Even by our usual standards, it’s especially strange to include in our comics of the year a series that has only managed to put out one issue in 2013. But then, Sandman: Overture is hardly a usual comic – in fact, it’s downright exceptional.
Here, for example, was a comic that had to live up to some outrageously lofty expectations – the first issue of The Sandman since the series ended in 1996 (notwithstanding the Endless Nights hardcover or P. Craig Russell’s adaptation of The Dream Hunters), and one that has to break into the almost hermetically-sealed perfection of that original run. Anything less than utter genius from a new comic with this title by Neil Gaiman and JH Williams would be a huge disappointment.
And yet there were lingering doubts that the old magic could be recaptured. Gaiman has written some fantastic work in recent years, but not very much of it has been in comics, and Sandman was of such a distinct time in comics history that it wasn’t clear whether it could translate to the style of an era twenty-five years after its first issues.
So it’s largely because of the fact that it both lived up to those huge expectations, and dispelled those nagging doubts, that the first issue of Overture immediately stood out as one of the best comics of the year. Effortlessly sliding back into the familiar and comfortable setting and characters, it read like Gaiman was picking up where he left off with issue #75 (aside from the plot being set a little while prior to issue #1, of course) – but by the same token was a dazzling example of confident, high-class modern-day comic book storytelling.
Much of this, it’s clear, is down to the presence of Williams – one of arguably a handful of artists currently working who could possibly live up to the ideal of working on Sandman. Indeed, some of that first issue’s most inspired moments feel more the work of the artist than the writer – bringing his signature style to double-page spreads like the astonishing Corinthian sequence, and even managing to convey the somewhat abstract notion of Destiny’s book in a way that made arguably more sense than any of the original series’ artists had managed to.
And if it felt a little bit like a greatest hits tour – with gratuitous cameos from characters like Merv Pumpkinhead – the nostalgia was at least earned by the occasion. And what’s more, this feels (so far at least) like a missing story that was waiting to be told, rather than simply a cheap cash-grab – with some genuinely startling revelations about a mythology that previously we felt we’d learned all we could about.
Simply put, it feels incredibly good to have The Sandman back in the year 2013, and back at a level of quality we all remember it for. And that’s why, in only twenty-odd pages, it was comfortably one of the best comics of the year. The fact that 2014 actually promises several instalments of this is almost too joyous to contemplate.