The Sandman Reader VI: A Game of You

“A Game of You” served as a quasi-follow-up to the earlier “The Doll’s House” storyline. Readers would note the use of Barbie from that storyline as a main protagonist in “A Game of You.” The general direction of the story involved a woman (Barbie) whose episodic dreams about a fantasy realm became increasingly intense. It bore some resemblance to the novel “Bones of the Moon” by Jonathan Carroll that was published in 1987. Gaiman apparently began to deviate from his storyline after realizing the similarities.


 

Sandman #32: “Slaughter on Fifth Avenue”
November 1991
Story Artist: Shawn McManus (penciller), Shawn McManus (inker)

“A Game of You” opened with readers being updated on Barbie’s life. She had moved from her shared home in Florida to an apartment in New York. She’d broken up with Ken and ceased having episodic dreams that placed her in a fantastic land.

That land was featured for readers at the beginning of issue #32 with a conversation amongst several creatures, notably the dog-like Martin Tenbones. The creatures worried about being hunted by the ‘Cuckoos,’ a group that had apparently become a threat after Barbie’s recent absence from the fantastic land. Tenbones assured the group that he would use something called the ‘porpentine’ to travel to New York City in search of Barbie.

Back in New York City, readers were introduced to the new characters in Barbie’s life. Her best friend appeared to be a neighbor named Wanda who wanted to take her on a shopping trip to the upscale jewelry store Tiffany & Co, despite neither having money to spend. Wanda was implied later in the story to have been transgender, seemingly having switched genders from being a male. Other alternative lifestyles were shown in Barbie’s world, including a lesbian couple living nearby her apartment.

One odd note regarding Barbie’s friends: Late in the story, Wanda referred to a comic book characters known as the ‘Wierdzos.’ That comic seemed to reflect the Bizarro reality in the Superman comics. Gaiman tried to use the Bizarro characters but they were on hiatus at the time after having been removed during the earlier DC Universe “Crisis on Infinite Earths” event.

Morpheus wasn’t entirely absent from the first issue of this storyline, as he briefly appeared with Matthew the Raven to discuss the likely negative consequences of something having traveled from one state of existence to another. One could presume that this was Martin Tenbones, who was soon spotted in New York.

Tenbones eventually encountered Barbie on the streets of Manhattan, but was killed soon after giving her the porpentine. While Barbie and Wanda returned to their apartments soon thereafter, something odd was clearly afoot. Barbie was confused and concerned that her earlier episodic fantasy dreams had apparently begun coming true.

Readers were handed a cliffhanger at the very end of the issue that involved Barbie’s introverted neighbor George. George ate a crow and suddenly appeared to be a nefarious creature. Unbeknownst to Barbie, the Cuckoo was after her.

 

Sandman #33: “Lullabies of Broadway”
December 1991
Story Artist: Shawn McManus (penciller), Shawn McManus (inker)

“Sandman” #33 opened with Hazel – one of Barbie’s lesbian neighbors – confessing to Barbie that she’d had sex with a male waiter and believed herself to be pregnant. Throughout the conversation, Hazel was portrayed as being very naive regarding her understanding of heterosexuality and becoming pregnant in general. Barbie revealed having had an abortion as a teen and advised Hazel to first take a pregnancy test.

After Hazel departed Barbie’s apartment, Barbie fell asleep. She first had a hallucination that involved a warning from Nuala, the Faerie ‘gift’ to Morpheus last seen at the end of “Season of the Mists,” and then Barbie experienced her first dream in some time. So far as it appeared, Barbie returned to the Land in that dream. By issue’s end, she would begin a journey to the ‘Brightly Shining Sea’ with the intention of stopping the Cuckoo.

Meanwhile, the night was equally eventful for the others in Barbie’s apartment building as the occupants all experienced unusual dreams. The events that they dreamed about seemed to be somewhat affected by George. He continued to be creepy, slicing open his chest such that several Cuckoo birds flew out from it.

Wanda had a dream in which a cuckoo bird ended up perched on her shoulder. In that dream, she interacted with the Weirdzos from the comic books mentioned in the prior issue. The Weidzos captured Wanda and forced her to have gender reassignment surgery.

