I said when I started reviewing A Game of You that it’s a really strange story arc. It only has a few superficial connections to Dream’s larger character arc, and most of the characters who appear here won’t play significant roles in future storylines. Beyond that structural oddity, it’s also a strange arc because it feels like the Sandman story where Gaiman decided he was going to seriously tackle feminist issues. You have discussions of accidental pregnancies, abortion, harassment, and so on. On top of that this is also the arc where Gaiman’s most explicitly exploring the experiences of queer people, as the core cast of the arc features a lesbian couple and a transgender woman (it isn’t unusual that Gaiman incorporates queer characters into his stories, but this arc is probably the only time in The Sandman where those characters’ identities as queer are integral to their roles in the story).
Now, take all that into consideration and then understand that the very first time I read this story, I was a couple years into my evangelical phase with all the cultural baggage that entails. I didn’t know how to handle an explicitly feminist story; the concept of a transgender person was totally foreign to me (I don’t think I fully grokked that concept until a couple years ago, maybe); the story’s resolution involved a thoroughly unsympathetic portrayal of a community of white Christians. Everything about this specific Sandman story existed outside my comfort zone.
For a long time, it was my least favorite story in the series, mostly because it seemed written to offend my evangelical sensibilities. As I’ve grown into a more progressive mode of thought, my opinion on A Game of You has shifted, and while I still wouldn’t call it my favorite Sandman story, I can recognize that it’s a really fascinating and ambitious piece of fiction (especially when you consider that it was published in 1991, and popular opinion on most of the issues touched on in the arc haven’t really turned positive until the last five years or so). The stuff that’s playing with the conventions of portal fantasies doesn’t resonate so well for me, but I can see why Gaiman chose to structure the story in that way; portal fantasies have a long tradition of featuring female protagonists, and many of the ideas explored here play well with that established structure.
Let’s get down to some details about this specific issue.
First thing I want to note is the character of Maisie Hill. She’s a black homeless woman who appears in the very first issue of the arc as a character who seems to be present primarily as a device for establishing Barbie and Wanda’s personalities (Wanda dismisses Maisie as a nuisance on the subway who doesn’t deserve a second thought, while Barbie immediately takes pity on the woman and gives her some change even though she and Wanda are broke). Maisie’s very one dimensional at this point, and seems like the kind of character that won’t reappear. Go figure, she does reappear in later issues, first in “Bad Moon Rising” to signal that Thessaly’s ritual has literally pulled the moon out of the sky, and then again in “Over the Sea to Sky” where Wanda brings her inside to shelter against the growing storm and they have a conversation about Maisie’s grandson, who was also trans. Maisie dies when the storm causes the apartment building to collapse, but her body shields Barbie from serious injury. Essentially, Maisie Hill is a really egregious example of a bundle of problematic tropes that regularly get applied to black characters in fiction (I’m guessing the extreme concentration of tropes on this one character might have something to do with the fact she’s the only character of color in the whole story).
The second thing is Wanda. Given my personal history in conjunction with this story, I’ve had a range of opinions on her. While I was an evangelical, I was seriously confused about her identity and typically sided with her relatives on the issue of whether to refer to her as female or male, Wanda or Alvin. When I moved away from that, I was better able to sympathize with her situation, and found that on my second reading she was a particularly rich character, and probably my favorite in the arc. At the same time, as I’ve slowly become more educated about trans issues (I feel like I’m still really ignorant in this area) I’ve come to recognize the problems in Wanda’s depiction. She, too, dies when the building collapses in the storm and her body is sent back to her family who cut her hair and bury her in a suit (this resolution for Wanda has the tragic queer character trope written all over it, which might not have been problematic at the time, but definitely deserves further inspection and more considered use in the present). When Barbie is traveling to Wanda’s hometown for the funeral, we get a one page scene showing a dream she has on the bus where Wanda appears with Death to say goodbye to Barbie, and she appears fully female with none of her identifying facial features (besides a slightly elongated face and red hair, there’s nothing to visually signify this is supposed to be the same character we’ve known up to this point). It’s a troubling bit of commentary, because it suggests that Wanda’s femaleness is expressed imperfectly in her own body (and that femaleness is best depicted using typical contemporary Western ideals of female beauty), even though she herself says in “Beginning to See the Light” that she’s a woman even if she does have a penis.
What makes Wanda’s appearance with Death so strange is the way it doesn’t really seem to mesh with all the other cosmology that Gaiman’s established about The Sandman. This is a universe where we know that many deities are jerks, and their personalities are largely defined by how they were originally imagined by people in the Dreaming. Going with the logic of “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” the moon only cares about biological women because as the representative of a category of female deities who were conceived in the imagination of people who had no concept of gender dysphoria it can’t possibly fit someone like Wanda into its schema for what is female (spinning this logic out further, we might also be able to infer that it’s because of people like Wanda’s judgmental family that God in The Sandman universe is a colossal jerk). Of course, we know that the Endless have special status among immortal creatures, so they’re not bound by the normal rules of the universe, but it’s still exceedingly odd that Wanda’s afterlife would manifest itself in this particular way (setting aside the meta explanation that Gaiman and McManus were just misguided in how they chose to depict Wanda in her final appearance).
Moving away from Wanda, I want to touch a little bit on Barbie before wrapping up since she is the protagonist of A Game of You. Barbie strikes me as a rather milquetoast character. Her backstory is that she used to go to great pains to fit into the popular concept of normal before her marriage catastrophically failed (she mentions at one point that her ex-husband Ken found a mistress and began bringing her home before they finally divorced and went their separate ways), and in the intervening years she’s been working hard to reinvent herself by moving to New York and taking up face painting as a fashion statement. The Cuckoo explains to her in their confrontation that she didn’t have an especially difficult or traumatic childhood; even her fantasy world, which serves as the setting for half the arc, is mindbogglingly generic. Barbie’s a boring character, and I think that’s a deliberate choice on Gaiman’s part. The recurring motif in this arc is a meditation on the nature of identity and whether it’s at all changeable. Gaiman’s presentation of the idea seems pretty ambivalent, as characters like Wanda and the Cuckoo insist that their inherent nature is just part of them, while Hazel and Foxglove have moments of fluidity (Hazel experimented with straight sex even though she identifies as a lesbian, and Foxglove has changed her name and distanced herself from ties to her previous life). Barbie’s the character who is at a major crux in her life where she has to figure out if she really can change herself into something different. I think she succeeds on that point, since the last issue of the arc shows her actively rejecting the social norms of Wanda’s hometown, which would be relatively easy for Barbie to blend into, and choosing not to ask Dream to recreate The Land for her once it’s been destroyed (granted, there are complicating factors like the fact she only gets to ask for one boon, and she wants to make sure she and her friends get home safely, but it’s still important that it’s an option she actively rejects). Barbie’s story ends right at the point where she’s becoming interesting.
There’s little left for me to say about the art of this issue. Shawn McManus wraps things up here with the same level of quality as his previous issues. Barbie’s mourning veil, which she draws on, is a nice bit of detail as McManus takes care to make sure it contours to Barbie’s face in every panel.
Next time we’ll be moving back into a brief series of one-off issues, beginning with a short story about a werewolf.