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 #2, The Doll’s House, covering issues #9-16.
Plot synopsis: As Morpheus continues to fix the damage done to the Dreaming in his absence, Rose Walker meets her grandmother, Unity Kinkaid, who was impregnated as she slept during Dream’s imprisonment. Rose is a dream vortex, a person capable of breaking down the barriers of the Dreaming, so she threatens the existence of the universe. Rose searches for her missing child brother, Jed, as Morpheus tracks down four dreams that escaped his realm to live in the physical world, attracted to the vortex. Morpheus retrieves nightmares Brute and Glob from within Jed’s mind, destroying the fictional construct of deceased superhero Hector “Sandman” Hall in the process, and irreparably damaging the mind of Hector’s pregnant wife, Lyta. Morpheus’ most horrific creation, the Corinthian, is the guest of honor at a serial-killer convention Rose and her companion Gilbert inadvertently stumble upon, and the Prince of Dreams arrives just as Rose is about to be taken out by a sadistic sexual predator. After unmaking the Corinthian and restoring Fiddler’s Green (Gilbert’s true form), Morpheus prepares to destroy Rose. Then Unity appears in the Dreaming to announce that she was originally supposed to be the vortex, but the duty was passed through her bloodline. She sacrifices herself to save her granddaughter, and Rose returns to life with her mother and brother while Dream confronts his sibling Desire, who set these events in motion by impregnating Unity years ago. Also included are two stories from Dream’s past: The first reveals his doomed romance with the human Nada, last seen in hell in issue #4, and the second details his friendship with the immortal Hob.
Oliver: The groundwork has been set, and now it’s time for Sandman to flesh out relationships and start developing a long-term narrative. This second volume features the introduction of some of the title’s major players, including Dream’s younger sibling Desire, Rose Walker, and Lyta Hall. It’s also incredibly creepy, with depressing child abuse disguised as a cheerful superhero adventure, and a serial-killer convention with a nightmare guest of honor. There is so much to talk about in this collection, so let’s start at the beginning: the prologue “Tales In The Sand,” which details the romance between Morpheus and Nada, the woman who asked him to free her from hell in #4. Every generation, a young boy on the verge of adulthood is taken into the desert, where his grandfather asks him to find a mysterious object. The heart-shaped piece of glass recovered by the boy is all that remains of the majestic glass city that once stood where they now sit, and learning the story of that city’s destruction is part of the journey into manhood.
Nada is the beautiful queen of this crystal kingdom, who has no equal until a dark-haired stranger with flames on his robe and eyes as dark as night arrives. She instantly falls in love with the man and pursues him to his realm, where she learns his true identity: Kai’ckul of the Endless. But there are rules, and one of them is that mortals cannot love the Endless. Nada tries to flee her new lover, but Dream refuses to let go of the first mortal who ever loved him enough to seek him out. This is a younger, even more prideful version of our lead hero, one whose self-absorption leaves him vulnerable to the manipulation of his younger sibling Desire.
As the storyteller says, “Love is no part of the dreamworld. Love belongs to Desire, and Desire is always cruel.” Because of the lettering style, it’s unclear whether “desire” is capitalized, but it might as well be referring to the Endless incarnation, whose middle-child syndrome comes out in cataclysmic ways. There are set rules we learn throughout the course of Sandman that not even the Endless are allowed to break—love with mortals, killing kin—and when those rules are broken, the consequences are inescapable. Out of jealousy, spite, or maybe just boredom, Desire is constantly trying to get his/her older brother to break the rules, and because Dream thinks he’s above everything else, he can’t see Desire’s machinations clearly. Being captured has humbled Dream, so when Desire’s new plan comes into motion, Dream is much better prepared to handle it. The Nada story is a pretty drastic change from Preludes & Nocturnes; how do you feel about the shift in direction, Genevieve? Does this look into Dream’s past change the way you look at the character?
Genevieve: I can see how “Tales In The Sand” would be a drastic shift to someone reading Sandman issue by issue, month to month, especially following “The Sound Of Her Wings.” But in The Doll’s House, it’s very much positioned as a prologue, which allows for its sidestep away from the main storyline, and signals that its thematic significance is going to be more important than its narrative significance. (Though readers sharp enough to connect this Nada with the one previously seen in hell can assume it will have some of the latter as well.) There’s even a nice bit of visual foreshadowing, with the recurring image in “Tales In The Sand” of the elder holding out the blue glass heart to the youth. It’s a reverse image of the climactic moment in “Lost Hearts” when Rose hands Unity the red heart that marks the dream vortex—and the destruction it could have caused—as Desire’s work.
