Over the last few weeks as I’ve been getting into the groove of writing about The Sandman, I’ve been worrying a bit over how to approach the longer story arcs. I love the self-contained issues, especially since they’re usually small enough that it’s easy to fit a reasonable bit of commentary into a single blog post for each one, but the vast majority of The Sandman is built around multi-part stories that work better as collected graphic novels rather than standalone comic issues.
The Doll’s House is the first of those stories, and it begins, aptly enough, with an issue titled “The Doll’s House.” Now, parts of this story are much more self contained than others (in a few issues we’ll get to an interlude story which shows Dream learning about the power of friendship and making bets with your sister Death), but it’s best to keep in mind that we’re generally looking more at a series of chapters in a novel rather than interlinked short stories like what Gaiman was doing in Sandman‘s first story arc.
“The Doll’s House” works as an introductory story designed to establish our cast of characters for the next several issues, and so it goes through a series of short scenes where we meet in rapid succession Desire, Dream’s younger nonbinary sibling (Desire is a complex character to tackle, if only because the existence of a nonbinary character in a popular story from the late ’80s suggests a multitude of difficulties and pitfalls that would have arisen from depicting someone with such an underrepresented identity at the time; come to think, there’s a lot of ground to cover in considering the genders of all the Endless, particularly since that element of their identities seems to be internally consistent), Rose Walker, the granddaughter of Unity Kinkaid (the wealthy English girl who came down with the sleeping sickness in “Sleep of the Just” after Dream was imprisoned by Roderick Burgess) and the incarnation of a Dream Vortex (this doesn’t mean a whole lot right now, but it will become more important when we get to The Doll House’s end), and the Corinthian, a nightmare who has escaped the Dreaming and has apparently decided to pass the time being a serial killer.
Spread around in those scenes are explanations that Desire has an ongoing feud with Dream, and they are excited at the possibility of inflicting some more heartache on Dream with this new Dream Vortex (there’s a passing reference to Nada’s story from the previous issue, which suggests that that tragedy was also Desire’s doing; it makes sense if you consider that romances in general are a major part of Desire’s wheelhouse), a bit of foreshadowing by the three feminine aspects in a janitor’s closet (Gaiman is really committed to using this character at every opportunity, and it’s going to pay off gloriously in about fifty issues when we finally get to The Kindly Ones), and a young boy trapped in a bathroom about to be murdered by the Corinthian.
Like I said, this issue is all set up, which makes these dangling threads a little unsatisfactory in the moment, but they do all pay off well later.
A couple of notable things about the art in this issue: because Rose is a Dream Vortex, she dreams about stuff that’s happening around Dream all the time, and one of her dreams in this issue is depicted in a six page sequence where the panel orientation slips sideways so you have to turn the book in order to read what’s going on, and it’s a really well executed use of a device that’s usually annoying and pointless in other less well crafted comics. Also, Dringenberg does a really cool thing in one panel where Rose and her mother are reuniting with Unity, looking at the three of themselves in a mirror, and it’s a nice evocation of the maiden-mother-crone image just before Rose has an actual encounter with the Fates. Finally, Rose’s character design includes multicolored hair, and I recall wondering the first time I read this story if there was any consistency in which parts of her hair are what colors (there is, and it’s a testament to the quality of the coloring that it remains consistent throughout when she’s constantly playing with her hair in this story).
In the next issue we’ll be getting into the story proper, which deals with Rose’s search for her missing little brother, and introduces a house full of characters who will continue to appear and get called back throughout much of the series’ run.