25 July 2013

The Doll's House

The Sandman graphic novels are intended for mature readers and though this post doesn't go into explicit detail there is discussion of events in the collection, including a serial killer convention. Just so you know.

After an introduction by Clive Barker the collection opens with an atmospheric recap of what has gone before. It invokes the feeling of coming late to a film or a play and describes (but does not directly name) Destiny reading the events of Preludes & Nocturnes from his book. This pre-prologue is where we first learn that Dream was "tried almost beyond endurance" at the time of his capture. In itself it's a good piece of writing, neatly recapping the first collection and providing snippets of other information. "Tools can be the subtlest of traps" is used to describe Dream's reliance on his ruby, it's a phrase that has stuck with me and seems profound and relevant, especially in the modern digital world.

Queen Nada
Neil Gaiman has said that the main story arcs in Sandman alternate between masculine and feminine. The Doll's House is mostly a feminine story, though masculine stories and viewpoints occur regularly throughout the collection.
The prologue issue, 'Tales in the Sand' (Part 0), tells the history of Queen Nada (last seen trapped by Hell). Her brief relationship with Kai'ckul (Dream), leads to the destruction of her great glass city, because mortals should not love the Endless. Cities occur regularly in the series, often in stories that are being told within the comic. This is a tribal story, ritualistically told in the desert when a boy becomes a man. It is the secret history of the first people, from whom the tribe are descended. It could be set in Africa, but location is never specified and one thing you learn as you read Sandman is that civilisations, histories and stories are not confined to humanity or Earth and that life has existed in some form for a very long time. It is made clear that this version of Nada's story is a tale told by the men of the tribe, the women tell a different version, which men never hear.

Two more Endless siblings are introduced; the twins Desire and Despair. Desire (who is not confined to a single gender) plots against older brother Dream and consults with Despair. This is the first time we see the realm of another Endless; Desire's realm has a citadel that is fashioned into an enormous likeness of Desire. We also get our first view of a gallery, which is how the Endless communicate with each other using sigils (symbols) that relate to each sibling.
Rose Walker
The main narrative of The Doll's House follows Rose Walker, a young American woman who arrives in England with her mother, Miranda, at the request of a mysterious and wealthy benefactor. The benefactor turns out to be Unity Kinkaid (struck down with sleepy sickness as a girl in 1916), who flew them to England to announce that she is Miranda's biological mother. Little old Unity -who still feels 17- discovered after waking that her baby had been conceived, born and discreetly adopted while she slept. After that bombshell Rose has a weird encounter with the Maiden, Mother and Crone, who cryptically warn her of what's coming from a broom cupboard.
Meanwhile Dream is restoring order to the his kingdom and his librarian Lucien conducts a census. This reveals that 4 powerful beings have gone missing from the Dreaming. There is also a dream vortex which, unbeknownst to her, is Rose Walker. Dream monitors Rose with the help of his raven Matthew, as the missing dreams will be drawn to her eventually.

Rose returns to the States to find the young brother she hasn't seen in 7 years. While searching she rents a room in a house in Florida, which is home to a set of interesting characters. Supportive landlord Hal performs as Dolly in a drag show. Ken and Barbie are "the Stepford yuppies", too normal and perky to be true. Zelda and Chantal the veiled women who collect spiders and whose precise relationship is a mystery. Gilbert a large and eccentric Englishman who takes a shine to Rose and accompanies her on her search. Houses have significance in the series, and many issues start with a picture of a building. There are a few examples of groups of people who live together forming loose communities, as happens here. Rose and Gilbert drive to Georgia to meet Jed, but have to check into a hotel after having car trouble.
Rose is shown to be fairly tough when she confronts potential attackers in a dark alleyway (though on this reread it occurs to me that she really should have run, it didn't look like her escape was blocked). This scene of violent crime avoided mirrors other scenes in the collection where we see things from murderous viewpoints. There is a very strong undercurrent of violence and death in The Doll's House, but we mostly see the run up or aftermath of violent acts. The actual murders happen offscreen, the power is in the suggestion not the portrayal.

