Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Volume 2: The Dollhouse – ****
Part One: Who the Fuck Are These People?
A recurring theme in this series is that of random point-of-view characters appearing for inexplicable reasons in extended storylines before being cast aside for new, equally random point-of-view characters. Despite having a clear protagonist, Dream only appears in about half of the chapters of the overall series, and several of the books practically feature him as a cameo appearance that comes in at the end like a literal deus ex machina to set everything better. This book includes is the first time it happens, and it’s done about as competently as one can hope for.
The book’s plot is roughly split into two connected stories, one following Rose (the granddaughter of one of the many characters briefly addressed early in the last book) and the other following Dream as he searches for a handful of dream world defectors. The plots constantly shift back and forth, and while neither is without flaw, they remain generally cohesive and eventually converge.
Like in the first book, small quests drive the main plot, but this time they have some weight, or rather lead to heavier matters that provide substance to the story. Dream has a personal relationship with the defectors and Rose meets some of them in her own time. The end even culminates in the protagonist of the series trying to kill the temporary protagonist of the book, a far cry from the hand-waving resolutions of some of the other books and short stories.
Speaking of short stories, there are a few stand-alone chapters in this book that have nothing to do with the book’s plot but nonetheless work well as asides to the world the series works to create. The one that particularly stands out is about a man who essentially wishes to live forever and is granted that wish. He meets Dream once every hundred years to recount everything he’s done, so the story can make tongue-in-cheek references to historical events and also explore how this person’s wish plays out. The story hints about Dream’s difficulties forming friendships, but the focus is on the torment of living forever, the mistakes of history as experienced on a personal level, fear of the unknown, and the human unwillingness to let go of life. It has a bittersweet ending and a unique take on the subject of immortality, which I appreciate. I remember thinking to myself after I finished this book that I liked the little stand-alone short-story chapters and would like to see more. How foolish I was.
Part Two: Ert
This book has many good qualities I could appreciate further, but because I didn’t get to talk about it much earlier and won’t have another opportunity for a while, I want to take a moment to discuss the art style — or “styles,” more accurately. I’ve not checked thoroughly for patterns in the use of particular art styles or contributing artists for certain chapters, but the series generally features slightly different art styles between books and occasionally chapters within them. This is one of the few Sandman books that uses the variable styles effectively, distinguishing the stand-alone stories from the main plot and separating the internal mental worlds of minor characters through the art style used to depict them.
The aesthetics bring continuity between the chapters, even with frequent guest artists – the style favors high-contrast tones and dark or bright colors set in smooth lineart that frequently exaggerates faces and gestures when the story makes use of fantastical elements. I quite like the art style, especially when it ventures into the surreal, but it has limitations as well, and often I find that the series prioritizes the artistic value of individual panels over the integrity of the page or overall novel. Speech bubbles are occasionally positioned in places that are difficult to read and disrupt flow, especially when the series makes use of elaborate speech bubble formats and fonts. This isn’t as much of an issue for the main character’s unique dialogue bubbles, but it becomes increasingly frustrating as minor characters are introduced who speak in cursive and similarly decorative texts. The fonts distinguish the characters, but at the cost of clarity, which can be problematic when the character designs are plenty distinct on their own.
Beyond the dialogue bubbles, the series often seems to have just one or two fewer panels than it needs, meaning understanding actions and their relationships between panels is occasionally unintuitive, which disrupts the pacing. Storylines frequently transition partway through a single page, and even when they don’t, many of the pages are just not aesthetically pleasing in compilation, though the panels may be individually beautiful. I think that part of this aesthetic issue stems from the series’ difficulty in organizing its narrative, because the most cohesive chapters tend to be stand-alone stories and disruptions tend to come in the form of tangential subplots intruding on the main one.
All that said, when the art comes together, it can be intense and beautiful in a way that deserves its own merit. That happens often enough that I might even recommend the series for its art alone. Even the stylistic choices that don’t quite work are often still worth observation.
Part Three: TEETH!
Like with the first book I don’t want to end on a downer, and also like in the first book, one of the best features of this one comes in the form of a character introduced near the end; I am of course talking about the Corinthian.
I seem to recall some familiarity with the character’s design, either through a sort of cultural diffusion that works on many iconic comic book characters, but also likely through the character’s similarity to other folkloric monsters. The Corinthian is a nightmare whose intimidation lies, as with some of the best of monsters, in his ability to look ordinary – the only thing uncanny about his appearance is his eyes, with are not eyes at all but little sharp-toothed mouths.
I’ve expressed my enthusiasm for characters with unusual eyes and obscured faces before, and there are other examples within this very series, but the Corinthian has a particularly effective design. His eye teeth bolster the other characters’ proclamations of how dangerous he is, and they’re revealed in a way that further emphasizes his particular brand of monstrosity. For one, many of the character’s panels are done from a first-person perspective, and the when we do see his face, his mouth-eyes are hidden behind dark glasses.
The first hint we get that he’s more than just a dangerous person is when he’s in the midst of a phone conversation. The character’s face is out of shot, and he pulls a bunch of eyes from his desk drawer. My initial thought was naturally that he just has empty eye sockets and uses either glass eyes or real ones from his victims to fill it as he pleases. Taking another person’s eyes and using them as your own is disturbing enough, but after he reaches for one pair to try them out, he reaches for another, then another, without return any of them to the desk. The logical conclusion then is that he has multiple eye sockets… or that he eats eyes.
We humans like our eyes, so the thought of something that not only has no eyes itself, but also eats the eyes of other people is viscerally disturbing, and an excellent way to make use of a simple, but elegant monster design.
I find it perplexing, then, that despite the buildup and successful delivery, the Corinthian dies and doesn’t even return in flashback except for one or two brief moments around book seven. The fuck is the point in that? This is easily one of the two or three best characters in the series, and certainly one of the better character designs, so why not use it? I realize the Corinthian returns in the ninth book, and he’s at least given things to do, but the character portrayed here is a capable, macabre, devious villain who one would imagine could easily fill at least some sort of recurring roll. Clearly the writer didn’t run out of time or space, because this series can support entire sections featuring a bear peeing in a circle, a cat cult, Thor shitting on a squirrel, and the fucking cockney pumpkin. Don’t tell me it couldn’t have dedicated a fraction of a story arc to the Corinthian.
Unfortunately, what you see is what you get. The Corinthian’s design sticks in the mind, and these particular chapters work within the confines of the book’s plot at the very least.