fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Sandman (Vol. 5): A Game of You by Neil Gaiman

SANDMAN V2 A GAME OF YOU comic, fantasy, science fiction book reviews“One of the key points of A Game of You is that nobody is a stereotype, and nobody is what he or she seems on the surface, once you get to know the person. Every single one of us has glorious, weird, majestic, stupid, magical worlds inside us.*” ~Neil Gaiman

The Sandman (Vol. 5): A Game of You collects issues 32 through 37, skipping issues 29-31, which are collected in volume six of THE SANDMAN. A Game of You is a six-issue story arc that is unified in terms of theme and plot, focusing on a handful of characters, all of whom live in the same building in New York. The entire story is compressed not only in terms of theme, place, and the number of characters, but also in terms of time, occurring over only about three days. And though one of the characters eventually travels to Kansas at the end, most of the action takes place within a single apartment; however, since the characters travel in the realm of Dream, their internal travels seem quite expansive. In other words, the story gives us the illusion of wide-ranging movement.

I think this illusion of travel is important, because many of us who travel rarely, who spend our days in everyday routines, might seem to others to live boring lives. And though our own lives are boring to some of us, Gaiman is suggesting that we can’t tell who truly is bored by their lives based on external observation only: The worlds within us, as the quotation above points out, can be rich and varied, from the magical to the plain stupid. However, if our inner worlds are as dull as our external worlds, Gaimain seems to say, perhaps we are to blame.

sandman game of you 11A Game of You focuses on Barbie, the seemingly shallow young woman we met in The Doll’s House – she lived in the same house as Rose Walker. Barbie has since left Ken, and she lives alone in New York. Her best friend is Wanda, a pre-operative transsexual who has a flare for life that Barbie greatly admires. Their neighbors are Foxglove and Hazel, a lesbian couple; Thessaly, the sole survivor of an ancient group of powerful and dangerous witches; and George, a seemingly boring man who hides a dangerous secret.

sandman game of you 5These characters appear one way on the surface and are completely different below that surface. Thessaly seems bookish and reserved and frail, but she’s the most powerful person in this story arc other than Dream himself. George seems harmless, but causes some serious problems until his run-in with Thessaly. Hazel, the worldly-wise, butch New York lesbian, is actually very gentle, sensitive, and naïve about sex, even accidentally — I don’t know how else to put it — getting pregnant! Foxglove’s previous girlfriend died horrifically in the issue “24 Hours,” and Foxglove has a hidden strength we see only toward the end of the story. Even a minor character, a mentally unstable street-person, a woman who is severely afraid of dogs, becomes a savior-figure in the end.

Barbie, though, is the focus of the story. She seems to be only a Barbie doll, as her name implies, but as a child, she created a rich fantasy world, a world within the Dream realm, that is fully populated with a set of characters and creatures whose personalities seem somewhat inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately, this world has been taken over by the villain of the story arc, the Cuckoo, who has figured out not only how to control the territory mapped out by Barbie’s dreams, but also how to be enough of a puppet-master to control certain events in the real world. A large part of the mystery and suspense in this story is built as we wait to find out who the Cuckoo really is.

sandman game of you 3Ultimately, this story is about identity, as Hy Bender succinctly states in attempting to name the game referred to in the title: “A Game of You is the game of identity.” But what is Gaiman saying about identity? What does he argue via his fictional stories in this collection? I think Hy Bender accurately gives one possible answer to this question: “One of the tale’s morals is that, ultimately, no one gets to define who you are but you.”

The key character used by Gaiman to express this theme is Wanda, though all the characters can be discussed in terms of it. Wanda decides that she is a woman and not a man, not Alvin, as she was named by her parents who, from their religious perspective, believe she is now a sinful, sexually perverse man. Her decision to be a woman and go through many of the procedures that come before the final operation to change her physical genitalia is one she makes. She chooses her own identity. But she has a nightmare about this final operation; if she chooses not to have it, is she a man? If she chooses to have it, will she really be a woman? The answers to these questions are difficult, and Gaiman took on a challenging issue when he approached this traditional theme of “identity” in such a controversial manner.

