Today, Drew and Michael are discussing the The Sandman Overture 5, originally released May 27th, 2015.
Drew: Neil Gaiman has never been shy about pulling down the curtains that separate fiction from reality. I might call it “breaking the fourth wall,” but it’s less winking at the camera, and more showing us the puppet’s strings to better appreciate the puppet itself. In that vein, it’s never been hard to see Gaiman as Dream, the raven-haired prince of stories, fighting to maintain order over his dominion of characters, settings, and situations. It makes for some fascinating commentary on the creative process, especially when Dream comes up against forces beyond his control, even within his own stories. That’s exactly the name of the game in The Sandman Overture 5, as Gaiman pulls the curtain back on Dream’s mother and brings in some surprises that even Destiny didn’t see coming.
As the issue opens, Dream is facing the fate the stars had sentenced him to: permanent entombment in a black hole. Only, we quickly learn that this was by Dream’s design — he needed to plunge into a black hole to visit his mother, Night. Whether she is obliged to live in that complete blackness, or just chooses to to be beyond the reach of Time isn’t clear, but she’s just as disinterested in helping Dream as his father was. That connection between Time and Night is an important one, and artist J.H. Williams III takes extra care to make it as explicit as possible.
That’s a deceptively simple page, but it’s rich with meaning. The panels within panels beautifully support Gaiman’s script, which is a nested series of ideas, but the real beauty is how they render temporeality meaningless. There’s no sequence to these panels. We read the largest one both first and last, rendering cause and effect meaningless. Dream makes a similar point about his father’s realm in the previous issue, but importantly, that effect was still achieved through sequentiality, albeit a sequence counter to what we might expect.
Matching Gaiman’s own postmodernism, Williams is playing with the form throughout. This is perhaps most apparent whenever we see passages from Destiny’s book, which Williams cleverly represents as a comic itself.
Don’t worry about reading the copy, the point here is the design of this layout. Note how, as soon as Destiny encounters something he doesn’t expect, the images start busting out of the book. It breaks the two-dimensionality of the book, which is itself a three-dimensional object rendered in two dimensions. That might be enough postmodernism to break my brain, but that final panel isn’t even a part of the book (notice how it casts a shadow on the book itself, as if floating above it), explaining how the Dream cat could “surprise” Destiny — these events are literally happening off the pages of his book.
Williams achieves that effect even more spectacularly later in the book, as the boat seems to pop right off of the page, but the passage above establishes the rules of Destiny’s book before smashing them all to pieces. This all leads to my absolute favorite passage: Dream boarding the mysterious ship:
It’s comicbook-iness couldn’t be more explicit — it’s based on a nine-panel grid — but Williams defies our expectations at every turn. In spite of the grid (and empty gutters), certain parts of the image bleed into the margins. Actually, we can be more specific than that: only the dream ship bleeds into the margins — note in particular the striking empty space in the middle of this spread, broken only by the ship. Again, we’re reading this in Destiny’s book — note the page edges we can see in the upper left corner of the spread — but the ship seems to exist outside of it, defying the conventions of the book even as it is superimposed on top of it.
It’s crazy-meta stuff, but it’s all in support of a crazy-meta narrative. This subtly emphasizes the otherness of that dream ship, something Williams gooses further in that final panel. The “rules” of this spread are all about breaking one continuous image into discrete moments, but that final panel jerks the camera in a totally unexpected direction, reinforcing the notion of the Dream cat as the one operating beyond the rules of Destiny’s book. It’s not totally clear what will become of the ark of survivors he has rescued, but that’s the point: his actions are unpredictable (and reminds me that the fates were not expecting Dream when they saw him in issue 3 — also when he was traveling with the cat). It would be easy to dismiss that point as another love letter from Gaiman about cats, but it’s too thrilling a development to write off completely.
Michael, I know you haven’t been following this series religiously, but I think there’s enough experimentation going on here to maintain your interest, even if the plot doesn’t mean all that much to you. I didn’t even mention Dave Stewart’s colors, or the way letterer Todd Klein picks up on Dream’s translucence during that conversation with Night, but holy smokes is this issue finely detailed. Or maybe I’m getting up my own butt here. Does that stuff work if you’re not hooked into the narrative?
