Book Club / Oversimplification at Best and Condescension at Worst
Volume 5: A Game of You
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Shawn McManus, Colleen Doran, Bryan Talbot, George Pratt, Stan Woch and Dick Giordano
Birds singing in the sycamore trees / Dream a little dream of me. Only (uh oh) it turns out that the bird singing is a cuckoo and we’re actually dreaming a dream of each other. Or something? I don’t know. What I do know is that contained within the following questions will be answered: Is the word to describe A Game of You “Twee”? Is high fantasy a male only zone? And how much motivation does a baddie need exactly? We’re scrawling our names in hot pink lipstick all over this baby!
I was going to get a Game of You to read today at lunchtime/breaktime but – of course – when I went to get it I realised that someone else had already taken it out (stupid libraries lending books to people grumble grumble): so I’m just going to have to do this from memory (but hey – what else is new right? At this point it feels like with everyone of these things we write I only actually get around to reading them once we’re about halfway through…).
So – bearing in mind that this could be a massive step in the wrong direction – my feeling is that the one big issue we’re going to have to grapple with on this book is gonna be: twee.
TWEE TWEE TWEE TWEE TWEE.
(For those of you unsure what twee actually is – let me refer you to the following (spot-on) definition from urban dictionary: “Something that is sweet, almost to the point of being sickeningly so. As a derogatory descriptive, it means something that is affectedly dainty or quaint, or is way too sentimental. In American English it often refers to a type of simple sweet pop music, but in British English it is used much more widely for things that are nauseatingly cute or precious. It comes from the way the word sweet sounds when said in baby talk.”)
Of course (yes yes) we’ve already knocked upon the twee-ness of both Neil Gaiman and Barry Sandman earlier in our comic book adventuring – but I think it’s fair to say that A Game of You is where it reaches the pinnacle of tweeness. I mean – good grief! – the main character is called Princess freaking Barbie and it’s about a magical quest in an imaginary land which is basically Middle Earth with all the cuteness turned up to maximum (Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?). I mean the only way to top that is to make sure you have Belle and the boy Sebastian playing in the background when you read it…
Which I guess leaves us with the following questions:
1. Is A Game of You as twee as it seems?
2. And if so – does it matter? (Like – is it good in spite of it’s tweeness of because of it or something else?).
Yes Joel, It’s a story with a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual, a divorcee, two lesbians in a committed relationship dealing with the infidelity of one of them, a witch who’s been alive for who knows how long, a homeless woman who DOES NOT LIKE DOGS, in the worst storm New York has ever experienced. Of course the word to describe it is ‘twee’.
It’s certainly the most Morpheus-lite story in the series, bar some of the one shots. Even in something like ‘The Dolls House’ he would wander, Hitchcock-like, through the frame to remind you who’s comic it was. The thing that annoys me somewhat about this isn’t the so-called twee-ness of it, it’s the fact that the stuff in The Land is part of a much bigger story, Gaiman does such a good job of making the story seem large by referring to stuff that we don’t see, stuff that Barbie did before when she visited, places they aren’t visiting because they don’t have time and then finishing off with a cut and paste from C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Last Battle’ with Aslan crossed out and Morpheus written in over the top. And the Cuckoo isn’t any of the things people speculate about in the story, she is just some alien ‘other’ and it’s never explained and it just… ends, you know?
Gaiman got some stick for the treatment of Wanda when this came out and, I think, rightfully so. I choose not to believe Thessally when she claims that Wanda can’t come with them because the moon Goddess thinks she’s a man, we’re talking about a mythology rich in shape-shifting and trickery, they are surely not going to worry about counting the number of X chromosomes someone has. Thessally, straight out of the Michigan Womyn’s Festival! Check your privilege! But Wanda does read at times, especially in her fears and her history, like a tick-box of every trope about transsexuals that Gaiman could find. That said, the last chapter is very well done, the crossing out of the wrong name and the defiant scrawl of ‘Wanda’ in hot pink lipstick is the one image from this story that stays with me beyond everything else.
Ok. Fine. I’ll admit it – I was wrong.
Of all The Sandman books I’ve (re)read so far – this one is definitively my most favourite.