Hazel returned to the apartment that she shared with her lover Foxglove. After both went to bed, they had very different dreams while cuckoo birds also appeared perched on their shoulders.

Hazel dreamed about a baby that had been dead for seventy years. In the dream, Foxglove also had a baby and that baby was eaten by the dead baby. The dead baby then seemed to come for Hazel and Foxglove.

Foxglove’s dream focused on a visitation by a dead former lover named Judy. Readers would recognize Judy from “Sandman” #6, where she died at the hands of John Dee in the diner massacre. The reunion was uncomfortable due to Judy apparently having abused Foxglove. Although Hazel seemed to treat Foxglove better than Judy (give or take the cheating that Foxglove didn’t yet know about), readers were left with the impression that Foxglove still had stronger feelings for Judy. Note that Foxglove’s real name was Donna Cavanagh, but she used her new name after Judy’s death.

Thessaly was the only person to actually be awakened by the cuckoo bird landing on her shoulder. She used her mind to set it on fire, an action that readers learned seemed to somehow harm George. Thessally then went on the offensive by going to George’s apartment, secretly holding a knife behind her back as he answered the door.

The issue ended having set up a number of cliffhangers to an interesting series of storylines. Morpheus might not have directly appeared, but most of the issue’s storylines happened to take place within dreams.

 

Sandman #34: “Bad Moon Rising”
January 1992
Story Artist: Colleen Doran (penciller), George Pratt, Dick Giordano (inker)

Thessaly really took center stage in issue #34, providing a very unfunny view of the madness that was occurring in the apartment building where the main characters in this arc all lived. She came knocking on the door to Hazel and Foxglove’s apartment soon after both had awoken from their bad dreams. The trio then went to round up Wanda, who had also had a nightmare of her own. Thessaly convinced Wanda to use a spare key to enter Barbie’s apartment and the group found Barbie in a trance-like state while holding the porpentine that she’d obtained from Martin Tenbones.

Despite everyone being creeped out by Thessaly’s behavior, the group next followed her up to George’s apartment. They brought the still-unconscious Barbie with them. In a first sign of trouble, George’s apartment had a poster of Barbie displayed on the wall, confirming to everyone that George was the creep that they had suspected.

Of course, no one wished George dead and the other girls were horrified to confirm that Thessaly had killed him. In a state of shock, the girls insisted that police be called but Thessaly explained George’s involvement in the recent weird events with their dreams and the cuckoo birds. Thessaly then silenced everyone by literally slicing George’s face off of his corpse and successfully commanded the loose facial skin to speak. Shockingly, upon doing so George admitting that he was working for the Cuckoo to monitor Barbie and manipulate the girls into destroying the porpentine.

With the threat to Barbie made clear, the women agreed to help Thessaly save Barbie’s life. Wanda was told to stay behind to guard over Barbie’s body while the rest of the women travelled to The Land. Oddly enough, they did so via Thessaly using Foxglove’s menstruation blood to command the moon to help them make the journey. In the process, Morpheus was mentioned and a certain tension from Thessaly toward him was revealed.

A few revelations in small ways occurred in this issue: Hazel noticed that Wanda was actually a man, prompting a throwaway retort from Wanda. Hazel had her pregnancy casually revealed by Thessaly, leaving Foxglove shocked and in no position to discuss the topic further.

Note that the face removal performed on George was apparently related to an ancient Greek practice performed by witches of that era. Thessaly’s name was a reference to witchcraft in that same time and place.

The art in issue #34 was by Colleen Doran, seemingly filling in for the arc’s regular artist Shawn McManus. Some controversy behind the scenes involved the inking being completed in only two days by inker George Pratt and that rushed timeline led to less-than-spectacular results. Pratt himself later blamed Doran’s lateness with the pencil art for putting the entire creative team in a bind with their editor.

