Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Volume 5: A Game of You – **
Part One: Yes, That’s Lovely, But I Really Don’t Give a Shit About Barbie
This series relies heavily on theme and artistic merit carrying it when any of its other elements falter. In this book, we return to an external character used as a framing device for the dream-based events in the series. Specifically, Barbie, one of Rose’s flatmates from the second book. The plot follows Barbie in her own Alice in Wonderland-like dreamscape through most of the book, interspersed with parts of her real life in New York City. It has a more complete single story than the short story compilations, and follows the Rose chapters in the second book in more than just style, making Barbie the protagonist of her own adventure and forcing her to reconcile her time in the dream world with her personal life.
That’s largely the problem, though; this book is first and foremost about Barbie. I could understand bringing Rose back as a human counter to Dream, even though I’ve previously stated that I would prefer the series stick with Dream as its protagonist for simplicity’s sake and stand by that assertion. Rose’s story is intriguing enough and the series seems to want to explore her character, as she reappears in later books. However, the series opts instead to focus on a much more minor character who both looks and acts much like Rose, but is nonetheless a separate character.
Barbie was at most a peculiarity in the second book, lacking much personality of her own and very much mirroring the doll of the same name – somewhere between a ditz and a creep. She’s given a personality in this book, but wouldn’t you know, it’s almost entirely interchangeable with Rose’s: she’s a bit naive and pretty passive, moving along according to how the people around her tell her to move, but she has a curious, occasionally impish side that gets her to sometimes change her appearance in weird ways to hide her inner turmoil. She also creates elaborate stories.
I can’t help but assume there’s an important reason these characters are made to be so similar, even down to their appearances. Part of me wants to think that the series is making a conscious effort to draw parallels between the two, showing continuity between human lives. Perhaps that’s what it was going for, but unfortunately, the book does little to enforce a deeper reading. More practically, the similarities between this book and the second book make me feel like the series is trying to disguise its inability to work past a single idea. A character goes on an adventure through the dream world, acquiring companions with various backgrounds and degrees of trustworthiness, eventually needing to be rescued by Dream because of some vague Dreaming geography paradigm. The second book features this story as an afterthought behind Rose’s main character quest of finding her estranged, abused brother. The fairytale aspect of the plot is resigned to Rose’s interpretation of the world around her and her interactions with the dream-based elements.
This book expands upon an idea that was set up in the second book but never fully delivered. I can respect the enthusiasm behind it; someone really wanted to tell Barbie’s story, and for what it’s worth, it’s isn’t half bad. The characters are likable, Barbie goes through some growth, the world is colorful, and the plot has stakes. The real-world components mirror those of the fantasy world, sometimes to an explicit degree, but, like many of the better Sandman short stories, I might respect it on its own. If this were the first time the audience met Barbie or the first time the story diverted from Dream’s plotline to explore something else, it would be charming. However, as with many of the short stories, this is not the first time any of this book’s components are being explored, meaning that novelty has worn thin. What we see between the threads is a story that, while well-told, is redundant within this overarching narrative and probably should have been set aside to be reworked into another project. You can’t edit a chapter once the book’s already published, not if you want it to be in the same edition.
Part Two: Does It Count As LGBT Representation if Most of the Queer Characters Die or Cheat or Do Both?
As you may have noticed, I like stories with positive LGBTQIA+ representation. The Sandman is pretty remarkable in this respect for something released in the late ’80s and early ’90s; it has an openly genderfluid major character, a transgender woman who plays a major role in this very book (and is generally awesome, by the by), at least seven other named characters who are gay, bisexual, or otherwise non-heteronormative, as well as countless occasions where identity, gender stereotypes, and the fluidity of gender and sexual states are discussed, sometimes in great detail. Even the main character occasionally seems to play around gender fluidity at times.
Based on this, you might expect me to laud this series as a beacon of hope for LGBT+ representation, but cynical bastard that I am, I don’t. The series was ahead of its time, for sure, and there are a lot of things to like about the way it approaches gender identity in particular. Wanda, the prominent trans woman in this book, is initially about as interesting as any of the other throwaway characters in the tangential storylines, but she slowly wins you over, becoming one of a fairly small number of minor characters with considerable depth. She doesn’t take shit from anyone, she’s a decent person, she’s flawed but forces herself to overcome her flaws to help her friends, and all of this makes her immensely sympathetic.
