‘The Sandman: Overture’ Recreates Goth Culture With A New Take On Death

Artist J.H. Williams talks MTV News through his artistic process on the new comic book.

Writer Neil Gaiman created goth culture in 1989 when he introduced the Death character into his seminal comic-book series “The Sandman.” Or maybe goth culture created Death?

It’s a little confusing on the timeline, and we’ll get to why in a second. But which came first, the chicken or the Death isn’t as important as the fact that 25 years later, Death — and The Sandman himself — is making her comeback in a prequel series being released by Vertigo Comics on Wednesday (October 30).

The series, titled “The Sandman: Overture,” is again written by Gaiman, and drawn by critically acclaimed artist J.H. Williams III. In the book, Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, is drawn into an interstellar conflict and may cause the eventual doom of his brothers and sisters, The Endless, in the process. One of those siblings? The soft-spoken, generally cheerful Death, a far cry from the skeletal figure depicted in most media.

“I don’t know how much the artists early on in the series would think of this, but I always saw [Death as] being taken off of Siouxsie Sioux, from Siouxsie and the Banshees,” Williams told MTV News on the phone in anticipation of the books’ release. “In some ways, Death played off of that, and turned around and influenced goth culture, and the goth look for music. There’s kind of like this circle going on there.”

Williams may be an extremely well-respected artist in the comic industry, having worked on everything from “Batman,” to “Promethea” for Alan Moore, but taking on interpretations of some of the most beloved characters in comic-book history was no easy task.

For Death in particular, that meant the unique challenge of interpreting a character that influenced an entire culture, while setting her in 1915, before that culture even existed.

“That immediately gave her a different kind of quality than what people were used to seeing her as,” Williams said on the Victorian setting. “And I also wanted her to feel — I don’t know, there’s always been this gentleness to her personality in certain ways, and I think I wanted to capture that gentleness in her visage, as well as I could. I think that came out relatively successful. There’s this softness to her, but still a strong personality.”

Williams is particularly well-known for mixing art techniques in his work. In a lauded run on DC Comics’ “Batwoman,” he would switch coloring, ink, and even layouts between the main character’s superhero life and civilian identity, creating the feel of reading two different comics at the same time — and often on the same page. To tackle Death in “Sandman Overture” wasn’t the same stark contrast, but Williams did still apply different techniques for the character.

“I did all the artwork on her using washes, but done in a very deep application of darks and greys,” Williams noted. “On her skin, I used just a very fine wash, and kept everything delicate and white, so you get this extreme contrast on the darks and the pale of her skin … Most images of Death in the past, she’s had that vampire white quality. It was a challenge to make sure the character’s complexion looked like people remember, but still give a slight hue to her skin tone. What we did, we kept any sort of warmth to her skin only in the shadows, and it’s very, very subtle.”

The other side of the equation, beyond the pens, inks, and colors, is the auditory inspiration for the artist. And as Williams copped to, his choice of music while drawing Death — and the rest of the issue — was eclectic.

“I go back and forth between keeping it quiet and listening to music, but I did listen to a lot of music while doing this issue,” Williams said. “None of it is necessarily material appropriate. When I listen to music and do art, I tend to not gear the music towards whatever it is I’m working on, and instead listen to what I feel like listening to, whatever makes me happy at the moment. It went all the way from the new Nine Inch Nails album, to old ELO.”

“The Sandman: Overture #1″ is on comic book stands today from DC Comics. You can check out a gallery of Death through the years, as well as Williams’ take on her, to the left. His music playlist will be printed in the special edition of the book.

Writer/Editor at MTV News. You can follow him on Twitter, but not in real life because that would be weird.
@azalben