Sandman Overture # 6


By chance, a couple of days ago, I came across my review of Sandman Overture 1, which I read with a grim smile at its optimistic cheeriness and enthusiasm. In particular, I couldn’t help but seize on the assertion that Neil Gaiman had written this preface to the Sandman series of twenty-five years previously, which is certainly what we were all led to believe: six issues, published bi-monthly, starting in November 2013, ending in September 2014.

Today, I paid a fleeting visit to the centre of Manchester to purchase issue 6, which appears exactly twelve months behind schedule, having scraped in just under the wire to do so.

And though artist J.H.Williams is notorious as a slow artist, it is not he who has to take responsibility for this fiasco. As early as the interminable delay between issues 1 and 2, Gaiman accepted responsibility for failing to provide his artistic collaborator with scripted pages to be drawn. I have heard nothing since that suggests that the ongoing difficulty in producing this book was down to anyone else.

Now, should he choose to exercise it, Gaiman has a ready-made excuse for these delays, in the form of his previous defence of George R. R. Martin. I’d like to say that I agree with every word Gaiman says at the other end of that link. Wearing the hat I wear as a reader of comics for fifty years, bearing in mind that throughout that period, and even now, comics is a serial form of fiction that is heavily dependant on the even rhythm of its schedule, I don’t regard such an explanation as adequate.

I have already said, as much as a year ago, that had I known what would happen, I wouldn’t have even started the story. I would have waited for the Graphic Novel collection, and I don’t mean the hardback volume that is already treading on the heels of this comic with a haste that is indecent in the circumstances. The paperback is at least twelve more months away.

But what, we dare ask, is my impression of the Distinguished Thing now that it is present in its entirety? I have carried the comic home without opening its pages, have written the first half of this blog whilst it remains in the Forbidden Planet bag, and I shall now read the story in its entirety, and only then offer my opinion.

*******************************************************************************

And it is good.

It’s so very good, and so very wide, and it seeps into every part of a story begun twenty-seven years ago, and ended nineteen years ago, as if in every part of it it was in Gaiman’s head during the nights that followed the Great Storm, when the shape and the idea came about.

And Williams draws or paints or does both and neither as if he is shaping the stuff of dream instead of using pencil, paper, ink, or even pixels.

And it will need many more readings for me to appreciate the immensity of this story, including those readings that will be necessary to eradicate the thoughts and feelings that form the first part of this revue.

For it is very good indeed. But it carries within it a sense of completion that makes it very hard to imagine that Gaiman will ever return to The Dreaming again.

Sandman Overture – no 5


sandman_overture_5_b

Forget what I said last time (it was so long ago, I have). Let’s have the rant again, in a resigned, dispassionate, purely factual manner. Sandman Overture, the story that immediately preceded Neil Gaiman’s ongoing Sandman series almost thirty years ago, was announced as a six-issue mini-series, appearing bi-monthly from November 2013. That means its final issue was due to come out in September 2014. This is still only the fifth issue which, according to the original schedule, is almost eleven months late. Good going DC/Vertigo. Good going Mr Gaiman.

And I suspect that I may not be the only one who does not find funny the indicia note that Sandman Overture is published “monthly”. If there is one thing I will not be doing during the month of June, it is reviewing issue no. 6.

So, what have we here? Funnily, I didn’t need to re-read the story to date to check where we were starting, because I could remember. Last issue, Dream visited his father, Time, before confronting the Mad Star, as a result of which he was condemned to a Black Hole, whilst the Mad Star started burning the Universe down.

This issue, Dream visits his mother, Night, the whole Black Hole thing being just the quickest way to reach her realm. Unfortunately, his master plan has been the fallible and naive one of getting Mummy and Daddy back together again, so that everything will be right again (I am not misrepresenting this plan in any way), and when Mummy won’t play, Dream has no plan B.