She also dies.
Actually, about half of the LGBT+ characters in this series die. I don’t think the series is actively trying to play into the cliche of gay characters dying at the end of a story while the straight characters go off to live happy lives — a lot of characters die in this series, especially the minor ones, and nobody really gets away with a happy ending. Wanda’s death, despite having little to do with the main plot, is one of the most significant in the whole series (it’s more impactful than the death of a certain drama queen in the ninth book, that’s for fucking sure). She dies largely because of systemic prejudices that allow her friends to travel to a fantasy fairyland and leave her to weather the harsh conditions of the real world, both metaphorical and literal. Watching her family desecrate her identity after she dies is painful to watch, but it has an uplifting resolution in Barbie correcting her tombstone to read her preferred name. I come away from this subplot thinking that, given how this sort of thing is a cruel reality for many trans people, especially trans women, it’s nice in some ways to see it addressed in a way that makes the trans character sympathetic, and is aimed at a broader audience who may not be familiar with issues that affect members of the LGBT+ community.
That counts for something in my mind, but at the same time, I still think the story killing off Wanda was a mistake. We have plenty of stories about sad queer people. Some of those stories are excellent and full of pathos that tugs at the core of your heart, but when that’s all you get, it kind of makes you long for a happy ending every once in a while. Queer people like to be happy, too.
I think that’s a big part of why The Sandman‘s use of queer characters feels superficial. It doesn’t seem especially interested in showing these characters as they are or digging into their personhood as LGBT+ people. It gets close with Wanda, but by the end of the story, she becomes more of a symbol than a person. The series uses her to show a tragic point to teach the other characters a lesson, then never mentions her again. It does this same thing with the other queer characters too, as though their queerness is a metaphor summarizing the tragedy of existence. I don’t know about any of you, but I don’t like being boiled down to some haphazard metaphor, regardless of who’s doing it.
The only LGBT+ recurring character who plays a significant role in the story (and even that’s a bit of an exaggeration) is Desire. First things first, the series opts to use “it” as Desire’s pronoun, which is kind of dehumanizing. Speaking as a non-binary person, I think “it” has some utility within the English language as a potential preferred pronoun, particularly as a standard non-gendered third-person pronoun that is unambiguously singular, unlike “they.” However, “it” has a derogatory connotation when used to describe people because of some complex linguistic and historical reasons relating to England, Christianity, and colonialism that I’m not going to get into right now. Suffice it to say, the series probably should have gone with “they” for Desire’s pronoun, but the series opts for “it” and that’s what I’m going to use for the sake of consistency. I don’t find nearly as much fault in it as I do with the term “sister-brother” when “sibling” is a perfectly usable word.
Desire is essentially genderfluid or perhaps more broadly genderqueer, though the series never uses either term specifically (probably because they weren’t in common use at the time, which, again, I don’t hold against the series). Desire serves as an antagonist to Dream in particular, a slightly younger Endless sibling that shares some of Dream’s same qualities — curiosity, ambition, control over people’s wishes. The character is much more actively duplicitous whereas Dream’s assholery is often derived from ambivalence. They both look down on humanity and are selfish in their own ways, but because Dream our protagonist, Desire has to be the worse of the two, and usually is. Desire is described as wholly insatiable, greedy and covetous to the point of complete isolation, making it vile, cruel, and delighted by any harm it can cause others. It’s more emotional than Dream, but those emotions come out as frustration and sadism.
I don’t mind Desire being an antagonist, as it’s also a fairly complex character with different relationships with its siblings, and Dream is already an asshole so providing him a foil makes narrative sense. What I do mind is when the primary antagonist in a series is queer when almost every other major character is pointedly not. It would be nice if the only major queer character in this series (and one of the only genderqueer fictional characters I’ve come across in a major franchise) weren’t depicted as, you know, a fucking rapist.
