Magic & Good Madness: A Neil Gaiman Reread

The Sandman Reread: The Doll’s House

I mentioned last time that “The Sound of Her Wings” was originally reprinted in both the first and second Sandman trade paperbacks, and that’s true, and it is the story in which the series fully comes to life. But there’s another reason why the original trade of The Doll’s House began with that story: The Doll’s House, collecting the second story arc of the series, was actually the first collection printed.

In the days when not everything from DC Comics was guaranteed a collected edition, someone at DC clearly thought that the first half-year of single issues wouldn’t be as appealing to the bookstore market as the stories that made up “The Doll’s House” arc. It wasn’t until later that Preludes and Nocturnes came into print, and that’s when “The Sound of Her Wings” slid back as an epilogue to volume 1, rather than a prologue to (what would become) volume 2.

Because, as it stands now, The Doll’s House collection has a prologue of its own, in Sandman #9, “Tales in the Sand.”

“Tales in the Sand,” drawn by at-that-point series regular artist Mike Dringenberg, barely features Morpheus at all. As I said previously, there’s a major aspect of anthologizing in Sandman, and stories embedded within stories. It’s the major thrust of “The Doll’s House” arc, which doesn’t begin until the following issue, but even issue #9’s thematic prologue illustrates that Neil Gaiman is as interested in telling stories as he is in telling about the further adventures of his protagonist. In truth, Morpheus is presented here more as a spiteful force of nature than as a traditional hero. He isn’t the protagonist of this issue, a young woman named Nada is, and when she spurns him, because of the consequences of remaining with a god, he threatens her soul with “eternal pain.”

Nada’s story, an ancient one, is told by a tribesman—a grandfather speaking to his grandson as the young one completes his journey to become a man—and there’s the voice of an omniscient narrator who provides some context at the beginning and end, who tells us: “There is another version of the tale. That is the tale the women tell each other, in their private language that the men-children are not taught, and that the old men are too wise to learn. And in that version of the tale perhaps things happened differently. But then, that is a women’s tale, and it is never told to men.”

A story within a story within a story, self-consciously pointing out to us that other versions exist.

The danger in setting up such a structure is that it turns everything in the comic, and every previous and future issue, into “just a story.” None of it really counts, in that sense. But Neil Gaiman’s amazing feat, throughout this series, is that everything counts. The stories are what matters because this is a series that celebrates the art of storytelling.

“Tales in the Sand” reminds us of that, and also sets up the power of desire, even though Dream’s sibling, Desire-with-a-capital-D, only plays an on-panel role beginning in the next issue. We also get to see that Morpheus is not a pale, white, spikey-haired Goth rock-star looking guy. That’s just one manifestation of him. He takes on the aspect of whatever culture he presents himself to. His shifting appearance mimics the shifting narrative of stories told and retold.

“The Doll’s House” proper, as a complete, multi-issue story (with stories embedded within it, of course), begins with Sandman #10 and the striking, towering fortress called the Threshold, which is “larger than you can easily imagine. It is a stature of Desire, him-, her-, or it-self…and, like every true citadel since time began, the Threshold is inhabited.”

Here, Neil Gaiman expands the mythology of Sandman—we’ve already met Dream and Death of the Endless, but now we meet sweet and manipulative and vicious Desire and the hideous Despair—and that is another of Gaiman’s great achievements in the series: he creates a clear mythological structure that allows him to play with sibling rivalry on an epic scale while also providing embodiments for all the facets of humanity. Gaiman’s mythology doesn’t strain to present itself as meaningful, or to justify the connections between the characters in some kind of Tolkeinesque ancestral map, it just reminds us of the archetypal structures that we’ve already built in our minds. Dream and Death and Desire and Despair do exist, for us, and Gaiman gives them form, and, more importantly, personality.

Desire reveals that she had played a role in ensnaring Morpheus into a love affair with Nada, and she seems to have another scheme planned. But this is merely the frame story for The Doll’s House, and we don’t know what Desire is up to quite yet.

