The fifth collection of The Sandman uses Barbie to play with identity

The fifth collection of The Sandman uses Barbie to play with identity

Back Issues is a feature discussing comics series one collection at a time, in the hopes that A.V. Club regulars will read along with us and participate in a group discussion of each major arc. This week: The Sandman trade paperback #5, A Game Of You, covering issues #32-#37.

Plot synopsis: After the seismic events of Season Of Mists, Morpheus takes a back seat as the story catches up with Barbie, one of Rose Walker’s housemates from The Doll’s House. In an isolated skerry of the Dreaming, a war rages between the evil Cuckoo and Barbie’s talking-animal friends, who haven’t seen their blonde-haired heroine since the dream vortex nearly destroyed the universe. In its efforts to escape confinement in the Dreaming, the Cuckoo attacks Barbie’s current neighbors, including lesbian couple Foxglove and Hazel, pre-op transsexual Wanda, and Thessaly, a very old, very powerful witch. As Barbie reunites with her old allies, Thessaly takes Foxglove and Hazel into the Dreaming, using magic that causes devastating weather to hit New York City. The Cuckoo, who has assumed the form of Barbie as a child, captures Barbie and has her destroy the two magical symbols of The Land, which summons Dream to destroy this section of his domain. With the end of the Land, the Cuckoo is able to fly free, and Barbie is granted one last boon, which she uses to have her friends and herself transported safely back home, where Wanda has died in the storm. The story ends with Barbie traveling to Wanda’s funeral, where Wanda’s bigoted parents have put his original name, “Alvin,” on his tombstone. Barbie crosses it out and writes “Wanda” over it in lipstick before heading off into the unknown. 

Oliver: In The Sandman, Gaiman alternates between “male” and “female” stories. The former put a heavier focus on power and mythology, while the latter emphasize family and identity. (It’s fitting that the Desire-fueled The Doll’s House straddles both genders.) Of all the female stories, A Game Of You just might be the most feminine, with a central cast composed of four women (including a lesbian couple) and a female impersonator. Throw in Barbie as the main character, a princess fantasy, and a pregnancy subplot, and this volume is just bursting with estrogen. It’s also worth noting that there were three short-story issues published between Season Of Mists and A Game Of You, and all three are male stories looking at kings, empires, and revolutions (collected in the next volume, Fables & Reflections). 

There’s a power struggle at the center of A Game Of You, but it’s an internal conflict within Barbie, a perfect character to explore identity through. And Gaiman isn’t being subtle about it either; our initial look at the new Barbie shows her with a black-and-white checkerboard pattern drawn on her face. A chessboard on her face, a game of you. After revealing the flaws underneath the surface perfection of Barbie and Ken in The Doll’s House, Gaiman returns to Barbie and all the cultural baggage attached to her name to tell a story about childhood fantasies and how they keep people from forming adult identities. Or at least that’s what I take from it. Being a lady, do think that’s a fair reading of this story, Tasha? And how do you think Barbie’s housemates fit into that? 

Tasha: Heh. You calling me a lady just gives me a geek flashback to the original Star Trek episode “The Naked Time,” where Sulu calls Uhura “fair maiden” and she shoots back “Sorry, neither.” My knee-jerk response to being called a lady is to reject it, because I don’t self-identify with that word on any level: To me, it’s either an impersonal identifier that means “some woman way older than me” (e.g. “Hey, lady, you forgot your purse!”) or a rather silly medieval ideal that probably involves a lot of sitting by a window waiting for a knight to show up and pine over me.

I mention all this solely because it’s germane here, in terms of how people self-identify and self-label. I think you’re on the right track regarding what A Game Of You is about, but you aren’t taking it far enough: I don’t think it’s just about how childhood fantasies get in the way of adult identities, it’s about how any identities we choose for ourselves—our dream-images of ourselves—can be counterproductive where they conflict with reality. Hazel’s image of herself as a butch lesbian is so subsuming that she has no idea how to adapt to herself as a mother-to-be. Foxglove’s new identity can’t erase her past; when dead Judy from Preludes & Nocturnes shows up to haunt her, Foxglove says her former identity, Donna, is dead as well, but that doesn’t prevent Judy from holding her past choices against her. Thessaly’s self-image is of someone capable and impermeable, and she can’t stand the thought of someone getting away with attacking her. Which leads her to make arrogant choices and major mistakes, like thoughtlessly calling down the moon and getting Wanda and Maisie killed, brushing off Morpheus’ gentle advice, and murdering the mind-controlled Luz without actually confirming that Luz is the Cuckoo.

