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The Doll's House is the second volume of Neil Gaiman's 'Sandman' series. It follows Preludes and Nocturnes and comes before Dream Country. You don't need to know this, but it took me ages to read them in the right order and I think it's better when you do.
Once again, there are seperate stories linked with a through-plot. Having regained his freedom and control of his realm, Dream (Morpheus) seeks to gain control of the creatures that inhabit people's dreams and nightmares. It turns out, four of them are missing, including a particularly nasty character called 'The Corinthian'. There is also a seemingly ordinary girl who seems to be drawing these dreams and Morpheus to her.
The volume opens with the story of how Morpheus fell in love and the tragic consequences of this. What is clever about this is that it helps us feel sympathy for Morpheus, who at times is a dour and sulky individual, called as much by his siblings. Gaiman gives Morpheus a tragically heroic aspect - he is imprisoned by the duties he has to fulfil, describing himself as a servant of humanity, not a master. This becomes evermore important as you work your way through the volumes of 'The Sandman'.
We are then introduced to two more of Morpheus' siblings (having met Death in the last volume). Desire and Despair are another of Gaiman's grotesque double acts. Whereas Dream and Death strive to bring order to chaos, their younger siblings seem to enjoy the opposite. Their appearance in The Doll's House, tie up some of the events in Preludes and Nocturnes - something that recurs throughout the entire collection.
The Doll's House contains excellent examples of Gaiman's dark and surreal humour, as well as his ability to tap into our 'what if...' part of the brain. The most well-crafted episode concerns a convention for serial killers. The modus operendi of several of these characters are gruesomely illustrated, as they fawn over each other as 'admirers of their work'. It's disturbing, funny and tragic, with the Corinthian playing a mesmeric and antiheroic lead.
My favourite story in The Doll's House, and one of my favourites in the whole series, concerns Morpheus' encounter with Hob Gadling. Death persuades Morpheus to pay more attention to ordinary people, and the two visit a tavern in the middle ages. Hob raves about how he won't die and is overheard by Death and Morpheus. The two agree that Hob won't die until he wishes it and Morpheus arranges to meet him every hundred years in the same tavern. We see each of these encounters, with Hob describing his successes and failures, but never once losing his enjoyment of living.
Again, these encounters portray a more human side to Morpheus, enabling us to warm to him and ultimately to sympathise with his role. Hob recurs as a character in later volumes, and at times plays a sidekick to Morpheus. During one of these meetings, Morpheus has a passing encounter with William Shakespeare, a relationship that develops interestingly in later volumes.
The illustrations are, again, not the crispest. But they serve well enough to engage your imagination and, given the scope of the Sandman series, it is perhaps better they are like this. It means we can pad the images out ourselves.
The second collection of Neil Gaimans The Sandman, originally the first to be released, is once again dominated by a large and intricate plot spread over a number of issues, with a couple of issues taking time out to explore other areas. With the general introductions now out of the way, The Dolls House aims to expand the scope of Gaimans story, both for its own self-contained uses and for the future of the series, while also developing a slightly obsessive preoccupation with self-reference, tying up loose threads from earlier in the continuity and elsewhere in the extensive DC universe that readers likely were never aware were dangling in the first place, particularly evident in the writers grand effort to link together the various, vastly different DC publications that have borne the Sandman title.
Gaimans clever but estranging method of linking his dark fantasy series with a short-lived childrens series from the 1970s is a commendable achievement, but is the prime example of a divide between writing for the fans and for a wider audience, one that affects this book to a degree. If I had read this story when first released in pre-Wikipedia 1989 (actually I was only four years old, but I had some cool Transformers comics so I probably would have liked it at least a bit) the references would have gone completely over my head, and although extensive DC literacy is not necessary for enjoying these comics, Gaimans borrowed characters are uncanny enough that its obvious something is going on, hence my need to research in the first place when it became clear something was awry. In the end, Gaiman adopts these characters and uses them to suit his own ends, and the results are rather interesting. And at least hes got it out of his system now... right?