If I had to give some reasons as to why: well – as opposed to Seasons of Mists which (apart from all the cool (if that’s the right word?) Hell stuff) is pretty much just a very long story about what to do with a piece of real estate (oooh – sick burn) A Game of You (want to abbreviate that to AGOY: but isn’t that like a word that Jewish people use to describe people who aren’t? Oh yes it is) is well – a big epic questy type thing: and I don’t know what it is – but I am very partial to a big epic questy type thing: especially when it’s wrapped up in a cool way by a framing narrative that has it’s feet in the “real world.” I’m sure it’s a form of having-your-cake-and-eating-it or something. I mean – if the whole story was just set in “The Land” (zero points for effort Neil) then yes it would be hard to take seriously and would be suffocated by all of the (yep – this word again) twee. But because we start off in modern day (well – early 90s) New York – I dunno – it makes the transition to fantasy-land feel much more – believable? It’s way a Neverending Story is cool and The Lord of the Rings (films) are – well – kinda a little bit silly. (Is this just me?).
I would take issue with Loz’s (well put) assertion that AGOY can’t be twee because of all the characters. I mean – isn’t there some sorta John Waters point that I could make about how twee (and camp? Or maybe I’m just confusing the two?) is all about the disposed and marginalized? And also: just because stuff is a little bit “off-piste” (or whatever is the polite/socially acceptable way to say it – my brain kinds escapes me at the moment) that doesn’t mean it can’t be twee. I mean – Belle and Sebastian named one of their albums “The Boy with the Arab Strap” and I’m pretty sure they weren’t talking about the post-folk indie band from Falkirk.
But yes – also to say: a part of the coolness of this book (like Loz already mentioned: “Gaiman does such a good job of making the story seem large by referring to stuff that we don’t see”) is the fact that it feels like such a massive epic epic – but it’s all kinda squeezed into a very tight space. Like – it feels like you got the whole scope of it but also (damn it) I have this hunger for like the version that’s twice as long and goes into like a thousand times more detail. Which you know – is a compliment I guess….
Yes! I’m glad you liked it! AGOY is my favourite Sandman – which maybe my avatar revealed – although admittedly I’m yet to re-read it, so I might have the reverse experience and come away thinking ‘what was I thinking?’
Re twee: I refer everyone who hasn’t watched Adventure Time to Adventure Time, and a comment one of the silent silent partners on this thread (hi Craig!) said in an upcoming podcast (ahem) about how if anything it’s about subverting twee. It’s not just the framing device contrast that does that, but also the eruptions of violence in the story itself, the Cuckoo and its minions being violently murderous. The Cuckoo’s lack of history works for me – adds to the menace.
Maybe there can be a term for the condesnation affect Joel mentions: Narnia syndrome? AGOY to me is almost like Watchmen-ing of the whole kids story enter-another-world populated through childhood toys thing. What if it were true? If there was a Land with a war of good and evil – wouldn’t the evil be really evil. If Martin Tenbones was real, wouldn’t he be shot in fright like a rabid dog.
What do others think? Meanwhile, I’m gonna go away and actually reread the thing.
CUT TO: IT’S RUBBISH!
Joel otm regarding the twee indicating a marginalised audience, although I think twee might not be the right word – what’s the opposite of macho? Girly? Impossible to deny that Gaiman was consciously trying to write a female-friendly comic book (the moment in the final issue when Barbie walks into a comic store and gets slobbered over is pretty pointed). And he does it well – the best parts of the story are the conversations between his new all-female cast – particularly the way they are introduced in the first issue, and the nine panel grid structured convo between Barbie and Hazel at the start of the second.
Loz may be right on Wanda – although I personally found she had just about enough life to escape being a cliche. Just generally think Gaiman was quite brave and deserves props for filling a comic up with lesbians, a transexual and a very girly girl.
I still hated it when I first read it, because the ending is such a mess. Loz otm on the Cuckoo being left unexplained – an amoral alien creature whose threat to the other characters evaporates once Morpheus is summoned.
