Book: “The Sandman (Vol.5): A Game of You” by Neil Gaiman, Shawn McManus (Ill.), Colleen Doran (Ill.), Bryan Talbot (Ill.), George Pratt (Ill.), Stan Woch (Ill.), & Dick Giordano (Ill.)
Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1992
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: Volume Five of New York Times best selling author Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed creation THE SANDMAN collects one of the series’ most beloved storylines.Take an apartment house, add in a drag queen, a lesbian couple, some talking animals, a talking severed head, a confused heroine and the deadly Cuckoo. Stir vigorously with a hurricane and Morpheus himself and you get this fifth installment of the SANDMAN series. This story stars Barbie, who first makes an appearance in THE DOLL’S HOUSE and now finds herself a princess in a vivid dreamworld.
Review: Since “The Sandman” series has now slipped mostly into full fantasy, we got a small break from it during Horrorpalooza. But now we’re back in, and I have revisited “A Game of You”, a collection that has been both lauded as a fan favorite, and also been criticized in more recent years. I honestly had NO memory of this collection on this re-read, which didn’t really bode well for how well I connected to it the first time around. But I was happy to go back in, as it’s always kind of fun to see Gaiman tinker with other characters and build upon past stories and plot points that didn’t seem relevant in the moment. And oof. Going back was uncomfortable.
I will start with what I did like about “A Game of You”. In this story, instead of having a focus on Morpheus or any of the Endless, we focus on the character of Barbie, one of the side characters in “The Doll’s House”. She and Ken were other residents in the house that Rose Walker lived in, and functioned as a cheeky nod to Barbie dolls. By the end of that arc things weren’t going so well for them. Now Barbie is living in New York City in an apartment complex with a number of quirky neighbors, including a lesbian couple and a trans woman named Wanda (the description says ‘drag queen’, but that’s not accurate. Wanda is trans and we are going to talk about her a LOT in a bit). Barbie finds herself going into a dreamscape in which she is a princess of a kingdom that is being threatened by a malevolent entity known as The Cuckoo, and while she is unconscious, her neighbors want to help bring her back. Gaiman builds a whole new fantasy world, and even within the limited scope of this arc I felt like I got a sense of what kind of place this was. I liked seeing Barbie get a bit of her own agency in this tale, though I do admit that the severe lack of Morpheus outside of a couple moments was a little disappointing. I liked that Gaiman wanted to give other characters within his massive world some spotlight. But I thought that Morpheus really should have bad a bigger part to play. This could have been its own story very easily if you took Morpheus out.
The bigger issue is one of those moments where “The Sandman” hasn’t aged as well as time has gone on, and that is with the character of Wanda. It is clear that Gaiman wrote Wanda with the very best of intentions. For the early 90s, even having a trans character who has her own side plot, a multi faceted personality, and a sympathetic and very relatable characterization was HUGE for trans representation. Like, I can’t imagine that any other author, comics or not, with a big name project would have given Wanda the kind of story that Gaiman gives her. In 1993, Wanda is an important character. But in 2020, Wanda’s characterization is incredibly dated, with tropes, stereotypes, and harmful thematics galore. There was a lot of misgendering, there were many moments of ‘are you a boy or a girl’, and there was a fixation on her genitalia that really didn’t sit well with me. What was hardest to stomach was a moment regarding magic that undercut her identity (essentially there was moon magic that Wanda couldn’t participate in because, at the end of the day, she isn’t seen as a TRUE woman). Throw in some ‘bury your LGBTQIA’ things, and it just felt harmful and tone deaf for 2020. Again, I don’t believe that Gaiman’s intentions were anything other than good, given that just recently he signed his name to an open letter by authors in support of trans and non binary people. But as time has gone on, the portrayal is problematic at best, bordering on offensive.
I think that when I eventually re-read “The Sandman” in the future (as I’m sure I will), I probably will skip “A Game of You”. As of now, it doesn’t seem like later plot points will build upon it (that said I could be wrong; I just don’t remember), and the stereotypes were just too much.
Rating 5: With a complete side track of the story and some well intentioned representation feeling cringe in the decades after it was first written, “A Game of You” didn’t live up to the past collections.