Tea & Comics: All I Have To Do Is Dream . . .

“Tea & Comics” is a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which my girlfriend Dani and I talk about the week’s new comics over a cup of tea. 

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A: This is a slightly unusual Tea & Comics – very few comics on our pull list came out this week. Only two, actually: Archie #3 and Sandman: Overture #6.

D: But Jughead #1 comes out next week, so we’ll discuss Archie #3 at the same time. Which means we’re only going to talk about Sandman this week.

A: Which is well worth our while, because this is really an astounding series. And we will be discussing the series as a whole – the six issues of this book were released over the course of two years, so even though I’ve been reading each issue as it comes out, we both read the entire series from beginning to end this week.

D: This is by Neil Gaiman, who, even if you don’t read comics, you might know from Coraline, Stardust, American Gods . . . his breadth of literary works is astounding. The ideas which he explores in Sandman are ones that he’s delved pretty deeply into in some of his other works as well, such as dreams and storytelling, and even the personification of concepts.

A: He never shies away from tackling more abstract ideas, and personifying them in unique ways. It’s maybe slightly easier notion to grasp in something like American Gods, where those characters are very concretely deities, who are given power from people’s belief in them, whereas in Sandman, we have similar personification of ideas, but these are not gods; the Sandman is not the God of Dreams, he’s the very concept of dreams.

D: Neil Gaiman has really developed this idea extensively prior to Overture, so there are already very clear conceptual boundaries and rules and relationships without him having to spend much time building it up in this series.

A: What this series does, though, is give a lot of insight into the rules of this mythology. Which means it might not necessarily be a book for beginners, whether that be as your introduction to Neil Gaiman’s work, or to the world of Sandman. I mean, the first issue of Sandman was released in October 1988 – that was a good month –

D: You might be a little biased.

A: The first issue of Sandman: Overture hit the stands twenty-five whole years after that.  That means there’s twenty-five years that Neil Gaiman has, albeit not continuously, built and crafted this beautiful, rich mythology. Which means the world of Sandman: Overture is already deep and fully realized before you even open the cover of the first issue.

D: It shows – this is a very finely tuned, polished book.

A: And, even though this probably the most astoundingly beautiful marriage of words and pictures that I can recall in recent memory, I would even hesitate to suggest it as an introduction to the comic book medium, even though this is probably the comic book perfected. It’s a challenging book – it balances a lot of very big, very abstract, very unusual ideas.

D: Which are illustrated in just a beautiful, beautiful way by J.H. Williams III.

The Sandman: Overture #6, variant cover by James Jean.

The Sandman: Overture #6, variant cover by James Jean.

A: It really is something to behold. I can’t think of any other artist, except maybe James Jean, who is as well equipped to tell a story like this as J.H. Williams III. He’s created these stunningly beautiful and innovative layouts – ordinarily we buy our comics in digital editions, but this is a series you will want to hold in your hands and read on paper, because an iPad screen cannot do justice to J.H. Williams’ double-page spreads. Actually, I can only imagine that issue #4 must be something of a nightmare to read on iPad, because there’s just this stunning sequence, where the art moves you to turn the book upside down. Then on the next page, the art starts from that upside down position, and then moves back around to right-side-up. iPads, though, always wants to correct your image back to right-side-up regardless of what way you turn it. So, get this series on paper to get the most out of it.

D: His art is beautiful to look at, and he keeps the abstract ideas abstract enough that it never becomes something ordinary, while making it recognizable enough that you don’t have something to connect and relate to. Because that’s something which I love about the idea behind the series – which is that these abstract concepts like Dream, and Death, and Destiny, and Desire, are not just personified, but they’re a family unit. The family dynamic is a great way to portray it.

A: The Endless are, to state it mildly, a rather dysfunctional family. And as a longtime Sandman reader, I was intrigued to get the insight into their parentage which Overture provides.

D: The way their mother is illustrated is just beautifully conceived. It’s almost like art-nouveau.

A: As I said, this is just the perfect marriage of words and images here, because with some of these ideas and their execution, it’s hard to know whether praise should be directed at Neil Gaiman or J.H. Williams, or just both. There have been a lot of artists in the 10+ volumes of Sandman, but I would probably go so far as to say that J.H. Williams’ take on these characters and this universe is now my favourite.

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Breathtaking art by the incomparable J.H. Williams III (from The Sandman: Overture #6)

D: You can very much tell that there is a mutual appreciation and respect of both the written word and the art. Neil Gaiman seemed to be writing with this art style in mind, and J.H. Williams III really knew when the words needed to take the spotlight.

A: It’s worth noting as well that the same letterer who lettered the entire Sandman series, Todd Klein, is back to letter this one. What’s great here is the lettering’s incorporation into the art, because it would be very easy in the hands of a lesser letterer for this to turn into a cluttered or wordy comic. Because there are lots of words – Neil Gaiman is a great writer, and he knows how to use words.