A missing nightmare called The Corinthian roams America on a bloody killing spree, mostly involving young men and sharp knives. He is invited to a convention.

Jed, Rose's 12-year old brother, is kept in squalor by cruel relatives. Jed being punched in the gut is one of few on-page acts of violence. His only escape is in his dreams, where he plays with a married superhero couple in a colourful world. A pair of missing dreams are living in Jed's mind, they caught the ghost of Hector Hall in an attempt to create a new Sandman. Hector brought his pregnant wife Lyta with him, and they've been living in the dream dome for the last 2 years. Hector (who is pretty dumb) believes he's the Sandman and that he protects children everywhere from nightmares, something that greatly amuses Morpheus when they meet. Lyta seems to be in some kind of numb trance, it's suggested that such conditions are not good for the mental health of the living. When Dream discovers what has happened he punishes his wayward subjects, sends Hector's soul into death, and tells the furious Lyta that one day he will claim her baby. Jed is released from the clutches of his abusers, but isn't safe as he stumbles to the highway and hitches a ride.
Hob Gadling

"Men of Good Fortune" (Part 4) is an interlude from the main story arc to introduce Hob Gadling. Dream and Death -in period appropriate garb- visit a tavern in 1389, where they hear a soldier-for-hire claims that he won't die. Dream approaches Hob and offers to meet again on the same day in the same tavern in 100 years time. Hob and Dream meet once a century in the same tavern on the same date in '89. We see changing fashions, language, and pub design. Hob's fortunes rise and fall and his attitudes change. We also see how much remains the same, especially the things people talk about. In the first and last scenes there's a deliberate comparison between conversations in 1389 and 1989. This is a masculine story about a growing, but odd, friendship.

The Corinthian
Rose and Gilbert are told to stay in the hotel by the authorities because Jed is missing after an explosion killed his abusive guardians. The hotel is hosting a convention for cereal collectors, so Rose and Gilbert agree to stay in their rooms. The collectors turn out to be serial killers, and The Corinthian is last-minute guest of honour. The convention looks a lot like an SF convention, except terrifying, as we see glimpses into the private worlds of the murderous attendees. The writing and art mostly seem normal, just groups of people chatting in the bar or listening to panels. Though the conversations become increasingly open and disturbing, and there are panels and pages that show the collectors as they they see themselves, which are fairly grim. Gilbert recognises the Corinthian and gives Rose Morpheus's name, to call if she needs help. One of the convention volunteers tries to attack Rose, in direct violation of the convention's strict no collecting policy. Rose summons Morpheus, who saves her and then confronts the Corinthian during his murderer-empowering speech. Dream's disappointment with the Corinthian isn't that he's done terrible things, rather that he hasn't made enough of an impression on humanity: "You told them that there are bad people out there. And they've known that all along." Dream uncreates the Corinthian and sends his human followers into the night, less sure of themselves than they were when they arrived. Gilbert finds Jed unconscious in the Corinthian's car, and they take him to hospital.
The power of suggestion and description is what makes the Collectors effective, there aren't panels depicting them actually killing. This means that the scene of Rose being attacked is all the more shocking for being shown on page. The Women in Serial Killing panel is amusing as a parody of SF conventions. However if those panels were happening back in 1989 I don't understand why they're still needed now, nearly 25 years later. Females are the most populous gender, some of us are geeky, could we all move on please? Anyway... one positive in the comic is that though there's obviously much talk of violence in this issue, women aren't especially singled-out as the victims and only one troubled collector directly equates killing with sex. It's also interesting that the Corinthian, the main viewpoint serial killer, preys on boys and men. There's very few depictions of female victims, something we are bombarded by in other media.

