Anxiety Dreams: "Sandman Overture #1"

Brett Mobley

I’ve come to understand the dream as one primarily fueled by anxiety. It's a twisted sort of wish-fulfillment…

Sandman Overture #1

Publisher: DC
Length: 40 pages
Writer: Neil Gaiman, JH Williams III
Price: $4.99
Publication Date: 2014-01

Have you ever had an anxiety dream? I often have a particularly frightening form of an anxiety dream that I’ve come to understand as a paralysis dream. To put it briefly, I’ll go to bed, and sometime during the night I will wake up, however, I won’t be in control of my body. I’ll be fully conscious, laying there staring up at the ceiling, but unable to move a single muscle. I strain with incredible effort to try and blink. I can’t speak, I can’t move, but I’m conscious of my surroundings. If I can just blink, I’ll wake up. My eye is beginning to dry up. If I can just blink, but I can’t. I can feel my heart beating not a step faster than normal, my body isn’t aware of how scared I really am. It is a truly terrifying dream.

I’ve come to understand the dream as one primarily fueled by anxiety. In the dream logic, my paralysis essentially prevents the next day from happening to me. My subconscious wants to shield me from whatever is causing so much stress and yet simultaneously constrains my ability to be expressive about said stress.  Its abdication and abjection at once. It's a twisted sort of wish-fulfillment. Essentially, the world is a scary and stressful place, but if I can remain trapped inside my own body, maybe things will get better. But we know that isn’t true, so I rail against the dream and struggle to blink myself out of it.  

I’m talking about my own anxiety here, because reading Sandman Overture #1 got me thinking a lot about the subject: Morpheus’ own experience of it in this issue, and the anxiety that reader experiences while working through the comic itself are an important theme of the issue that make it unique among all comics I’ve read, even in the series run and spin-offs of Sandman. Morpheus is anxious and hesitant about the strange tugging he feels, the wrongness he senses in the Dream. And we are treated to a comic so visually stunning yet inhibited by the act of framing a tale, it folds in on itself to display frames framing frames. To put it bluntly, Sandman Overture #1, is a comic primarily concerned with anxiety, which has a language and visual style that reflects that anxiety.

Even talking about Sandman Overture #1 is fraught with anxiety. One of the most highly anticipated comics of past several years, Sandman Overture, is Neil Gaiman's first return to his most critically acclaimed creation in 17 years. The mini-series is set to answer one of the main-series’ most enduring questions: how did Morpheus become so weakened and, as we are told by Destiny at the end of Brief Lives, “tired beyond belief after a great victory” that he could be captured by Roderick Burgess. We know the ending and now we’ve just gotten a taste of the beginning of our answer. Some have called it explosive. Its art and evocative coloring gorgeously renders a refined glimpse into the Endless’ experience of the universe. Its writing recaptures the imaginative and authoritative tone of series, yet some how remains emotionally resonant as it picks up old threads and gives them new life. Yet for others, Sandman Overture #1 is pedantic. Its language perhaps too authoritative and mythopoetic. Its art and stylization perhaps too clever by half. But not many are saying why it is either of these things. Reading Sandman Overture #1 is like trying to remember a dream.  

The most striking feature of this first issues for me is the comic framing and stylization that Gaiman and J.H. Williams use to express the Endless’ experience of the universe. This includes four notable spreads: the Corinthian spread, reflected in each grisly panel; the Destiny thread, reflected in the pages within pages panels; and the boxy portcullis spread, reflected in the rigidly bound and cross-hatched panels; and finally the spinning call to Morpheus in which each panel is a letter of his name. Each of these sets of panels have a unique understanding of movement, energy, and form, yet ultimately they obscure and reflect the scene at hand rather than showing the thing itself. At first, I thought that these rare and beautiful panels were a throwback to Alan Moore’s run on Saga of the Swamp Thing, which also features bizarre page layouts. But upon further reflection, these panels reflect an anxiety concerning how to tell the story. They obfuscate the point of view being expressed, concealing the art with more and more art heaped on top. Sandman Overture, at this point seems to want to show Morpheus’ Hero’s Journey toward that “great victory,” but is asking itself, how can a god-machine like Morpheus experience a call to action and refusal to call.  

Primarily motivated by duty and bound, until the end of Preludes and Nocturnes, to his tools of power, Morpheus has always been a difficult character to elucidate. Most of the Sandman series in fact depicts very little growth on Dream’s part, but rather strives to show many stories. So, Sandman Overture, which by design will be dealing with Morpheus’ character more directly, seems to struggle with how to frame an understanding of him. Even the language of Gaiman’s writing seems to vacillate between registers. Opening with a series of lines describing a quaint, interesting planet, Gaiman sets off on a bold and authoritative tone.

It was a small planet. It had everything a planet could ever need, although it was small. It had a star systems containing six other planets, four of which were gas giants. It had two moons, one of which had coalesced when it did, the other it had captures.

Nevertheless though, this authoritative tone, one of world building in broad, sweeping, easy gestures, registers as a kind of similarcum. I read it and immediately am reminding of the opening lines of The Hobbit. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” They both posses and ease of creation yet Gaiman’s version seems to indicate an uneasiness with revealing too much detail.  We are heaped upon with particulars that lack meaning or allow for a substantive understanding.  

All in all, the anxiety that pervades this opening comic does not detract from its status as one of the best comics I’ve read in sometime. In fact, I think the anxiety that is inculcated into Sandman Overture is perhaps why it is so good. While it re-introduces us to old favorites and simultaneously gives us a fresh perspective on our understanding of the Endless, and while it showers us with astounding art and authoritative storytelling, Sandman Overture #1, is a meek dipping of the toe back into the big waters of the Sandman universe--and I can’t wait to see more.




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