The Sandman, Vol. 5 & 6 (“A Game of You” & “Fables & Reflections”) by Neil Gaiman

A Game of You (1993)

This one is an excellent example of Gaiman taking some side characters and some earlier introduced throwaway concepts and expanding that all into a new story-arc. A Game of You has a lot in common with The Doll’s House and could even be seen as a soft followup: there’s weird dream stuff interfering with the real world, and there’s a cast of odd people living in a flat. The metaphysics of how the Dream world works is getting a bit fuzzy now. I think Gaiman has been playing fast and loose with those metaphysics since the beginning, inventing just what the stories need.

This volume is very much about identity. The dreamworld is brought into the story to show that people have their own secret, private hidden lives inside them, and the external human body doesn’t always reflect that. The dreamworld, however, is where these things are all laid bare. The main character, Barbie, lives in this fantasy realm in her dreams in which she is a princess, and in her waking life she paints her face in all sorts of patterns as if she is painting masks for herself to hide behind. A second major character in the story is Wanda, a trans man. She is constantly struggling to be accepted as a woman by the people in her life. Gaiman draws a thematic connection between Wanda’s identity struggle and the unseen lives that we live in the dreamworld.

The fantasy realm is cute, full of talking animal companions and magical forests. Gaiman invents some funny throwaway fantasy nonsense about a quest and a magical artefact that he presents in a tongue in cheek way. There is some fantastically gross stuff going on in the real world with a witch who takes matter into her own hands, and eventually all the stories connect and the Sandman steps in at the last moment to set things right. So, again, it is a volume about new characters, a group of oddballs. Compared to The Doll’s House, this story arc is a bit more straightforward. Where in The Doll’s House the brilliance was found in single chapters, here the story is less scattershot and forms a solid whole, where only at the end the thematic connections become clear. I liked it, but it doesn’t reach the height of some of the previous arcs.

Fables & Reflections (1993)

A short story collection and this time a connecting theme between the stories seems to be historical times and places. One story plays out during the French Revolution, another in ancient Rome, another in ancient Baghdad… and so on, and always the Sandman shows up to bring one thing or another to a conclusion. Each story introduces its own characters but we also get to know some peripheral characters in Sandman’s greater story, such as his son (he has a son???) and Johanna Constantine. In this way, the shorts add to the larger body of work about Dream’s life, but not in a big, significant way.

His son Orpheus gets a grand treatment in “The Song of Orpheus”, a special issue which is basically a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. But with the Sandman and his lovely brothers and sisters playing their roles as Greek gods. It’s a beautiful adaptation. It has tragedy, horror and a bit of comedy at the end to complete the dramatic cycle with a bit of levity. And it shows the Sandman again as someone who isn’t quite human in his thinking.

The collection is a nice romp around space and time. I don’t have much else to say about it, except for that the variety of these stories shows that Gaiman is a fantastic storyteller. All of these stories work and are worth reading; they have emotional moments and interesting ideas and cheeky endings. It is also nice to see the variety in art styles as not every story is drawn by the same people.

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