Michael: Drew I am all about meta-fiction that gets up its own butt and encourages readers like you to explore your own butt; in fact I think all of Retcon Punch is! In all honesty I had forgotten about this series (The Sandman Overture 1 came out almost two years ago!) but who doesn’t love Sandman? And who doesn’t love pouring over J.H. William’s killer artwork? (side note: I desperately miss his Batwoman.) To travel back into the world of Dream and the Endless was a treat; so I will definitely play catch up with the rest of The Sandman Overture soon.
The first essential element of the meta-narrative that Neil Gaiman created with Sandman is the nature of The Endless: the personifications of the pervasive ideas that influence all of creation. The encounter of Dream and his mother Night in the black hole can simply be read as the protagonist confronting the latest conflict of the story. Since these are embodied concepts however, Gaiman allows the opportunity to engage the material from a metaphorical and philosophical perspective as well. Every line of dialogue instantly becomes rich with subtext when gazed at through that lens. What exactly does a conversation between Night and Dream look like? What does it mean? It kind of sounds like a bedtime story, really.
The opportunity to meet the mother of Morpheus, the legendary Lord of Dreams was tantalizing enough; but I find Night to be a very interesting character in her own right. Night says to her son that she “values her privacy,” and is totally content without her ex-husband Time. (I’m not sure if marriage or divorce are customs that immortal concepts actually follow, but I digress.) Of course Night values her privacy; she keeps all of her goings-on under the cover of dark. And Night separated from Time makes Night truly “Endless;” without Time there is no dawn to end Night. See? This is so much fun!
If you strip away the metaphor, the conversation between Dream and Night is one that we have seen (and maybe even experienced) many times before. Dream is the child that has grown to adulthood and has learned to provide for himself outside of his mother’s care. But hey, when things get really bad, it’s always great to have the option of going home to Mom to “make it all go away.” Night is the “bad mom” that we’ve seen innumerable iterations of in stories throughout history. She’s Norma Bates, Livia Soprano, Lucille Bluth and every other woman probably not fit to raise children throughout history.
Night’s a mother who picks favorites with her children and is not afraid to let the rest of them know it. She plays the “you never call” card with Dream — perhaps mockingly — making him feel guilty about neglecting his dear old mom. Night is a mother who resents the fact that she is no longer needed. In order to keep her treasured son Dream by her side she makes him a Faustian bargain to have everything he ever wanted. Night wants to be loved, regardless if it costs her son his happiness or extinguishes all of existence. If Drew’s favorite passage from The Sandman Overtures 5 was Dream cat’s ship, then I suppose mine was the mother/son scene at the top of the issue with Night and Dream. Dusk lifts the veil to reveal J.H. Williams’ gorgeous floral-shaped layouts (which I think is a reference to Quorian from issue 1?) accompanied by Dave Stewart’s midnight blues, blacks and purples. Among the exorbitant feast in front of Night lay a spread of phallic and yonic edibles. Night wants Morpheus to give up his “dream;” she wants to have control over everything; a permanent midnight across all of creation.
William Faulkner said that “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” As a writer, you often have to let some ideas go; they can’t all make the final draft. As Drew noted, a lot of The Sandman Overtures is about the nature of storytelling. At the end of the issue, Dream cat presents his Ark of thousands of refugees that he has rescued from the Dreaming. As the protagonist of a story, Dream argues that even if you rescue one life there are trillions more who will die. As a facet of Neil Gaiman, Dream argues that despite all of the ideas he may come up with he can’t ever use them all. Dream cat, either as a saver of lives or a salvager of ideas, counters that any life/idea preserved is worth the struggle. As a creator, Gaiman is saying that anything that makes it to the page is an achievement — no matter what. In the more black and white terms of superheroes the message is any life saved is worth fighting the bad guy. More still, on a more personal level you could say that any personal hurdles one attempts to overcome are worth it for the simple fact that they tried. Neil Gaiman loves talking about ideas guys — and I love talking about his idea talk.
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