As to Barbie, she’s lost her self-image, and she’s trying to find a new one, but she doesn’t wear any of the ones she finds in this book particularly well. Yes, that checkerboard she paints on her face early on is significant, but so is the fact that it almost instantly smears into sad tatters. Yet, for me, the book’s big open question is Wanda, who says she’s a woman, penis or no, but who’s repeatedly denied her chosen identity: by her parents, by Thessaly, by Thessaly’s apparently judgmental magic, even by her kind-hearted housemates. (“Wanda? You’ve got a thingie,” Hazel says upon seeing her in panties. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that’s it’s not polite to draw attention to a lady’s shortcomings?” Wanda shoots back.) When it comes to Wanda, A Game Of You actually acts as an old-fashioned punishment drama, treating her as though she wants something that’s wrong for her to have, repeatedly putting her in her place, then killing her.

There are a lot of issues to unpack in all of this, but let’s start with the big one: What do you think about all these “chosen identities are false, misleading identities” messages? And how do you square them with a book that’s otherwise so focused on the enduring power of stories, fictions, and dreams?

Oliver: I don’t know if I agree that A Game Of You is a punishment drama for Wanda. Yes, she’s denied her identity by those around her, but she also denies it to herself. In life, she’s too afraid to go through with surgery, but in death, she’s able to finally be the woman she always wanted to be. I never got the impression that the story was treating Wanda as if her desire to be a woman was wrong, or that she was constantly getting put in her place. Granted, that could just be my personal feelings clouding my reading. I first read A Game Of You when I was in the closet, and I immediately associated with Wanda. I’ve never had a desire to be a woman, but I do love drag queens, and Wanda’s family situation is very close to my own. The Sandman was one of my first introductions to gay culture, and I’ve always admired the way Gaiman created characters who challenged stereotypes and seemed like real people. 

To answer your earlier question: A Game Of You folds into the larger themes of Sandman because stories, fictions, and dreams are what shape the identities these characters choose. The Cuckoo breaks it down really well when she explains the differences between boy and girl fantasies: 

“Little boys have fantasies in which they’re faster, or smarter, or able to fly. Where they hide their faces in secret identities, and listen to the people who despise them admiring their remarkable deeds… Now, little girls, on the other hand, have different fantasies. Much less convoluted. Their parents are not their parents. Their lives are not their lives. They are princesses. Lost princesses from distant lands. And one day the king and queen, their real parents, will take them back to their land, and then they’ll be happy for ever and ever. Little cuckoos.”

Boys have superhero fantasies and girls have princess fantasies, as we see in Wanda and Barbie’s stories. In spite of Wanda’s insistence of her femininity, the glimpse we get into her dreams reveals the exact type of boyish fantasy that the Cuckoo outlines. In her dream, Wanda’s schoolmates tell her how envious they are of her, and then the Weirdzos show up to transform her into something else. Meanwhile, when Barbie dreams, she returns to the fantasy world that she’s populated with toys from her childhood. 

It might just be Shawn McManus’ art, but I can’t help but notice a Disney influence in Barbie’s dreams, which lends itself well to the princess plot. Stories shape Wanda and Barbie’s fantasies (whether it’s Wanda’s Hyperman comics or Barbie’s books of ghosts and witches) and those childhood fictions end up shaping their adult identities.

I’d like to delve further into the character of Thessaly, who will play a larger role in Sandman down the line. I love the way Gaiman reveals that she is far more than she seems with the sequence of her destroying the cuckoo bird, and she provides that ancient Greek connection that Gaiman likes so much. Thessaly is a character whose fantasies we never see, and it’s very possible that she doesn’t even dream. What do you think her inclusion brings to the story? And why do you think Gaiman keeps her at a distance while the reader gets to know the rest of the characters intimately? 