 

Sandman #35: “Beginning to See the Light”
March 1992
Story Artist: Shawn McManus (penciller), Shawn McManus (inker)

Readers finally experienced an extended trip to The Land in issue #35. Barbie was shown crossing a snowy wasteland with her party when they are forced to hide from a group of the Cuckoo’s black guard. After the threat passed, the group came across the corpse of a man named Tantoblin whom Barbie recalled as having helped her in the past. He had been trying to provide Barbie’s party with information regarding the Cuckoos’ plans when he died.

As previously stated, Morpheus had largely been absent from this entire arc but Gaiman did briefly check in with him and Nuala in this issue. Nuala had been tasked with monitoring Barbie, as briefly seen in the prior issue. Against Morpheus’s instructions, she had warned Barbie of danger in her dreams. Unexpectedly though, Morpheus did not object to her acting against orders.

Back in the Land, Barbie and her party entered a forest filled with living trees called Tweeners. Those might remind readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s living tree Ents. Barbie’s monkey companion Prinado was killed by the Tweeners but the porpenine was able to lead the party out of the forest.

The group left the forest to find themselves along the coast of an ocean. Barbie’s companion Luz went ahead to seek aid from a nearby village while other companion Wilkinson stayed with Barbie and advised her about travelling to the Island of Thorns. Wilkinson was convinced that the porpentine would then reveal a way to save The Land.

That plan was put on hold when Luz returned with Black Guard in tow. It appeared that Barbie had been betrayed. Wilkinson tried to defend Barbie but was killed. Barbie was then led under capture to the nearby village and told that the Cuckoo was waiting for her. The odd twist was that the Cuckoo’s residence inside the village was identical in appearance to Barbie’s girlhood home in Florida.

The most obvious parallels during this issue’s extended trip into The Land were Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Hobbit” and also “The Wizard of Oz.” The aesthetics seemed to favor Tolkien, but the setup involving a woman with three companions amid a dark land was reminiscent of “The Wizard of Oz.”

 

Sandman #36: “Over the Sea to Sky”
April 1992
Story Artist: Shawn McManus (penciller), Bryan Talbot (inker)

As soon as Barbie entered the home at the beginning of the over-sized issue #36, pieces regarding the identity of the Cuckoo fell into place. The Cuckoo turned out to be a small blonde girl purported to be an aspect of Barbie who lived in The Land. Contrary to what one might initially suspect, the Cuckoo was not the result of any sort of abuse that Barbie had encountered as a child. Rather, she was related to the girlhood fantasy of becoming a princess. The companions that Barbie had in The Land all related to stuffed animals from her girlhood, curiously enough including a rat.

The Cuckoo displayed certain powers of suggestion, putting Barbie into a trance as she spoke. In doing so, she was able to have Barbie be willingly escorted to the Isle of Thorns.

Soon thereafter, readers caught up with Thessaly, Foxglove, and Hazel on their own journey through The Land. They essentially retraced the final part of Barbie’s path and revived Wilkinson long enough to learn that Barbie had been taken to the village.

En route the village, the sub-plot involving Hazel’s pregnancy was wrapped up within a few panels. After confirming that Hazel was indeed pregnant, Foxglove reconciled Hazel’s cheating and agreed to raise the child with Hazel.

Back on Earth, Thessaly’s tinkering with the position of the Earth’s moon caused further global weather issues. In particular, a hurricane appeared poised to strike New York. Amid that hurricane’s approach, Wanda went outside George’s apartment to save an older black woman who had happened to encounter Martin Tenbones in the storyline’s first issue. The woman was brought back up to George’s apartment.

The story in The Land came to a climax with the Cuckoo leading Barbie to a monolith called the Heirogram on the Isle of Thorns. The Cuckoo’s plan to use Barbie to destroy both the Heirogram and the porpentine was interrupted with the arrival of Thessaly, Foxglove, and Hazel. In a con to conceal the identity of the Cuckoo, Luz claimed to Thessaly that he was the Cuckoo and she killed him. The real Cuckoo then used her voice powers to gain control over the minds of the new arrivals.

Evil appeared to win, as the Cuckoo had Barbie smash the porpentine into the hierogram and both objects were destroyed. The Cuckoo celebrated, believing that by destroying the objects that she had put into motion the means of gaining her own freedom from The Land.

