I haven’t done an exhaustive analysis of the topic, or seen anything substantial written about it, but more than a few astute readers of early-to-mid 1980s fantasy fiction and American comic books have likely connected Michael Ende’s The NeverEnding Story to the end of the Bronze Age of superhero comics and the transition to the Modern Age. The simple version goes like this: Ende’s novel, about a fantasy land being destroyed by the encroaching “Nothing,” must surely have inspired Marv Wolfman’s conception of Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which a wave of Anti-Matter threatened to destroy the fantastical DC multiverse and all of its inhabitants.
The parallels may merely be a coincidence, but the stories are parallel nonetheless. And both The NeverEnding Story and Crisis on Infinite Earths tell of the impending death of a universe populated by expansive imaginations.
When I reread the fifth Sandman collected edition, A Game of You, the Wolfman/Ende connection rose to the forefront of my mind. It was easy to think, “ah, here’s Neil Gaiman, in his clever way, paying tribute to his protagonist’s comic book roots and to the German novelist who may or may not have helped to give birth to a new era for the four-color industry. A new era in which Gaiman himself was free to create a series as unconventional as Sandman.” Because A Game of You is weird. Even for a Sandman story arc.
By the time issue #32 rolls around, and the arc begins, we think we have a handle on the series. It’s about a mythological dream king and his somber attempts to reclaim his place in the universe, while giving Gaiman and his artistic collaborators a tapestry upon which to tell various tales in the gothic fantasy mode, with some overlap into the musty corners of superherodom. And while A Game of You fits into those parameters, ultimately, it also violates one of the major rules of serious, important comics of the serious, important Modern Age: it features a fairy tale princess and her anthropomorphic animal companions.
Neil Gaiman, what have you done to our dark, brooding, creepy, horrific, portentous comic book series?!?!
Giant talking doggies? A rat in a fedora and trenchcoat? Is that…a dodo wearing a dickie?
Confronted with imagery like that, mashed up with a gritty version of the cast of Rent, I could only fall back on my pseudo-critical theories of influence. And that’s reading it now, trying to make sense out of the arc’s placement within the larger Gaiman narrative. At the time of A Game of You’s initial serialization, my response, as far as I can recall, was a simple “huh.”
Really, though, the Ende/Wolfman influence probably has nothing at all to do with this story—it was merely my way of putting it into my own perspective—because as Gaiman clearly points out in his acknowledgements at the end of the collected edition, A Game of You was inspired by Jonathan Carroll who gave him the confidence to tell this off-beat story and to “write it new.” Carroll did more than that, though, since any internet digging on the subject will reveal that the core conceit of A Game of You comes almost directly from Carroll’s 1987 novel Bones of the Moon, which, like Gaiman’s story arc, tells of a young woman in “our” world who dreams of a fantasy world, filled with whimsical creatures, and the realities begin to overlap in dangerous ways.
Gaiman takes that plot, injects it into Sandman, and clearly gets swept up by it.
Lord Morpheus hardly appears in the story arc, and even though he plays an important role in the end, A Game of You is never about him. Except thematically.
Instead, it’s about Barbie, who we met briefly in The Doll’s House, as what seemed like a one-note joke of a character who shared a roof with Rose Walker. Barbie was married to Ken (get it?) and while he dreamed of numbers and money she dreamed of beautiful fields and “The Arch of the Porpentine” and riding her majestic Martin Tenbones on a fantastical journey.
That was two year earlier in the series, and little did we expect Gaiman to return to the story of Barbie’s dreamworld and turn it into an epic saga about the struggles of life and the loss of innocence, but that’s exactly what he did in A Game of You.
After rereading it, it might be tied for my favorite story arc in the entire series.
Barbie’s journey, and that of her misguided but selfless human friends, is an engaging adventure tale first and a smart commentary on youth versus age, on innocence versus experience, second. Gaiman doesn’t let his symbolism overpower his story, and even though we don’t have any reason to care about Barbie at first, we care about her deeply by the end of the first chapter, as she watches Martin Tenbones brutally gunned down on the city streets.
“Fulfill your quest,” he tells her, blood gushing from his wounds. “I love you, Princess. And I am sorry…”
He does not—did not—belong in the real world and he paid the price, as the noble creature looked like a monster to the beat cops who pull Barbie away with an unceremonious “Out of the way, bimbo.”
The rest of the tale is haunting and tragic, shifting from the chaotic identity issues of Barbie and her friends in their city apartments to the dangerous journey to find and defeat the mysterious Cuckoo in the fantasy world. Gaiman imbues all the characters, from the cross-dressing Wanda to the bookish witch Thessaly to the brave talking rat Wilksonson with strong personalities that make the story valuable even outside of its larger Sandman plot concerns.
Yes, some characters in this story have ties to previous arc, tenuously, and others will play larger roles before the series comes to an end, but for all of the resonant echoes delivered by A Game of You, the most impressive is that it’s just a really great tale. What seems at first to be Gaiman pushing the series further than it might be able to sustain (funny animals and fairy tales can be a bit much, especially in a comic that began its run in such a bleak yet ambitiously intelligent way) turns out to be exactly what Sandman needed to move away from the weight of its own central character. That isn’t to say that A Game of You is light and airy—it’s not—but it clashes the vulnerability up against the ultra-menacing, and it smashes the visions of childhood reveries against the realities of burden and responsibility.
The Cuckoo turns out to be a simulacrum of Barbie’s childhood self. The vile, gap-toothed cute little girl explains that she’s an abandoned imaginary friend who has taken up the form of her old playmate when she and the rest of the creatures (all based on plush toys from Barbie’s bedroom) were abandoned. When Barbie grew up.
Of course, it’s all dream logic and there’s no resolution until Morpheus finally appears in the story and closes up shop on this little corner of the dreamworld. A corner he created long ago, for someone else, a power that Barbie and the Cuckoo just happened to tap into. The details of the why don’t matter so much. It’s unimportant compared to Barbie’s journey and the tragic sacrifice so many others make along the way.
Barbie—back in the real world, accepting her adult responsibilities while mourning those that she has lost—provides the closing narration for the story arc. She’s looking for meaning in everything that has happened, and this is what she has come up with: “If there’s a moral there, I don’t know what it is, save maybe that we should take our goodbyes whenever we can…And that’s all.”
She is still unable to see everything that she’s learned along the way, and how much she has grown and still has to grow. The moral implicit in the story is more powerful than that. It’s everything she says and more. It’s about the power of fantasy, the power of story to shape reality, and the conflict between the need to grow up and confront reality and the strength that comes from holding on to the unfettered imagination of youth. But Barbie can’t see that. Instead, she takes her goodbye and leaves it at that. But maybe that’s enough. And a hint at what’s to come, because soon enough we learn that the whole of Sandman is about saying goodbye. As a series, it’s all a third act, with flashes of what had come before. Only that structure isn’t visible until closer to the end, and by the end of A Game of You we’re only halfway there. More wonderful stories are yet to come, though few can compare with what Neil Gaiman, Shawn McManus, Colleen Doran, and the rest of the creative team give us here.
NEXT TIME: Kings and cities, real and imagined, in Fables and Reflections.
Tim Callahan was haunted by the death of Martin Tenbones for far longer than he’d likely admit, but he is totally over it now that he’s a grown up, so don’t worry.