Warning: Spoilers for the entire Sandman series follow.
I have a weird relationship with Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. I read it freshman year of college, and parts of it blew my mind. Then I reread it around eight years later and the parts that blew my mind in college seemed trite and cliche at that point, but then I identified with some of the bits that I didn't identify with upon first reading. So it has worked for me on multiple levels and at multiple points in my life, but has weirdly never 100% worked for me as a whole.
Regardless, I have pretty much everything Sandman-related that was written by Neil Gaiman (the three exceptions: the two Desire and one Death story from Vertigo: Winter's Edge, which as far as I know have never been collected anywhere and I can't find in single issues), so when he announced all those years ago that he'd be doing a prequel series with JH Williams III, my favorite modern comic book artist, how could I not get it? At the very least, my inner completist would rage.
I got Sandman: Overture upon its release as an oversized hardcover book, and here are some thoughts I had while reading it.
1) The Endless' parents are Night and Time, proving that Neil Gaiman can make stuff up as he goes along. There's this perception that Sandman is this incredibly elaborately planned, and sure, most of the time it can come off that way. In Overture, we meet Glory of the First Circle, an organization that was hinted at way back in Book 7, Brief Lives.
But we also meet Night and Time, the Endless' parents, even if it's said in the original series that the Endless don't have parents.
So yeah, in a serial, sometimes, a writer can change his mind. How to reconcile the two contradictory elements is also part of the fun of serial fiction. Where this may just be seen as a plot hole, it becomes a potential theme for a future story.
2) Maybe JH Williams III needs a writer to bring out his full capability. I've loved JH Williams III since Promethea, and I will always look back at that series as the turning point of his career, when he really cut loose with the design sense and then switched two his preferred style of working: two-page spreads. Since then, it's hard to argue that he hasn't had the best resume of writers he's collaborated with, at least to the casual fan: Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Greg Rucka.
When Williams took over the writing duties for Batwoman, I thought he'd plateaud as a sequential artist, because he seemed to be going back to the same old tricks. Nothing seemed new, in other words. But in Overture, Williams just came alive. Everything seemed new again. It reminded me of why I fell in love with his art in the first place.
One side note here. I bought Overture and The Multiversity within a week of each other, and both used a lot of double-page spreads. With The Multiversity, there were a lot of stuff in the middle of those spreads, which made it really annoying to read in a hardcover, because I had to stretch out the book just to be able to read it. Overture had none of that — Williams knew not to put anything important where the binding would go, and Todd Klein knew not to put words near the middle.
3) Is this the most climactic story Gaiman's ever written? Gaiman's been on record as saying that he consciously picks anticlimax most of the time, but Overture never felt anticlimactic, and more, it's got a twist near the end that I never saw coming (and, upon rereads, I should have seen coming). It's my favorite Sandman book next to The Wake, and certainly the one I love looking at the most.
4) Does Sandman count as a franchise? They've certainly done their best to make it a franchise. Gaiman wrote two Death spinoffs with Chris Bachalo on art and they were well-received. He also wrote the Endless Nights comic that had one story and one artist for each of the Endless. There have been a handful of spinoffs by different creative teams, but the only two that really lasted beyond a mini were The Dreaming, which focused on a rotating cast and didn't really have good reviews by the second half of it, and Lucifer, the most popular character in Sandman anyway that wasn't one of the Endless. And while I look forward to reading the new Lucifer series, I can't help but think that since the series was so definitively done, this new series is partly due to their desire to build upon a Sandman franchise and it just never really happening. I think that may be what happens when a single voice dominates it so much.
5) Leaving things open-ended may be seen by some as pretentious, but that's exactly what makes it franchise-worthy. Sandman itself leaves some questions open-ended, including the big question of "Whodunnit" when all is said and done. Sandman: Overture answers some of those questions, such as the origins and fate of Alianora, who was a side character we knew next to nothing about in A Game of You. But it also opens new questions, and it's this open-endedness that invites it to be explored by a variety of creators.
7) I love multiple versions of the same character. Love it.