Sandman Overture – no 5


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 2

Since the transition to the New 52 Universe and the corporate/editorial diktat control of its comics, DC has made many fuck-ups. So often have they been inconsistent, illogical, inept, contradictory, incompetent and downright iditic that there is even a website dedicated to Has DC Done Something Stupid Today?, complete with a counter, ticking off the days since the last fuck-up.

To the best of my knowledge, The Sandman: Overture has not featured on this site, and to be fair to DC, my understanding is that it is not they who are responsible for the unconscionable delay between issue 1 (early November 2013) and issue 2 (late March 2014, though only picked up today).

The series was announced, well over a year ago, as Sandman Zero, in which Neil Gaiman would al long last tell the missing Sandman story, the prequel, the adventure from which Dream was returning in issue 1, wearied beyond measure and vulnerable to Magus Roderick Burgess. It had all Sandman fans slavering, though at least one of these slavering fans had a deeply cynical response to the way DC proposed to milk the project. It was to be a six-issue series, drawn (and beautifully) by J H Willams III, but it was to be published over twelve months, alternating with special ‘Director’s Editions’ of the previous issue.

What we actually had, therefore, was that utter throwback, a bi-monthly title, dressed up as something fancy and gaudy and super-good for us, when it would have looked twice as good if honestly announced. But of course it could not be honestly announced because bi-monthlies are contemporaries of the dodo. And how much trouble would it seriously to adhere to standard practice and get half or two-thirds, whatever suits the artist’s speed best, inhouse before you schedule publishing the first of them?

But it didn’t happen that way. And Neil Gaiman has taken responsibility for not having gotten his ass in gear and writing issue 2 when J H Williams III was ready for issue 2. It’s been a PR, a Publishing and a Credibility disaster of mammoth proportions.

For many months now (five, in total) it has reminded me of nothing so much as D’Arc Tangent. Now, to understand that reference you will need to be at least fifty years old and well-read in comics, but for the majority of you, D’Arc Tangent was a black-and-white magazine style comic, an SF story of both epic and personal proportions, starting in 1982. It was a collaboration between Phil Foglio and an individual going by the name of Freff. It also featured an editorial consultancy by Chris Claremont, whilst he still had any credibility. Space Opera and True Romance, effervescent comedy and deep heartbreak, it was a truly brilliant piece of work that had everything you could ever want.

Except an issue 2.

Foglio and Freff fell out irrevocably over the direction of the story. Apparently, Foglio threatened legal action if Freff tried to continue the story without him. So it died an ignominious and insignificant death, leaving issuie 1 as a beautifully construicted waste of time, a nothing of no importance at all. It might well never have existed.

Which is how I’ve been feeling about Sandman: Overture 1 for all the year so far. It was good, but so what?

I’m still not rid of that feeling. There was no ‘Director’s Edition’, not that I saw or heard, and what happens next? Are we to expect issue 3 in late May, or will it be more like August? How much of it has Gaiman written by now? Given the contents, and the glorious quality of the art, how long does Williams need to draw an issue?

What I can say about issue 2 is that it is superb. I wouldn’t have it any different, certainly not to the detriment of the art, but that doesn’t mean it was worth the wait. As others have pointed out, not much happens in this story. Dream correctly identifies that the ‘crowd’ he met in the first issue’s pull-out is merely himself, or aspects of himself. We are never given a definitive example as to how they are different: there seems to be aspects dependant on different spatial areas, temporal locations and species (there is a more than welcome return for the Dream of Cats). and there is a highly intruguing hint at a past event Gaiman mentioned briefly in the series, a quarter-century ago, in that the Universe, or all there is, is threatened by the Vortex Dream let live…

But the most unexpected part of this story is that it begins with Dream instead of Dream: with Daniel Dream, that is, the current face of The Dreaming, required to keep a most mysterious appointment with Mad Hettie, in a dream place she seeks both to return to and avoid. Dreanm retrieves something, a nonworking pocket watch, that may be of interest not to himself but to Dream. And Dream in all his aspects has been pulled to his present location because an aspect of Dream is dead. And is this a different aspect, or one we have seen destroyed already?

And is this very scene, amongst the multitude of self the spark for Dream’s long decision to drive himself towards the only alternative to a change he can’t effect?

Once we have this story as a whole, I think we will have a web that folds many things into one thing, like Dream en masse becomes Dream, in his most familiar aspect. I hope I’m not driven to be cranky again by getting there.