What we learn in the epilogue about Desire’s role in creating the dream vortex contextualizes “Tales In The Sand.” Detritus that’s all that’s left of Nada’s civilization, the blue glass in the shape of Desire’s sigil, marks the events in “Tales In The Sand” as ultimately her doing. (To simplify things, I’m going to refer to Desire as a female for the purposes of this storyline, though it’s deliberately ambiguous.) Even though she shows up only briefly, this is ultimately Desire’s story; if the Endless could be labeled as “good” or “bad”—which they aren’t—Desire would be the “big bad” of The Doll’s House, the unseen force manipulating the figurines of Nada, Unity, Rose, and even Dream.
As to your question of whether “Tales In The Sand” changed my view of Dream, I have to admit that on its own, all the issue did for me was reinforce his prideful nature and the sense that he’s a bit of a dick. But when paired with the epilogue in “Lost Hearts”—specifically Dream’s speech to Desire about how the Endless are the servants, the playthings, of humanity, not the other way around—it fills in a lot of nuance about the nature of the Endless, specifically how they’re affected by the actions and whims of mortals and each other. Throughout Preludes & Nocturnes, Dream maintained a sort of badass sovereignty, even when he was imprisoned or journeying through hell; we only get the slightest glimpse of his “humanity,” as it were, when he’s with Death. But in “Tales In The Sand,” and pretty much all of The Doll’s House, for that matter, he suddenly isn’t so autonomous. (Even in the midpoint breather “Men Of Good Fortune,” he’s strongly entwined with the human realm.) Even though he has the power to condemn Nada to hell for 10,000 years, he’s provoked into doing so because she exercises power over him, the power to refuse him. He can throw a tantrum and punish her and hide her away in hell, but ultimately, she isn’t his toy.
Another aspect of “Tales In The Sand” that only reveals its full significance after the fact: The story of a woman’s sacrifice and a man’s vengeance is being told to a man, by a man, who notes that the women have their own version of this story, in which things perhaps happened a little differently. The Doll’s House could be a required gender-studies text for all the issues it raises about gender roles and power; it’s no coincidence that the androgynous, omnisexual Desire is the keystone of this arc, nor that matriarchal bloodlines and female sacrifice play a huge role in the narrative that forms the meat of this story.
So let’s get to that meat. Oliver, what do you think of the introduction of Rose Walker, as well as the revelation that she’s the granddaughter of the sleep-struck Unity Kinkaid from Preludes & Nocturnes? And hey, I bet that sequence with her and the mother-maiden-crone trinity in the broom closet will have some sort of lasting significance, won’t it?
Oliver: I have two older sisters, so I’ve always connected with female characters, and Rose was the character who led me into a world of mature comics at a young age, much like how I attached to Kitty Pryde while reading “The Dark Phoenix Saga” in Uncanny X-Men. Rose is a different character from what we’ve been exposed to so far: someone completely out of her element, with no idea where to go next. Like the reader, Rose isn’t driving this car, she’s just along for the ride, and all the trouble is coming straight to her. The revelation that she’s the granddaughter of a character from the first issue just goes to show how important it is to pay attention to the details in this book, because you never know when a seemingly random detail like Unity giving birth will come back into play later. And you definitely want to be on full alert when the broom-closet trio appears, because the Furies only make themselves known when something major is about to go down.
The Fury I would really like to talk about is Lyta Hall, the central figure of #12, “Playing House,” an early example of retroactive continuity revealing the dark side of seemingly innocent superhero stories. Lyta is one of this series’ only lasting connections to the DC Universe, and it’s appropriate that a Greek character will eventually become one of the series’ most tragic characters. When we first see her, Lyta is living in the mind of Rose’s brother Jed, along with her husband Hector and their two servants, Brute and Glob. Toward the end of Infinity Inc., the superhero-team book Lyta starred in, it was revealed that the presumed-dead Hector had been saved by Brute and Glob and brought back to life as the Sandman. He marries Lyta and invites her and their unborn child to live in the dream dimension with him, where they remain until Dream appears and destroys their lives.