Rose returns to the Florida house under a cloud. Jed is unconscious in hospital, Gilbert has disappeared, and from England Miranda reports that Unity is dying. When she finally sleeps, Rose senses the dreams of Ken, Barbie, Hal, Chantal and Zelda and somehow breaks down the walls so that they become one big dream. This is what it means to be a dream vortex and Rose senses dreams across the city and beyond. Morpheus stops Rose and takes her to the centre of the Dreaming. He explains that if left unchecked she could destroy the minds of everyone in the world, something that happened once before. It is Morpheus's responsibility to kill Rose, the only time he is allowed to kill a human. Gilbert visits Jed in hospital and meets Matthew the raven, who used to be a man but died and became a dream. Gilbert, the fourth missing dream, used to be a place called Fiddler's Green. When Gilbert learns that Rose is a vortex he returns to the Dreaming to offer his life instead. Morpheus cannot accept the offer and Gilbert becomes a verdant paradise again. Dream is about to kill Rose but is interrupted by a young woman who announces that Rose isn't going to die. It's Unity, the dream-version of her. Sleeping her way towards death Unity understands more than even Dream. She was meant to be the vortex 70 years before, but Dream's capture delayed the process and the vortex was inherited by Rose. As they're in the dream world Unity instructs Rose to give her her heart, making her the vortex again. Unity breaks the heart, killing herself before she dies naturally and saving not just Rose but the world. Unity turns out to be forthright and confident when she's not a frail old lady. She tells Morpheus that he's "obviously not very bright", which is pretty cool.
The action fast forwards six months, Rose has been hiding in her room in her family's big new house. She tries to figure out what happened and what that means for her grip on reality. She mentions that her friend Judy was killed in a diner about a year before, a reference to Preludes & Nocturnes. It's taken her a long time to get over what happened, but she's finally decided to stop dwelling on it. Meanwhile Dream visits Desire and discusses what happened. It turns out Desire was Miranda's biological father, and if Dream had killed Rose (his great-niece) he would have spilled family blood. The true depth's of Desire's plan aren't clear, though it hasn't worked. This short sequence shows the enmity between Dream and Desire.

The Doll's House was the 4th Sandman graphic novel I read. I'd already heard a little of Rose in A Game of You. I first read The Doll's House not long before I went to university. In one of those odd coincidences that feels like it has more meaning than it actually does, the same evening I read The Doll's House I also watched a BBC documentary about the disease encephalitis lethargica - also known a sleepy sickness. It was kinda weird to hear about it from 2 entirely separate sources in the same evening. I remember that the documentary said sleepy sickness sufferers tended to have sore throats before succumbing to the disease. I had a sore throat that evening, which seemed creepy at the time.

This collection features glass hearts being passed between two hands. This image is a recurring theme in the series. A heart-shaped piece of glass is passed between a young tribesman and his grandfather before and after hearing the story in 'Tales in the Sand', it is the remains of Nada's glass city. After the tale is told the tribesman tosses the heart back onto the desert sands. I noticed that the explosion of the city, caused by the Sun, creates a heart-shaped cloud. I'm certain that it's significant that the heart is Desire's sigil.

The next instance is in the final issue when Rose passes her heart (the thing which makes her the vortex) to her grandmother Unity. I'm very familiar with this image because my husband and I used it on the back of the Save the Date cards for our wedding (we wanted something geeky but also romantic looking). Unity takes the heart, and the significance that it is weighted with, and breaks it in half, killing herself, saving Rose and stopping the vortex. Seeing the images together I now notice that even the hand positions are the same.

There are two occasions in the collection when the you have to flip the book around in order to continue reading. This is an interesting thing that (almost?) never happens in prose books and is fairly rare in picture books, but which I enjoy in comics. It's an option available in a medium where words and pictures are used together and contribute equally to storytelling. I've seen it used interestingly in Alan Moore's Promethea and in The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross.
Soon after Rose arrives in England, she goes to sleep in the back of a car and you have to tilt the book 90 degrees clockwise as Rose slips into the dreaming. The book has to be held at that orientation for six pages, while Lucien conducts a census of the Dreaming. When Rose wakes up the book returns to standard orientation, signalling the end of her dream.
Towards the end of the story, when Rose first comes into her vortex powers there's a page where she destroys the walls between the dreams of everyone in the household. You have to turn the book to see all the dialogue. A section of that page appears at the top of this post.

