Thumbnail: Theme And Motif In ‘The Sandman: Overture’
The things about The Sandman that I recall the most fondly aren't what most others think of. In my experience, an overwhelming percentage of readers are quick to talk about the characters, or the strength of writer Neil Gaiman's voice. I definitely can't argue against either of those, but what I really appreciated about The Sandman was Gaiman and his artists' ingeniously subtle tricks with symbolism and structure. The big points were always echoed in some very clever ways that never disrupted the natural flow of the story to point out how ornate the plot actually was.
Gaiman and J.H. Williams III have managed to condense pretty much all the major themes of the seventy-five issue run of The Sandman into The Sandman: Overture.
The magic and necessity of stories, self-imprisonment, men inflicting harm on women, parents damaging their children, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth; all are echoed quickly and frequently in Overture. It begins almost immediately, with Dream readying to unmake The Corinthian, his own creation, remarking that he had such high hopes for him, like a disappointed parent. When Dream is pulled across the universe "with a pain that feels like birth..." (For whom? The mother or the child?), he begins his quest to stop a mad star from destroying the universe, a journey that takes him, as a Kindly One warns him, "through time and into night." Or Time and Night, as it were; the father and mother of the Endless.
On his path back to his mother, Night, there are many references to the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, especially in Williams' visual motifs. There are several versions of a telescoping effect used as Morpheus gets closer to the end of all existence, and his own mother, who is both a source of life and death.
The second issue begins with a series of receding frames of pentagons that lead to Daniel, the future reborn aspect of Dream; it bookends the issue with the point of the pentagons inverted, when Morpheus states his intention to talk to his father, one of his creators. The telescoping effect is used again to open the fifth issue, with Dream falling through a black hole toward his mother like he's traveling through a birth canal. But which way?
When The Sandman: Overture was announced, I wondered how good it would be; if it would really be worth returning to such a great, complete story. Then I spent a little more time wondering if the older, more cynical, less-precious me would even like The Sandman anymore if I read it today. My doubt was wiped away with the first issue of Overture. Apart from being the best-illustrated long-form Sandman story --- without question -- it's as thematically and structurally brilliant as my memory asserts the original series to be.
With only one issue left, it's just a little bit sad to think that this will probably be the very last Sandman story, as Gaiman walks away from his own creation forever. The Sandman: Overture is as perfect a return and farewell as you could ask for. (And it'll probably be another six months before the last issue, anyway.)