Originally created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby as sidekicks to the ’70s Garrett Sanford Sandman, escaped nightmares Brute and Glob become the manipulators in Gaiman’s hands, making their home in the mind of Rose’s brother so they can create a new Dream King. While Garrett and Hector weren’t able to handle the added mental stress, Jed’s relationship to the dream vortex makes him the ideal candidate for Brute and Glob’s experiment. Jed previously appeared in Simon and Kirby’s Sandman series, and his relationship with his aunt and uncle was abusive, but he was never locked in a basement where rats chewed on him in his sleep. Superheroes are escapism, and Gaiman makes the ’70s Sandman a specific escape for this tortured little boy. Through Brute and Glob’s efforts, Jed is able to escape to a Winsor McCay-like dreamland, complete with little numbers in the upper left corner of each panel to give it that extra Little Nemo feel.
Gaiman knows how to work the contrast between classic comic-book brightness and contemporary grittiness, whether it’s in the juxtaposition of Jed’s fantasies with reality, or the depiction of two different incarnations of the Sandman. Hector Hall is an idealized version of the Sandman, clad in bright primary colors with a smile permanently plastered to his face, while Morpheus is the dark, emotionless reality of the Dream King. Chris Bachalo does outstanding work emphasizing this distinction in his pencils, using heavy shadows to make the superhero bravado of Hector Hall stand out in this increasingly dark world. This issue is called “Playing House,” because Lyta has been living a fantasy that eventually has to come to an end. Dream banishes Brute and Glob to the darkness and returns Hector to the land of the dead, leaving the pregnant Lyta broken and alone. Morpheus feels no remorse, though, for the husband and home he takes from Lyta were only fantasies that were never hers to begin with. In fact, the one thing she has left belongs to him now. “The child you have carried so long in dreams,” Morpheus says. “That child is mine. Take good care of it. One day I will come for it.”
As someone who has much less experience with superhero history, do you have any trouble following the Brute and Glob storyline? And why do you think Gaiman would choose to follow up “Playing House” with “Men Of Good Fortune,” which introduces Dream’s immortal acquaintance Hob?
Genevieve: Your description of Rose made me realize something, Oliver: In this discussion, you are the Morpheus, the one who knows the deeper significance of everything and sees the big picture, while I’m the Rose, along for the ride and not sure what the hell is going on most of the time. (Also, you’re tall and pale, and I enjoy dyeing my hair.) As you say, I have little experience with superhero history, but I also have relatively little experience with Sandman. I’ve only read the series through Seasons Of Mist; I started reading when the re-colored trade paperbacks began rolling out in 2010, and sometime between the release of the fourth and fifth books, my attention lapsed. So while I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on what’s happening in these early books on my second time through, the long game is still fuzzy. For example, I wouldn’t know that Lyta Hall was Fury—or even who Fury is, or that she’s different from The Furies—if you hadn’t told me. (I still don’t really get it.) Same with Brute and Glob, whom I would have guessed were Gaiman’s original creations if you hadn’t informed me otherwise. Though the thing about Lyta carrying Dream’s child, and her insistence that he’ll take it from her over her dead body, is a pretty hefty dose of foreshadowing.
[pagebreak] Without these reference points, readers like me are left to consider The Doll’s House and the rest of Sandman as it unfolds. For example, when I read “Playing House,” I focused mostly on the parallels between Jed’s dream world and real world, specifically the connection between Clarice and Barnaby, his human jailers, and Brute and Glob. Clarice and Barnaby fit Morpheus’ description of Brute and Glob in “Moving In”—“brute strength and loose cunning”—and share a color scheme and generally nasty disposition with the rogue dreams. But beyond that, both pairs are using Jed as a pawn in part of a larger, illicit scheme: Clarice and Barnaby are using him to swindle the welfare system, while Brute and Glob are using him to create their own false kingdom. (I suppose this would also create a parallel between Rose and Morpheus as his liberators.) It’s a minor detail that I’m pretty sure won’t extend beyond these couple of issues, but it’s also the sort of structural, English-major-baiting detail that makes reading Sandman satisfying outside of the grand scope of the complete saga.
Speaking of structure, I have difficulty thinking of “Men Of Good Fortune” as anything other than an interlude. (The fact that it has a different art team from most of the rest of this arc makes it a visual interlude as well.) I can imagine Hob having further impact on the story down the road, but here, he seems to just be the driving force in a charming little stand-alone that serves as a much-needed respite between The Doll’s House’s two most emotionally exhausting installments. It also lays the foundation for Dream Country’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which I’m sure we’ll delve into next week.