Fortunately, though he pretends the whole thing was unnecessary, he is rescued by a summons from brother Destiny, who has found a sailing ship in his garden that doesn’t belong there (it isn’t in his Book!) but does belong to Dream, who he requires to take it away. Dream doesn’t recognise it, but that’s because it’s been built by the Dream of Cats, who has been saving the odd person here and there as the Universe burns. Now it’s up to Dream to explain why they’ve been saved…

So, once again we have a fragment of activity, insufficient of itself to create a satisfying comic book, taking up a few more indeterminate steps towards the end. It is, naturally, superbly written and brilliantly drawn, but it is also not worth it on its own. If ever the final part is published, and the story can be read at once, the whole thing will probably be brilliant, but I have long since wished I never started reading this series issue by issue because, when the Distinguished Thing is finally here at last, I suspect it will be several years yet before I can read it without being reminded of this ghastly farce.

And if Gaiman ever agrees to do this again, with any other outstanding Sandman story he may discover the urge to tell, I will avoid the fucker like the plague until I hold the Graphic Novel in my hands, and even then I might wait for the paperback, because all the credit at the bank’s been used up, and I’m not doing this again for anyone.

 

Sandman Overture # 4


Ok, let’s try to do without the grumbling this time.

Part 4 of this six-issue story has now been published. It is immaculately written, and beautifully drawn, by Neil Gaiman and J. H. Williams III respectively. However, despite the presence of a token cliffhanger, this is again not a discrete episode, but a portion of the whole, and as such offers little by way of independent satisfaction, despite its attempts to make up for this by way of revelation.

Dream, the Dream of Cats and the small, blue-skinned girl called Hope, arrive at the City of Stars. Dream thinks upon his father, and between microseconds, is summoned to Time’s side, his study. Time is cold and distant, refusing to give Dream the (unspecified) help he seeks, in punishment for Dream having been allowed to borrow the Saeculum*, only to lose it.

(*Saeculum: a period of time equivalent to a potential human life).

Returning to the City, Dream’s band are refused entry because they are not Stars. Dream argues that he must be allowed entry in order to deal with the mad Star who threatens to destroy all the Universe. He, alone, is permitted to enter the mad Star’s cell. The Star calls him her’brother’, underlining that she is in the domain of Delirium, Dream’s youngest sister) (who was once Delight).

Dream reveals his responsibility for this moment: the arrogance and ignorance of his refusal to end the life of the young woman who was a Dream Vortex, until her madness had infected a world a galaxy, a Star.

He is then summoned, unwillingly this time, to Time’s study, where his father is now pleased that Dream has returned the Saeculum (it is implied that this has not yet happened in Dream’s lineal perception, and that indeed it is the responsibility of his successor, Daniel-Dream). Dream does not want his father’s proferred help: he has been taken at a crucial moment, his absence will lead to the death/destruction/delirium of Hope.

As it does.

As the issue ends, Dream faces imprisonment beyond the event horizon of a dark Star, or Black Hole.

At the official quarterly schedule now applied to Sandman Overture, we should be able to read the entirety of the story in mid-to-late June 2015. It is abundantly clear that only then, with the ability to comprehend this tale as a whole, will its sections come into focus. During Sandman‘s original 75 issue run, Gaiman followed the comic book convention of creating multiple-issue arcs that carried a sense of satisfaction within each part, but he has abandoned this notion for the prequel.

I fully expect that the whole will read as a truly worthy addition to the canon, but I can’t pretend that it makes for great reading on an issue-by-issue basis, and that’s entirely separate from the scheduling.

