Recurring Dream: The Sandman Vol. V — A Game of You

It’s the 20th anniversary of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking dark fantasy comic The Sandman, and Weird Tales correspondent Eric San Juan is revisiting the series book by book. (Day 5 of 10.)

Small breasts. A seemingly minor thing, yet in reality rather important. But more on that later.

A Game of You was not my favorite story arc when I first read Sandman, nor does it leap to the front of the pack here, re-reading it many years later. Oh, it’s a fine story, a kind of nightmarish fairy tale plucked from the things we leave behind in childhood and draped in the garb of a directionless adult who doesn’t know what she wants to be. But it doesn’t sing to me the way the vast majority of Neil Gaiman’s 2,000-page epic does.

Not that there isn’t a lot to like here. There is. A Game of You focuses on Barbie, the painfully plastic blonde from The Doll’s House. She left Ken and now lives in an apartment building populated by an assortment of semi-misfits. Sound familiar? Yes, we walked this ground a few story arcs ago — but the approach this time is much different. Further, to cement the idea that nothing exists in a vacuum in Sandman, some of these characters also have ties to Preludes and Nocturnes, specifically the young lady featured in the episode inside the diner. The references are fleeting and subtle — one of Gaiman’s great strengths is trusting the reader to put the pieces of his puzzles together — but they serve to connect this vast world of seemingly disjointed stories.

And playing with childhood toys in an adult, often sinister way? Sure, it’s been done before. Yet few have managed to make it seem so perfectly sensible.

Barbie is worth discussing for a moment. By the end we come to realize that it’s Wanda, not Barbie, who is the central figure of A Game of You’s thematic core: that of identity. Wanda is a transgender character, a pre-op born male and living as a woman, and her struggles with who she is serve to underpin everything the story is about. But Barbie is more interesting to me — not just because we discover that she’s more than the one-note gag we see in The Doll’s House, but because what we find is a woman without any real sense of who she is or what she wants. The way she paints her face; the way those masks are barriers between her and the world, a kind of very extroverted security blanket scrawled onto a very introverted person. That’s really strong stuff.

So if this is the one arc that doesn’t speak to me on the same level as, say, Brief Lives, I beg your forgiveness. It’s not a matter of not recognizing its strengths, it’s simply one of taste. We spend six issues in this world when it feels like three or four would have better suited the story. Despite the rich thematic material around which she is built, we’re not nearly as invested in Barbie as we are in her neighbors (Wanda and Hazel especially), so our time with her seems overlong. Further, once the initial oddness of the fairy tale characters wears off — this by the end of the first issue — so, too, does their novelty. The story overstays its welcome.

That said, small breasts.

No, I’m not having a fit of Tourette’s. One of the most noteworthy achievements of Gaiman’s Sandman was crossing the gender line. Comic books are a medium that, in the United States, has been decidedly dominated by males. Over the years, the adolescent power fantasies of superhero comics all but bullied other genres out of the mix, leaving caped, muscle-bound men and empty-headed, big-breasted women to rule the roost. (Yes, the real history of American comics is more complex than that, especially the impact Seduction of the Innocent had on the popular medium, but for simplicity’s sake the point stands.) These days, the rise of manga, graphic novels, and concerted efforts by some publishers has meant growth in female readership — yet even with this in mind, the comics world remains a boy’s playground. And in 1989, when The Sandman first began publication? Forget about it. Women were nowhere to be seen.

But Sandman did a lot to chip away at the testosterone wall built between women and comics. Gaiman tapped into something important for readers: His women were not male fantasies. They weren’t models or hourglasses or one-dimensional stereotypes — which, by and large, had been pretty much the extent of female comic characters. I mean, let’s face it, most male comic book writers can’t write nuanced, believable characters of their own gender, much less the other.

So here comes Gaiman and his cast of female characters: real people with real depth and real character and real thoughts, feelings and emotion. They are painfully naive about sex and accidentally get pregnant and have foolish prejudices and neuroses. Of course, comics, being the visual (and historically shallow) medium they often are, draw our attention to how things look. Visual clues tell us a lot. Thus, the small breasts we see here. These women are sometimes chubby and frumpy, and sometimes thin and flat-chested, and sometimes awkward and unattractive, and yes, sometimes quite gorgeous. In other words, they’re women. Not alien species, not unobtainable trophies — just women. They’re people as varied and different as our friends and mothers and selves. Even better, none of these factors are special story elements shoved in our face with clumsy, show-off writing, they just … are.

It’s hard to overestimate how big a factor this was in Sandman’s wide appeal and longevity. My wife devoured it. Lots of wives and girlfriends devoured it. Sandman proved to many people that comics didn’t have to be adolescent power trips; that they could feature characters — female characters — as complex and real as those in any work of literature. We longtime comic readers may have suspected this all along, but the general public didn’t. For most, comics were disposable rubbish with the worst sort of one-dimensional characters, ESPECIALLY with regard to women. Sandman, along with some other notable works, kicked at those barriers. A Game of You is a good example of how and why.

No, it’s not my favorite story arc in the series, but when a series features material as strong as Season of Mists, Brief Lives and World’s End, that’s hardly an insult. And yeah, favorite or not, there’s obviously a broader message to take from this arc, and a pretty important one at that.

Eric San Juan is the coauthor of A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks With the Master of Suspense, forthcoming in April 2009 from Scarecrow Press. His Weird Tales debut was last year’s “Whispers of the Old Hag.”

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