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.
This is the second time I’ve written about “The Doll’s House.”
The first was during the first part of 1994, my senior year in high school. I’d received the trade paperback as a gift for Christmas. It wasn’t just my first exposure to Sandman, but my first exposure to any comic book that wasn’t solely focused on superheroes (that was a big Christmas for me, as I believe I also got collected editions of Watchmen, Batman: Year One, and the Dark Knight Returns). I wasn’t prepared for what I would end up reading.
I loved it.
So when my English teacher assigned us a paper on tone using the book of our choosing, I went with “The Doll’s House.” If I remember correctly, I got a 4 out of 5 on it (we were graded on a scale of up to 5 stars). Looking back on it, I’m kind of surprised that paper even did that well, although perhaps I managed to coast by because my teacher wasn’t familiar with the source material.
That original collection of “The Doll’s House” included Sandman #8, which was dropped from later editions as it was included in the “Preludes and Nocturnes” trade. But Sandman #8 was my first exposure to the character and that universe, so it’s easy to see why I was so quickly pulled in. Even now, after 75 issues of the original run and a recent 6 issue mini-series (as well as countless spin-offs, many not written by Gaiman), issue #8 is still pointed to as a shining example of the series; I started with the best.
While I’ve re-read “The Doll’s House” multiple times since I first got that paperback, those first impressions have stuck with me. They were buzzing around in the back of my head as I re-read it again, this time just a few weeks after I turned 40. How different would it be? How had the book (and I) aged?
The CB staff got into a lively discussion on Twitter after hearing Mark Stack’s thoughts on “Preludes and Nocturnes.” Part of the discussion involved the evolution of Sandman, and how long it took for Gaiman and company to hit their stride. What I found interesting about “The Doll’s House” is that, for as well regarded as this story arc is, it’s still just a step on the road to Sandman becoming a fully realized series.
There are obvious flaws. For as much as 18 year old me enjoyed the serial killer convention, it’s such a gimmicky idea, well beneath the standards that we’ve come to expect from Sandman. How would the logistics of such a thing even work? And for as genuinely scary as the individual serial killers were, the entire thing is at odds with how serial killers behave.
Then there’s the fact that the sheer volume of coincidences necessary to make “The Doll’s House” work pushes the suspension of disbelief beyond its breaking point. What are the combined odds of Rose’s car breaking down near the hotel where the convention is held and the Corinthian picking up Rose’s brother Jed? Or that Brute and Glob would choose Jed’s head to hide out in?
But you can see the greatness beginning to play out on the page. Sandman has always had a metafictional core. It’s more delicate than, say, the works of Grant Morrison, but it’s there. Sandman is a story about stories. It’s about the power of the story, in the telling and in the listening. Gaiman’s genius is not just his ability to create these stories, but his focus on stories featuring marginalized characters. We get glimpses of it in “The Doll’s House,” but it’s not yet perfected.
“The Doll’s House” is about family, be it the Endless or the three generations of Kincaids or the residents of the house in Florida. More specifically, it’s about children. It’s about Rose searching for her brother, Jed. It’s about Dream finding his runaway children. It’s about the games children play, games where they pretend to be adults. Where is that line, then, between pretending and doing, between acting and being?
The delusions in “The Doll’s House” run the gamut: delusions of importance (Brute and Glob, the serial killers), delusions of identity (Hector Hall, Fiddlers’ Green, the Corinthian), and delusions of relationships (Ken and Barbie, Desire and humanity).
“Tales in the Sand”
The first part of “The Doll’s House,” Sandman #9, would suggest that this arc will be a fully realized Sandman story. The elements are there: it’s the story of a story being told, featuring characters that are seldom showcased in mainstream comics. This is where Gaiman thrives. He and Dringenberg create a fully realized world within a fully realized world. The story of the two tribesmen is just as important as the story of Nada and Dream.
Issue #9 almost seems at odds with what’s to come in “The Doll’s House.” It reads as a higher level reflection of what the series is. It happens in the clouds, above the grit and grime of the world. It’s beauty is in the fact that it feels removed, feels magical and ageless. That sense is diminished as “The Doll’s House” moves forward.
Sandman #9 does two important things with regards to the longer story, though: 1) it establishes that Dream’s sibling, Desire, enjoys plotting against him and 2) it establishes that Dream can be something of a prick. These things would come up again later on.