While there are lots of fun literary and historical Easter eggs scattered throughout the issue, it’s mainly a story about the fickleness of fate, and more simply, it’s the story of two men talking. It sort of parallels “Tales In The Sand” in that way: two men having a conversation facilitated by the actions of a woman—Nada in the former, Death in the latter. But where “Tales In The Sand” sets up major events in the narrative, “Men Of Good Fortune” feels more isolated, serving mostly to strengthen Dream’s connection to the mortal realm by giving him a lasting connection to humanity. As Middle Ages Death tells Middle Ages Dream on the opening page, “It would be good for you to see them on their terms instead of yours.” What starts out as a lark for Dream ends up being a significant relationship, something he can’t bring himself to admit is a friendship until the issue’s final panel. (There’s Dream maturing again. It’s so cute when immortal personifications of universal forces grow up.)
“Men Of Good Fortune” is a strangely sentimental break from the seriously dark shit that surrounds it, both a breather and a held breath between the Corinthian cliffhanger at the end of “Playing House” and the events of “Collectors,” which so far rivals “24 Hours” for the title of “Sandman issue most likely to give Genevieve nightmares.” I guess there’s no more putting it off: It’s time to talk about the Cereal Convention, which kicks off with a deluge of murder-related puns and only gets more disturbing from there. Oliver, what do you make of the fact that The Corinthian was supposed to be Dream’s “masterpiece”? And how does this all fit in with the idea of the dream vortex?
Oliver: I’ve never made that connection between Brute and Glob and Barnaby and Clarice, probably because I’m always so focused on how Gaiman’s story relates to the mythology of these preexisting characters. We approach the story from two different viewpoints, and the revelations change accordingly. Sandman lends itself to different interpretations, and I think that’s why it’s become such a crossover success. It’s also why I’m glad we’re doing a roundtable discussion of this series, because I get to see how each person reads Gaiman’s story differently. I’m eager to see even more interpretations in the comments.
The Corinthian may not live up to Dream’s expectations, but he more than surpasses mine. He remains one of my favorite comic-book villains, still terrifying me years after I first saw him and his horrible toothed eye sockets, but my admiration of the character goes beyond the fear factor. There’s so much to love in “Collectors,” from the aforementioned murder puns that lighten the mood at the start to The Corinthian’s chilling speech at the end, which seamlessly switches from horror to political commentary. The entire idea of a serial-killer convention is brilliant, and I can’t help but notice the similarities between the men who gather at Rose’s hotel and the collectors that frequent comic-book conventions. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. “You know what’s so great about something like this?” one of the killers asks. “We’re all so different. United by our common interests.” Isn’t it great that we live in a society where we can gather with like-minded people and have a safe place to talk about whatever our obsessions may be? Whether it’s collecting comic books and baseball cards or chopping off body parts, there’s a community out there waiting to embrace you for who you are. Before the Internet, conventions were one of the only ways for fans from across the world to gather and discuss their hobbies, and Gaiman changes the usual convention environment to create a darkly comic situation where the dregs of humanity give educational lectures.
In the King James Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:12 contains the phrase, “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” and The Corinthian was created to be the darkness, and the fear of darkness, in every human heart. “A black mirror, made to reflect everything about itself that humanity will not confront,” Dream says as he prepares to unmake his creation. If The Corinthian has been walking the earth for approximately 40 years, that means he appeared shortly after World War II. Could the horrors of that war somehow have made mankind more susceptible to the nightmare’s influence? The ultimate irony is that Dream’s greatest nightmare has convinced itself that he’s the embodiment of the American dream, beginning his guest-of-honor speech by telling the crowd, “We are the American dreamers, driving down the holy road to true knowledge that’s paved with blood and gold.” He could easily be speaking to a group of politicians, outlining this country’s history of getting what it wants by spilling blood. The Corinthian has mouths for eyes because the vision of the American dream consumes, and he eats people’s eyes because the American dream blinds people. The guests of the convention have been deluded into thinking their actions are in the right, and when Morpheus comes to collect his lost nightmare, he takes away the rest of the killers’ fantasies to show them just how little they are without The Corinthian fueling them.
