I have to be honest: I don’t think this is a great issue of The Sandman. It takes place almost entirely within The Land, following Barbie’s journey from the place where she first reappears towards the Brightly Shining Sea where the thing that she’s supposed to use the Porpentine on is located (the names of the magical objects aren’t really that important here). I think the reason I don’t really enjoy this issue that much is because it’s very heavily a riff on traditional portal fantasies. The events of Barbie’s journey constantly echo scenes from other works like The Lord of the Rings (her party’s hiding under a snow drift while the Black Guard marches past is reminiscent of Frodo and company’s narrow avoidance of the ring wraiths as they’re leaving the Shire) and The Wizard of Oz (the sequence in the haunted forest reminds me of when Dorothy and her companions are attacked by the trees), and I honestly just don’t find the moments terribly compelling. They strike me as rote recitations of the moments that a protagonist is supposed to have in a fantasy journey narrative, and the fact that things are playing out like this partly because we’re inside Barbie’s dream world and she imagines they play out in this fashion just doesn’t do very much for me as a reader.
Of course, there are dark twists embedded in Gaiman’s version of events, as the haunted forest actually kills one of Barbie’s friends, and it turns out that another is a double agent who betrays her to the Cuckoo just when they’ve almost reached their destination, resulting in the gruesome death of her last remaining friend. Barbie’s journey can’t succeed at this point because there are more forces at play than just what she imagines; the Cuckoo isn’t a part of Barbie’s dreamscape and not subject to her imagination, much like how The Land has actually existed as a location in the Dreaming since long before Barbie began using it for her own dreams. However, even with the understanding that the narrative will not follow exactly what Barbie expects, I still have a hard time feeling invested because the last minute betrayal still feels like part of a well-worn set of tropes. Even when Gaiman tries to subvert Barbie’s expectations, he’s still playing into the pattern established by older fantasy stories. I’m totally confident he does that knowingly here, but I’m just not impressed by the effort.
Conversely, the very brief scene where we check in to see what Dream is doing about all this stuff is a very nice small moment that demonstrates that Dream is learning to be more considerate of the people around him. Nuala, who popped by Barbie’s dream back in “Lullabies of Broadway” to warn her about bad stuff happening confesses what she’s done to Dream, and after hearing the information, he turns to leave before reconsidering and telling Nuala that she did the right thing. This scene’s great because it shows Dream actually paying attention to the feelings of others around him in a scenario that doesn’t involve him having been a previously gigantic jerk (cf. Nada and Calliope). There’s also a scene back in the real world where Wanda has a conversation with George’s face, and George makes it explicitly clear that Wanda is excluded from Thessaly’s magical intervention because the moon doesn’t truck with biological males. It’s kind of a heartbreaking scene because Wanda’s absolutely sure of her own identity, and as she puts it, a little lump of flesh isn’t important to who she is. I continue to be unsure about why Gaiman set this subplot up, especially since it casts a pretty big pall on the nature of his universe.
Shawn McManus is back doing illustrations for this issue, and his art’s really the highlight. I could look at the faces he draws all day long (even the bloody oozing ones), and there are some great ones here (Nuala and Wanda in particular get some really good panels here; you get a real sense of Nuala’s joy at doing something that Dream finds pleasing, and Wanda’s anger at George and the gods comes across being as scathing as the dialogue suggests).
The next issue will finally bring Barbie face to face with the Cuckoo and Dream finally appears to play his part in this story.