In "Men of Good Fortune" we see the same two characters and the same location over 6 centuries. It is interesting to see the different fashions they go through, as well as the different ways Morpheus's ruby is included in his costume (until 1989 anyway).

We get more images of Kai'ckul, the version of Dream that Nada falls in love with.

The cloud faces return as Dream takes Rose to the heart of the Dreaming and explains what a vortex does.
  • Nada - Queen of the first people and lover of Kai'ckul, who saw her city destroyed because of love and was sentenced to Hell for rejecting her lover - briefly featured in Preludes & Nocturnes
  • Desire - Dream's sibling, described as "always cruel", Desire was behind Dream's tragic relationship with Nada, and various other plots
  • Despair - Desire's twin sister
  • Rose Walker - a young American woman with weird dreams and a confusing family history, she was a dream vortex for a time
  • Hippolyta 'Lyta' Hall - Pregnant for over two years while living in dreams with her dead superhero husband, defiant towards the "spooky bastard" who wants to claim her baby
  • Matthew - Dream's raven, acts as messenger and intelligence-gatherer for his boss, used to be a man but came to a bad end
  • The Corinthian - a disturbing nightmare designed to be the dark mirror to humanity, he likes to kill young men and eat their eyes, a disappointment to his creator
  • Gilbert/Fiddler's Green - a powerful place in the heart of the Dreaming who lived as a human for a time, seems to be the British writer GK Chesterton
  • Hob Gadling - 14th century soldier-for-hire who continues living through the 20th century, meets up with his mysterious friend once a century
  • Barbie - married to Ken ("isn't that a scream"), seems perfectly weirdly normal, but has vivid fantastical dreams that mean more to her than real life

Again the section on Foreshadowing is under the cut. This is a long post (I didn't realise I had so much to say until I started writing) but there isn't much more if you're reading on.
Comments welcome.

Last week: Preludes & Nocturnes 
Next week: Dream Country

The tale of Nada shows Dream's uncompromising attitude and will be important in Season of Mists. The fact that the Sun sees Dream and Nada together and destroys Nada's city for it has significance in a much later (and much, much earlier) story in the Endless Nights collection.
Desire plots against Dream, not just with Nada and Rose, as shown here, but throughout their history. Morpheus seems to have a lot of unsuccessful romantic relationships, and though none of them destroy him it's entirely possible Desire has an influence in his eventual fate.

Despair briefly mentions the prodigal, but there's no elaboration on who he is. At the end of the collection Desire references a lost brother who abandoned his realm. In Desire's gallery the central panel is blank, showing that there's an unmentioned middle Endless sibling who isn't around.

In "Men of Good Fortune" Dream is interested in aspiring playwright Will Shaxberd (William Shakespeare) and makes a deal with him. Hob asks whether Dream took his soul, but what happened was more complex than that and will be revealed in the World Fantasy Award-winning issue "The Midsummer's Night Dream".

Johanna Constantine is an enterprising woman who discovers the centennial meeting place of the Devil and the Wandering Jew (actually Morpheus and Hob) and seeks to capture them. She later undertakes a task for Morpheus, featured in Fables and Reflections, in which she's pretty kick-ass.
I assume she's meant to be an ancestor/relative of John Constantine. Hob mentions previously knowing a Jack Constantine who was similar and got involved in the supernatural. I don't know enough about Hellblazer to know if these are direct references or suggestions.

When Rose senses the dreams of those around her Barbie's dream is significant. Barbie's is the only dream that seems to be part of a larger continuity, whereas everyone else has dreams made up of their lives and viewpoints. In Barbie's dream she's a princess, with a big shaggy dog companion and a quest for a shiny macguffin to counter evil forces. Of course dreams often come with their own sense of logic/continuity (or mine do anyway), but it's clear that Barbie's dreams have their own story and mean a lot to her. Barbie will be the main character in A Game of You, where her dreams are of central importance.

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