Morpheus finally entered the situation at this point. The Land was apparently a long-established place for dreams and found himself with a situation to sort out. Perhaps the most epic in the storyline occurred as Morpheus ‘uncreated’ The Land. All of Barbie’s deceased companions as well as other characters populating The Land paraded together into the blackness inside Morpheus’ cloak.

This scene has been referred to by many as analogous to how C.S. Lewis ended his “Chronicles of Narnia” series. Unlike in that case though, everyone leaving The Land seemed to be heading to the next location together – wherever that might be.

As much as the events in The Land began to be set up as a happy ending for Barbie and those who came for her, that assessment was not true for those in the situation back in New York. The storm bearing down on New York caused the building with Wanda, Barbie’s body, George’s corpse, and the old woman to collapse.

At the beginning of issue #36, Barbie (unaware of the building collapse at home) requested that Morpheus have her and her friends returned safely from The Land. The Cuckoo’s mind control scheme had been ended and she was essentially freed after it was said that she would no longer harm Barbie. Barbie’s friends were also freed from the Cuckoo’s mind control.

Thessaly and Morpheus were shown to have had history of some sort, but no details were yet provided. It was clear that Thessaly wasn’t intimidated by Morpheus though, making her unusual amongst most of the characters who had encountered him. Gaiman apparently polled fans in the primitive online world of the day regarding their interest in seeing more of Thessaly and she would go on to play arole in the overall story of the series.

 

Sandman #37: “I Woke Up and One of Us was Crying”
May 1992
Story Artist: Shawn McManus (penciller), Bryan Talbot (inker)

The cliffhanger involving the New York storyline was finally resolved in issue #37 with Barbie travelling to Kansas after having returned to the ‘real world’ with her friends. The reason for the trip to Kansas was to attend Wanda’s funeral, as she had died in the issue #35 building collapse. Via lunch at a diner with Wanda’s aunt, Barbie and readers learned about the scorn for Wanda’s transgender lifestyle held by her family. Wanda was known as Alvin to them and would be buried as such.

Gaiman used this sequence in Kansas to include a string of harassing incidents aimed at Barbie. These ranged from other patrons in the diner making lewd remarks to her to Barbie being largely shunned at Wanda’s funeral.

In the end, Barbie would get a certain revenge on them all. She had a quiet moment at Wanda’s grave in which she used lipstick to deface the grave’s headstone, putting Wanda’s name in place of Alvin.

On a side note, Gaiman included a flashback in the issue involving Barbie purchasing a faux silver age comic for Wanda at a stereotypical comic book store of that era. The portrayal was probably not very far from the mark and served as a brutal indictment of the ‘fanboy’ culture that can still be easily found in comic book fandom.

Typing up certain loose ends, readers learned that the old woman had shielded Barbie’s body during the apartment building collapse. Foxglove had gone to live with Hazel’s mother while Thessaly had seemingly disappeared.

Wanda’s happy ending largely came at the very conclusion of issue #37, with Barbie having a vision of Death leading away an idealized version of Wanda. In this representation, Wanda was the beautiful woman that she had always wanted to become and appeared happy in death.


 

Despite not featuring Morpheus outside of what might be considered cameo appearance, “A Game of You” was arguably Gaiman’s strongest story arc in the series thus far. Its focus on character interactions and its semi-familiar fantasy elements made it the most relatable than the more-abstract arcs that focused on Morpheus or his immediate mythology. By focusing instead on Barbie and the other cast of characters, Gaiman gave readers people in human situations to whom they could more directly relate.

One curious observation would be how the unusual types of characters in the cast and the uncommon-for-the-time use of LGBTQ characters were central to this high-profile title’s storyline. Even twenty years after these comics debuted, the core characters presented inside this arc would be rare to see grouped together in a modern comic book story. The story’s epilogue issue was a searing indictment of those who would go so far as to try to whitewash those people living alternative lifestyles.

By the end of the storyline, most every character had seemingly grown by completing arcs in which they emerged ‘new.’ Barbie certainly had changed and would dream normal dreams again. Foxglove and Hazel would start a family together. Wanda would seemingly find peace in death.

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