Every Wednesday we’ll be running a piece on a volume of Sandman.
You can find Jason Sacks’s introduction to the series here.
You can find Mark Stack’s overview of “Preludes and Nocturnes” here.
You can find Kyle Garret’s reading of “The Doll’s House” here.
You can find Daniel Elkin, Keith Silva and Taylor Lilley’s conversation about “Dream Country” here.
You can find Michael Bettandorf and PJ Hunsicker discussing “Season of Mists” here.
The Architecture of Identity in Sandman: A Game of You
For many, New York City is a cold place to live. No city in the world prior to its founding was built on a grid. Its long, neat rows ensure accessibility, but they are also aesthetically unappealing and rigid in their structure. When everything sits in the right place, the potential for surprise is curbed.
But make no mistake: living in New York can very much be like living within a battlezone. Despite the fact that people are always physically present, true connection can often feel fleeting and rare. With so much industry and a history of ingenuity, people often flock to New York to either discover themselves or get discovered by someone else so it’s no wonder that Barbie, who we first met in The Doll’s House arc (thoughts on that by Kyle Garret here), wanders in after her divorce from Ken.
“I wasn’t allowed to read comics when I was a girl,” she tells her friend, Wanda, in issue one. “Pop said they were unladylike. He said a lot of things were unladylike.”
The concept of “ladylike”, or better known as gender roles, is what Barbie and Wanda grapple with in A Game of You. Barbie doesn’t really think about it in that way in the conscious world. She frames it within the larger context of experimenting with herself as she paints on a new face every morning and continues to exist after her divorce. Wanda, however, runs into this struggle every day. As a transwoman, not everyone in the pages of A Game of You accepts who she is even though she repeatedly states it.
Early on, Wanda compares herself to “Weirdzos,” characters from the “old Hyperman comics” where “they did everything backwards.” An obvious reference to Bizarro and his ilk from the main DC Universe, Bizarro writer Alvin Schwartz called the mirror-Superman a shadow Superman carries around. Likewise, Wanda carries around the shadow of her biology, the external genitalia she is afraid to remove. In chapter three, Hazel, one of Wanda’s neighbors, points out that Wanda has “got a thingie.” Hazel questions nothing about Wanda’s gender in previous conversations, but suddenly thinks the evening is “weird” when she learns Wanda has not fully transitioned. Later on, an old beggar woman looks at Wanda in a similar manner and questions her gender again. Wanda’s vestigial penis casts an endless shadow over others’ opinions about her.
Yet, one gets the feeling that, even if Wanda underwent transitional surgery, her birth-assigned gender would still cast a shadow over her. Her sense of self would still be questioned by those around her. When Barbie ends up trapped in the Dreamland by the Cuckoo, a force that’s attempting take ownership over her persona, Barbie’s neighbors, including Wanda, Hazel, Hazel’s girlfriend Foxglove, and Thessaly offer to help. Thessaly, the last of an ancient group of witches, offers to send the women into the Dreamland to find Barbie and kill the Cuckoo, but requires menstrual blood to complete a ritual that will summon the feminine aspect of moon and allow the women to walk the Moon’s Road into dreaming. While acquiring it, she callously calls Wanda a man, and then stops Wanda from walking the path alongside her, Foxglove, and Hazel. Thessaly says “this isn’t your route. It can’t be.” “Isn’t” refers to Wanda’s present state as a woman in transition. “Can’t” implies that even after a theoretical reassignment surgery, Wanda would forever remain a man in the eyes of timeless powers beyond her control.
Wanda’s fight, more than any of the other characters, emphasizes the constant battle between identity as defined by oneself and identity defined by the world around the individual. Wanda’s character is problematic, because her role in the story is to constantly be tortured, to reassert her sense of self and be torn down again and again. Even Barbie, Wanda’s only unwavering source of support throughout the story, is surprised when Wanda reveals her childhood name. “Alvin? That’s your real name?” Barbie asks, as though “Wanda” is just a disguise for the person underneath.
Wanda is constantly made to feel like an abandoned daughter. Unable to find solace in strangers, gods, and sometimes even among friends, she is forced to confront the incongruity between her perception of self and the world’s perception of her. In the end, because she is not allowed to enter the Dreamland with the other women, she is killed. A storm occurs after Thessaly calls down the moon, and that storm ends up destroying the apartment where Wanda is left to watch over the rest of the womens’ bodies. The Sandman, Dream, grants Barbie a boon, and Barbie uses it to save the women present in the Dreaming, but that does not include Wanda. When Barbie, Thessaly, Foxglove, and Hazel return to reality, Wanda is dead, buried in the rubble of the apartment building. When her body is returned to her childhood home in Kansas, her conservative parents dress her up in a suit and bury Wanda as Alvin (adding insult to injury, Gaiman gives her the last name Mann).