So how does that relate to the dream vortex? I’m not sure, but going with the heavy American imagery, I like to think of Rose as a melting pot. The Corinthian shows the dangers of an American dream built on aggression, pride, and greed, but Rose Walker breaking down the barriers of the dreaming is beyond dangerous; if she’s successful, it means the end of the universe in its current incarnation. The idea of a melting pot is scary because people are naturally afraid of the unknown, but through sacrifice, a functioning society can be born from that chaos. The death of one English woman might not equate to the entirety of the Revolutionary War, but Unity Kinkaid’s sacrifice allows the world to keep turning. Is that a bit too far-fetched?
You mentioned earlier that this is a great gender-studies text, which can’t be said about many comics. How do you see the individual dreams in #15 tying into that larger gender commentary, and is there anything that you’re surprised to see addressed in these pages?
Genevieve: I think the idea of Rose as a melting pot may be a little far-fetched, but I can’t say it’s unfounded, considering how loudly “Collectors” telegraphs its theme of the American dream. (It’s right there on the bloody-flag title page.) I don’t necessarily have a better interpretation, but I do have a suggestion that speaks to your question about gender. I don’t think it takes too much psychological gymnastics to assume that much of what motivates the serial killers at the convention is a deep-seated fear of female power and sexuality. Just look at the imposter Bogeyman’s reaction to discovering that the killer known as Dog Soup is a woman, or him trying to weasel his way into the legit killers’ good graces by saying he understands “Females are insects created for male pleasure. Strength. Energy. Lust.” Then there’s the hulking Fun Land, who’s so obsessed with the idea of women being “dirty” and “sluts” that he’s fixated on children, the only things “pure” enough for him to sully. (Gilbert’s telling of the Little Red Riding Hood tale blatantly mirrors this, with the wolf—which is also pictured on Fun Land’s T-shirt—demanding that Riding Hood strip herself bare before getting into bed with him.) Fun Land is strongly drawn to Rose, and I think the dream vortex might have something to do with that. There’s a deep well of power roiling inside her, but she doesn’t even know it; she’s an innocent capable of vast destruction, so Fun Land naturally feels the urge to subjugate her.
It’s noteworthy that Rose is on the cusp between childhood and adulthood in the real world, but within the dream vortex, she’s definitively and significantly womanly. In the two-page spread where she and Dream swirl inside the vortex, she isn’t merely nude, she’s voluptuous and defiantly female in a way she’s never been in the waking world, where her clothing and posture place her squarely in the realm of adolescence. Later, in “Lost Hearts,” there’s a striking panel where Rose tells Dream she’ll soon wake up and laugh about this whole “dream vortex” thing, while reclining with her legs casually spread wide open. There’s no ignoring Rose’s sexuality in this panel; it’s pointed right at us.
I don’t want it to seem like I’m saying Sandman is all about the all-consuming power of the vagina, because it’s really, really not. But there is a strong undercurrent of sexuality in these concluding issues—which culminate in the reappearance of Desire, the very embodiment of sexuality. Every single one of the individual dreams in “Into The Night” is related somehow to sexuality, power, and/or sexual and gender identity, and Rose is the crux of that. It isn’t specifically stated that Rose is a virgin, but the fact that she must sacrifice herself on the altar of the Dreaming, a realm where her latent sexuality is on full display, certainly seems to echo the idea of a virgin sacrifice. And then Unity shows up to throw a wrench in Dream’s plan, offering up a different sacrifice: herself.
Unity showing up in Fiddler’s Green with a vague explanation of why Rose doesn’t have to die admittedly seems a little convenient, but it fits with the idea of female sacrifice vs. martyrdom, which was established way back in “Tales In The Sand” with Nada’s suicide. (Once again, the appearance of the glass heart, which Unity breaks in order to destroy herself and therefore the vortex, links these stories.) Like Nada, Unity sacrifices herself; she is not sacrificed, as Dream is planning to do with Rose. Martyrdom isn’t an inherently female concept, but it’s interesting that the male Dream seems to have no idea what’s going on when Unity appears. He’s no longer the one in control of this story’s outcome; he is, as he tells Desire, one of the dolls of the living: “We do not manipulate them. If anything, they manipulate us.” He is powerful, but not omnipotent, and the power possessed by him and all of the Endless is inextricably intertwined with the actions and motivations of humanity.
Next week: Genevieve Koski and Noah Cruickshank consider the four independent stories that compose Dream Country, including the standout issue “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”