When so many depictions of LGBT+ characters are negative, feeding those stereotypes undermines the point of writing queer characters in the first place. Aside from Desire and Wanda, the other queer characters are bit players, several of whom die, cheat on their partners with heterosexual persons, or cheat and then die. It’s not that the non-queer characters look especially good by comparison; they’re assholes too, often as much or more than the queer characters, if only because they occupy more page space. However, I’m left feeling that this series goes about diversifying its characters with a little check box, fulfilling superficial expectations to make headlines while simultaneously failing to grasp the core of why people want more series to have queer characters in the first place.
The series handles some things well, and ultimately I appreciate that it at least tries to represent a minority that still faces a great deal of oppression in many parts of the world. There are plenty of other narratives that do it better, though, even those with fewer queer characters.
Part Three: Let’s Talk Character Development
I’ve mentioned a few times that Dream does not often emote, and therefore shows little in the way of a defined personality. This is especially prominent in side stories like this one where Dream really only comes in at the end to actively do anything. He’s like a setpiece dragged onto the stage for its presence, but not meant to be much of a character per say.
I should amend that thesis, though, because he isn’t always a boring piece of soggy wood; on rare occasions, we can see him as a self-deluded drama queen posing as a soggy piece of wood. He does get something resembling a character arc over the course of the series, or at least the first part of a character arc, and I actually kind of like it. The arc goes something like this: an immortal asshole suddenly loses all functional capacity when imprisoned by a bunch of other assholes and gets out of his ordeal shaken and with a new perspective on life that he promptly ignores; despite his insistence otherwise, the detached exterior he has built up in order to do his job effectively has grown fragile, leaving him torn between wanting to fulfill his old role and wanting to live as an ordinary person without deity-like responsibilities; eventually he has to face one too many hard truths and what were initially cracks in his facade break it apart, leaving him with a choice: embrace this change or destroy the part of him that feeds it.
That’s not a bad arc, and summarizing his growth over the series makes him sound far more compelling than he is from chapter to chapter. Dream develops slowly and against his will, but this is precisely what makes his arc work. Character development can come in jumps, but, in my experience, it is much more effective when it creeps along slowly, punctuated by major events that reiterate just how much the character has changed.
The Sandman has this gradual-punctuated character development, so what’s wrong with it? Nothing’s specifically wrong with the arc itself, it’s just difficult to see when it’s surrounded by so much fat.
The padding that comes in the form of irrelevant characters and story elements is frustrating to wade through to get to the juicier bits of the story, but similar padding occurs in about half of all scenes featuring the protagonist as well. His dialogue, as with so many other characters, usually says very little for the number of words it uses, and rarely shows even a slight bit of his development, making his appearances often feel repetitive. Writing a character who feels unchanging for seventy percent of the time they spend on the page isn’t necessarily bad, especially if they’re actively resisting their character development; their resistance can be revelatory to their growth.
It becomes an issue here because the series treats Dream himself like an extrinsic reward on top of what the creators seem to think is an intrinsically rewarding story. After wading through the adventures of Idiot McStupidface to see Dream’s character development, I’m instead rewarded with him dressed like a seventeenth-century prude, waving his hand to make some magical chains vanish and reciting a line of poetry before the story cuts back to Idiot McStupidface for an overly long wrap-up. I DO NOT CARE THAT THE PROTAGONIST IS MERELY HERE IF HE DOESN’T DO SHIT. His character should be front and center for his arc to have an impact, but it’s so frequently interrupted by minor side plots that while important moments in his arc are still impactful, their impact is dulled.
The choice of focusing almost exclusively on an essentially new character in this story is perplexing in the extreme given that Barbie seems to have little part in her own fantasy (which itself isn’t nearly as interesting as the book thinks it is) and never has any real influence on Dream himself. Even the few moments when the series shows Dream are frustrating because they only ever show his facade as that, not even providing an inciting event for him to act against. I often use the metaphor of him simply waving his hand to resolve issues without effort, but this is the book where that is literally the solution. Nothing comes of it, so a reader could skip reading this book entirely and practically never notice. In the end, all that means is this is just another independent short story set in the universe of The Sandman, albeit a long one. It has a few elements to make it worth reading (i.e., Wanda), but as with the other short stories, I don’t see the point of giving the book a number like it’s part of a series, because it’s really not.