The overarching story, the guts of The Doll’s House, from Sandman #10-16, is the saga of Rose Walker, young woman with rainbow-colored hair. By the end, we learn that we’ve been following Rose through her journey because she’s central to Dream. She’s the “vortex,” and that means she’s going to have to die.

The vortex “destroys the barriers between dreaming minds; destroys the ordered chaos of the Dreaming…Until the myriad of dreamers are caught in one huge dream.” Then, it all collapses, taking the minds of the dreamers with it. If that were to happen, it would be…well…seriously bad.

So that’s the big story—Morpheus’s pursuit of Rose Walker, the vortex, and the eventual decision about her final fate—but in the hands of Neil Gaiman, it’s not presented as if that’s the big story at all. Instead, it seems to be about innocent Rose Walker’s perilous journey through a strange American landscape where killers dwell and nothing is at it seems. The vortex bit, a major part of the climax, seems barely important until you realize that it’s hugely important but Gaiman has been underplaying it to tell stories about smaller corners of the world Rose Walker drifts through.

What we end up with is Gaiman’s fantastical version of Alan Moore’s “American Gothic” arc from Swamp Thing, and it exemplifies Gaiman stepping out of Moore’s shadow, because even as Gaiman seems inspired by Moore’s counting-and-eye-collecting Boogeyman, he does Moore one better by putting storytelling before moralizing. “American Gothic” is some of the worst of Moore’s Swamp Thing but “The Doll’s House” is some of the best of Gaiman’s Sandman—expansive, evocative, chilling, and wondrous.

It’s no shock that it was the first thing from the series DC decided to reprint.

What else is worthwhile along the way, as we follow Rose Walker on her journey? Well, we meet Lucien, the librarian of the Dreaming, and in his exchanges with Morpheus the setting becomes more fully realized (and we get more hints about the connection between this Sandman series and the Jack Kirby, yellow-and-red dream warrior Sandman of the Bronze Age). We meet the strange inhabitants of the boarding house Rose stays at, including the spider-brides Zelda and Chantal, Ken and Barbara (whose fantasy world will play a dominant role a year into the series’ future, but we only glimpse its strangeness here), and Gilbert, the burly older gentleman who plays the role of Rose’s protector.

Gaiman’s G. K. Chesterton adoration comes through in the form of Gilbert, who is modeled after Chesterton himself, and while he looks like an unlikely hero, he is noble and brave, and, ultimately, not even human at all: he’s a piece of the Dreaming who has adopted corporeal form.

In my memory of this collection of comics, the Cereal Convention—actually a Serial Killer’s Convention—plays a larger role. But though Rose ends up at the same motel as the convention, and comes close to becoming a victim of Funland (the amusement park predator), most of The Doll’s House takes place before we even see the Convention, or get to the motel. The Serial Killer stuff is powerful—Gaiman’s matter-of-fact portrayal of evil is particularly unsettling—and the presence of Dream’s nightmare creation, the Corinthian, ties it all back into the story of Morpheus, but the divergences along the way are what make this batch of issues worth rereading.

And in the middle of it all, we get two consecutive issues by guest artists—what would be obvious fill-in issues in the hands of other creative teams—and these mid-arc single issues are two of the best of the entire collection.

The first is “Playing House,” from Sandman #12, drawn by a young Chris Bachalo. Amazingly, this is Bachalo’s first professional comic book work (what a debut!) and only a few months later he would go on to co-create the revamped and hallucinatory Shade, The Changing Man with Peter Milligan. In “Playing House,” Gaiman gives us a Sandman story firmly footed in the DC Universe—those kinds of stories would be less prevalent as the series unfolded—and we find out that Brute and Glob have concocted their own mini-dreamworld in the mind of a child, with the colorful DCU Sandman as their plaything. In then-current DC continuity the superhero Sandman was Hector Hall, and he and his wife Lyta (both former members of the second-generation superteam Infinity, Inc.), had a little homestead inside the dreamworld. The confrontation between Hall and Morpheus is a tragic one, since Hall “died” in Infinity, Inc. long before, and was living as Sandman on borrowed time. Morpheus puts him to rest, leaving the angry, grieving, and pregnant Lyta to fend for herself.

