Reading “Playing House”

Hippolyta Hall is probably the saddest character in the whole breadth of the Sandman mythos.

She gets kidnapped by a couple of errant dreams who want to use the ghost of her dead husband as a prop in their own private little version of the Dreaming (which happens to be located inside the head of Rose Walker’s brother Jed), spends two years living in a sort of stasis where she’s perpetually pregnant and unable to effectively contemplate the horror of her situation, has Dream show up and unceremoniously shatter the dream world she’s been trapped in while dismissing her husband and telling her that he’s laying claim to her unborn child, and then is left in the ruins of a place she doesn’t even know with the expectation that she must simply carry on with her life without any help dealing with all her trauma.

And that’s just in this issue.

You tell him, Lyta. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

There’s a lot of concentrated heartbreak in store for Lyta, and the unfortunate reality is that she doesn’t ever really get a satisfying resolution.  After this issue ends, she’ll disappear from the series for several years which is probably the best thing that could happen to her.  Lyta is a character who we can always assume is about to experience something bad if Gaiman has turned his focus on her.

Because of this extreme misfortune, she develops a severe (and justifiable) distrust of Dream and his associates, which will ultimately lead to very tragic consequences for pretty much everyone.  If the ultimate point of Dream’s story is to choose whether he will change or die, you can make a pretty solid case that he sets things in motion to force a decision in this issue with the way that he treats Lyta.  We’re still very early in The Sandman‘s run, so there’s a ton of development that Dream’s yet to go through, and at this point Gaiman writes him as a callous, near-omnipotent cosmic figure who’s honestly not really that concerned with the collateral damage he causes to the physical world in pursuit of his objectives (his invasion of Jed’s dreamscape is very meticulous so as not to kill the boy, but when things become unstable enough that everyone has to evacuate, the house where Jed has been kept prisoner explodes, killing his foster parents).  It’s an interesting ending scene to an issue that alludes heavily to the previous superhero version of the Sandman (besides Dream and the Corinthian, every character who appears in this issue was previously created in connection with the Jack Kirby conception of the Sandman from the 1970s), because Dream appears in the role of the typical villain, and he proceeds to act exactly like a villain would in the same circumstances (there’s even a series of panels where Dream just laughs maniacally at the absurdity of what he’s dealing with).

Come to think, part of the fun of this issue (if you can call all the stuff that happens to Lyta and Jed fun) is the way it inverts the typical superhero narrative so that Hector, who would normally be at the center of everything being super capable, comes across as a jolly idiot who doesn’t realize how silly his life is while Lyta, who would normally be cast in the role of passive, quiet supporting character, suffers silently throughout and Dream, the villain of the month, feels more chagrined than anything that he’s been put in such a funny position.  It’s a nice critique of the genre’s conventions, though the brilliance of the story comes from the fact that it doesn’t stop there; Lyta’s really our perspective character for this issue, and Gaiman makes it clear that it’s not just Hector’s power fantasy that makes her a victim, but all of the supernatural men who have shown up and interfered with her life (I think some interesting things could be said about the fact that Lyta is the only woman in this story about people with powers screwing around with the lives of ordinary folk).

With regard to the art, this issue is guest penciled by Chris Bachalo.  I’m a big fan of Bachalo’s work, because he’s been a frequent regular artist on various X-Men books since the mid-90s, but I was honestly surprised to see that he worked on an issue of Sandman.  Bachalo’s signature style uses lots of extremely heavy lines (I want to say in recent years he usually inks his own pencils) and a very messy, chaotic page layout.  His characters rarely have realistic proportions, and at his most frenetic it can honestly be kind of difficult to follow the action on the page, simply because Bachalo loves drawing debris.  In quieter moments he has an excellent expressive style that helps convey character emotions, even if all of his faces tend to look the same.  Given all that, it’s really weird seeing his name on this issue, because while the style is certainly a little more wispy than the typical rough edges that Dringenberg prefers, nothing about this issue looks like classic Bachalo.  There’s a hint of the Bachalo chaos bubbling around in the panels showing Dream flying through Jed’s dreamscape, but for the most part it’s a very standard look and layout for the Sandman issues of the time.

Next issue we’ll take a break from Rose and Jed’s story for an interlude about one of Dream’s very few friends.

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