Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Game of You (Sandman and Related Topics)

Neil Gaiman has said that "A Game of You" may be his favorite Sandman arc "... because it's most people's least favourite volume, and I love it all the more for that."  It is certainly true, at least among Sandman readers to whom I've spoken, that "A Game of You" is the least well regarded segment of the series' seventy-five issue run.  Yet, upon re-reading it recently, I still find myself unable to fathom exactly why that is, as it remains perhaps my favorite Sandman tale.  Join me, won't you, as I examine some of the reasons I love this story, and try to work out why others may not.
The story centers on Barbie, first seen in "The Doll's House."  She is now divorced from her husband Ken and living on her own in New York City.  She used to dream herself as the Princess Barbara in a fantasy realm called simply The Land, which she has populated with characters based on the barely remembered stuffed toys of her childhood.  Since the apocalyptic events of that earlier story, however, she has not returned there.  Now, an agent of an entity called the Cuckoo seeks to bring Barbie back to The Land in order to complete her plan to destroy that realm so that she can be free of it.  In doing so, George, the Cuckoo's agent, causes the other residents of Barbie's apartment building to have nightmares.  One of those neighbors, Thessaly, who turns out to be a centuries old witch, recruits two more neighbors, lesbian lovers Hazel and Foxglove, to travel to the Dreaming to find Barbie and seek revenge on the Cuckoo.
Part of my affection for "A Game of You" may be due to the fact that it was my introduction to Sandman.  Shortly after I moved to Columbus, a friend lent me his copies of #'s 32-37 and I began buying the series for myself with #38.  Mostly though, the story stands on its own merits, which include one of Neil Gaiman's most imaginative stories, as well as the art of Shawn McManus, who illustrates the bulk of the story.  Not coincidentally, McManus also drew another of my favorite Sandman tales, "Three Septembers and a January," the story of Joshua Norton, the first and only Emporer of the United States of America.
Actually, in my sister's case, I know why she doesn't like this story, and that also has to do with the art of Shawn McManus.  Its because of Hazel's dream in Chapter Two, "Lullabies of Broadway."  While Sandman had long since transcended its roots in the horror genre to become what has been called a "dark fantasy", this sequence still contains the single most horrific image of the entire series.  After a drunken fling with a waiter at the restaurant where she works, Hazel has become pregnant.  Under the Cuckoo's influence, she dreams that she and Foxglove each have babies.  Fox's is a healthy baby boy, while Hazel's is the corpse of a baby seventy years dead.  Placed side by side in a crib, Hazel's zombie baby attacks and kills Foxglove's child. Part of what makes the image so disturbing is that McManus renders this scene of unspeakable horror in his trademark blend of realism and cartooniness.  Drawn by any other artist, that image just wouldn't have had the same power.  Unfortunately, that sequence, though it is, as I mentioned, atypical of Sandman, has caused my sister to dismiss the entire series out of hand, though I know that there are some stories, such as "Dream of A Thousand Cats", that she might really like.  Hell, she'd probably enjoy "A Game of You" if she could see beyond those couple of panels.
McManus perfectly captures all the various moods of the story, from the terror of the various characters' nightmares, to the beauty and wonder of Barbie's fantasy dreamworld, to the gritty, mundane reality of  real world New York City.   More than any other Sandman arc, "A Game of You" plays with the notion that just beneath the surface of what we think of as reality, there exists a rarely, barely glimpsed universe of magic and wonder.  McManus' art gets that point across beautifully.
Though praised in the letters columns at the  time, I have since read some criticism of Gaiman's portrayal of the transgendered character Wanda.  He especially gets critical heat for killing her off at story's end.  This may account for some of the lack of respect the story gets.  Perhaps another factor contributing to that lack of respect is that Morpheus himself is barely present in the story. He only takes an active role at the end, in what, when you think about it, is yet another Deus Ex Machina ending, to resolve the fine mess the story's real protagonists have  gotten themselves into. The lack of the series' titular star doesn't bother me so much when the characters who do get the spotlight are so engaging and interesting.  Barbie goes from a minor character in the earlier story "The Doll's House" to a strong, fascinating character more than capable of carrying a storyline by herself. The new characters introduced in the arc, especially Hazel and Wanda, are equally compelling.  We want to see more of their stories, and, in Hazel's case, we get to in the two Death mini-series.  Sadly, Wanda's story, as I note above, ends here.
As for "Deus Ex Machina" endings, I suppose that's to be expected in series where many of the major characters are, in fact, gods or god-like entities. 
Perhaps a portion of the disregard for the story comes from the fact that, from a continuity standpoint, this storyline isn't all that consequential.  It does, however, introduce Thessaly, who would eventually be revealed to be the lost love that Morpheus is moping over at the beginning of the next major story, "Brief Lives." Once again, for me, the charms of the story overwhelm such concerns.
In the end, I suppose, it really doesn't matter to me why others may not love this story as much as the rest of Sandman.  What matters ultimately is that I do will continue to.

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