It’s a little better on a re-read, because I got that “a game of you” (when it crops up during Thessally’s trek on the moon road) is an arty-farty way of signposting that the comic is trying to explore issues of identity and how it’s remade. It would be too much to expect Gaiman to be precise on what he’s actually trying to say, of course (many of the book’s patterns and symbols don’t go anywhere). Moreover, this is possibly the most egregious example of how Gaiman writes himself into gordian knots that require a machete to hack out of. But you can see that Barbie letting go of her childhood paracosm is a bit like Wanda abandoning her family and becoming her real self in the big city.
For me the most interesting moment idea/theme-wise is the cuckoo explaining the difference between male and female childhood fantasies: one active, the other passive. The Land turns out not to be Barbie’s paracosm, but a shared fantasy many women seek refuge in. And Morpheus brings it to an end, in a move that can be read as liberatory. Perhaps little girls will now dream of being superheroes rather than princesses – like Wanda did.
otm = on the money? Urban dictionary also threw out the following possibilities:
Other Than Mexicans
A term used by US Border Patrol agents when catching illegal aliens.
What a night last night! We caught 250 people 23 of them were OTMs
On The Move
An acronym used in online gaming meaning “On the move”. It is used to let the rest of the team know they should move to a new location, or follow.
OK guys, it is time to OTM this way.
Owning the Moment
Acronym for “Owning the Moment,” a phrase inspired by the Fast Six single ‘We Own It’ by 2 Chainz and Wiz Khalifa. To own a moment means to do something so spectacular and positive that you should be acknowledged for it and celebrate how awesome you are. You’re meeting your goals and beating your deadlines, making drastic changes in your life as well as others lives. These are permanently owned moments that belong to you and cannot be taken away from you by trolls, sore sports, and haters.
Dominic: U really OTM’d back there. Thx for having my back.
Hobbs: This doesn’t mean you’re off the hook just yet, Toretto.
I mean – now I think about it – it’s possible that it’s owning the moment. But then – I’m always owning the moment (in my own special way).
But yeah – what were we saying? Oh yeah – that twee thing.
Bit of a tangent – but I was listening to Imogen Heap’s Ellipse the other day and it kinda got me thinking about the difference between (if there is such a thing? I mean – I think there probably is) between art that’s “male” and art that’s “female” (insert obligatory mention that gender is a social construct here): because – well yeah: Imogen Heap’s way of singing and her lyrics and just the whole damn thing of it all is something (which I guess probably comes from the fact that in the main I have only really tended to listen to – tool of the patriarchy that I am – men bands doing man things) that kinda sounds – I dunno – “non-serious” (if that’s not too offensive?) and “kinda funny” (I mean – there’s certain bits on certain tracks (Bad Body Double in particular) where her phrasing and delivery makes it sound like she’s singing a Flight of the Conchords song… Where it’s like you’re singing like you’re talking or something… (I dunno).
What’s my point?
Maybe that it takes more (laudable as it is) than just filling your story with lesbians, transexuals and girly girls to make your book “female”? I mean – as good as all that representation stuff is – it’s still very much a questy off-to-fight-the-monster sorta thing which (this just me?) is still kinda “male” (and is probably a big part of the reason I liked it). I mean – going on awful cultural stereotypes and whatever – a more “female” story would just be people sitting around and talking about their feelings – no?
Other things: unexplainedness and open-endedness and all the rest of it of the Cuckoo = very cool and good and you guys don’t know what you’re talking about.
And Gaiman writing himself into gordian knots = huh? Which bits you talking about exactly? I mean – I get that the whole “Game of You” aspect maybe was a little under-cooked – but I didn’t notice anything that was that much of a muddle: especially if you compare to “The Sound of Her Wings” or whatever…….
I think genre is quite difficult territory to start drawing boundaries on. I mean, which genres are male and which female? To define is to distort in all cases, but especially in this one, where genres are already quite tough to pin down on their own (Character on the other hand…) So is high fantasy a male only zone? Is relationship drama just for the ladies? Joel’s caveats attest to the fact that such exercises are fraught with oversimplification at best and condescension at worst.
That said, let’s go ahead anyway!
