The first and most apparent thing to notice about issue #34 is that Shawn McManus is not doing the art; Colleen Doran is filling in (we last saw her work on The Sandman in one of my favorite standalone issues, “Facade”), and she’s an excellent guest artist for this particular issue, which focuses entirely on Wanda, Hazel, and Foxglove being brought up to speed on all the strange stuff that’s happening around Barbie with the help of Thessaly and the magically reanimated face of George. This issue is entirely grounded in the waking world, and Doran’s style, which doesn’t employ the same kind of exaggerated facial features that are a hallmark of McManus’s work, lends itself well to the gritty, gory horror that the characters encounter. There’s no hint of the fairy tale flip side that we’ve seen in the previous two issues here.
The plot of this issue is incredibly condensed, as all of the events depicted here happen over the course of about an hour, and the vast majority of them are simply exposition and explanation so that the characters and the reader are on the same page regarding what’s happening with Barbie. Thessaly, who is actually a millennia-old witch, has murdered George for attempting to harm her (we learn here that Thessaly has absolutely no sense of benevolence, and is only interfering with the Cuckoo’s plot to hurt Barbie because of a desire to exact her revenge on the thing that was going to make her collateral damage), and she needs Wanda, Hazel, and Foxglove to help her make preparations to pursue the Cuckoo in Barbie’s dream world. Essentially, Thessaly is the ultimate utilitarian; she’s nothing but upfront with everyone else about her motivations and precisely how they can each be of use to her (she’s also utterly insensitive to personal business, as she outs Hazel about her pregnancy and makes it clear to Wanda that her usefulness is limited by the fact that she’s biologically male). In some ways this is a refreshing character type to see (I think the reader is supposed to be regularly unnerved by Thessaly so that we’re always glad that her goals align with the other, more sympathetic characters), though it’s quite easy to imagine Thessaly being the villain of a different story (she does, after all, put a spell on the other women so that they’re unable to leave George’s apartment once they enter it).
Really, what’s interesting about Thessaly is that she sort of crashes into the story in this issue, and she casually brushes aside all of the insecurities that have been bubbling up around the other women. She has no time for Wanda or Hazel’s insecurities, which clashes with all the small moments Gaiman’s given us showing how the other characters take the time to try to care for each other. I feel like much of Thessaly’s character is designed to come across as the fantasy horror version of a straw feminist, with her actual witchcraft and her reliance on classical symbols of femininity like the moon and menstruation as totems of power, and for all of that her core trait of just not caring about the emotions of anyone around her is so stereotypically male that it’s incredibly jarring. Thessaly has no time to do emotional labor for other people, and her insistence on valuing her own well-being only underscores that fact. I’m not entirely sure what Gaiman intends for the reader to take away from getting to know Thessaly, but it’s pretty apparent to me that she’s simply not meant to be that sympathetic in contrast to the women she’s using. I care about Barbie and Wanda, Hazel and Foxglove, but Thessaly’s really just there on her own.
Of course, besides getting to know Thessaly here, we also get to learn a little bit about how she plans on entering the Dreaming without getting Dream’s help first (Thessaly has no time for men, not even anthropomorphic personifications who merely resemble them). She summons the moon to guide her, Hazel, and Foxglove into the Dreaming, leaving Wanda behind to guard Barbie’s body. Wanda’s an odd exclusion, since she’s the one here who is closest to Barbie, but Thessaly explains that the moon’s domain is only for women, and Wanda simply doesn’t qualify. It’s an interesting statement on the indifferent nature of the supernatural in Gaiman’s universe. Considering that Gaiman established back in Season of Mists that his universe’s version of God is pretty much a giant jerk, it’s not really that surprising, but it’s still a pretty bleak statement for someone like Wanda, who we’ve already seen has a lot of anxiety about her body. Of course, we’ll see in the next few issues that this arc is particularly unkind to this character, and there’s a lot to unpack regarding her treatment. For the moment, it’s probably best just to remember that Gaiman’s characters inhabit a universe where the supernatural continuously impacts the mundane world, and Gaiman generally subscribes to the old idea that supernatural things are capricious and unconcerned with how they might be unfair to mortals. We’ll explore more of that in later issues.
The next issue will see us finally get fully into The Land with Barbie and her retinue of fantastical creatures.