The Sandman Reader VI: A Game of You

“A Game of You” served as a loose sequel to the earlier “The Doll’s House” storyline. Readers would recognize Barbie from that storyline as a main character 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, published in 1987. Gaiman deviated from his original storyline after realizing the similarities.

Sandman #32: “Slaughter on Fifth Avenue”

November 1991

Story Artist: Shawn McManus (penciler), Shawn McManus (inker)

“A Game of You” opened with readers getting updates on Barbie’s life. She had moved from her shared home in Florida to an apartment in New York. She had broken up with Ken and claimed to have ceased having dreams. Specifically, the kinds of episodic dreams that placed her in the fantastic realm known as The Land.

That last point tied directly into the opening of issue #32, which featured mysterious, rugged imagery narrated over with a conversation among various creatures. Notable among the voices was the dog-like Martin Tenbones. The creatures feared being hunted by the ‘Cuckoos,’ a group that posed a threat after Barbie’s recent absence from the fantastical land. Tenbones reassured the group that he would use an item called the ‘Porpentine’ to travel to New York City in search of Barbie.

In New York, readers met Barbie’s new friends. Her best friend seemed to be a neighbor named Wanda, who wanted to take her on a shopping trip to the upscale jewelry store Tiffany & Co, even though neither had money to spend. Later in the story, it was implied that Wanda was transgender, having switched genders from male to female.

One interesting note regarding Barbie’s friends: Late in the story, Wanda referred to comic book characters known as the ‘Weirdzos.’ That comic was an homage to the Bizarro reality in the Superman comics. Gaiman intended 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 was not absent from the first issue of this storyline; he briefly appeared with Matthew the Raven to discuss the negative consequences of something that had traveled from one state of existence to another. One could presume that this was Martin Tenbones, who was soon spotted in New York.

Eventually, Tenbones encountered Barbie on the streets of Manhattan but was killed soon after giving her the ‘Porpentine.’ Barbie and Wanda returned to their apartments soon thereafter and there was a feeling that something odd was afoot. Barbie was confused and concerned that her earlier episodic fantasy dreams had 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 live crow and it became clear that he was a nefarious creature in disguise. Unbeknownst to Barbie, the Cuckoo was after her.

Sandman #33: “Lullabies of Broadway”

December 1991

Story Artist: Shawn McManus (penciler), Shawn McManus (inker)

“Sandman” #33 opened with Hazel – one of Barbie’s lesbian neighbors – confessing to Barbie that she 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 pregnancy in general. Barbie revealed having had an abortion as a teen and advised Hazel to 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. As far as it appeared, Barbie returned to the Land in that dream. By the issue’s end, she would begin a journey to the ‘Brightly Shining Sea’ to stop 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 affected by George. He continued to be creepy, slicing open his chest so 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 previous issue. The Weirdzos 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 quite 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 having abused Foxglove. Although Hazel seemed to treat Foxglove better than Judy (give or take the cheating that Foxglove did not 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 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. Thessaly 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 up setting up some 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 (penciler), George Pratt, Dick Giordano (inker)

Thessaly took center stage in issue #34, offering a grim perspective on the madness in the apartment building where the main characters in this arc lived. She knocked on Hazel and Foxglove’s apartment door shortly after they awoke from their nightmares. The trio went to gather Wanda, who had also experienced a nightmare. Thessaly persuaded Wanda to use a spare key to enter Barbie’s apartment, where they found Barbie in a trance, holding the Porpentine she obtained from Martin Tenbones.

Despite everyone being creeped out by Thessaly’s behavior, the group followed her to George’s apartment. They brought the unconscious Barbie with them. As 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.

Naturally, no one wanted George dead, and the other girls were horrified to learn that Thessaly had killed him after the ending of issue #33. In shock, the girls insisted on calling the police, but Thessaly explained George’s role in the recent strange events involving their dreams and the cuckoo birds. Thessaly silenced everyone by literally slicing George’s face off his corpse and successfully commanded the loose facial skin to speak. Shockingly, George admitted that he was working for the Cuckoo to monitor Barbie and manipulate the girls into destroying the Porpentine.

With the threat to Barbie clear, the women agreed to help Thessaly save her. Wanda stayed behind to guard Barbie’s body while the other women traveled to The Land. Oddly enough, they did so by Thessaly using Foxglove’s menstrual blood to command the moon to help them on the journey. In the process, Morpheus was mentioned, revealing a certain tension from Thessaly toward him

A few small revelations occurred in this issue: Hazel noticed that Wanda was transgender, prompting a throwaway retort from Wanda. Hazel’s pregnancy was casually revealed by Thessaly, leaving Foxglove shocked and unable to discuss the topic further.

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

The art in issue #34 was by Colleen Doran, 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 resulted in less-than-spectacular outcomes. Pratt later blamed Doran’s delayed 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 (penciler), Shawn McManus (inker)

Readers finally embarked on an extended trip to The Land in issue #35. Barbie was shown crossing a snowy wasteland with her party when they were forced to hide from a group of the Cuckoo’s black guards. 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 briefly checked in with him and Nuala in this issue. Nuala had been tasked with monitoring Barbie, as briefly seen in the previous 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 living trees might remind readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents. Barbie’s monkey companion Prinado was killed by the Tweeners, but the Porpentine led 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 another 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 the Black Guard in tow. 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 with Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Hobbit” and “The Wizard of Oz.” The aesthetics favored 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 (penciler), Bryan Talbot (inker)

As soon as Barbie entered the home at the beginning of the oversized 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, the Cuckoo 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 willingly escorted to the Isle of Thorns.

Soon thereafter, readers caught up with Thessaly, Foxglove, and Hazel on their journey through The Land. They 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 to the village, the subplot 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 Hierogram on the Isle of Thorns. The Cuckoo’s plan to use Barbie to destroy both the Hierogram and the Porpentine was interrupted by 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 she had put into motion the means of gaining her freedom from The Land.

Morpheus finally entered the situation at this point. The Land was a long-established place for dreams and Morpheus found himself having to sort out its state in a short fashion. The most epic moment 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’s cloak.

This scene was 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 return safely from The Land. The Cuckoo’s mind control scheme had been ended and she was 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 a history of some sort, but no details were yet provided. It was clear that Thessaly was not intimidated by Morpheus though, making her unusual among most of the characters who had encountered him. Gaiman 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 a role in the overall story of the series.

Sandman #37: “I Woke Up and One of Us Was Crying”

May 1992

Story Artist: Shawn McManus (penciler), Bryan Talbot (inker)

The cliffhanger involving the New York storyline was finally resolved in issue #37 with Barbie traveling 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 incidents ranged from other patrons in the diner making lewd remarks to Barbie being 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 not 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 disappeared.

Wanda’s happy ending 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 a 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 more relatable than 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 in a modern comic book story. The story’s epilogue issue was a searing indictment of those who would go as far as to try to whitewash those people living alternative lifestyles.

By the end of the storyline, almost every character had 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 find peace in death.

D.S. Christensen
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