Until mid-to-late March, officially…

Sandman Overture 3


Twenty years ago, at the height of his self-appointed role as chief proselytiser for self-published comics, Dave (Cerebus) Sim addressed a convention of retailers.
One element of his speech was the absolute necessity of the would-be comics writer/artist looking at his/her work honestly and objectively, and working out how long it took to produce a single comic. What that was didn’t matter as much: three times a year? Four times? Six? What was essential was that the artist clearly identified how long it would take to produce an issue that met the standards they wanted to maintain, and then commit to a publishing schedule accordingly.
And once that schedule was established, it was imperative that the artist should maintain it. For the book to slip, for it not to be out when it was promised, was fatal. The publishing schedule was a contract between creator and reader that must not be broken.
This aspect of the speech aroused the ire of Comics Journal editor Gary Groth. Sim was attacked over the speech and for several issues it was not allowed to refer to Sim without the embellishment that he was an anti-creator who believed artists should crank out work on a monthly schedule like the Marvel field-hands.
This wasn’t what Sim had said, but Groth has never been above reducing opponents’ opinions to a straw man that is absolutely indefensible. Besides, this was Sim preaching self-publication as a means of escaping from editorial and publishorial control to produce a pure vision, and Groth’s self-image was indeibly tied to the notion of the Publisher as a sympathetic enabler, guiding creators to their best work.
Whether Groth liked it or not, Sim was right. The original Elfquest series by Wendy and Richard Pini was self-published in a magazine format three times a year, because that was what it took to produce a story with great personal significance to Wendy and her husband. After it had finished, and WaRP Graphics had become an independent comics company, Richard Pini determined that, in order to be commercial, WaRP’s titles had to appear as comic book size, and no less than bi-monthly. To produce the second Elfquest story to this directive, Wendy’s art had to be inked by a hired artist: the difference was more than noticeable.
And as a reader, I can attest to the importance of maintaining that regular schedule, no matter how attenuated it may be: you can wait four months between installments as long as it’s four months. If it becomes six, or seven, or even five, and you no longer have any sense when there will be more to read, interest is diminished. The irresistible example is Fantagraphics’ own Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez, edited by, yes, Gary Groth. After a long period of bi-monthly publication, maintained without difficulty, Love and Rockets started, for whatever reason, to be very sporadic in appearance. Groth defended it as artistic integrity, with Los Bros not prepared to release work until it was right. For this reader, it was a pain: both brothers were engaed in long, complicated serials that, when months would pass without an update, grew increasingly harder to follow and, concomitantly, increasingly harder to care.
All of which is by way of prefix to the long-awaited third issue of Sandman Overture by Neil Gaiman and J H Williams III.
Let us remind ourselves that it is now over a year since this project was announced, announced as a six-issue series, to be published bi-monthly, starting in November 2013. Those familiar with the calendar will easily be able to work out that the final issue of the series should be published in September of this year. Instead, the third issue was released last week, at the very end of July.
It’s very good, in fact it’s more than very good, it’s the best issue to date and a reminder of what made Sandman such a compelling series in the first place.
It’s not a story though, it’s still not a story. It’s a journey, undertaken by Dream and the Dream of Cats, who are the same entity in different bodies, but with thoughts shaped differently by those self-same bodies.
They are walking along an unfeasibly long and fanciful bridge, to reach the City of the Stars, to meet a Star that has gone mad and which is, in an as yet unexplained manner, the heart of the Vortex.
They meet the three Fates, who are surprised at the Cat, who offer knowledge by barter that Dream does not believe he needs.They look under a bed and collect a small girl called Hope that, the Crone implies, it would better not to have discovered.
A War has begun. The Universe is already dying. The colours are exquisite.
More is implied, more of the past is revealed. Gaiman is folding in the beginnning of things for which we know the end.
But at this point, and until the whole thing is available, whenever that will prove to be, I don’t really care. If I hadn’t already bought issues 1 and 2, the first of them in all innocence, I would cheerfully say forget it, and wake me up when the Graphic Novel is available, assuming I’m still alive to see it.
Officially, the series is now quarterly. The Director’s Editions have been quietly forgotten except by those of us unmannerly enough not to let the point go that by any measure this has been a debacle that stains Gaiman’s name as much as DC’s, and he’s got a much brighter name to stain.
Officially, therefore, I’ll be blogging issue 4 round about the end of November/beginning of December. I have not marked any date on my calendar.

