It’s a new year, but calendars only measure one kind of time. Its passage is also reflected in our mirrors and the clothes our youngsters outgrow. That straightforward march of days is why a new calendar year is often depicted by an old man flanked by a child. Yet time is not just linear—as one of my favorite TV characters, the Doctor of “Dr. Who,” famously says, “It’s a big ball of wibbly-wobbly . . .time-y-wimey . . . stuff.”
The fluid nature of perceived time—and our marvelous human ability to conceive its possibilities, to imagine alternative outcomes and even beginnings to events—is part of our story-telling capacity, our individual and collective imaginations. We may not, like Dr. Who, be able to regenerate our physical selves, but we can and do breathe “new life” into old tales. One way storytellers, including graphic ones, inspire and delight audiences is by letting us in on what happened before their stories began. And if those “origin tales” are themselves somewhat mysterious or contradictory, we entranced readers usually do not mind much, if at all. One such beloved comic book series with such rethought beginnings is my focus today. And that focus all springs from an unexpected holiday gift from our son—a hot-off-the press, sumptuous graphic collection titled Sandman Overture: The Deluxe Edition (2015).
With this volume, collecting six special comic book issues that appeared between 2013 and 2015, best-selling author Neil Gaiman with award-winning illustrators J.H. Williams and Dave Stewart return to the fantastic fictional universe of The Sandman comic book series (1989 to 1996). More than twenty years have elapsed since readers held the first of the series’ 75 issues, but Overture details the events leading up to that first issue’s opening scenes. We learn how and why the mysterious, mythical Sandman appears exhausted and imprisoned there. More than that—since, as Gaiman notes, a musical overture “often contain[s] the main themes of the work”—we meet characters and see events connected to the entire, mind-boggling series.
This series’ loosely-linked issues contain a new mythology, with a pantheon of seven “Endless” supernatural beings that includes “Sandman” Dream (sometimes called Morpheus), and centers on how permeable the barriers are between the supernatural and daily life, between dreams and so-called reality. Dream and his siblings Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and Destruction range throughout human history in the series. Along the way, some of its characters also include minor superheroes and villains from horror and dark fantasy comics published by DC Comics, the series’ publisher before Vertigo Press, DC’s more “mature” imprint. The complexity of this cast of characters, plots, and themes, not to mention the sometimes mature topics pictured, makes the Sandman series best suited to readers teen on up.
Are you uncertain where to begin or to suggest someone else begin with this 75 issue series, collected in ten volumes (1989 -1997)? Author Gaiman ruefully understands! He himself does not know if he would consider Sandman Overture “the eleventh book of Sandman . . .” or if “It’s Sandman #0 and Sandman Infinite” as well. . . . [I]t fits like a weird little Mobius strip that actually attaches the back of Sandman to the front of Sandman again . . . .” The ongoing, incremental nature of Gaiman’s storytelling parallels his view of time itself as non-linear, a major theme throughout these books. Illustrator Williams and inker Stewart capture this wonderfully in a two-page spread depicting the character of red-haired “Father Time” simultaneously at four different ages. The psychedelic intensity of Stewart’s colors is echoed by Dream’s chaotic reflections there, as he tries “to remember the last time I was here . . . . I cannot recall. Perhaps we are still to meet, to argue. Perhaps I have yet to walk away.”
The bold use of color—at times riotously psychedelic, at other points dramatically monochromatic or black-and-white—is a visual hallmark throughout the Sandman books, which have won multiple awards for illustration as well as writing. Inventive use and twists on panel size and shape may be found on many pages or double-spreads. Often, there are no panels at all, as fluid, painterly images suggest the flow of time and memory. At other points, line drawings alternate with photographed images designed to suggest raised textures on the page.
This bountiful creativity is spotlighted in one wonderful component of Sandman Overture—its extensive end notes. Not only do Gaiman and illustrator Williams explain and demonstrate how they work together on its “Art Process” but Dave Stewart weighs in on the “Color Process.” Todd Klein then details the “Letter Process” and Dave McKean vibrantly reveals what goes into “Constructing the Cover.” Truly a feast for eyes! Dwelling on these end notes will enhance a reader’s appreciation of any or all of the books in this series. Yet I would suggest newcomers to The Sandman and its offshoots consider dipping into these works first in a ‘time-travelling’ way—with a specific middle volume, The Sandman: Dream Country, Volume 3 (1990; 2010).
Its four separate “short stories” give a representative taste of the themes, tone, and varied styles of the overall series. The third story there, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” illustrated by Charles Vess and imagining William Shakespeare’s encounter with real Faeries, won the 1991 World Fantasy Award for best short fiction. Its rich combination of human emotion with eerie humor and suspense (10 year-old Hamnet feels ignored by his playwright father and actors compete for attention, while the “real” Faerie Puck has needle-sharp teeth he wants to use!) is sure to satisfy. Another stand-out story here is the “Dream of a Thousand Cats,” where humans are small pets to giant felines. Its other tales involve an enslaved muse and a minor DC superhero trapped by her own special powers. Dream or another of the Endless appears briefly in each story. Whether this volume leaves one eager to move onto the whole Sandman series or feeling content with just those four, Twilight Zone-like tales, the reader will have experienced some of the best in contemporary graphic storytelling for teens and adults. An added feature in this collection is Gaiman’s end note, the working script he wrote for illustrator Ness to help him illustrate the cruelly imprisoned muse story, “Calliope.”
While the human imagination is not bound by Father Time, our bodies sadly are. World-renowned, influential Japanese author/illustrator Shigeru Mizuki died last month at the venerable age of 93. (His work was reviewed here in October, 2013 and also backgrounded in March, 2014). I look forward in the coming weeks to reading the final volume, just translated into English, of Mizuki-san’s blisteringly sardonic, detailed four volume work about 20th century Japan: Showa: A History of Japan: 1953 to 1989 (2015). His just-translated graphic biography of Hitler (2015) also awaits me. Since other library patrons also want to read these books, I may not be able to linger with these copies as I might wish! On the other hand, I own the Sandman volume of seven “spinoff” stories that won the Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker award for 2003’s best illustrated narrative. I can take my time to shiveringly savor The Sandman: Endless Nights (2004), written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by seven different, gifted illustrators. Contemplating the past and imagining all sorts of time, space, and places—a fine way to begin a new year.