The art on The Sandman was always one of its biggest strengths and potentially greatest weaknesses. As an early book that treated artists as interchangeable parts, the book succeeded on how well the artist for an issue or an arc was able to bring to life the sheer magic of Neil Gaiman’s stories. Thanks to the carefully curated eye of editor Karen Berger and Gaiman, most of the artists measured up to the story, turning the tale of a mopey god of dreams into a personally movingl story about family and responsibility. Charles Vess, Jill Thompson, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Kelly Jones, Marc Hempel and countless other artists brought to life the fantastic concepts that Gaiman created almost out of nothing. The Sandman was great. It was special. And then it ended. While there were a couple of attempts by publisher Vertigo and Gaiman to tell additional stories of Dream, the Endless and the whole wide cast of The Sandman, none of them felt quite right. They were good just not The Sandman that we wanted. Until now that is.
With J.H. WIlliams III on art, Gaiman slips into his classic writing mode. The Sandman: Overture #1 feels like a greatest hits of Gaiman’s 75 issue run, giving the fans everything they knew and loved from that series. There’s the murderously creepy Corinthian, comic relief Merv the Pumkinhead and Lucien, the ever faithful dream librarian. There’s the high and haughty Dream, our hero from before he learns any lesson of humility and love, moving through the dreaming world like he’s a conductor who is keeping the trains moving on time. There’s the random, fantastic characters, caught up in and serving dreams. And then there’s the family but only just Death and Destiny, the beloved and most together of the siblings.
For the reader, the return is to Gaiman’s imagination. Except for maybe the Sandman: Endless Nights graphic novel, none of Gaiman’s comic work since The Sandman #75 has felt like anything more than a poor reflection of what we once had. Marvel’s 1602 and The Eternals have their strengths but they are merely Gaiman playing with Marvel’s toys rather than creating and exploring his own in Sandman. The Sandman: Overture #1 sets up a new mystery; what is powerful enough to kill one of the Endless. It’s a shocking beginning, watching a plant on a distant planet dream about a conversation with a plant-like Dream or an aspect of him. Last time it took Gaiman around 70 issues to kill Dream. This time, he accomplishes it in the first few pages and sets the Dream we know down the path of discovering what is wrong and damaged within the universe.
If Gaiman is taking us back to a familiar world, Williams shows it to us in ways that we never even imagined possible before this. Over the years, we’ve grown used to reading comics drawn by Williams that reflect his artistic predecessors like Moebius, Talbot and Mazzucchelli but he hasn’t really reached much outside of comic artists and cartoonists until the Georgia O’Keefe inspired opening to this issue. With Dave Stewart’s luscious colors, Williams brings two plants to life, making them characters who dream, fear, wonder and burn. We’ve always seen different aspects of Dream but the artists always had an anthropomorphic base to work with. Williams draws flora and it’s some of the best character work in the issue because he’s quickly making us feel for these beings that we’ve never encountered before in this way.
More than in just the opening sequence, Williams builds comic pages in ways that we’ve never seen before. An extreme closeup of a set of teeth, where each individual tooth is a panel? Sheets of paper falling out of Destiny’s book of everything that show us the story unravelling? Or even the vistas of Dream’s castle with beautiful Stewart colors? Each piece and panel of Williams and Stewarts evocative work is a piece of art unto itself but when you stop to think that Williams links all of these miniature masterpieces together to create a flowing story, it is stunning to try to conceive how the man’s imagination works. Williams has been one of the most innovative storytellers of this age and with The Sandman: Overture #1, he just continues to show everyone else how it can be done.
The Sandman: Overture #1 is a comfortable combination of the old and the new. Gaiman picks up the piece and unlike past efforts like Sandman: Dream Hunters or Sandman: Endless Nights, it feels like hardly anytime has passed because he’s using characters we know to tell this story. More than just returning to the character of Dream, Gaiman is fully returning to the worlds he so quickly established a quarter of a century ago. He’s returning to the legend, not trying to build off of it. With Williams and Stewart joining the creative team, this comic looks like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Perhaps we are all secretly wishing that the old Sandman comics could have looked this good, particularly with the advances in coloring, but Williams tells stories like no one else does and like no one else can. That makes him the perfect partner for Gaiman’s storied imagination.