D: But he does not write sparsely.

A: He doesn’t! But in this comic, that is not a bad thing, because there’s just such a great collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Joe Williams and Todd Klein in integrating all these elements together to make this astoundingly beautiful piece of work.

Story, art and letters all at their very best. (Art by J.H. Williams III, from The Sandman: Overture #6)

Story, art and letters, all at their very best. (Art by J.H. Williams III, from The Sandman: Overture #6)

D: And they keep it coherent, despite how elaborate the idea behind the story is. Todd Klein’s attention to detail plays a huge part in that, too, with different fonts being used to distinguish between the different character’s dialogue. It could easily have become very muddled, but never does.

A: This is really comics perfected, and it’s truly amazing.

D: There’s an almost musical quality to the series.

A: Speaking of, when I read the series, I had Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld’s album Never Were The Way She Was playing, and it was perfect accompaniment. But yeah, you’re absolutely right – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s called “Overture.” I mean, sure, it acts as an overture for the entire Sandman series – this issue even concludes with a panel lifted straight from the first issue of The Sandman – but it does have a very musical quality, I would compare it to a symphony or an opera. Operas are typically performed in other languages entirely, but that doesn’t keep this essential, archetypal narrative from being communicated through it’s performance, and this kind of does the same thing. Even though this story exists outside of a linear understanding of time and space and physics, and is nothing like any world we know or have experienced, it still resonates and translates into a very effective and moving piece of work.

As one story ends . . . (Art by J.H. Williams III, from The Sandman: Overture #6)

As one story ends . . . (Art by J.H. Williams III, from The Sandman: Overture #6)

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. . . . another begins. (Art by Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg, from The Sandman #1)

D: Despite the comparisons to music, I can’t imagine the story working as well in any other medium other than as a comic. I couldn’t imagine a film version.

A: People have tried! There has been a Sandman film in some state of development since about 1996.

D: If a movie ever gets made, I think it would be best almost to just take the characters and the concepts but craft a new story with them specifically for film, rather than trying to take some of the comics and adapt them.

A: It would be difficult to translate the comics directly. Even drawing from some of the earlier Sandman stories, which are a little more linear than Overture, I think it would do the story a disservice to try. Though I’m an enormous fan of The Sandman – this is the series which got me into comics in the first place – I have absolutely no interest in seeing a Sandman film. Sorry, Joseph Gordon-Levitt! I know you’re trying.

D: Back to Overture, though. This series really defies description, so we’re not even going to try to summarize it.

A: It needs to be seen to be believed. I think that because the series is so dependent upon the art and the images, it’s less like reading it and more like experiencing it.

D: As someone who hasn’t read much Sandman – I’ve only read Endless Nights before this – I found I had to just check any of my assumptions or preconceived notions at the door, and just let it take me away. I just trusted that Neil Gaiman is a skilled enough storyteller to show what he wanted to show, and tell what he wanted to tell, and that any questions I was left asking would be questions that he wanted to me to be asking anyways. But I did have very few questions at the end – it came to a very satisfying conclusion.

A: Despite leading directly into the first of a ten volume epic, this is a concise story told in six issues. There are still certainly a lot of points of contact with the rest of the Sandman series – we see all seven of the Endless throughout the course of the six issues, we see Dream in his current “Daniel” iteration, and we see characters like the Corinthian and Mad Hettie. Which, if, like me, you’ve read and loved the entire Sandman series, these will have maybe a little more depth and significance than if you haven’t.

D: The first issue was a little disorienting, but by the second issue I was entirely on board. But if you wouldn’t recommend starting with Overture, where would you recommend a new reader start if they want to read Sandman?

A: I am very biased by my own experience – my introduction to The Sandman was Endless Nights. I’d read most of Neil Gaiman’s prose novels previously, but Endless Nights was really the first graphic novel I ever read. It’s a little bit outside of the main Sandman narrative, and serves as a fascinating introduction to the concept behind the series, because the book is composed of seven individual stories, each one about a different one of the Endless. Each story, too, is by a different artist, and each story is distinctly beautiful. The reason why I encourage people to start with that one, rather than the actual first volume, is because Preludes & Nocturnes actually gets off to a shaky start. Sam Kieth, who was the artist on the first few issues, was, by his own admission, the wrong fit for the book, and that was the reason why he left the series. It took the book a little while to find it’s footing – I would say it wasn’t until the concluding chapter of that first volume (issue #8, “The Sound of Her Wings”) that we see this glimmer of the depth of the ideas and concepts that Neil Gaiman has in mind. I hesitate to recommend starting there because I worry someone might read it and just say, “meh, it was all right, but nothing special,” and I think Endless Nights provides an introduction that demonstrates just how special The Sandman is. Because it is – there’s no other comic like it.

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