If anything, the most exciting stuff is often where these gender lines blur – so in AGOY there is quite a lot of space for women to talk about their feelings in the first two issues, before things get a bit questy. As Loz pointed out earlier, Gaiman flirts with C.S. Lewis Last Battle imagery, and the opportunity was there for him to attack the Susan problem (which he misses, though I have just learned he has done this elsewhere). That is, take a male-dominated genre which makes quite a few errors on gender and mount a critique that makes space for women readers. Just based on the hearsay that Sandman was one of the few 90s US comics with a wide female following, Gaiman appears to be more successful than most on this measure.
RE Gordian Knots: the final issue’s move to flashback and the death of Wanda feels like a distraction exercise as well as a (rather callous) attempt to add poignancy by randomly killing one of the characters. As has been mentioned already, lots of questions remain about the Land and the Cuckoo, which makes it difficult to attach any significance to them (I did try, but it’s a lot of work, to the point where often I feel like I’m doing Gaiman’s work for him). Gaiman is on record admitting that he didn’t know how to end The Doll’s House when he was in the middle of writing it, and I suspect that’s a common problem with the Sandman volumes, including this one. Quite a lot of exposition is just left out in order for Barbie to mourn Wanda and for us to see her apotheosis in death, and for Gaiman to grasp a fitting emotional denouement out of the mess he has created.
So for example: what were the terms of the lease of the skerry, and why would it be a compromise when Dream seems to be lord and master of his realm? What does Rose Walker have to do with the Cuckoo’s confinement? Why does the Cuckoo threaten Barbie with destruction when it turns out Morpheus puts its life in her hands? Why does the alien and incomprehensible Cuckoo make a connection with little girl fantasists being “little cuckoos”?
All of the above = genuine questions, and I’m happy to revise my judgment upwards if answers are available. Quite confident there may be! I’ve hated it less on a second re-read, so it’s possible that I’m just not patient enough to think these things through myself. But as I mentioned before – it’s an awful lot of work when the conclusion is as basic as: yeah identity isn’t fixed, you know, and like, people change.
Re: “take a male-dominated genre which makes quite a few errors on gender and mount a critique that makes space for women readers. Just based on the hearsay that Sandman was one of the few 90s US comics with a wide female following, Gaiman appears to be more successful than most on this measure.”
Ok ok – so that’s pretty interesting because you’ve seem to conflate two different things there:
1. Mounting a critique that makes space for women readers.
2. Getting a wide female following.
I mean – yeah – I think just from all the anecdotal evidence out there (from my experience at least – I mean I’ve met a few women now and again who hit me with something like the following line: “Yeah – I don’t really read comic books but I really love The Sandman” it’s true that Gaiman has managed to crack number 2: but does that necessarily mean that he’s really done number 1?
Yes yes – it all depends on what you mean by “making a space for women readers” I mean – that could just be: he’s given a book that they can feel comfortable reading. But then just because a big segment of people are reading something that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily working as a critique. Example: just because both boys and men love James Bond that doesn’t mean that it’s somekind of critique of masculinity or anything (or that it’s even good you: if anything it’s the opposite).
And yeah – if you haven’t already then I would very much recommend these two articles about the Hunger Games from the Last Psychiatrist website (which I will admit now is maybe one of my favourite websites ever so please feel free to judge me accordingly / praise my excellent taste):
So yeah – just because AGOY has female characters: is that enough? Or to put it another way: where exactly is the critique happening?
As for all the Cuckoo stuff – I mean: I don’t want to have to resort to saying: embrace the mystery. But – maybe you guys should embrace the mystery. Speaking personally I love it when a story leaves a little bit to the imagination. I mean I think it’s telling that you described the Cuckoo as “alien and incomprehensible” – was one word not enough? I mean – I shudder to think what you’d make of Stanisław Lem
Top Lem quote number one: “I hadn’t known there were so many idiots in the world until I started using the Internet.” (LOLZ)
Top (much more relevant) Lem quote number two: “Any attempt to understand the motivation of these occurrences is blocked by our own anthropomorphism. Where there are no men, there cannot be motives accessible to men.”
And also: hell – I’d say you’re way too blasé about the end result being: ” yeah identity isn’t fixed, you know, and like, people change.” I mean – is it just me? – but like a deep spiritual truth that can take a lifetime to sink in. And – it’s a really good basis for a story. What would you prefer – a story where the conclusion was E=mc2? (actually – I bet you’d love that wouldn’t you?).
