Written by: Neil Gaiman
Art by: J.H. Williams, III
J.H. Williams, III
Variant Cover by:
J.H. Williams, III
One of the difficult aspects of reviewing Neil Gaiman’s bookend of his long developed Sandman conceptual universe is making heads and tails of the myriad pathways that intertwine in the grand narrative. This is only exacerbated by the irregular publishing schedule, which prompts the reader to go back and re-read portions of the narrative just to gain context of the conflict that is raging beyond time and space. I myself learned the names of Dream’s father and mother, Time and Night respectively, their function in creation, and the end of Dream’s childlike scheme to reunite them as I re-read portions of issue #4. Like a piece of well-regarded classic literature, Gaiman’s Sandman yields continual stores of intrigue, though for unconventional reasons.
Originally, the Endless were simple conceptions of human emotion, abstracted into form as anthropomorphic constructions. The alliteration of their names was quaint and classical, like a Mother Goose nursery rhyme. Still, they were mysterious and layered characters, at conflict with their personal will and the collective will that gestated them. Also, there was no reason to suspect that, when Gaiman’s oeuvre was limited to 75 issues, the Endless expanded beyond the consciousness of humanity. Overture posits Dream and his family are universal constants that stem across all lifeforms in the known universe. As a work of science fantasy, being set in sprawling galaxies beset with Whovian thought experiments, Overture is held accountable through its narrative, not its philosophy. Still, there are some questions that pestered me in issue #5, as well as within the greater miniseries: Can a dream, or the concept of dreaming, span all cultures and biological makeup? Could a non-carbon based lifeform dream? Why would it dream? By what mechanism, biological or psychological, would the dream actuate? Gaiman’s understanding is that all life in the universe is united by a singular deistic teleology; consistent with Vertigo and DC properties, as well as his agnostic orientation; which has imprinted upon his speculative fiction since the early 90s. This constitutes the ontological glue that holds the series afloat.
The difficulty of Sandman Overture #5 is that it is incomplete, being unfortunately nested in the climax (and borne of lofty ideas that must be obscured out of necessity of narrative structure). Time has already been pegged as Alan Moore, who is the progenitor of the modern comic voice (if not, otherwise, exceedingly influential). It is appropriate then that he would be imagined as Time, or entropy, which Gaiman implies. Alan Moore, despite his distaste for corporate comics, is the influence behind so many creators. His ghost haunts the halls of both Marvel and DC, and keeps them going. Once Moore passes, so will the spirit of the age. This lofty contrast between Time and Night, was hard to embrace however, because of Night’s lack of identity. (Though, this could be intentional. She is a void after all.) As far as I am aware, Night is not a pre-existing character within the expansive cannon of DC, so her footing with Moore’s doppelganger is not equal. Still, again, a character representing the abyss, an unrelenting darkness, does not demand much of a personality. Night is very sexual, however. She is lusciously carnal, bathing in the blackened waters of nothingness. Even the wares upon her table resemble male genitalia. Her insatiable sexuality characterizes the void, a blackness that touches all, embraces all.
This is all rather theoretical. Ultimately, I enjoyed the issue, though it lacks the novelty of the earlier instalments. Now that these reveals are old hat, I felt less enthralled with moments of discovery and more inclined to take out note pad and document the new relationships I saw Dream making, and how they impacted the series at large. Also, the endnote and conspiracy that Destiny uncovers, a ship in his garden that he did not expect to find, is troubling to me. Every panel of issue #5 could yield a new story all on its own, but because of the nature of #5 being the climax of the narrative these potent ideas are not explored as well as they should be. A ship appearing out of nowhere, and Destiny unable to comprehend its mystery, is oberwhelming.
Visually, like all its antecedents, #5 is penciled by J.H. Williams III. His layouts in this particular issue are by far the best, communicating the flow and progress of the narrative in familiar, conventional ways. His previous layouts were highly experimental and sometimes confusing to follow—though intelligible. Specifically, the scene in which Dream is arrested by the murderous rogue star at the conclusion of issue #4 I didn’t realize was meant to be read in reverse order, that is starting on the upside down caption and gradually rotating the comic back to its upright orientation. That said, Williams’ work is always a balance of form vs function, and here (in issue #5) the balance is well met. His mixed media artwork articulates the impossible and inspires wonder in the heart of the reader. Without question he is by far the best artist equipped to articulate Dream and his fellow brothers and sisters.
It is always a challenge to critique the work of your betters, but Neil Gaiman’s latest entry is less optimistic than its previous entries, which hampers the wonder of the previous issues. Gaiman has always strayed towards his revisionist roots since he began writing comics, but his work in the Overture is preoccupied with darker, more personal meditations. What those are, is anyone’s guess. Sandman never read like Good Omens, Anansi Boys, or, his most recent, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, all of which end on lighter notes. But Sandman was always heavier thematically due to it ultimately being about Dream’s intricately orchestrated suicide. Like the early issues of Sandman, Dream is more transparent which suggests the Overture is the visitation of the ghost of Christmas Past upon a sleepy, bed headed Gaiman. That Dream is being hurtled toward a cosmic Ragnarök, and that he is the only one that can stop it, is emblematic of the original superhero origins of the Sandman character. It is also revisionistic, deconstructing naïve optimism in the face of opposition. Lastly, Grant Morrison’s influence emerges, strangely enough. As a universe is breaking down due to a psychic-supernatural threat, a motley crew of strangers are coming together to avert the apocalypse. Whether or not other authors read the work of their contemporaries, Gaiman is taking a note from Morrison, a move which profits from Sandman’s densely populated pantheon.
The penultimate entry in Sandman Overture is worth the wait. You can quote me on that. But make certain to re-read all your issues up to #5 to gain the full meaning of what Gaiman is communicating. It may not be the strongest issue of the series, but it is worth every penny—if not at least more than what the rabble puts out on Wednesdays.
Rating: 7 (of 10)