Tasha: Before we get into that, can we just take a moment to acknowledge that it’s weird to have Wanda and the Cuckoo referring to Hyperman, Weirdzo, and The Amazing Spider—who are unequivocally Superman, Bizarre, and Spider-Man, right down to the visuals when we see the Weirdzos—in a book that takes place in the DC Universe and features actual DC characters under their own names? I see why Gaiman tackles it this way here, since the Cuckoo is specifically talking about boys’ fantasies and fictions, whereas in the world Barbie comes from, Superman and Bizarro are real people. (Spider-Man is across the aisle in the Marvel universe. And how funny would it have been if the Cuckoo had only referenced Marvel characters, and under their real names, implying that the DC Universe is the real one, and Marvel’s is hacky fantasy? But I digress.)



What does Thessaly bring to this story? Well, apart from setting up quite a bit of misery to come in later Sandman books—and two spin-off miniseries, Thessaliad and Thessaly: Witch For Hire, both scripted by Fables creator/writer Bill Willingham, and neither all that great, to my mind—she’s an interesting bridge between Gaiman’s stated two kinds of stories. To quote you above, his male stories focus on power and mythology, and his female stories emphasize family and identity. But Thessaly is a woman out of Greek myth, and she’s all about power—having it, taking pride in it, using it directly and without concern for the consequences, and letting everyone know she has it, so they’d better not mess with her. We learn nothing about her family, except that she’s the last of her kind, and she doesn’t seem to have any questions about her identity. All of which makes her a sharp contrast to our protagonist Barbie, a softer, more uncertain, and far more nurturing type. More on that in a second.

The Fates show up over and over throughout Sandman, in many guises—in Game Of You, it’s as the moon, “three-face woman,” who obeys Thessaly’s peremptory orders, but makes a dire prediction about her future fate. Morpheus also implies another version of them when he calls Foxglove and Hazel “little maiden” and “little mother”—which makes Thessaly the crone. Typically, in that triad, the crone is the wise woman, the occultist who’s moved past the mystic powers of virginity and of childbirth, so her strength and significance comes from mysteries and accumulated knowledge. All of which pretty well sums up Thessaly.

But in a more practical way, she’s the motive power of this story, thanks to her ability to resist and destroy George’s bird-sendings, kill and interrogate George, and take Hazel and Foxglove to Barbie (inadvertently saving their lives in the process, since they aren’t in the building when it collapses). Note how she drops out of the story the instant Barbie gets back to the real world, because the story doesn’t need her anymore. Barbie even shrugs off the question of what happened to her. 

And on a more fangirl-y level, man, is she ever a badass. She’s the only human in this story who isn’t regularly at a loss. She balks at nothing to get what she wants, she brooks no insult from anyone, and she only cares about herself. Man, that moment when Wanda says they need to help Barbie, and Thessaly seems politely baffled: 

Which gives her another narrative function: She’s a strong counter to our hapless protagonist Barbie, who spends this whole story as a victim, a foil, a captive, or a tool. Even the cops and the diner patrons in Wanda’s hometown and her local Comic Book Guy belittle and harass her. She can’t save Martin Tenbones, she doesn’t voluntarily choose to go rescue the Land, and once there, she wanders around and watches her friends die one by one until she falls for the Cuckoo’s voice and turns into a spell component. The only really significant thing she does in this story is make a wish that Morpheus fulfills. Am I just imagining things, or is she the most helpless protagonist in this series? What do you think we get out of her weakness and confusion throughout this story, and do you see her as significantly stronger or having learned anything useful once the story ends? 

Oliver: I definitely don’t think you’re imagining things, and despite Barbie being the focal point of A Game Of You, she’s more of a pawn than anything else (fitting with the earlier chessboard imagery). That said, the thing that is making Barbie so helpless is an aspect of herself, something she created so she could escape a world that doesn’t understand her. She creates a fantasy that ultimately victimizes her, which I feel is a pretty good description of the adolescent experience for most people. 

