Dreams are strange, funny little things. They are elusive. Upon waking, who doesn’t fumble to describe them, to try and write them down with clarity? Harder still, how does one begin to draw a dream, to capture the waning vapors with pen and pencil? That task, interpreting a dream, taming it to hold still for everyone to see it and to understand it, is the very thing J.H. Williams III has done with the first issue of “Sandman: Overture.”
With a script by Neil Gaiman, colors by Dave Stewart and letters by Todd Klein, Williams has weaved dream unto paper. His brush and pen transforming the pages into romantic scenes, scenes that are pages in Destiny’s Book or giant flowers that hold conversations or what a dream may look like for a man with a portcullis for a face. While following the tale of Morpheus, Williams’ illustrations emote different responses from the viewer; this is greatly in part to the varying styles and techniques Williams employs throughout the twenty-eight page issue.
Slightly less than a week since the first issue was released, CBR spoke with Williams to discuss the secrets behind the art. The acclaimed illustrator expounded on what it’s like to work with his collaborators and how he researches certain aspects of the story to best represent them on page, what it’s like to capture dreams to paper.
CBR News: Let’s start with your layouts in “Sandman: Overture,” the Corinthian’s eyes as panels, the portcullis layout, the pages in Destiny’s book. When you received the script from Neil, were these already suggestions, or were these nuances you built into the book? And which one were you most happy with?
JH Williams III: I’d say that the Corinthian layout you mention is really the teeth in eye-mouths are the panels. A lot of what you see is the same approach I’ve always taken with every writer, even myself as a writer. I look for the nuances of the scenes written, or the visual sparks that are sometimes very obvious, or sometimes between the lines of the writing, and then find ways to amplify the ideas, meanings, or symbolism inherent in the context or subtext of the written material.
As example, let’s talk about the George Portcullis scenes. Neil mentions briefly at the beginning of this sequence that it might be interesting to see actual old style illustration of the time, etchings. This lead me to think of etchings in more concrete terms for the look of some of the story. I researched etching illustration from that period to garner this visual effect of what George’s dream is like for him (and us, as the reader). What struck me as interesting is, to be true to this idea, the images needed to be black and white if we were to capture this etching effect accurately, and so we did that. But when Morpheus arrives in George’s dream, it begins to change into something else. Morpheus being present actually influences what George’s dream looks like. I’m not certain I can pick a favorite visual moment. My view of that changes with every turn of the page.
You switch styles throughout the book, don’t you? The most revealing example is when you and Neil give us all the different Sandmen at the very end, when the gatefold is opened and Morpheus faces the different iterations of himself. Can you talk about the different styles you used for this spread, and why you felt they were important?
Well, I don’t want to specifically name the style influences for this, because it’s more interesting to keep that to myself. But some of them are quite obvious — Jack Kirby or Picasso, for example.
The main reason to do this is because, here we are, being introduced to the Dream aspect of numerous worlds and realities, but much of them have the briefest of appearances. So the question becomes, what can be done visually that can immediately say something about their respective worlds, where they come from. That immediately brings my thinking to style manipulations. Rendering them so differently, influenced by various styles and techniques, allows the reader to make assumptions for themselves what these other worlds and realities might be like, sparking their imaginations and daydreams. The variance in style also allows you to view each with some difference in personality, without possibly ever hearing them speak. It also sets a different subliminal emotional tone in the reader for each of them when viewed. I’m eager to draw more of this for the next issue. There are a lot more versions of Dream present than shown in the gatefold.
Yeah, I see Kirby and Picasso, I see Toppi, and I think I see Gustav Klimt. You say you’re eager to develop some of the other Sandmen. I find them all charming, but I’m especially drawn to the robotic version, the dragon, the giant cat — it’s curious these are the ones that are given dialogue.
