The third long plot arc of The Sandman is a strange one. It’s hard to really fit this arc into the series’s macro story, as Dream is a very minor character in this arc (much like The Doll’s House, he exists on the fringes of someone else’s story, and only intervenes when the plot demands it; unlike The Doll’s House, Dream’s actions here actually carry very little import). Our protagonist for the next six issues is a character we’ve met previously: Barbie, one of Rose Walker’s former housemates from her time in Florida (this whole arc is actually loaded down with references to the earliest issues of The Sandman, which inclines me to think of it more like an indirect sequel to those plotlines than anything else), who has split up with Ken since the trauma of the Dream Vortex, which left her unable to dream.
A Game of You has Barbie as its central protagonist, but she isn’t the only major character of interest; this first issue in the arc introduces us to all of Barbie’s neighbors in her apartment building: Wanda, the trans woman who lives next door; Hazel and Foxglove, a lesbian couple who live on the floor above; Thessaly, a quiet woman who’s generally more interested in her studies than anything; and George, an apparently grumpy neighbor who is actually a henchman for the arc’s villain, the Cuckoo (it’s weird to describe an arc of The Sandman as having a villain, but I don’t think any other word really works). All of these characters play significant roles and go through interesting personal arcs over the course of these six issues, and then (spoiler alert) we’ll never see most of them again. I think this arc above all others in the course of The Sandman is the one most invested in exploring the lives of ordinary people (much of the action in the first issue is just the tenants of Barbie’s apartment building interacting in mundane ways meant to establish their relationships to one another), and for the sake of preserving the integrity of that experience, Gaiman makes the deliberate choice here to introduce a cast of mostly brand new characters who won’t get much more than a callback later (there’s also some strange parallelism between Rose’s housemates and Barbie’s neighbors in the setup of this arc that continues to impress on me that this is meant to be a sort of sequel to that earlier storyline).
For all the particular interest in mundanity that we see in this first issue of the arc, it’s also important to recognize that this is simultaneously one of the most traditional fantasy stories we’ll see in The Sandman; much of the world building surrounding The Land and Barbie’s involvement with it echoes the kind of second world fantasy that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis explored in their work during the middle of the last century (I see a lot of parallels in particular with Lewis’s Narnia series here, and I suspect that’s quite deliberate on Gaiman’s part). The Cuckoo has shades of both Sauron and the White Witch in this issue, and the fantasy creatures who are Barbie’s friends all hail from the same talking animal mold as Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and Reepicheep. Even the macguffin of the Porpentine smacks of previous arbitrarily important magical artifacts like the One Ring and Lucy Pevensie’s healing cordial. The rationale behind the traditionalism on display here is an interesting one: The Land was imagined by Barbie, who in her life before the Vortex incident was an extremely bland person with a relatively shallow inner life built around narratives that she thought were important to emulate as closely as possible. It’s why in her dreams she manifests as a typical fantasy princess; that role and its attendant tropes are what she knows.
And that traditional fantasy setup highlights one of the biggest themes of the arc; our main characters here are in various states of transition from one kind of identity to another, and there’s a lot to be explored about how a person navigates the task of choosing which parts of old identities to jettison and which parts to hold on to. As we’ll see, Barbie’s in a place where she really can’t return to what she knew before, and she has a lot of work to do in figuring out if there’s anything to be reclaimed from her past.
On the art front, this issue is illustrated by Shawn McManus, whose skills I’ve already praised in my post on “Three Septembers and a January.” McManus’s faces are slightly cartoonish in the way they convey emotion, but the effect works here, where we’re seeing a blend between the heightened reality of the fantasy world and the mundane life of New York City. When the two worlds collide (rather violently, at that) with the arrival and subsequent gunning down of Martin Tenbones, McManus’s art sells the sense of wrongness that I think we’re supposed to feel along with Barbie at seeing this fairytale creature so brutally killed by gunfire (it’s ironic that the opening panels depict a slaughtered, frozen body in the wastes of The Land, but I suspect those bookends are meant to convey just how wrong things have gone in Barbie’s dreamworld in her absence). Besides that, it’s always fun to see his version of Dream (although for only two pages in this issue) with the broody eyebrows.
Next time, we’ll get a reiteration of one of my favorite parts of the Vortex incident as we explore the dreams of Barbie and her neighbors.