I think I’m certainly conflating “making a critique of a male-dominated genre” and “making space for women readers” – but I suspect there is something pointed about Gaiman’s choice to stuff this story with women talking about their feelings. To modify Joel’s example, it would be a bit like a James Bond film having a bunch of Bond girls meet at a cafe and gossip about how terrible 007 was in the sack. (I would totally watch that, btw). I suspect that’s the kind of effect Gaiman is going for. Take a male-dominated genre, reclaim it for the ladies (actually the Land is Barbie’s fantasy) and then have some more ladies gatecrash it. The fact that the exercise works (Gaiman writing in a scare-quotes “male” genre for women, and women responding) shows that the critique works – in this very limited sense of the word “critique”.
As for the substantive statements made on gender (i.e. beyond just having female characters driving the action) I think I’ve pointed out the main ones: the cuckoo’s delineation between male and female childhood fantasies, and the scene in the final issue where Barbie buys a comic from horrible misogynists. There is nothing especially coherent about these scenes (Gaiman’s incoherence is my great theme here!) but the intention is clear. Gaiman’s vagueness scuppers my attempts to think very hard about what he is saying on gender (I did my best in my first reply to this discussion). So I don’t think his critique, in this strong sense, works. But hopefully other readers will be able to take some kind of meaning from it.
Those Last Psychiatrist posts lay out a pretty crazy interpretation of the Hunger Games, Imo. Don’t want to derail the discussion here by going on at length as to why, but if you are morbidly curious, I give my take on the films here and here.
On the cuckoo specifically: I think it’s legitimate to call out rather than embrace the mystery because I suspect Gaiman did intend for it to have some (at the very least) symbolic significance, which is why time is spent explaining the bird’s M.O. and why Gaiman makes obscure allusions to girls being “little cuckoos”. I haven’t read any Lem, but to adapt that second quote to my purpose: all depictions of the alienare accessible because they are authored by men (or women), and therefore meaningful if they are authored well. I think the cuckoo is meaningless by accident – Gaiman tried to imbue it with meaning and failed.
On e=mc2 generally: it’s true that I am inclined to be very (perhaps too) harsh on Gaiman, and if I am shutting down positive responses to his work – apologies, that is not my intent. His writing brings it out of me because he uses techniques that invite “layered” readings (that is, making extensive use of metaphor, allegory and symbol – things I love), but I think he is often too undisciplined to provide big intellectual rewards for the effort. For me, a lot of Gaiman’s work has the feel of the profound without the content. But others may feel differently, their response is no less valid, and I’ll happily cede the floor to them.
I want to thank Ilia again for pointing out what now on my nth reading of Sandman seems obvious, the cueing up for the big theme of the series: the refusing and taking of responsibility. It’s here again, with Morpheus at the start shrugging to Matthew about the skerry, and then later getting involved. His attitude towards interference too is evolving: Nuala feels like she’s broken the rules warning Barbie, but Sandman assures her she did the right thing (assures himself on some level?). It’s still in the balance though, at the end he’s present by the rules of whatever this compact thing is, but otherwise wants Barbie to decide (Thessaly warns ‘inaction is itself action, of course’).
I’m with Joel, I don’t see what’s so weird about the Cuckoo being partially explained only. If anything, we don’t need to see it/her as a problematic just because Evil villain. She/it is better than Sauron or other typical fantasy villains, who are all just morally EEEEEVIL, whereas at least the Cuckoo is behaving like an animal, as Sandman says, she was just acting according to her nature. Plus, being creeped out by her future plans necessitates them being only sketched out – what does it mean for her to lay eggs in hundreds of other minds? We vaguely get what, but are not sure, so the effect is creepy. (Love too how in that scene we get a little humbling reference to how our world, which she wants to populate, is one of the little ones and there’s all those grander huger ones beyond…) Even the hypnosis stuff seems like an affect she has rather than a malicious immoral act of usurping someone’s agency. Again, animal-like, like snakes that entrance weasels (or is that the other way round?). Cool that Barbie’s reading the scroll describing the cuckoo’s persuasive powers is interrupted by the one who’s already secretly hyponotised; Luz
Also: LOST SPOILERS: I wonder whether the Cuckoo was part-inspiration for the Smoke Monster? You know, trapped on an island, desperate to get out Across the Sea, and see the rest of the world, but trapped, and so has to manipulate people into destroying the island as that’s what it needs to do to leave? Hmm.