During this most recent reading, I really began to see the Cuckoo as a symbol for adolescence, representative of the childhood dreams people latch onto during an uncertain time of transition. Barbie’s weakness and confusion help land that point. Barbie’s family didn’t understand her obsession with the fantastic and imaginary, leaving her vulnerable to the Cuckoo, who took on a safe form Barbie could defend herself with. It’s something a lot of young people go through, but after a certain point, the Cuckoo flies away to lay its eggs in new minds, giving its previous host the opportunity to find the true identity that has been hidden behind a fantasy for so long. Unfortunately for Barbie, her encounter with dream vortex Rose Walker bound the Cuckoo to the skerry, preventing her from making that transition.

Digging further into the idea that the Cuckoo is a defense mechanism for people whose families don’t agree with their lifestyle choices, a connection begins to form between the Cuckoo and Wanda. In both RuPaul’s Drag Race and Drag U, it’s constantly emphasized that drag personas are a way to find self-confidence and power by stepping into another identity. Drag is a mask that becomes an essential part of the man even when he’s not wearing it; it’s almost like a healthier version of what the Cuckoo does in the dreams of its hosts. Alvin turns his fantasy identity into reality through Wanda, confidently playing his “game of you” while Barbie is played by hers. 

Although Barbie is still pretty damaged at the end of the story, she does make some significant forward strides once the Cuckoo has been dispelled from her mind. On her way to Wanda’s funeral, Barbie paints her face once more, repeating the checkered pattern, but rather than a chessboard on half her face, it’s a full veil. It’s a nice visual callback that also suggests a blank slate for Barbie, and her experience at Wanda’s funeral makes her realize she needs to take time to find her true self. In terms of the big lesson Barbie learns, the quote from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland that prefaces the collection is immensely helpful. It’s a piece of dialogue between the Caterpillar and Alice, with Alice talking about how queer it must feel to make the transition from a caterpillar into a butterfly: 

“All I know is, it would feel very queer to me.” 

“You!” said the Caterpillar contemptuously. “Who are you?”

Beyond the modern connotation for queer and how that applies to Wanda’s transition from caterpillar to butterfly in death, that conversation between Alice and the Caterpillar sheds light on Barbie’s struggle throughout this story. Alice and Barbie both have a fear of metamorphosis that stems from them not fully understanding themselves, especially once they’re pulled out of their regular lives and immersed in a world of fantasy. Once the Cuckoo is purged from Barbie’s mind, she’s able to begin her journey to self-realization, but it’s Wanda’s funeral that truly shows Barbie how important identities are, created or not. She barely recognizes the man that is buried, so she crosses out the “Alvin” on his tombstone and scrawls “Wanda” above it with Tacky Flamingo lipstick. In that moment, Barbie’s fear of transformation disappears, and her story ends with her heading out into the world with no plans, eager to see where life takes her now that she’s unburdened by her juvenile fantasies. 

I’d like to move on to something we haven’t discussed much yet, and that’s the artwork in A Game Of You. Gaiman picks his artists to fit the story, and the cartoon influence in McManus’ art makes him a perfect choice for a plot that spends a lot of time in youthful dreams. (McManus also draws one of my favorite interpretations of Morpheus, particularly that iconic shot of Morpheus holding the skerry in his hand, now turned into a pile of dust.)

How do you think the artwork works to emphasize the themes of A Game Of You? Do you notice any particularly striking differences between the work of male artists McManus and Bryan Talbot compared to the art of Colleen Doran in #34?  

