By the time issue #32 rolls around, and the arc begins, we think we have a handle on the series. It’s about a mythological dream king and his somber attempts to reclaim his place in the universe, while giving Gaiman and his artistic collaborators a tapestry upon which to tell various tales in the gothic fantasy mode, with some overlap into the musty corners of superherodom. And while A Game of You fits into those parameters, ultimately, it also violates one of the major rules of serious, important comics of the serious, important Modern Age: it features a fairy tale princess and her anthropomorphic animal companions.
Neil Gaiman, what have you done to our dark, brooding, creepy, horrific, portentous comic book series?!?!
— Tim Callahan
And now for something completely different….
Neil Gaiman has said before that the stories in The Sandman alternate between male and female narratives. Preludes and Nocturnes and Season of Mists: male; relatively straightforward epic-style stories in which Morpheus solves difficult problems and saves the day. The Doll’s House and A Game of You: female; questions of agency and identity are central to the stories: Who is Rose Tyler? Who is Barbie? Who is she really?
Are you sure? And why does her dream life intrude so forcefully and violently into her waking world, to the point that her beloved Martin Tenbones journeys to Times Square with tragic consequences?
A Game of You is the least popular of all The Sandman installments, yet Gaiman considers it his favorite. When it was first published, a story in which Morpheus barely appears, in which half the action takes place in a Disney-on-acid world of talking animals and a villainous Cuckoo, a quest that features the most MacGuffiny MacGuffin ever, and stars one heroine in search of an identity, two lesbians, one trans-woman and a Bronze-age witch...well, let’s just say that the heroes of Comic Book Men, had they been filming in 1992, wouldn’t quite know what to make of it.
Neither do we, really—at least not superficially. In a testament to the power of dreams to affect reality, Barbie’s dream world, from which she’s been exiled for two years (ever since she was caught in Rose Tyler’s dream vortex) has come to need her so powerfully that it reaches out to her in two ways—Martin Tenbones’ quest to find his princess in New York, and the Cuckoo sending George (or rather, Gwas-y-gog, who possessed George) to destroy Barbie. The action alternates between Barbie’s convoluted quest, the rescue party captained by the witch Thessaly, and the ratcheting tension in New York, where Wanda protects a sleeping Barbie during the hurricane that Thessaly thoughtlessly brings down when she brings down the moon as her path into the Dreaming.
We first met Barbie in The Doll’s House, where she was half of the superficial duo Barbie and Ken (isn’t is just like Gaiman to take a stereotype and give her unexpected depth and resilience?) Barbie left Ken after getting a taste of his inner life, but doesn’t yet know who she is. She draws a new identity for herself every day, and the chessboard she paints on her face on the fatal morning is significant, because Barbie, in this story and despite her depth of character, is a pawn, arrested by her inability to let go of her childhood fantasies. When she finally reaches the Cuckoo’s nest, she finds her first home and all the imaginary friends of her childhood. The books on the nightstand include Lord of the Rings, The Magician’s Nephew, and The Wizard of Oz. These books shaped the fantasy world that Barbie constructed as a refuge from the terrors of her own adolescence. Gaiman says, “[I]t’s important to understand that those toys and books explain only why Barbie had the particular fantasy she did. She would’ve enjoyed some kind of amazing dream life even if she didn’t have any toys or books” (2, p. 122).
The Cuckoo tells Barbie (and this is likely Gaiman speaking through the character about the nature of masculine versus feminine narrative):
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….
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.
— (from Chapter Five: Over the Sea to Sky)
The Cuckoo (which isn’t Barbie but appears as an aspect of her) got caught in Barbie’s dream-land, an egg laid in someone else’s nest. When Barbie was caught in Rose’s dream vortex she lost her ability to dream, trapping the Cuckoo and keeping her from transforming into whatever form she’s meant to take. Arrested adolescence. She can’t grow up, she can’t move on.
This brings up an aspect of modern fantasy that really bugs me, so much that I’ll natter on about it at any opportunity, but I’ll try to restrain myself tonight and merely observe that in no other literary genre do writers establish their bona fides by trashing the conventions of the genre. I do not believe it was Gaiman’s intention to trivialize heroic fantasy, but the effect is there. If children cling to the fantasies that helped them navigate adolescence, he implies, they will not move into adult identities. The Cuckoo tells Barbie,
Your childhood was dull, quiet and boring. You had two dull parents, and a dull house. And an overactive imagination.
That worried your parents. You’d make up stories, seek out books of witches and ghosts—things that just weren’t true. They couldn’t understand where this fascination of yours for the fantastic came from and it scared them. So you began to defend yourself.
— Chapter 5, “Over the Sea to Sky”
As a child, taking refuge from “the real world,” Barbie invents, or rather discovers, the Land, since it was there long before she was born, and she adds to it pieces from her childhood—Prinado, Wilkinson, Luz and Martin Tenbones. What begins as a refuge becomes a trap, and keeps both the Cuckoo from flying and Barbie from growing up.