Re: the female character stuff. I think it’s more Joel’s Point 2 – get a wide female following, with a little Point 1 – mount a critique. Primarily, it’s a critique just by existing: the fact that it’s a big deal that it’s a almost all female-led story is in of itself critical of the norm. I think on the Point 2, why it’s successful is because of something we’ve talked about before, Complex rather than Strong Female Characters. (Speaking of which is Barbie’s “Where am I going? Out. What am I going to do? Nothing.” a Halo Jones reference? And maybe even a rebuke to Alan Moore: women can be passive as well as active to be good characters. Or am I reaching?) Take Thessally: she’s smart, in charge, but over-confident and bull-headed. This is driven home with the way the story rhymes two scenes: first her skilful dispatch of the nightmare cuckoos, nicely breaking the pattern of disturbed sleep character insights with the others in the apartment. (Less successful breaking of a pattern, Thessally’s methodical slicing off of George’s face is interruted by her for some reason then biting out his tongue – which, come on, nice horror image, but betrays all the precision before). But then towards the end she kills another bird, Luz, wrongly thinking she’s the Cuckoo. Wanda’s Aunt is similarly complex: judgmental but compassionate, more welcoming than Wanda’s parents, yet still pragmatic, not wanting to make a scene.
Ilia, I don’t think the story is trying to take any side on the trans issue of identity: my fave stories are the ones that suspend judgment (which is subtly different from fence-sitting / not taking a side…). The moon / Thessaly are the essentialist or somatic POV on what makes you female. Wanda herself is the non-essentialist / social construct side: note that the conflict ends with her still defiant.
Along with the identity theme, A Game of You, as been mentioned, is great for the quest stuff, or more specifically, in that it’s a love letter to Fantasy, especially the kind kids grow up with. There’s the overall Narnia feel (magical place visited as child), Neverending Story (doggish friend in city), Labyrinth (childhood bedroom appearing in midst of fantasy world as a sort of trap (which reminds me of Joel’s ending for Lord of the Rings, that Frodo walks through Mount Doom into an office…) Wizard of Oz (fantasy friends based on real-world stuff / “I’ll take the Dorothy option!”) Time Bandits (fantasy friends based on toys).. etc. etc.
The most important of these is of course Hobbit/Lord of the Rings. Yes it’s like the others in that there’s visual references (trudging through snowy mountain pass, the hiding from the Black Riders / cuckoo land soldiers) and po-mo intertexty things (Barbie is directly reminded of Bilbo in Mirkwood). But I’d say it’s the most important coz it helps clarify the ending.
See I don’t think it’s as arbitrary as all that, on the one hand. The hurricane is set-up by the moving of the moon near the start. The compact is foreshadowed by the moon mentioning its own compact with witches / Thessaly. And seeing as cloud cuckoo land was actually his creation, Sandman has to arrive to end the world when the process of ending is initiated.
BUT on the other hand, they still are all kinda saved because he crops up with this boon, the second half of this vague compact with an ex-lover, which why?
I’d argue then that the ending is the fairy-tale type ending of intervention by a magical force. Tolkien himself wrote about this, mainly to explain the Convenient Eagles problem. Since he (waves hands) pretty much created Fantasy as we understand it, he wasn’t himself working with the conventions that we now apply to it, such as treating it as primarily an adventure story. So the eagles yes feel like cheats in, say, the LOTR films. Because they aren’t fairy tales. But The Hobbit, LOTR originals in Tolkien’s conceptions were just long fairy-tales, of the Germanic sense, hence still quite martial or whatever, but and hence were meant to include the ‘eucatastrophe’ – the happy intervention, the fortunate coincidence (itself about God, Grace, etc). Sandman just happened to have a compact that meant him giving away boon (fairy godmother / genie style). And Barbie et all get to go There and also Back Again. This is the way fairly tales end. This is the way fairly tales end. Not with a bang but a deus ex machina.