This issue marks the big payoff for Barbie’s journey through The Land to confront the Cuckoo. In a lot of ways it’s a continuation of the portal fantasy story that was prevalent in the last issue, with Barbie’s face off with the Cuckoo (that doesn’t end well for Barbie) and the ritual ending of the fantasy world (a la Narnia, but with Dream playing the part of Aslan in The Last Battle). This stuff’s pretty interesting if you want to explore how Gaiman is playing with the form of a pretty standard type of fantasy story, but as with most of The Sandman, it’s the subversions and twists that make it really special.
What we learn in this issue is that the Cuckoo is some sort of dream thing that has taken the shape of Barbie’s childhood self, appropriating the parts of her mind that she hasn’t been using as a sort of incubator with the ultimate goal of eventually escaping The Land and infecting other dreamscapes with her spawn. Its aims seem dangerous (it’s clearly a very real threat to Barbie and her neighbors), but there also doesn’t seem to be any indication that we should find the Cuckoo particularly malicious. Like the bird that’s its namesake, what Gaiman shows us about the Cuckoo is that it’s simply acting according to its nature. Given the extended conversation that Barbie and the Cuckoo have about the nature of boys’ fantasies versus girls’ fantasies (which is one of the weak spots of the issue, since the essential thesis is that girls just don’t have power fantasies), I feel like the Cuckoo’s characterization is tied in with all this story arc’s commentary on the nature of gender (I continue to go back to the example of Wanda, who confides to Barbie back in the first issue of the arc that she used to have superhero themed fantasies that revolved around a reversal of identity; her presence in the story, with a fantasy that blends aspects of the Cuckoo’s ideas of boy and girl fantasies gives lie to the whole argument). Like most of the other plots in The Sandman, the themes in this one get super complex.
We also get to see what’s going on with Hazel, Foxglove, and Thessaly after they commanded the moon to take them to The Land two issues ago. As these things go, Thessaly’s magic didn’t just conjure a metaphorical representation of the moon to grant her demand, but actually pulled the moon out of the sky for a little while, which is also having catastrophic consequences in the waking world where a huge storm is about to overtake New York City. Essentially, if “Bad Moon Rising” gave us a sense of how dangerous Thessaly is, then this issue shows us that she’s also really reckless as long as she isn’t personally inconvenienced. Hazel and Foxglove are more or less just along for the ride (the best I can tell, their accompaniment of Thessaly serves only to give Gaiman an opportunity to work in the maiden, mother, crone trichotomy that he’s so fond of using when portentous things are afoot) but we do get to see them reconcile over the fact of Hazel’s pregnancy, which Foxglove is still quite angry about, but willing to work through because she loves Hazel (and Hazel’s value to Foxglove as a partner is immense in context of her previous, abusive relationship). The scene of the three women walking the moon’s road calls back the motif of melded identities that previous versions of the Fates have displayed, and allows Gaiman to get in a title drop for the story arc. Ironically, all of Thessaly’s plans to find and punish the Cuckoo for trying to hurt her are futile, as she’s tricked into killing a decoy and then falls under the Cuckoo’s spell just like everyone else who has a conversation with it.
Essentially, Thessaly’s involvement in this story accomplishes absolutely nothing plot relevant, but it’s a fascinating character study of someone that we will see pop up again in future Sandman stories.
The Cuckoo plotline resolves here with the appearance of Dream in a literal deus ex machina, as he shows up after the Cuckoo has won and made Barbie destroy the magic macguffin that signals the end of The Land. Dream just appears in the scene, breaks the Cuckoo’s hold on everyone, and then we get that Narnia callback I mentioned earlier where all of The Land’s previous inhabitants travel into Dream’s shadow and disappear. There’s a brief, mysterious scene where a woman named Alianora approaches Dream last and greets him before disappearing. The only information we get about her is that she was the originator of The Land, and Dream apparently had a romantic relationship with her at some point (I think this is the only example in all of Gaiman’s Sandman mythos where we get to see a former lover of Dream’s to whom he doesn’t seem to have any emotional baggage attached). It’s all just barely hinted at (Alianora appears in precisely three panels with no further elaboration to come in the rest of the series), and strikes me as a small nod to that concept that J.R.R. Tolkien described about needing to have some unexplained mysteries in the background of a good fantasy story. In the end it’s all very pat, with Dream preventing the Cuckoo from killing Barbie and her neighbors; really, the only major consequence we see in this issue has absolutely nothing to do with the Cuckoo; that storm that Thessaly accidentally caused when she summoned the moon hits New York with a fury, and Wanda and a homeless black woman who appeared briefly back in “Slaughter on Fifth Avenue” are caught up in it when the old apartment building collapses.
The art on this issue is done by Shawn McManus, Bryan Talbot, and Stan Woch (it’s a double-sized issue, and my best guess is that McManus just wasn’t able to complete all the pages on schedule, since there doesn’t seem to be a really uniform division between the scenes that he illustrated and the ones Talbot and Woch worked on). It’s the same high quality that we’ve been seeing all through the story arc. The really outstanding aspect of the art in this issue is actually the coloring, by Danny Vozzo. So much of this issue takes place in locations that are illuminated by pale reflective things like the moon or the sea, and Vozzo’s colors are suitably washed out so that everything has a sort of ethereal feel to it, especially when contrasted with the scenes in the waking world where the inking is extremely heavy to give everything a dark, stormy look.
Next issue is the last in A Game of You, and it deals with Barbie’s processing of the events she’s experienced along with a funeral.