So what are we to make of this? Why is Wanda so consistently shamed for her womanhood when Hazel and Foxglove are never questioned over their sapphic sexuality? Why is her identity, in particular, so fragile? For the answer to that, we turn to Barbie.
The first evidence of Barbie’s identity crisis is not in “A Game of You,” but rather occurs during her first appearance in “A Doll’s House.” When we meet her, she is one half of the Ken-Barbie pairing. The two of them, husband and wife, complete one another’s sentences and say that they won’t bring Ken’s mother back to their home if their landlord, a drag queen, plans on bringing out his female persona that evening. Barbie has no demonstrable personality here, smothered as she is in her marriage. The fact that she and Ken share names with the famous Mattel toys denotes the plastic nature of their personas. They are artificial and false. This is further evidenced later on, when she dreams and the narration describes her “dream-life, more valid and true than anything she feels when waking.”
Dreaming or not, Barbie begins passive character. With Ken, she fulfills her father’s wishes to be “ladylike,” as in traditional and heteronormative based on her and Ken’s treatment of Hal. After her divorce, she doesn’t express much more motivation. Wanda gets her coffee, Wanda takes her shopping, Wanda keeps an eye out for her. Then, when she sinks back into the Dreaming, the animated versions of her stuffed animals bring her about the dangerous landscape.
When Barbie meets the Cuckoo, the latter makes an interesting–if debatable–comparison between the fantasies of girls and boys. She states that girls fantasize about being princesses (or “little Cuckoos” since being a princess essentially translates to one’s “real” parents taking them away from their “two dull parents, and a dull house”) while boys fantasize about being superheroes. Whether Gaiman meant this as a universal statement or something merely pertaining to this story comes into question, since the princess fantasy fits Barbie’s passivity perfectly, but doesn’t work with Wanda’s preferred fantasies about the Weirdzos, which are related to superhero comics.
In essence, Barbie is the Cuckoo, trapped in her dream world. The dream world, in turn, traps Barbie in passivity. Although her companions pitted her against the Cuckoo, her first act is to smash the Porpentine, after which the Cuckoo rejoices. The act calls Morpheus to the land and, after dismissing Thessaly’s demands that she kill the Cuckoo, he declares, “Her life is her own.” Barbie seems to agree with this, consenting to free the Cuckoo from the dream world. From the sense of freedom in the panel of the Cuckoo taking off, Barbie too seems to go free.
After she wakes up, Barbie, in personality, doesn’t differ too much from the woman we met in the beginning of the arc. She still regrets having nothing to say to the creepy comic shop employee, like Wanda would have, and can’t defend her friend from her transphobic aunt. However, she does produce a small act of rebellion in crossing off the name “Alvin” on Wanda’s tombstone with her favorite tube of lipstick and writing the correct name in its place.
This not only empowers Barbie, but Wanda as well. In the final moments of “A Game of You,” Barbie recalls a dream she had on a bus while traveling to Wanda’s funeral. She sees Wanda not as she was in life, but idealized. Wanda is soft rather than hard, curved rather than angular. She dons a princess pink dress with ease. Death stands next to Wanda, and the implication is that Wanda is finally recognized by another for who she sees herself as. In death, Wanda defines herself, and Barbie bears witness to the birth of that new identity.
Simultaneously, the death of Barbie’s island in the Dreaming and the death of Wanda have given Barbie independence from her former self. She is alone, without her best friend or her more “valid” world of dreaming, but her losses have given her freedom. Thus, in a sense, loneliness is the ultimate solution to Barbie’s conflict of identity. On the final page of “A Game of You,” Barbie is depicted alone, waiting for a bus to parts unknown. She reflects on her dream of Wanda, where she gets to say goodbye to her past life. She stands rigidly still for a panel, and that moment appears interminable. In that moment, separated from her past and facing an uncertain future, she is not subject to anyone’s expectations or desires. She is simply a figure in the rain. That’s all. That’s freedom.
Problematic as it may be, the core thesis of “A Game of You” rejects the notion that we are in control of our identities. Other people always hold sway over the way we are perceived and the way we perceive ourselves. Misanthropy is equated to freedom, as Wanda only finds herself fully realized in death and Barbie finds herself most free when she is separated from her past entanglements and is without future obligations. Yet, in the end, misanthropy is rejected, as Barbie turns and runs towards her bus, dashing towards a future that looks grey yet has a certain sense of hope lurking behind the frame.