15 August 2013

A Game of You

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 nightmares, several deaths and a talkative corpse. Just so you know.

The Cuckoo is killing the Land, and survivors huddle in hiding. The Princess is missing in another world and Martin Tenbones goes to her. In New York Barbie is woken by her neighbour Wanda. Also living in their building are: short, bespectacled Thessaly; butch-looking Hazel; Hazel's decisive girlfriend Foxglove; creepy George. On the subway Wanda and Barbie encounter an old beggar woman who's afraid of dogs. Over coffee Barbie and Wanda talk about dreams; we learn that Wanda was born Alvin and Barbie was in The Doll's House. After that weird night Barbie never dreamt again, though she'd previously dreamt about being a Princess. In the street a huge, hairy dog-creature races towards Barbie and is shot by police. Barbie recognises Martin Tenbones, the companion from her dreams, and as he dies he gives her a sparkly, pink pendant called the Porpentine. Wanda guides a traumatised Barbie home.
Barbie, somewhat recovered, is visited by Hazel. Hazel thinks she's pregnant after an unexpected one night stand. Hazel is confused about the whole thing. She's ignorant about pregnancy and sex with men, so Barbie candidly explains what men can be like and what her options are. Barbie tries to stay awake, as she fights sleep she is warned of approaching danger by Nuala, the fairy left in the Dreaming in Season of Mists. Barbie falls asleep and goes to the Land, where she meets Wilkinson (a rat with a raincoat). George cuts his chest open freeing nightmare-bringing birds that live inside him. Wanda dreams of comic book characters forcing her to have the gender-reassignment surgery she's afraid of. Hazel has a nightmare about a dead baby that eats a live one. The caption says that Foxglove doesn't dream, but she's visited by her dead ex-girlfriend Judy, who was killed in Preludes & Nocturnes. Thessaly catches a bad dream bird, kills it and goes to George's apartment with a knife. Meanwhile Wilkinson, Luz (a green dodo) and Prinado (a monkey with a fez) tell Barbie she must take the Porpentine to the Brightly Shining Sea in order to save the Land.
After being woken by their bad dreams Fox and Hazel are visited by Thessaly, who also wakes Wanda and warns that Barbie is in danger. Wanda lets them into Barbie's apartment, where they find her unconscious and wearing an eerily glowing pendant. Thessaly, alarmingly calm, sends them all up to George's apartment. She explains that George was behind the bad dreams, so she killed him. She traps the scared women in George's apartment while she cuts the face off his corpse and nails it to the wall. She summons George's spirit and interrogates him; he was working for the Cuckoo, who lives in Barbie's dream. Thessaly gets Hazel and Foxglove to help her call down the moon which lets them travel into Barbie's dream, while the freaked-out Wanda is left behind to guard Barbie's sleeping body.
In the Land Barbie and her companions traverse a snowy plain, and find the corpse of the messenger who carried information about baby cuckoos hatching in other birds' nests. Morpheus consults with Lucien about the death of a dream skerry, and Nuala admits that she warned Barbie. Morpheus says she did the right thing, which thrills Nuala. Barbie and her companions travel through a forest, and Barbie learns that she didn't create the Land, it is the place she goes to dream. Prinado is killed by sinister creatures, but Barbie, Wilkinson and Luz make it to the coast by following a safe path, one of Murphy's roads. Luz goes to the city to contact the Resistance. Wanda talks to George's bloody face and he tells her that she was left behind because she's biologically male. He also warns her that Thessaly pulling down the moon has caused dangerous changes to the weather. Luz returns with the Cuckoo's Black Guard, who kill Wilkinson and take Barbie to the Citadel of the Cuckoo, which looks like Barbie's childhood home.
The Cuckoo looks like Barbie as a little girl, and lives in her dreams. "It's a little like possession. Only I didn't bother with your body." Barbie's friends in the Land are based on her toys. The Cuckoo influences Barbie, who agrees that the Cuckoo can destroy her in order to fly away. Fox, Hazel and Thessaly walk the moon's road and arrive in Barbie's dream. Fox and Hazel talk about the pregnancy, Foxglove's angry and Hazel's ashamed, but Fox will stand by her. Meanwhile in New York, a storm is blowing and Wanda helps an old woman inside, she's the beggar from that morning. The Cuckoo drags Barbie to the Isle of Thorns, they are joined by Fox, Hazel and Thessaly. The Cuckoo tricks Thessaly into killing Luz, and then forces Barbie to destroy the Porpentine, signalling the end of the Land. In New York the necklace disappears from Barbie's neck, and a hurricane blows in. The destruction of the Land calls Morpheus (known as Murphy), he releases the Cuckoo's hold on the women and uncreates the Land. Barbie watches all the people of the Land walk happily into Morpheus's cloak. Morpheus expresses his displeasure with Foxglove, Hazel and especially Thessaly. In New York the storm gets worse and the apartment building falls down.

