Reading “Lullabies of Broadway”

Way, way back in issue #15 Gaiman presented a sequence where Rose Walker experiences the dreams of her housemates before inevitably collapsing the walls between dreams.  That was a pretty fun issue because it highlighted a variety of art styles and character voices by way of a device that I don’t see employed much elsewhere besides in The Sandman.  Gaiman does a repeat performance here, though with less distinct art shifts (I adore Shawn McManus’s work on this arc, but his style is very uniform regardless of the story context), and without giving his protagonist a glimpse into the minds of her neighbors.

But all of that is really the main event, and I first want to touch on the scene leading up to the dreams, because it offers the reader another look at the mundane lives of Barbie and her neighbors.  While the previous issue revolved around Barbie’s relationship with Wanda, which is much more of a peer relationship, this issue shows us how Barbie interacts with Hazel, the woman who Wanda borrowed cream from to make Barbie’s coffer before.  The interaction between these characters reads much more like a mentorship, as we see Barbie give Hazel some guidance on how to handle sexual misadventures (Hazel, who is a lesbian, fears that she might be pregnant because she had sex with a male coworker after returning home drunk from a late shift).  It’s a very sweet and very frank scene depicting the ways that women offer care to each other in the wake of men derailing their lives; Barbie has had multiple experiences like Hazel’s (she makes mention of needing to get an abortion when she was in high school, and the reader’s already familiar with the way her marriage to Ken fell apart), and her advice is extremely practical: get a pregnancy test, go see your doctor, talk with your partner about what happened and whether you want to keep the baby if you are pregnant, and don’t let men sleep over unless you intend to have sex with them.  The whole exchange has a sense of horror to it, that these characters exist in a world where such things are commonplace and such conversations between two acquaintances (I get the impression that Hazel and Barbie really only know each other in passing as neighbors) occur with relative ease.  Of course, I probably perceive horror in this scene because I’m a man; I have the luxury of existing in a patriarchal world where practical conversations about how to avoid unwanted sex and deal with accidental pregnancies don’t intrude on my day-to-day existence.  I suspect many female readers have a much more jaded reaction to this scene.

Hazel has a tough row to hoe in this issue. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

From there we move into the actual dream sequences; Barbie nods off while watching television (during which she receives an extremely brief warning from Nuala, the faerie woman who was indentured to Dream at the end of Season of Mists) and reenters The Land through a series of curtains that I’m certain are a shoutout to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (really, Barbie’s whole relationship with The Land feels like it’s a riff on the relationship Susan had with Narnia in C.S. Lewis’s books; this isn’t that surprising considering Gaiman has tackled this character in other fiction; in 2004 he published a story specifically about Susan, which is hard to find online, but does exist on an archived page on the Wayback Machine), Wanda dreams about her anxiety as a transgender woman, Hazel dreams about a stillborn cannibal baby, and Foxglove dreams about her dead girlfriend Judy (this is one of my favorite callbacks; Judy was one of John Dee’s victims in the diner back in issue #6).  For everyone except Barbie, these nightmares arise because of the downstairs neighbor George, who has a flock of birds inside his ribcage which he releases to torment all the people who might come to Barbie’s aid in the waking world.

The most apparent feature of all these dreams is that they’re wrapped up in the anxieties of women, often in the context of women living within a patriarchal society that imposes oppressive expectations on them (much like how George, the only male character to appear in this issue, imposes these nightmares on everyone).  Wanda’s anxiety about being herself stems from social expectations that she conform her entire body to the gender she wants to present as; Hazel’s anxiety about having a baby that consumes her and Foxglove’s lives comes from the fact a coworker took advantage of her sexually; Foxglove’s survivor’s guilt comes from her decision to leave an abusive relationship coinciding with the violent murder of her lover.  The only person who isn’t victimized by these things is Thessaly, whom we learn in this issue is actually magically inclined.  We’ll learn more about Thessaly in the next issue but here, we get the basic outline of her as a woman who is ruthlessly pragmatic; when she catches the bird trying to inflict a nightmare on her, she immediately dashes its head against the wall and then sets the body on fire before grabbing a knife and going to eliminate the source of the problem, which she deduces is George.  Thessaly embodies the woman who has lost her patience with patriarchy and refuses to conform even a little bit to it.

Next time we’ll take a look at exactly how Thessaly intends to deal with the intrusion on her quiet life, and also see how she gets Wanda, Hazel, and Foxglove caught up in her revenge scheme.

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