral memory of fire and fire as a representation of the force that destroyed the being that he didn’t know and yet instinctively respected–gained a whole new kind of self-consciousness. It is always amazing to watch Neil Gaiman take a being–be it a previously unrelatable human, an immortal, a god, a monster, or an alien and make it utterly relatable: revealing it to be different, but still a dreaming person. But no matter what, Quorian changes: the very thing that Dream grudgingly fought against with regards to his own self.

But one thing at a time. How did Dream just die if he is in the rest of The Sandman series? And eventually, we realize how this is possible: but not before a commercial break (which I am not used to because I haven’t actually read single issues in a very long time) and we go from another world, in possibly another time and space to 1915 London, England: one year before Dream’s imprisonment.

Pages nine and ten are subsumed by a giant mouth with teeth: and each tooth is a faded sketch-like black and white panel in which we see the Corinthian up to his old tricks: namely, trying to lure a young man to his death and eating his eyeballs. The last panel of page ten transitions well into pages eleven and twelve.

Let me state here, just to save us a whole lot of time, that the rest of the comic is basically arranged into a spread-like format: with variations of panels where panels still exist. But pages eleven and twelve are representative of what Williams III can do when given meta-fictional or meta-narrative direction. We see Destiny and his Book: or the Book. And it is here that we see him open the pages and look at comics panels within the pages that depict him calling upon his sister Death. It is also here that we find out a little more about Destiny’s book: at least in comparison to its depictions in the rest of Sandman.

We are told on page eleven that the Book is actually the Universe and that “the Universe shapes itself into Stories.” What I personally find interesting, especially when you examine the Necropolis Litharge’s role in The Worlds’ End and The Wake, is the implication that the Universe gave birth to the Endless themselves. I’m not sure what it means then, that the Book of Destiny–which is the Universe–is chained to Destiny and apparently neither does he. It does make me wonder if it will be involved somehow and if its storytelling element will play a role in what happens next or with regards to what is at stake. Also, when the narrative states in this section that while Destiny’s blind eyes are the only ones that can “see how the Universe shapes itself into stories,” that mention of “Perhaps he is the only one who reads all the stories that the Universe forms” in addition to the aesthetic of the comic book within the comic book image is a nice reintroduction to Neil Gaiman’s love of–and also J.H. Williams III’s work with–the aesthetics of the meta-narrative: of the story within the story that is also a nod to the reader-audience beyond the fourth wall: to us and the idea of how permeable reality truly is in matters of storytelling.

So we are reintroduced to Death on page twelve who looks gorgeous in her turn of the century Edwardian dress, hat and parasol. And, let’s face it, she looks–and acts–like a Gothic Mary Poppins: as if her time with the pigeons back in “The Sound of Her Wings” collected in either Preludes and Nocturnes or A Doll’s House wasn’t any indication. It is here we find that while Destiny isn’t sure as to why he summoned her, Death is. Even though Destiny is older than Death, she has shown on many occasions that she seems to have a more intuitive understanding of the Universe and it is no coincidence that at the End of Time in Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic she takes Destiny too and is actually the only Endless that survives the end of this current Universe.

On page thirteen, now surrounded by the frame of Destiny’s Book–of the Universe as Stories–and on panel four we find out that Death “just took” Dream from “a hundred galaxies away.” She then follows this up by stating that “when one of us dies … it never ends well.” At this point, I was still confused–I mean Death is also debating telling Dream that he died–but then it was starting to dawn on me. Bear in mind, throughout my entire discussion of Dream’s death in Overture, I have been referring to him as Dream: and not Morpheus.

And in our next article, we go from talking about worlds and hints of metaphysics to a look at some of the Dreaming’s denizens: and what they might truly be.

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Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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