Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Comics Review: "The Sandman: The Doll's House"

Here is the growing pains story arc of Neil Gaiman's award-winning, critically-acclaimed "The Sandman" comics series.

Personally, I think this is the weakest volume of the bunch. "The Doll's House" has a lot of cool ideas and some genuinely good single issues within the larger arc, but overall, it's a bit of a mess. It suffers from some truly bad dialog, lack of cohesion to its central theme, unclear explanations of its larger mysteries, and honestly, the worst coloring I've ever seen in a mainstream comic. I wondered if it was just my copy, but J, who you'll remember is reading this series with me, said that her copy has terrible coloring, too. Maybe it's just the re-prints and the original issues looked okay, but man alive, in some places it looks like a four-year-old took some frayed felt markers to the artwork.
The awfulness of that dye job haunts me.
I'm going to get tired of saying this, but this volume is still good, because it's still "The Sandman," which is better than most anything produced in the medium. But there are 10 books in the series and someone's got to be the bottom of the heap, so I'm going to call "The Doll's House" the worst of the bunch and dive right in.

"The Doll's House" is an immediate sequel to "Preludes and Nocturnes." Dream has returned to the Dreaming with his tools and sets himself to the task of repairing the damage done while he was imprisoned. Four major citizens of the Dreaming are missing and running loose in the real world, and a phenom known as the Dream Vortex has manifested itself in the young American, Rose Walker (she of the awful colored hair). Dream has to locate and subdue the missing dreams and deal with the Vortex before the dreams do any more damage in the real world and the Vortex destroys the Dreaming. In the meantime, lurking in the background is the second of Dream's siblings we've met: Desire, a being of indeterminate sex who lives in a giant scale replica of itself.
It's a house--and a doll! Symbolism!
Desire has a hand in Dream's current troubles, although we don't know the extent of its involvement until the very end of the story. And this is my major problem with "The Doll's House." I have no clue what actually happens in the story. Individual plot points are fairly easy to suss out, but I don't get the larger significance behind those plot points and what repercussions they have in the "Sandman" universe as a whole.

The volume opens with a single-shot issue called "Tales in the Sand," which explains how Dream came to have a girlfriend he condemned to suffer forever in Hell (we met her in the previous volume). Bad breakup, basically. Desire admits that it had a hand in all that pilikia, because Desire is an asshole and likes to fuck with Dream for shits and giggles. So Desire has a hand in Dream's present troubles, too, though damned if I can figure out what it is.

I get what Desire did, and even why it did the thing (I'm trying to avoid giving spoilers for a 20 year old comic). What I don't understand is how Desire knew that doing the thing would result in a Vortex. Dream says to Rose Walker that he doesn't understand how or why a Vortex happens. If Dream himself doesn't understand Vortexes, how does Desire know? Dream is the elder sibling and Vortexes happen in his realm, clearly he's the expert on them, yet Desire understands them better and is even able to predict when and how one will appear?
And seriously, what is up with her hair?
This bugged the shit out of me when I was 13 and it bugs the shit out of me now. A lot of heavy metaphysical stuff happens in "The Sandman," and fortunately Gaiman got much better at explaining the larger ideas and how they fit into the rules of the "Sandman" universe. But this first time around, he sets up some interesting concepts and can't quite stick the landing. There's a little too much left un-explained for both the readers and for the characters in the story, and that bugs me. If I don't get it, fine, but if the characters don't get it either and don't know what lesson to take from it, I'm left wondering what the point is. Considering that Rose Walker reappears throughout the series and is clearly "important," there should have been a better explanation of why she matters and what impact her existence has on Dream.

I'm being awfully hard on a comic that's still better than anything I've ever written. Let's talk about what works in this volume. The issue "Collectors," much like "24 Hours" in "Preludes and Nocturnes," is a wonderfully horrific little story about a serial killer convention. I loved it as a morbid 13-year-old, but I love it even more now, because I've been to comics conventions and I get all of the con in-jokes Gaiman makes.
Also, it's creepy as fuck.
There are two one-shots included in this volume that are as good as anything else in the "Sandman" series. I already mentioned "Tales from the Sand," which is significant because it's the first time we get to see what will become a regular occurrence in the series: the frame story, or the story within a story. These frame-story issues usually have an ordinary person telling a story in which Dream is a side character. If we're going by the hero's journey as set by Joseph Campbell, then Dream appears at the point in the story when the hero ventures to the underworld (the Dreaming) to get advice from the spirits/gods (Dream).

As early as "Imperfect Hosts," the third issue of "Preludes and Nocturnes," Dream is called the Prince of Stories. And as Gaiman expanded this universe, he expanded the meaning of "dreams" to include all stories, storytelling, and storytellers. The Dreaming became not just a place where people go when they fall asleep, but the metaphorical and literal birthplace of all stories, and the best issues of "The Sandman" are inevitably the ones that really explore what stories mean to people and what they mean to Dream. The next volume, "Dream Country," is made up entirely of these frame stories, so I'll discuss this more next time. But "The Doll's House" did it first with "Tales in the Sand" and is therefore notable (and redeemable) for it.

The second single-shot issue in this volume is "Men of Good Fortune," which has nothing to do with the events of "The Doll's House" but is delightful because it introduces Dream's one and only friend: Hob Gadling.  Hob was just a dude in a tavern in the twelfth century, drunkenly bragging to his buddies that death is optional and he never intends to die, so Dream gives Hob immortality.

They meet in the same tavern once every 100 years to have a drink and talk about what Hob's been up to. Sometimes Hob is doing great--has a knighthood, a family, lots of wealth--and sometimes he's alone, destitute and being drowned as a witch by neighbors who notice he doesn't age. At their meeting in the nineteenth century, Hob tells Dream that they only reason Dream keeps meeting him century after century is that Dream is lonely and wants a friend. Dream gets all huffy that the implication that a being of his power and stature would deign to be friends with a mortal, or even have the need for something so base as friendship. However, their meeting in the twentieth century happens shortly after Dream has been imprisoned naked in a glass box for 70 years, which tends to clarify a person's priorities, so he shows up for his meeting with Hob because they're friends!

This is one of my favorite issues of "The Sandman." It's so sweet and optimistic, unlike most of the other stuff in the series, and it shows Dream in the best possible light, as someone capable of forming bonds of trust. "Men of Good Fortune" gets to the heart of why friendship is so important to people's development and growth. Most of the time, Dream does what he does from a sense of duty and barely-concealed sanctimony (which is why he can't hold on to a girlfriend). This is the only time he does something because he wants to, and he's a better, more decent individual for it.

Hob continues to pop up every now and again in the series, and it's always a little heartbreaking when it happens because it illustrates the gulf between Dream and his dreamers. All living things, humans, animals, gods, planets and stars pass through his realm, but he is only friends with one person in the whole of existence. It's a tragedy in the true sense of the word, because it's a situation of his own making, and it will eventually prove his undoing.

Grades: C+ for the main story arc in "The Doll's House." The coloring is distractingly bad, I don't think Gaiman knew many Americans at the time because the American characters' dialog is clunky and forced, and there's so much left unexplained that I can't rate it higher than "Preludes." But the serial killer convention is awesome.

However! Grades of A for the two one-shots, "Tales in the Sand" and "Men of Good Fortune." This is the sort of thing that people talk about when they talk about "The Sandman."

Next time: "Dream Country."

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