Yeah, those are in there, too. The Klimt version doesn’t get to speak here, but the weird blue and red energy version does. From what I understand of the story direction, there are many, many versions of Dream, so in issue #2 we’ll be seeing more than what was shown in issue #1. Some of what you see in issue #1 gets a reprisal, while we are also getting introduced to others, and some more peripherally in the background.
Reading the book, there seems to be a dance — maybe a waltz, or something more poetic — that’s happening between you, Neil, Dave and Todd. You’ve spoken about the collaboration between you and Neil, but there’s a level of involvement from everyone that’s incredibly endearing. How, then, do you communicate and collaborate with the other members of the creative team? This certainly isn’t your first time working with either Dave or Todd, so I’m curious how that dynamic works.
Well, for me, I’m unwilling to work with anyone else other than Todd Klein for lettering, or Dave Stewart for colors. The only way I will allow that happen, not working with them, is if they absolutely cannot do the work. So far I’ve been lucky in this regard. Not only are they the best at what they do, but they are long term relationships I hold dear that allow for close communication about the full final vision that the story itself requires. The results you see comes from this close relationship. The ability to communicate desires and ask questions while doing the work is key. Dave and I will always go over everything concretely. I provide key visual notes based on the needs of the story, and then we discuss, or I ask him questions of possible ideas I may be thinking about, or ideas he may have. I value Dave’s and Todd’s opinions greatly. I think all of us, together, feel like we are after the same thing, what is ultimately the best choice for the story itself.
If the collaboration is this tightly-knit, does that mean editorial is a little more hands-off than usual? Or is that not the case with this being such a high-profile property?
I talk with editor extraordinaire Shelly Bond quite often. At least, to check in, or share thoughts on the visual plans. But as for the story, I believe they have complete faith in Neil — as indeed they should. He has more than earned that trust in the way he wishes to tell the story. And Shelly trusts my relationship with Dave and Todd thoroughly, that it is our communication that results in final product.
How long does a page take you, and what do your notes look like when you’ve received a script from Neil? Do you receive notes from Todd or Dave at any time during the production phase?
I can do roughly 2 to 2 1/2 pages in a week, of fully inked and tonally rendered images, with washes, grey tones and sometimes full paint. When I get the script from Neil, there are no additional notes added. He states clearly in the descriptions within the script of what he wants, and I do my best to give him what he is after, as concretely as I can. If I have questions about something, I just ask. Dave and Todd don’t provide notes to me, I usually have notes for them. But if they have a question about anything that is being asked of them for the storytelling, then they either call or email. Pretty simple really.
Certainly more simple than I envisioned. Now, Neil’s teased that he’ll be doing some insane things in this story. Have you both talked about what’s to come? Have you started envisioning how you can lay out certain scenes?
We’ve had discussions of what is to come in very broad strokes, but nothing that allows me to think further ahead for layout concepts beyond what is on the written pages I have in hand. Which is fine; I don’t want to preconceive layout or visual progressions until I see an entire written chapter/issue, anyway. If I try to do that, it causes things to be forced and awkward. I need to see the complete written issue before being able to best know what needs to be done with it.
I think it was on the Vertigo website — leading up to the release of “Sandman: Overture” — and Neil’s former collaborators were asked something along the lines of what member of the Endless they were most like, the one they most associated with. What about you? Is there one you’re drawn to the most, and is this different than the one you associate with?
I’ve not really thought about that. Right now, I’d have to say pretty much all of them are relatable to me in one or another. I mean, if you look at each of the Endless, each of their personalities can be associated to any of us. We are all of those things at one time or another in our lives, correct? It all depends on what the current circumstances are that we are experiencing. I think it is that variance of personalities, those expressions, that are relatively collective human ones in a lot of ways. That allows us as readers to accept the Endless, even though they are also quite alien at the same time. They do represent and symbolize various aspects of humanity. I’d say the least relatable in my mind is Destiny. It’s hard to relate to a character that can view time, history and future, all at once, and also exists within and outside of that.