Hauntingly, Morpheus leaves her with these words: “the child you have carried so long in dreams. That child is mine. Take good care of it. One day I will come for it.”

That’s Gaiman’s protagonist. Hardly heroic. But a fitting pairing of word and deed for a god. And his statement has implications in future issues.

The following issue, unrelated to what comes before or after, except thematically, is Sandman #13’s “Men of Good Fortune,” guest-illustrated by Michael Zulli. This story gives Gaiman a chance to flash back in time to 1489, where we meet Hob Gadling, the man who will become Morpheus’s friend.

There is no narrative reason for this story to fall here, between the Hector Hall tragedy and the upcoming Serial Killer sequence, but it’s a perfect fit, because, as readers, we need something in Morpheus to latch onto. And his relationship with Hob Gadling speaks volumes.

Gadling is granted immortality, though he doesn’t believe it at first (who would?), and he and Morpheus schedule a centennial meeting, at the same pub in which they first cross paths. So Gaiman takes us from 1489 right up to 1989, 100 years at a time, sprinkling in historical characters and events along the way in what amounts to a time-hopping My Dinner with Andre, starring a reluctant immortal and the god of the Dreaming. The meetings humanize Morpheus for the reader, even though Gadling’s centennial check-ins are sometimes unbearably painful. Hob Gadling hasn’t always made the right decisions over the years. But he chooses life, ever time, even though he knows what it might cost in personal misery. And his evolving relationship with Morpheus, and Morpheus’s own acknowledgement of friendship, becomes the core of the story.

It’s quite a good single issue—in many ways the most direct symbol of the ethos of the entire series—and it feels uniquely Gaimanesque in its whimsical use of history and tale-telling, bound together inside something resonant and relevant to a larger sense of the mythology of Dream.

From there we go through the Serial Killer’s Convention and all the depravity that implies (with not a little vicious wit from Gaiman all the way through), until we get to the inevitable: Morpheus must kill Rose Walker, or else all dreamers will be destroyed by the vortex.

But that’s not what happens. Morpheus shows compassion. And we believe it because Gaiman has sprinkled in enough character moments to make us realize that Morpheus is more than a haughty omnipresence. Rose Walker may be the vortex, but she wasn’t meant to be. It was meant to be her grandmother, Unity Kincaid, who had slept for nearly a lifetime because Morpheus was imprisoned and dreams weren’t working properly. Unity gives up her life to save her granddaughter, and there’s yet another twist: Unity became pregnant while she was asleep all those years, and how did that happen?

Desire.

Rose Walker is the granddaughter of one of the Endless, and had Morpheus killed her, he would have unleashed…something. All we know is that Morpheus, once he has figured out the truth and brought it to his manipulative sister, implies that Rose Walker’s death at the hands of her own great-uncle would have entailed something unspeakable.

Morpheus admonishes her, and wraps up the frame of the narrative with these words, before leaving Desire alone in her hollow citadel: “When the last living thing has left this universe, then our task will be done. And we do not manipulate them. If anything, they manipulate us. We are their toys. Their dolls, if you will.” And he concludes with a promise: “Mess with me or mine again, and I will forget that you are family, Desire. Do you believe yourself strong enough to stand against me? Against Death? Against Destiny? Remember that, sibling, the next time you feel inspired to interfere in my affairs. Just remember.”

What began with Nada, and a tragic love story long ago, ends with the condemnation of Desire.

But for all of his words about the Endless as the dolls of humanity, the truth is that Desire is always impossible to control. And Dream knows it. We know it.

And the story continues.

NEXT: Four short stories bring us to a place known as Dream Country.


Tim Callahan, as a teenager, was so inspired by the Cereal Convention in the “Doll’s House” story arc that he submitted a dark-tinged story proposal to DC Comics in which some of those vicious characters visited the bayou of the Swamp Thing. He’s still waiting to hear back.

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