In the final issue Barbie remembers the end of her dream while applying make up in a public toilet. After ending the Land Morpheus must grant Barbie a boon. Barbie initially wants the Cuckoo killed because she's an evil killer, but Morpheus points out that Thessaly is a killer too. Barbie also asks if Morpheus could recreate the Land and her friends, which he can. Barbie tells the Cuckoo she can go and she flies away. While Barbie's thinking Morpheus advises Thessaly that she needs to be more careful. Barbie says she wants them all home safe and sound, otherwise Thessaly, Foxglove and Hazel would be stuck in the dream. Barbie is in a diner in Kansas, dressed in mourning clothes and meeting up with Wanda'a aunt, Dora. Barbie tells Dora about being pulled from the wreckage of the New York building and seeing Wanda in a body bag. Dora insists that her nephew is called Alvin and doesn't want Barbie upsetting his less-open-minded parents at the funeral. After the funeral Barbie says goodbye to Wanda and tries to explain her thoughts about the worlds that people -all people- have inside of them. Using Wanda's favourite shade of lipstick she crosses out Alvin and writes Wanda on the headstone. Barbie remembers dreaming about Wanda, looking wonderful, and another woman (Death) waving happily at her.

A Game of You was the second Sandman graphic novel I read, I read all the later collections in order on the advice of a friend. It's interesting that the first two that I read don't actually feature the Sandman very much. This is another feminine story, and it's about people's lives meeting the supernatural, rather than lives that are inextricably part of the supernatural. It's a fairly self-contained story arc, partly because so many characters die by the end. There are references to what came before, but you don't have to have read those to appreciate the story (I hadn't the first time). Dream mentions Rose Walker, a friend of Foxglove's ex who used to live in the same house as Barbie. Morpheus says that the Cuckoo was unable to leave Barbie dreams after the night that Rose became the dream vortex. It seems a shame that Rose never met this version of Barbie, I think they might have gotten along. We also see the ghost/dream of Judy, killed in the diner Preludes and Nocturnes, as Foxglove's abusive ex. Judy is a far more sinister presence here, I suspect it's less because she's a ghost and has more to do with Foxglove/Donna's complicated feelings for her. 

Names and identity are deeply important in A Game of You. Whatever the game is, it seems that who a person is and what they are called is both how you play and possibly what you win. Morpheus -who has already been called by at least 6 other names in the series so far- is called Murphy by the the inhabitants of the Land. They swear and exclaim by him, which makes sense as he is effectively their god.
In The Doll's House Barbie's identity was as one of a pair, Barbie and Ken. Now she experiments with face paint as a way of searching for identity, or perhaps of masking what she fears is her true, boring self. She is called Princess Barbara by her friends in the Land, as a sign of respect. When the Cuckoo talks to Barbie she holds up a blonde plastic doll and says "Here's you."  It's also worth noting that the New York hurricane scenes are accompanied by a late night radio broadcast, hosted by a DJ called Barbara Wong. One of the unrealistic things about works of fiction is that people rarely have the same names, and if they do there must be a reason for it. I have no idea what the reason is here, but I bet there is one.
Foxglove used to be Donna Cavanagh, but there's a sense that she changed her name to reinvent herself and get away from a bad time of her life. We never see what Foxglove looked like when she was with Judy, but I wouldn't be surprised if she changed her look too.
Thessaly is revealed to be a millennia-old witch, probably with some kind of Ancient Greek origin - based on her name (Thessaly is a part of Greece). She has probably gone through a lot of names in her time, but there's a sense that whatever she's called she doesn't change, even though various supernatural entities advise that she should. Rather than escaping her past, Thessaly proudly names herself for it. Her adherence to old ways gives her power, but it sounds as though she's on borrowed time.
Then there's Wanda, whose change in identity is one that her society has great difficulty with. Unfortunately society will lay the burden of those difficulties on the individual. Wanda is afraid of surgery (I believe this has more to do with fear of the procedure than any hesitancy about her own identity) and angered by anyone who suggests she's not a woman. When George tells Wanda that supernaturally she's still a man, she remains defiant. From what she says and what we see of Wanda's very conservative family (in which an aunt who'll bring herself to speak to a trans family member is open-minded) it seems that Wanda has had to cultivate defiance. Her death (like many of the deaths in the story) is a tragedy, all the more so because we learn that her corpse was forced back into an identity she had rejected in life. It's significant that Wanda's birth name was A. Mann. The glimmer of hope at the end tells us that in death Wanda finds something she was looking for, because Death accepts everyone on their own terms.