Tasha: Ooh, Colleen Doran would hate to see you referring to “her” art in issue #34. She did the pencils, but George Pratt did the awful inks; according to Doran in Hanging Out With The Dream King: Interviews With Neil Gaiman And His Collaborators, a friend of his told Doran he said her art was lousy, and he did a two-day rush job on the book, and then left on vacation, leaving the last few pages undone. She says she threatened to break his fingers, and that he runs whenever he sees her, and that the book hurt her reputation so badly that for years, she carried her original pencils around in her portfolio, so when people brought it up, she could show them what it was supposed to look like. In fact, DC let her redo the art for #34 for the Ultimate Sandman collection. I haven’t seen the final product, but I’ve seen Doran’s other work, and I’m just assuming it’s miles better. Compare her work on her creator-owned comic A Distant Soil with some of Pratt’s butchery:

Given that, I don’t think there’s much to be said about male-vs.-female art in this book, or the comparison between McManus’ candy-floss fantasy-world art (he handled penciling and inking for most of these issues, with assists from Talbot on penciling and Stan Woch on inking on #35) and issue #34’s tremendously ugly look at the real world. In theory, Doran’s rococo fantasy art should have been a great match for their work; her people have always looked like Barbie dolls to me, in the same way Barbie does here in the other issues—huge, tousled hair, exaggeratedly rounded rosy-hued faces and body, a little glazey around the eyes. I do like A Game Of You’s overall approach to The Land, with the slightly overripe visuals and colors, the wild character design, and the gothic lettering The Land’s inhabitants use when they talk. It all suggests something that isn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously—a past-its-prime child’s fantasy rather than an adult one. Which makes the graphic violence, particularly with Wilkinson, even more shocking.

But I want to circle back around and take you to task a little on Wanda. You keep referring to her as a drag queen as though that’s her primary identity, but I see far more emphasis in the story on the fact that she’s trans, and unhappy in her body, which is an entirely separate thing. And while you said above that you don’t see the story as denying or punishing her for that, that’s most of what I see in her character arc—right down to the panel at the beginning of this column, where Barbie casually dismisses Wanda as “tacky.” Again and again, Wanda says she’s a woman, and again and again, she’s flatly told no, she isn’t either. This scathing essay by a trans blogger who originally closely identified with Wanda, but later started to question some of the book’s messages, analyzes it all in vastly more detail than we can get into here. While I don’t agree with everything the writer says, that piece does get to the specific line-by-line ways the story undercuts and demeans Wanda, focusing on her insecurities and failures, and rewarding her only in death.

Of everything in the Sandman series, Wanda’s story arc bothers me most. In particular, the “beautiful in death” thing has always struck me as cold comfort for someone so frustrated in life, so helpless during this story, so arbitrarily killed by Thessaly’s thoughtlessness, and then so forcefully remade by those hateful parents. I don’t think Gaiman or even the storyline are deliberately trying to deny trans people their feelings about their own bodies, but I really don’t understand the point of Wanda here, beyond the angst and drama her life adds to the bevy of characters struggling with identity. 

But I’ll leave that open for the commenters to take up, since you’ve already said a lot about how you see Wanda. So I’ll close with three random thoughts on things we haven’t touched on yet in this book. 1) Morpheus’ role—he’s barely in this book, and more as functionary than as an individual. A Game Of You is such a colorful story that I don’t really miss him—it’s basically a acidic subversion of fairy tales, and that’s one of my all-time favorite subgenres—but when he does turn up, I wish his role in this story didn’t remind me so much of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, and Aslan similarly seeing all of Narnia’s inhabitants, dead and alive, off into whatever came next. That sequence is meant to be epic, but for me it feels like a rerun.

2) Hey readers: Do you wish Barbie had chosen differently? The book ends with her heading off on a voyage of self-discovery, but I often feel like a more satisfying choice would have been for her to wish for Morpheus to re-create The Land and restore her friends. They had such high hopes for her, and in the end, she rejected them all in favor of a world where she still doesn’t know who she is. Rejecting a dream in favor of the real world is a very adult decision, but here, it’s an awfully sad one, too.

3) No matter how many times I re-read this book, I’m always so happy when Nuala turns up again, and better yet, when Newly Sensitive To Trapped People Morpheus stops in his tracks and comes back to give her props for trying to warn Barbie. Nuala’s role in Season Of Mists was so sad and tragic, and it’s excellent to see her being given duties, and taking them seriously, and earning praise from her new boss, and reveling in it. At least someone in this book is enjoying their new identity.

Next week: Noah Cruickshank and Noel Murray return to male stories with the nine separate tales about power and mythmaking that compose Fables & Reflections.