Wanda raises many concerns for readers. First, the way he uses Wanda makes clear that Gaiman has sympathy for transsexuals and disgust for those who condemn them as sinful. Secondly, however, Gaiman complicates matters by not being as didactic as he could have been. Yes, he sympathizes with Wanda (and Foxglove and Hazel), but there are two scenes that have caused problems for readers who, along with Gaiman, also sympathize with Wanda as a transsexual and see her as having a right to her new sexual identity. Bender and Gaiman summarize the argument in The Sandman Companion.*

sandman game of you 12There are two views: One, represented by the Tarotist, comic book writer, and award-winning SFF author Rachel Pollack, is that Gaiman’s story as written contradicts his intentions as an author, and I must say that Pollack makes a compelling case. She argues that Gaiman places in the text some story elements that can lead the reader to see Wanda as being critiqued by the implied values of the story, and I think Pollack is correct — those elements do exist in the story. At one point, Wanda wants to go on a mystical journey with three of the other female characters, but the moon, the goddess, does not recognize Wanda as female: Obviously, Wanda does not menstruate and cannot physically be in tune with the lunar changes in the way the other women are. Wanda can never change her chromosomes, no matter how many operations she undergoes. There’s an additional scene at the end, actually an entire plot-point that I won’t reveal, but it adds weight to Pollack’s argument that the story, the implied author, makes an argument that is not in full agreement with what the flesh-and-blood author believes and wanted to say in his story. Note that Pollack is not saying that Gaiman’s sympathy does not come through, only that if one of his goals in writing this story arc is to have the fictional narrative imply that Wanda is right, that she can choose her own sexual identity, he has failed, at least partly, in this one goal.

sandman game of you 10The other view is that Gaiman not only sympathized with Wanda, but also wrote a story that vindicated her beliefs. I can tell that Gaiman was trying to make this point now that I’ve read his views as stated in conversation with Hy Bender, but without that knowledge, which is not a part of the story itself, I would not have been able to say for sure which position the fictional narrative was implying is correct. Gaiman tells us that just because a “lunar god [goddess?]” believes Wanda is wrong doesn’t mean he thinks Wanda is wrong.

Personally, I think Pollack is right that the story seems somewhat divided in what it’s saying. However, I think the story is better for it. Even though the ambiguity is accidental on the author’s part, I like this ambiguity. Gaiman embraces ethical ambiguity elsewhere in this series. This story clearly asks us to sympathize with Wanda, as I’ve mentioned, but it shows that issues of identity are not simplistic, that just choosing an identity — even sexual identity which is only a part of one’s identity — is not a simple, clear task. It’s difficult; it’s complex; and it’s unending. I think Gaiman makes all three of these points in this story arc and throughout THE SANDMAN series.

sandman game of you 1There is much more to talk about, of course, but I’ll limit myself to only a few more comments, most of which are mentioned by Hy Bender in his excellent Companion: First, he points out that there are a large number of references to Kansas and The Wizard of Oz. Those are fun to look for when reading this volume for the first time. Second, Bender makes the argument that this story blends fantasy and horror in order to critique not fantasy but certain aspects of fantasy. His argument is a good one, so I’ll quote him at length, but with spoilers removed: “A Game of You is an anti-fantasy story [in one sense]. [But] It would be a huge mistake to conclude the tale is against all fantasies . . . . What A Game of You is arguing against are fantasies we cling to that keep us from growing and connecting to others. . . . To properly play A Game of You is to use your fantasies, not let them use you. And to recognize that if you look closely enough at any person, you’ll find secret worlds that are surprising, frightening, and wondrous.”

sandman game of you 8Finally, I’ll end with a warning and with praise, both connected to the points Bender makes. The use of horror with fantasy has different purposes in different story arcs of THE SANDMAN. In A Game of You, the horror helps critique certain aspects of fantasy that can turn bad, the negative side of fantasy that Bender mentions above. As a result of this critique of fantasy via horror elements, which is not the purpose of his using horror in the other story arcs, Gaiman ended writing the least popular story arc in the entire SANDMAN series. I’m glad to find out I’m not the only one who feels this way. I have great admiration for the genius of this series, for the themes, for the storytelling, and the way they are combined; however, of all THE SANDMAN trade collections, it is the one I find least enjoyable as a reading experience.