There were a few other thoughts I had.
1) Despite her power Thessaly is swiftly hypnotised by the Cuckoo and made to sit still and quiet with Hazel and Foxglove. This is the same as Thessaly trapping Wanda, Hazel and Foxglove in George's apartment to stop them from calling the police after she kills George, so maybe she deserves it.
2) Nuala is barely in the comic, yet I found her really endearing. I think it's the way she's so uncertain of herself and her role the in Dreaming, and is so thrilled when praised by Morpheus.
3) How long was Luz under the power of the Cuckoo? I change my mind on this each time I read. If she was a very good actress it could be the whole time (after all the Cuckoo wants Barbie brought to her). Or was it just at the end when she was caught in the town?
4) The Cuckoo is desperate to fly the nest of Barbie's dreamworld and soar into worlds beyond where she can lay her eggs. Her joyful enthusiasm is adorable (cuteness being her main weapon) and even Barbie is impressed by the beauty of the moment. In the final issue Barbie plans to travel, but has no destination mind, she has a vague idea to keep moving. This mirrors the Cuckoo, but is melancholy. The last we see of Barbie is a black-clad figure walking into a dirty, dull bus station with a caption that reads: "and that's all."

Morpheus's look is fairly static in this, probably because he's not in it much. However we do see the human characters drawn by different artists, which is interesting for seeing different art styles. You can see examples of this in the various pictures I've put in this post.

The black-gutters-for-one-issue thing is back. I never noticed it before. In this case its Chapter 3, when the women wake from their bad dreams and after Thessaly kills George. The Land and the Dreaming don't appear at all and the bulk of the action is set the apartment building. Again there's the oppressive, constrained environment, which fits with them being trapped in George's apartment. Plus the art by Colleen Doran is loose, which adds to the feeling of it being late at night and things seeming unreal.

Hazel - accidentally pregnant lesbian chef, projects a butch image that masks insecurity, reliant on Foxglove
Foxglove - writer, changed name after abusive relationship, has done some New Age witchy stuff
Thessaly - ancient-but-young-looking witch woman, proud, arrogant, confident with knives and corpses

There's a little bit of foreshadowing under the cut.

Next week: Fables and Reflections
Last Week: Season of Mists

I said earlier about this story being self-contained, so there's not much that specifically follows on.

Thessaly and Morpheus will have a relationship. I still find it hard to believe, possibly because we never saw it on page and her identity was hidden from the readers for a while. When the meet in A Game of You Thessaly is unimpressed by him and turns down the advice he offers. She seems scornful of Morpheus, but reading again it seems that the witch doth protest too much, especially when she comments on his looks. For his part its possible that Morpheus likes that she isn't impressed by him. Of course it doesn't end well, but at least Thessaly isn't actually harmed by her relationship with him, which is more than other women can say.  In fact (in an indirect way) the ending of their relationship is more harmful to him.
It's interesting that Morpheus tells Thessaly that she won't last much longer if she continues the way she has been. He doesn't tell her to change, he wouldn't, but he is able to identify unwillingness to change in others. Perhaps over time this is something that he comes to recognise in himself as well. After all it is the ending of their relationship that prompts the journey in Brief Lives.

Hazel and Foxglove don't appear in Sandman again, but they do appear in the two Death miniseries. In Death: the Time of your Life they play a supporting role. Then their relationship is the focus of Death: the High Cost of Living. I recommend both, especially the latter. Morpheus foreshadows these when he said they had "strange journeys" in their future, suggesting Gaiman knew he was going to do more with the characters.

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