“The Doll’s House”
With Sandman #10, we get to the story proper, and see a continuation of the main source of forward momentum in the series so far: the quest. In “Preludes and Nocturnes,” it was Dream tracking down his missing artifacts. In “The Doll’s House,” he’s after four escaped dreams. It seems that Gaiman had a crutch to keep the stories going. While both quests work perfectly fine for what they’re meant to do, Dream’s search for the missing dreams carries much more weight because of it what it represents: a parent searching for his children.
Much of issue #10 is set up, from the introduction of the Kincaids to our first glimpse of Dream’s other siblings. What makes this issue truly remarkable, though, is the art from Mike Dringenberg and Malcom Jones III. Given that Rose is a vortex, the crux of the story is that multiple, disparate stories come together around her (even if this idea is pushed beyond its limits). Dringenberg and Jones do an incredible job of making sure each of those stories has its own look and feel. Compare Desire and his/her home with any other scene; it’s night and day. Desire’s world is sleek and smooth, like something Patrick Nagel would have done. That’s not Dream’s world. Dream’s world is full of dramatic poses, glimmering eyes, and ephemeral landscapes. On earth, however, things are less clean. The artwork is scratchier because the world isn’t polished. And Drigenberg and Jones’ work is never darker than when it features the Corinthian.
Dringenberg and Jones show off their versatility in issue #11, when Gaiman introduces what had to have been an obvious idea: incorporating Little Nemo.
Winsor McCay’s Nemo in Slumberland was a comic strip that debut in the New York Herald in 1905. It featured the dreamtime adventures of a young boy named Nemo (not a fish). At the end of each strip, Nemo would wake up from his dream.
Interestingly enough, the first Nemo in Slumberland comic strip featured King Morpheus commanding his minions to bring Nemo to Slumberland to play with the princess. It’s not surprising, then, that two of Dream’s minions, Brute and Glob, are responsible for creating the Nemo-esque world in Jed’s head.
What is surprising is who else inhabits this dream world.
It’s easy to understand how seeing mainstream DCU characters in a Sandman story can be jarring. But it’s also easy to see why Gaiman does it so often at the start of the series. Even if there was no editorial mandate, Gaiman’s mentor Alan Moore had been doing the same thing in the pages of Swamp Thing. I think people sometimes forget that even British Vertigo writers grew up reading superhero comics, too.
The aforementioned DCU characters that show up in Sandman #11 are the Sandman and Fury. But this isn’t the Sandman most readers know (if they know a Sandman besides the titular character). This isn’t Wesley Dodds. This is Hector Hall, son of the Golden Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl. Hector originally flew around fighting crime with Infinity, Inc. as the Silver Scarab. He would eventually die under that name, although not before learning that his fiance, Lyta Trevor aka Fury, was carrying his child.
But Hall didn’t die. Instead, his spirit was sent to the Dreaming, where it was found by Brute and Glob. The two of them convinced Hall that he was the “dream king,” so he took on the mantle of the Sandman and began visiting Lyta in her dreams. He was eventually able to reveal himself during waking hours. He asked Lyta if she’d still marry him and live with him in his dream kingdom. She said yes.
And there they stayed, stuck inside what was actually a fabricated Dreaming that existed solely in Jed’s head. The only other inhabitants (aside from the creatures created in Jed’s individual dreams) were Brute and Glob, who Hall believed worked for him.
As comic book wacky as all that sounds, the brutal truth of the matter is that Jed seeks refuge in his dreams because he spends most of his time locked in his foster parents’ basement with nothing but an old blanket to cover him. He urinates in the corner and gets bitten by rats. And if his foster parents think he’s misbehaving, they physically abuse him.
There are two other major events in this issue. The first is that Rose moves into a house in Florida, a house occupied by some wonderful characters, including the human manifestation of Fiddlers’ Green, another one of the the missing dreams. Again, that’s a heck of a coincidence. Even if Rose was drawn there due to Gilbert’s (Fiddlers’ human name) presence, the fact that the house is in close proximity to where Jed is being held is a bit much.
There’s a certain element of pre-destiny at work here, something that will come up again in the climax.
The other major event is Rose getting a lead on her brother. Gilbert, fancying himself something of a knight who at last has found someone in need of his help, decides to join her on her road trip to find Jed.
Issue #12 subtly changes the way “The Doll’s House” has been told up until this point. While the first two parts featured the introduction and movement of each story line, issue #12 begins a very deliberate structure in which an individual plot point is resolved. For all the seeds of future stories that Gaiman plants, this one is rigidly structured to give closure.