sandman game of you 9I’ll end with praise for the art, for the artist Shawn McManus, who was specifically chosen by Gaiman because of his ability to “draw both cute fantasy and realistic horror, and mix them seamlessly,” after Gaiman saw his work illustrating Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing #32. In working on A Game of You, McManus could not meet all the deadlines, so Colleen Doran and Bryan Talbot came in to help finish some of the work, but that’s merely a plus, since, if you know anything about Doran and Talbot, you’ll realize that the level of artist working on this story arc was of the highest caliber. This ability to draw in both genres was essential to this story arc, since the genres were part of the theme involving fantasy and its critique. In reviewing this collection, as masterful as it is, I feel I have to dock it half a star because so many readers do not enjoy reading it. But how many books that I don’t enjoy reading am I willing to give four-and-a-half stars? Not many, if at any at all. Leave it to Gaiman to make me praise in a long review a story that I wasn’t even looking forward to re-reading!

*The Sandman Companion by Hy Bender

~Brad Hawley

After the excellent Vol 4: Season of Mists, the Sandman once again retreats to the shadows in this unified story arc. Instead it focuses on Barbie, the vapid-seeming blonde who was married to Ken and lived in the same house as Rose Walker in Vol 2: The Doll’s House. She has since split with Ken and moved to NY. She lives in a building with several unusual characters: Wanda, a pre-operative transsexual woman; a mysterious and timid-seeming girl named Thessaly; a lesbian couple named Hazel and Foxglove; and a creepy guy named George. All these people share two things – they are marginalized members of society, and they also hide various secrets beneath their surfaces.

One of the big themes in the story revolves around Wanda, as she has consciously sought to discard her identity as Alvin, growing up in an intolerant small town in Kansas. Wanda is an upbeat, supportive friend to Barbara, and in typical New York fashion, they are regularly broke but try to look out for each other. The story is clearly sympathetic to Wanda’s attempt to make the physical changes that will allow her to be fully female, and shows the prejudices she faced growing up when Barbie visits her hometown in Kansas. As a reader I’m also sympathetic to her plight, but I wasn’t sure how this fit in with the largest context of the SANDMAN series.

I won’t summarize the plot details, other than to say that the story has a lot of horror elements and some really gruesome moments involving nightmares. Barbie and her friends are drawn into a quest to save some fantasy creatures in a place called the Land, which is being menaced by a sinister creature called the Cuckoo. This fantasy world intrudes into our real world, and overlaps slightly with Morpheus’ world of the Dreaming. But it is largely self-contained.

This volume is all about the fantasy worlds we create in our minds, and the purposes they serve. It is also about appearances and how deceptive they are. Finally, and most punishing to the reader, it deconstructs one such fantasy world, the Land that Barbie has visited in her dreams since childhood, in a very cruel manner. I was initially unsure exactly what I didn’t really like about this volume (and later read that for many readers this is also their least favorite Sandman story), but after some reflection I think it was this aspect of destroying childhood fantasies and suggesting that they need to be dissolved in order to move on into adulthood.

Neil Gaiman is a master of storytelling, mythology, dreams, horror, and the fantastic, so having Barbie’s world attacked by the villainous Cuckoo was surprising. Fantasy stories certainly have strong elements of escapism, especially epic fantasy tales, and although the urban fantasies of Gaiman are less so, they all suggest fantastic elements lurking beneath the mundane and drab details of the ‘real’ world. So I wasn’t expecting him to essentially go after such fantasies is such ruthless fashion. Is it really so childish and wrong to create fantasy worlds in our heads, often to escape from unpleasant reality? If so, does that not negate much of the genre’s worth? Or did I just misunderstand the message of this volume. Either way, it didn’t seem to mesh well with the other volumes, though I admire Gaiman’s willingness to explore a range of themes and be unafraid to turn off fans in some cases. That is the mark of a true storyteller – one that does not simply cater to our expectations, but challenges them instead.

~Stuart Starosta


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

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  • Stuart Starosta

    STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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