In what passes for “real life” in Gaiman’s universe, without dreaming, Barbie is herself trapped, adrift from meaning or purpose. The chessboard she draws on her face in the first episode is telling; although this particular story is not the subtle war of the chess master, Barbie is herself a pawn in the tale.
At the end, Barbie is done being a pawn, being at the mercy of her fantasy life, and ready to move into her own adult life….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.
— Oliver Sava
See what I mean about trashing the heroic fantasy? Question is: is this the reader’s response, or the author’s intention?
It seems odd that the central character in A Game of You would be passive, acted upon rather than acting in her own right. But although Barbie is the ground of the drama, she’s not the hero. That honor belongs to Wanda.
Wanda is the best friend you always wanted. Brave, selfless, optimistic, strong, irrepressible and funny—that’s Wanda.
I don’t know if she’s the first trans character in comics, and I don’t care. She’s the best early depiction of a trans-hero and someone we would all do well to emulate. More than anything else, more than anyone else, Wanda plays the Game of You extremely well: she knows who she is, and insists upon her identity in a world where her identity is almost universally denied her, while Barbie can’t even begin to play it.
Gaiman has been on the receiving end of a lot of negative response to Wanda. Some readers have been offended by lesbians and a trans-hero taking such prominent roles in The Sandman.
[W]hen chapter 1 was published, we received mail from lots of readers saying, ‘Who is this horrible, creepy Wanda character? How dare you put somebody like this into our nice comic?’ And I really enjoyed the fact that many of those same readers wrote back six issues later to say, ‘They cut off her hair!’ ‘They didn’t even let her be buried under her name!’ (2, p. 126)
Others see Wanda’s depiction itself as offensive. They point out that at every turn Wanda’s gender is rejected by the world, from Thessaly and the moon’s exclusion because they consider her “not a real woman,” (to which Wanda—and Gaiman—in chapter four respond “that’s something the gods can take and stuff up their sacred recta”) to her horrific Kansas family, a crew that was surely lapping up all the sanctimonious bullshit that James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell ever spewed (this was, after all, before Mike Huckabee became a national treasure). In this reading, Wanda’s story is a punishment narrative, and she dies because she insists on being who she is.
In a twist of “the stone that the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone”-motif, both Wanda and the homeless “I don’t like dogs” woman whom even Wanda rejected, gets a name—Maisie Hill—an identity, and a hero’s role. Sheltering in George’s apartment, Wanda tells Maisie that’s she’s pre-operative trans and Maisie understands, because her own grandchild Billy was also trans, and was murdered. Billy had a supportive and loving family, while Wanda’s mother called her “spawn of the devil.”
Maisie and Wanda, both rejected by the “real world” in this story of fantasies, save Barbie’s life by protecting her, and shielding her when the house collapses in the storm.
Barbie doesn’t know what happened in New York while her body slept there and she fell under the cuckoo’s spell in the Land; she doesn’t know what happened to George, or why Maisie and Wanda died, or why Foxglove and Hazel are avoiding her. What she does know is that she really misses Wanda. She travels by bus all the way to Kansas to attend the funeral. The most unpleasant family this side of Pentecostalism buries Alvin, making of him a cautionary example to others of the wages of sin, but Barbie knows better. Interestingly, the headstone is the color of the Hierogram in the Land, and the lipstick Barbie has brought—“tacky flamingo,” Wanda’s favorite shade—is the color of the Porpentine, transforming the grave into a Hierogram of its own. A hierogram, for readers disinclined to look it up in the dictionary, is sacred writing, an artifact containing a holy and often obscure word. It’s a moment of triumph over the forces of denial that Wanda has fought all her life when Barbie crosses out “Alvin” and writes over it “Wanda.”
At the grave, Barbie spills the theme of the story:
Everybody has a secret world inside of them.
I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world—no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside
Inside they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds…. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.
— Chapter 6: “I Woke Up and One of Us was Crying”
This respite from the main narrative cycle of The Sandman serves a double purpose—it asserts the primacy of identity (only we get to determine who we are) and the power of dreaming. Dreaming touches everything. It makes us who we are.
There is so much more to A Game of You that this just touches a few of the high points. We scarcely see Morpheus as a character, and yet the story is all about dreams. It introduces characters who will be important later, it continues the primary motivating forces of the Fates (both in the 3-faced moon goddess Thessaly calls down and in the women’s appearance in the Dreaming: Foxglove as “little maiden,” Hazel as “little mother” and Thessaly as the crone, the three faces of womanhood)—and they’re behind a lot of what’s going on—and it gracefully lets us say goodbye to Barbie, once the most superficial of characters, now free of the past and, although she doesn’t yet have a future, we don’t doubt that she will.
In a final note, despite the world’s rejection of Wanda as a woman and its relentless attempts to strip her of her dignity and agency, her best friend Barbie gets a final goodbye. In a narrative utterly filled with Wizard of Oz references, Wanda has come home and become herself. Barbie dreams it, so it must be real.
1. Neil Gaiman, A Game of You. NY: Vertigo, 1993. All quotations from the episodes are from this edition.
2. Hy Bender, The Sandman Companion. NY: Vertigo, 1999.
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