In issue #12, we see the culmination of the Brute and Glob story. Dream heads into their makeshift Dreaming and confronts not just his runaway dreams, but Hector Hall and Lyta Trevor as well. The battle forces them all out of Jed’s head and into the real world, where the force of their arrival blows the top off the house, apparently killing Jed’s foster parents. Dream sends Brute and Glob to “the darkness,” then returns Hector Hall’s spirit to the afterlife. Lyta, who has spent all this time in something of a stupor, understandably believes that Dream has killed her husband. In the chaos, Jed runs away. He is picked up by the Corinthian, who just happens to be passing by.
There are two things that I found problematic about this conclusion. One, it’s suggested in the captions that Jed’s foster parents are only behaving like horrible people because Brute and Glob are influencing them to do so. A very real, true to life scenario (child abuse) is quickly undermined by two wayward dreams pulling the strings. It would seem more on point that Brute and Glob only took up residence in Jed’s head because he spent so much time in his dreamworld due to the constant abuse.
The second issue is Dream informing Lyta that the child she is carrying is his and that he will be back for it. This raises a whole bunch of problems, both logistically and morally. The former isn’t that big of a deal: Lyta was pregnant before Hall died or ever entered the Dreaming. Dream wasn’t involved in any capacity. But let’s say that’s a retcon. I think most readers could look past that.
The bigger problem is the implication that Dream raped Lyta. “The child – the child you have carried so long in dreams. That child is mine.”
How else are we to read that? At this point in the run of Sandman, with all the information we have, what else are possibly supposed to take away?
The other major plot point in this issue is that Rose’s car has broken down and she and Gilbert must spend the night at the hotel where the serial killer convention is set to take place.
This issue was guest penciled by Chris Bachalo and it looks great. It is far removed from Bachalo’s current style, but to be perfectly honest, his current style wouldn’t fit. It would seem as if Dringenberg was given a break so he could work on the extra long issue #14. This was a good chapter for a fill-in artist, given the story of Brute and Glob was secondary to the story of Rose.
Dringenberg would take another issue off to prepare, which is when things get a little weird.
“Men of Good Fortune”
Issue #13 has no bearing on “The Doll’s House” in any way, shape, or form, yet it is labeled as being the fourth part in the story. It is, by the purest definition of the phrase, a fill-in issue.
It’s also one of my favorite issues of Sandman.
I won’t go into a blow by blow account of the issue, but suffice it to say that it features stories within stories and, perhaps, and attempt at humanizing Dream, something that honestly seems impossible given the events of the last issue. The art is by Michael Zulli and Steve Parkhouse and it’s perfect for this story.
Sandman #14 is called “Collectors” and, aside from a quick trip into the wilderness, takes place exclusively at the serial killer convention. I mentioned how ridiculous this concept is at the beginning of this lengthy column, but it’s worth mentioning again: this feels like a gimmick. It feels like an idea that probably sounded great in theory, but the execution doesn’t hold up. If the goal is to cash in on the real world terror that is a serial killer, it’s undercut by the fact that none of this would ever happen.
What saves this particular part of “The Doll’s House” from being horrible is the details. This issue is full of stories, be it the backgrounds of the individual serial killers or the original version of Little Red Riding Hood that Gilbert tells Rose. Gaiman and the newly returned Dringenberg make the most of these stories. Dringenberg expands upon the photo-realistic style he’d shown glimpses of earlier in the series to create truly frightening portraits of these murders.
As with issue #12, this is the culmination of yet another plot point in “The Doll’s House,” this time the retrieval of the Corinthian. Rose and Gilbert (aka Fiddlers’ Green) are staying at the hotel where the serial killer convention is happening. The Corinthian just happens to share an elevator with them and Gilbert recognizes him. Understanding the danger that Rose is in with the Corinthian walking about, he gives her a piece of paper with a name on it and tells her to say the name aloud if she’s ever in trouble. He doesn’t elaborate.
Sure enough, one of the serial killers goes after Rose, so she reads “Morpheus” off the piece of paper and Dream appears. Minor quibble: how did she not remember that word after reading the piece of paper the first time? How would she just forget that mysterious name given to her under mysterious circumstances? I mean, come on now.
