Review: Sandman Overture #4

Sandman-OvertureI’ll admit. I read issue 4 and was confused. There has been a long wait between issues, even on top of the gaps for the Sandman Overture Special Editions. (Which I’m not reading – I don’t really watch the extras on DVDs either.) The artwork by J. H. Williams III has been lush. Big double-page acid-sheet spreads, dripping with trippy. Some reviewers have called it a bit over the top. No such issue with me. It was visually reading more like a Promethea story than a Sandman story, but you’d expect that from the Promethea illustrator.

This series was making me angry largely because I felt that it was missing something essentially Sandman about it. There were some very Neil Gaiman-esque touches through the story, and some familiar themes were being re-visited (dreams of cats, Morpheus being a callous bastard and having to deal with the fallout, rules that are meant to be followed, stories within stories), but it felt like it had been written by a Neil Gaiman plot generator. All of the elements were present, but there was something genuine missing.

Or maybe I had just not been paying enough attention. So I re-read the 4 issues out to date in one sitting, to see if it was me, or if, indeed, Neil had lost the plot (so to speak).

It turns out, it’s a bit of both, I reckon.

The story makes more sense now. But I reckon I’ve put my finger on why I’m annoyed with this series, given I’m such a fan of Sandman in particular, and Neil Gaiman generally.

I don’t care about what’s happening in this series. Or why.

Sandman Overture seems to be explaining to us the events behind and the reasons why Morpheus was weakened enough to allow himself to be captured at the beginning of the Sandman series. It’s a prequel. The trouble is, I’d never really given it a thought as to why Morpheus was weakened enough to be imprisoned in the first place. I never felt that it needed explaining. So I’m not jumping around with excitement with having this particular revelation tacked onto the Sandman universe. And the revelation that The Endless have a Mother and Father (the Father we meet in issue #4) just doesn’t resonate.

So what’s good about issue #4? Well, the artwork is a real trip. Which you’d hope would be up to it, given that Morpheus, and a Cat version of himself, and some annoying blue child called “Hope” (facepalm) are visiting a City of Stars.

And there was one moment of genuine Gaiman when Morpheus referred to a star both by its present scientific name (Formalhaut), and (presumably) a title, Eye of the Lonely‘. This had me thinking. How many names do stars have? A Scientific Name? A title? Does that depend on their position within a constellation? Would that change if seen from another planet, another constellation by alien races? Would a star have a million names for each group of alien races making stories about them? Could a star tell a lot about you, depending on what name you call it by? This is the Gaiman I remember, who could explode in my head with just a provocative phrase. He’s been a bit heavy on the ‘explanation’ and a bit light on the ‘evocation’ in this series.

It’s revealed that the insane star whose madness has already killed one aspect of Dream, and is threatening the universe with its insanity, was caused by Morpheus and his delayed action over killing an alien child ages ago who was ‘a vortex, an anomaly. An Annulet’ (whatever that is), Her madness has spread and infected her whole planet, and it was Morpheus’ responsibility to kill her, and her infected world. But he couldn’t bring himself to kill the sun of the world and now it’s insane. Cosmic, to be sure, but it all feels a bit ungrounded, and convenient. And it’s starting to sound a bit like a plot from ‘Shade the Changing Man’ a la Pete Milligan (I’m so glad that is finally being reprinted!).

So maybe that’s it then. Sandman Overture is a Shade the Changing Man story dressed up as a Promethea story masquerading as a Sandman story. I knew there was something fishy about this limited series. I know Vertigo is struggling, but this pastiche? Joking aside, for all that, it’s still worth picking up, if only to see what the hell Neil Gaiman is up to with his beloved Sandman multiverse. Fingers crossed he ties it all up.

Has Neil Gaiman ‘lost the plot’? Do you care whether The Endless have parents or not? Are you a bit sick of a ‘vortex’ being the cause of every cosmic problem in the universe?

Review: ‘Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits’ – Garth Ennis and William Simpson

350px-Hellblazer_-_Dangerous_Habits(Note: The Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits TPB collects Hellblazer issues 41-46)

Dangerous Habits is the one of the best character studies of John Constantine. It deals with all elements of his flawed character: his hard alcohol and cigarette abuse, his exploitative use of friends, and his con-man status to the many ethereal beings of our universe, from both heaven and hell. It also shows the progression of the often morally grey anti-hero, as he deals with coming to terms with his eventual death at the hand of one of his many vices: his much loved pack of silk cut cigarettes.

For the uninitiated, John Constantine (pronounced Con-stan-tyne, as in fine) is a British occult magician/con-man/ arsehole who is modelled after the famous musician Sting. Known for his drinking and smoking habits, as well as his dry wit, he has been a mainstay of Vertigo Comics for well over twenty years. Dangerous Habits marks the entry of Garth Ennis to the series in 1991, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest Hellblazer storylines since the series’ inception. It deals with Constantine’s newfound knowledge of his terminal lung cancer, and as he says goodbye to the ones he loves, he formulates a plan that will at the very least, see him die swinging.

This story arc is Hellblazer at its most poignant. Constantine’s quest for redemption with what little friends he has left sees him backed into a corner as he fights for what little time he and his dying allies have. From the liver cancer-stricken Matt, to his old friend Brendan Finn, each allow Ennis to delve into the tortured mind of our anti-hero as he comes to terms with his mistakes, and all the friends whose deaths he blames himself for. John Constantine is a person hiding behind the con-man persona – too afraid to get close to anyone he cares about for fear of their safety. This story breaks down Constantine to his bare minimum: a man who despite his sins, wants to leave with having done more good in the world than wrong.

It is also to Garth Ennis’ credit that he chose lung cancer as Constantine’s downfall over a more supernatural curse as it both humanises and undermines his place in the world. Here is a man who deals with some of the most powerful beings in the universe, only to be taken under by one of the most basic of diseases. It allows Constantine to reflect on one of the of the most interesting issues faced in life:  this is not how, and when, I planned to go.

Ennis also allows Constantine to show off his expertise as a con-artist, as the final stages of the story arc culminate in potentially one of the most badass displays of arrogance ever witnessed in comic form. He manages to pull off the most impressive cons I have seen in potentially any medium, and it leaves the series in an interesting place by the arc’s end.

The art in this arc is merely serviceable to the story presented here. On one hand, William Simpson’s drawings can be equally weird and fitting, as Constantine’s world is one part disgusting to two parts dark. On the other hand, certain panels that focus solely on characters look plain bad – their distorted faces resemble closely those of demonic caricatures, as odd angles and stretched faces lead the reader to often be looking up the nostrils of Constantine.

As mentioned, Dangerous Habits marks Garth Ennis’ entrance into the series and it is heralded by a bang, as he systematically sets up the title character to die, exploring Constantine’s own demons, while allowing him to battle some monsters as well. While Simpson’s art may not be up to par with the writing; the Dangerous Habits storyline manages to create not only a powerful part of John Constantine’s own story, but a classic in comic books overall.