Comic-Con: Gaiman, Williams get ‘very weird’ in ‘Sandman: Overture’

July 20, 2013 | 3:15 p.m.

What seems to excite Neil Gaiman most when talking about the upcoming “Sandman: Overture” miniseries with artist J.H. Williams III is just how odd the story is.

He laughed when calling the six-part story — his first Sandman tale in 10 years — a “very, very strange book.”

And he said it was decidedly different from the 75-issue, 1988-1996 “Sandman” series whose No. 1 issue this story will end at: “This is not about the story of Morpheus’ capture, how it changed him, the kind of change-or-die, ‘Kindly Ones’ story. This is about how some weird [stuff] happened a long way away and some bad stuff happened a long way away and how he had to try to sort it out whether he wanted to or not.”

FULL COVERAGE: San Diego Comic-Con 2013

“Sandman” is back out of the Dreaming and into the waking world at Comic-Con International in San Diego, where the DC/Vertigo myth-and-literature-rich dark fantasy epic’s 25th anniversary is celebrated on the cover of the official souvenir book every attendee receives and on one of the convention’s official T-shirts. Gaiman and Williams are both the subjects of spotlight panels — Williams’ was on Thursday, with Gaiman’s coming Sunday — and there is a “Sandman” program Saturday.

Given the millions of volumes of “Sandman” stories sold and the combined talents on “Overture,” expectations are high for the Oct. 30 release of its first issue — and Gaiman feels the pressure.

After 25 years, “at a time when I would have thought everyone would have completely forgotten about me and ‘Sandman’ … the world is even more excited and interested,” he said Friday during a gathering with his saga’s newest artist and a small group of reporters.

Where in 1988 he was doing “Sandman” for himself and his colleagues, “Now I’m doing it for millions of people, and in my head they’re all looking over my shoulder while I write and they’re all going, ‘This better be worth waiting for. It better be good.’ … So that is actually genuinely nerve-racking.”

Returning to his old dramatis personae, he said, “The characters are still there and the characters sound like themselves and they’re as much fun as they ever were — and occasionally as irritating as they ever were.”

Oh, and about that word “prequel”: Gaiman pointed out that the breadth of the “Sandman” story so far — 2003′s graphic novel “Endless Nights’ spanned from billions of years ago the 21st century — might preclude “Overture” from being called that. But whatever else it may be, it is clearly the product of a mutual admiration society.

Williams, who began reading “Sandman” with No. 1 when it came out, said of the Eisner-winning writer, “There’s this emotional, it’s almost a metaphysical feeling, that you get from reading his work. You just feel like there’s these deeper roots going on. It lives with you. If you’re reading something and two weeks later it’s still haunting your mind, you know there’s something to that. And you can’t let it go.”

Gaiman said the “Batwoman” artist and co-writer was the only artist he and the editors wanted for the miniseries.

“This is J.H. Williams III,” he said in introducing the Eisner-winning artist. “His two clonal brothers, J.H. Williams I and II, were killed rescuing innocent people. He was our shortlist. And we asked, and he said yes — which was really good because we didn’t have anybody else.”

Asked what his first exposure to Williams’ art was, Gaiman points to “Promethea,” the experimental, mystical 1999-2005 Alan Moore series. He said Moore called him between the end of “Sandman” and the start of “Promethea,” and here he went into a fine vocal impersonation of the iconoclastic “Watchmen” writer saying that the new book would “clean up all the ‘Sandman’ fans” who were “wandering around aimlessly, looking lost” after its end — which piqued his interest.

Gaiman recalls a “Promethea” issue with a Moebius strip that was a lesson in Kabbalah that readers were to cut out from the page and tape together. Looking at Williams’ art, he thought, “OK, J.H. is actually as mad as Alan.”

Of the experience so far on “Overture,” Gaiman said, “I ask him to do impossible things, and he does impossible things.”

Cover | Page 1 | Pages 2-3 | Pages 4-5

He didn’t wait long to send Williams on an impossible mission — it arrives in the early pages (click on the links above to see them larger): “I said, ‘By the way, what I’d like here is a flower that is Morpheus because we’ve never seen what plants dream of. Can you give me a large plant and I’d like the petals to form a sort of a face, but you can’t draw a face. It just has to be proper plant petals — it doesn’t have a face because it’s a plant. And the leaves around the stem, which should be slightly prickly, should also just remind us of a flowing cloak.’ I thought, ‘There you go, give him something impossible to do.’ I thought it’ll teach him humility. He will fail. It will put him in his place. And instead, he aced it. He gave me this thing and I went, ‘Yeah, that’s what Morpheus would look like if he was a flower.’ “

Williams, who cites artist Marc Hempel’s visually risky work in “The Kindly Ones” as his favorite previous “Sandman” art, appreciates that the writer insinuates things into the story that allow him to work in a variety of art styles — “it makes for interesting visual flow because you never know what to expect when you turn the page.” One thing for readers to look for: “We have a sequence where everything becomes old-style etchings with no color.”

Story details for “Overture” are scarce. The story, which Gaiman has had in mind since the original series, where he said it wouldn’t have fit, will show why Morpheus was exhausted and dressed for war when captured by a black magic cult in “Sandman” No. 1. And, Gaiman jokingly revealed, the Lord of Dream will have shorter hair — it hasn’t grown out to its length at the start of the original series.

He did say this: “What we’re doing is telling a story that happens in 1916, and parts of the story happen away from 1916 — there are some parts that are happening now, there are some parts that are happening a long, long time ago that may actually turn into the very, very first of all ‘Sandman’ books.”

– Blake Hennon | @BlakeHennon

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