Anyway, Dream arrives and dispatches Funland, the alias used by the serial killer who preys on children and who thought Rose looked young enough to fit the bill. Dream’s method of subduing Funland is a bit problematic, because he simply puts him to sleep, where he has “the most wonderful dream he has ever had.” This is what happens to the child murderer. Yes, you can make the argument that Dream doesn’t care enough about human affairs to punish Funland, but why give him something positive? Why give him any kind of dream at all?
Dream’s moral ambiguity is off the charts in this volume.
Morpheus confronts the Corinthian just as he’s giving his keynote speech (yes, really). He eventually reduces his nightmare to a tiny skull, which he takes away. He then turns on the hall full of serial killers and whammies them with the realization that what they’re doing isn’t some kind of justified higher calling, and that they are really just tiny, horrid people.
Rose is in the parking lot, recovering from her attack, when Gilbert walks up to her with Jed in his arms. “I found him. He was locked in the boot of a car. I heard him sobbing.” That’s…incredibly convenient.
The issue ends with Rose and Gilbert taking Jed to the hospital and the serial killers aimlessly wandering off.
“Into the Night”
The next plot point to be dealt with is the Florida house, but while we see the same wonderful details for each of the characters in the house as we did in the last issue, it’s not bogged down by a gimmick.
Rose tries to sleep after returning from the hospital; he brother is still in a coma. But since Rose is a vortex, she sees all the dreams happening in the house. We get incredible insight into Ken, Barbie, Chantal, Zelda, and Hal. Each of these characters is fully realized, and interesting enough to deserve their own stories. The dreams begin to bleed into one another. Ken and Barbie discover that they don’t really know each other. Chantal and Zelda quite obviously do.
Meanwhile, Rose’s grandmother, Unity, is dying. Jed shows no signs of recovering. And Dream plucks Rose out of our world and into his so he can close the vortex by killing her.
Sandman #16 is our epic conclusion, tying up the remaining plot point: closing the vortex of dreams.
Dream spends a lot of this issue telling Rose that he has to kill her. He does so long enough for Gilbert to find them and offer up his life for Rose’s which, of course, doesn’t fly, because Gilbert isn’t a vortex. He does, however, return to life as a dream, and we see Fiddlers’ Green for the delightful place that it is.
Gilbert’s arrival drags things out long enough for Rose’s grandmother to show up. She has fallen asleep while on her death bed and she is not happy about what she’s found in the Dreaming. She tells Dream that he should kill her, as she was meant to be the vortex. Her destiny was altered when Dream was captured and Unity spent years asleep.
Dream says no, of course, but Unity asks Rose for her heart, a symbolic gesture in the dream world that will translate in the real world to Rose passing along the mantle of vortex to her grandmother. In the Dreaming, Rose’s heart is made of glass, similar to the piece of the old city the younger tribesman found way back in issue #9.
Unity becomes the vortex and promptly dies. Dream tells Rose he no longer has to kill her and will send her back to the waking world. He also tells her that, to make up for her suffering, he will wake up Jed.
“And then she woke up.” We cut to Rose’s diary, six months later. She’s finally writing about what happened to her. She’s holed up in her room in her mother’s new house outside of Seattle. It turned out that Unity was rich and she left all her money to her only daughter.
In classic Sandman style, Gaiman connects dots we never knew were there. Rose mentions that her best friend died a year ago. Her name was Judy and she and five others were killed in a diner in a small town. Those were the events of Sandman #6.
Rose decides to rejoin the human race. She decides that she can’t spend any more time thinking about the events of six months before or the crazy dream she had that last night. She decides that dreams are just dreams and nothing more. She (theoretically) lives happily ever after.
Dream, on the other hand, is not happy. He’s put together the pieces. He goes to Desire and tells her/him that he knows what really happened. He explains that the Endless do not control the humans, it is the humans who control the Endless. And he threatens his younger sibling if anything like this should happen again.
“The Doll’s House” is a fascinating work in progress. You can see Gaiman playing the long game while trying to master the short game, but not quite pulling it off. You can see Dringenberg really come into his own, becoming the definitive Sandman artist. And you can see the thread of what will make Sandman so great.
There’s an otherworldly creativity about Sandman, a plane of higher creation that we are rarely able to glimpse. But we begin to see it consistently with “The Doll’s House,” even if it’s watered down at points.
“Preludes and Nocturnes” laid the groundwork. “The Doll’s House” is the springboard from which the Sandman was launched to epic heights.