This article was originally published at DC Infinite on March 26, 2014.
When Sandman: Overture was announced almost one year ago, there was a palpable excitement over Neil Gaiman’s return to his widely acclaimed comic series. The original is considered a masterpiece and for good reason. However, the most exciting thing about that announcement should not have been Gaiman’s attachment to the project, but J.H. Williams’.
If this review could only use a single adjective to describe Sandman: Overture #2, it would be gorgeous. Every panel and every page is a work of art, perfectly calculated and beautifully executed. Most of the comic uses two page spreads, allowing for the artwork to sprawl across the horizontal axis. Williams uses the increased space to experiment even more with layouts and design elements. The result looks excellent, especially in the digital format on a desktop computer where the art is able to expand beyond the confines of a typically sized pamphlet. It also translates well to tablets, where readers can zoom into each panel or element of a page to explore the multi-faceted nature of Williams’ art.
That nature is apparent in the large spreads containing two or three dozen aspects of Dream. Each is designed to not only reflect a unique point of view, but also a unique style. Ranging from an minimalist Dream with a red belt and flames flickering across his robe to a horrific dream composed of rough shadows and inks (one connected to themes of Lovecraftian horror). This differentiation of tone is demonstrated on most pages and owes a great deal to Dave Stewart (colors) and Todd Klein (lettering), as well as Williams.
The compositions in Sandman: Overture #1 were sometimes overzealous in their design. The use of the Corinithian’s teeth as panels, although well illustrated, did not add to the narration and seems overly obvious in retrospect. That is never the case in its succeeding issue. Every panel of every page is constructed with purpose. When the ruby is used to frame four successive pages, it is informative, rather than flashy. Most importantly, every page is readable.
Readability may seem like an odd compliment for such sublime art, but it is one of the most important aspects of any comics page. Williams art is undoubtedly beautiful, but it is not intended to be read in a vacuum. Each panel is constructed as a single piece of a larger puzzle. In order for the individual panels to succeed as a whole, they must flow naturally. One of the reason 3X3 and 2X4 comics grids are so popular is that they transition easily. Breaks from simple grids often result in confusion and disorientation that break a comic, no matter how artfully done. Williams eschews standard grids, but maintains the natural flow of a rigidly structured comic like Stray Bullets. That, in and of itself, is an achievement worthy of high praise.
Although the story is billed as a prequel to Sandman, that title is only true in chronological terms. Sandman: Overture #2 is steeped in the mythos and plotlines of its predecessor. Opening with Daniel as the new incarnation of Dream (from Sandman Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones) and casually referring to a living Vortex (from Sandman Vol.2: The Doll’s House), the comic relies on reader’s previous knowledge in order to fully understand its plot machinations.
Neil Gaiman is not telling a story of nostalgia, despite its many connections to his previous work. The second issue continues to explore and expand the ideas first brought to comics in 1988. The collection of aspects shown throughout issue two is an excellent example of a new idea that seems perfectly obvious in retrospect. It’s not change for the sake of change, merely a new revelation about an already rich idea. The issue ends with a new idea that, again, seems like it should have been perfectly obvious all along. These new contributions are exciting and provide something for readers to chew on during the long waits between issues.
Although the concepts found in Overture are exciting, Gaiman’s dialogue can be overwrought at times. The conversation between the many aspects of Dream repeats itself, going out of the way to explain that while there are many Dreams, they are all the same Dream. Although a philosophically complex concept, it’s one that most Western readers (having been raised in or around Christianity) will easily understand as being similar to consubstantiality. The scene is so visually engaging though that this is barely noticeable.
Sandman: Overture #2 is a tremendous work of comic art. Williams perfectly complements Gaiman’s story, elevating the plot into something transcendent. Readers already familiar with Sandman will find the work transcendent, but those new to Gaiman’s mythos may be perplexed by the plotting. Both groups should find the comic well worth its cover price though for Williams’ art alone.