The Sandman: Overture, issue 1


I confused myself in the comics shop earlier, about how long ago it really was since Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series ended. but it is still the best part of twenty years since the final issue of the series, and twice as long as the series ran. And I’ve always been counted among those who would happily have sold a reasonably distant member of their family for another story. And now finally that’s not necessary (just as well given I don’t have any suitable kin to offer), because Gaiman has not merely agreed to write that one more story, but has actually completed it and the first issue has been published.

Of course, DC being DC, the event is going to be milked for all its worth and the herd in the next field as well for, whilst Gaiman’s story will consist of only six issues, these will only be published on a bi-monthly basis, meaning that the end of this story will not be known until September 2014. To ensure our money doesn’t get stagnant in our pockets keep us going in between episodes, we will be able to buy ‘Special Editions’ of the previous month’s comic, with ‘extras’. I will say no more.

So, what’s it like, returning to the Dreaming with Gaiman after all these years? Has he still got it? Does this feel right, does it feel authentic? Hell, yes, it’s like never having been away.

Gaiman’s story is the one before it all began, the one that ends with issue 1, almost twenty-five years ago, when Dream of the Endless was captured by the self-styled Magus, Roderick Burgess, returning from a mission that has left him desperately tired and weak. This is that story, so already we know two things. The first is that this is taking place during the Great War in Europe, and the second is all of Dream’s future to come.

Stories are always difficult to tell when you know their ending in advance. The ingenuity of The Day of the Jackal (on film at least) lay in how it sprang its story of why the Jackal failed, when his approach had been so impossibly meticulous. Gaiman has an advantage in that this story need not connect itself in such a sense to the already-known series, since all it has to do is to deliver a ‘desperately tired and weak’ Sandman to a pre-arranged point, but Gaiman wouldn’t be Gaiman if he ignored that challenge.

What we have so far is a mysterious dream sequence far away in space, on a planet that is not Earth, and whose inhabitants include a race of intelligent, if immobile plants, one of whom dreams of a strange black-petaled, white-faced plant that senses something deeply wrong on this planet, and then burns. This incident creates ripples: Destiny reads in his book of entertaining his sister Death, who is perturbed that she has just collected their brother Dream a hundred galaxies away, and it is never very good when one of the Endless dies.

Then there is the Corinthian, disobeying Dream by entering the waking world, by killing. He is brought to Dream’s London offices to be uncreated away from all his friends, but Dream’s intentions are disturbed by a summons: not a common thing but not unknown,yet this is a summons that cannot be refused. Dream has time only to return to the Dreaming, leaving the Corinthian to roam unchecked, to collect his helmet of office and his pouch of sand (he wears his ruby already) before being summoned in an instant to, we assume, this planet of humanoids, insects and plants.

He arrives prepared for anything. Except for what he finds: a fold-out, four page spread of Dreams: nor dreams, but Dreams: himself, replicated, variegated, over thirty different incarnations, all answering the summons.

Where this leads is two months away, in another year.

Overture comes with alternate covers, at least for issue 1. As was traditional, Dave McKean has also returned, but series artist J. H. Williams III has drawn an alternate cover, as depicted above, which is the one I’ve chosen. Williams has been one of the leading artists in comics for over a decade, and he is immaculate in this issue, meticulous in his detail and in full command of his craft. Parts of the art is in black and white, although it might be better to describe it as grey and white. Practically the only quibble would be that, in the London office sequel, his Sandman is hugely reminiscent of the Shade, from James Robinson’s Starman, but then I like the Shade so I’m fine with that.

This is, as usual, very much a first issue, setup and mystery, and a generously depicted atmosphere. There are still stories to be told within Gaiman’s Dreaming, within Gaiman’s Endless. This is the first: I will not be alone in hoping it will not be the last.