The self-consciously epic story is granted an entire issues worth of Prelude, which takes the form of an oral narrative from a tribal culture and is the most interesting experiment in the series thus far. Gaimans fictional tribe is convincing enough, and the tale of an ancient glass kingdom and its lovelorn Queen believable as a folk myth, except that the inclusion of the series star Dream (or Kaickul as he is known to them) confirms its in-universe authenticity. Its a nice idea that seemingly primitive tribal legends are actually closer to the truth, seemingly knowing all about Dreams family of the Endless who are not gods, and will not die like gods and even providing some new information to the reader, but primarily the prologue excels in exposing the Endless human failings. Dream is shown to be, at least in ancient times, an extremely proud and selfish figure, who pursues the Queen even after her prediction that their love would destroy her city proves true. Hes also really into deep love, the archetypal gothic figure, and the prologue serves to whet readers appetites to see how a more contemporary, post-incarceration Dream would deal with a similar situation.
Unusually, Dream is largely treated in an entirely reverse manner for the main Dolls House story, flying ethereal and omnipotent through his own realm of the Dreaming and cackling down to his foes, and elsewhere dealing coldly with administrative tasks, such as a thorough census and the emerging threat of a vortex. The contrast is doubtless completely intentional, demonstrating the conflict between the heros necessarily detached professional side and the emotional side hes learned from interacting with humanity through the millennia, and sampling its The Cure albums. Dream's dissatisfaction with his outcast status, presumably a small desire to be human, seems to be the sole reason for the radical detour that comes with issue thirteen, one that serves to distract completely from the developing plot of the surrounding issues, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed. This isolated tale returns to the past, but this time England of 1389, where Dream and his sister Death pass through a tavern and observe the patrons. Taking interest in a patrons statement that death is an illusion that shall never happen to him, Dream asks the man to meet him at the same spot in one hundred years, a task he ultimately accomplishes without ageing a day. Their centennial meetings predictably last right up to the modern day of the story, and even more predictably feature several famous historical figures along the way such as Chaucer and Shakespeare, the moral being that humanity never changes. Offended by his companions suggestion that he only granted him immortality so he could have a friend, the twentieth-century-goth Dream finally comes to terms with this. Its an enjoyable little story, even if it has absolutely no right to be considered The Dolls House part four.
The Dolls House itself is mostly centred around a new character, the young woman Rose Walker, who it turns out is the granddaughter of a character featured in the very first issue in a plot too absurdly complex to get into here. Rose finds a lead on her younger brother Jed, missing for seven years and evidently the star of the old Sandman comics from the 70s that are very nicely pastiched in his dream sequences. Her search brings her into contact with some surreal human and non-human characters that you just know are going to crop up again, while Jeds own plot eventually coincides with that of serial killer The Corinthian, an eye-mouthed arcana with a taste for eyeballs which he eats with his eye-mouths. As well as tying together these erratic concurrent plot arcs, the extended fifth part of the story beats the first collections 24 Hours in providing my favourite Sandman story yet, The Collectors. Gaiman succeeds in making a convention of famous fetishist serial killers (meeting in a hotel under the humorous disguise of a cereal convention) both terrifying and darkly hilarious, before the final issues struggle a little too hard to justify all the excess and weave even larger tapestries for the future. I enjoy the series most when its focus is more concise than in its more elaborate, multi-faceted moments that simply serve to make me end each serialised issue with a craving to read the next one out of something closer to irritation than enjoyment.
With a series like The Sandman, it soon becomes obvious that very little exists in the comic panels out of sheer chance. If a stray comment implies that a passing background character is slightly unusual, they will inevitably show up at some point, probably clutching a bunch of similarly random story threads and offering them to the King of Dreams to tie together. Part one of The Dolls House, like Preludes & Nocturnes before it, thankfully provides a Mission: Impossible style introductory overview of Dreams objectives, meaning that characters like Brute and Glob can be spotted by attentive readers when they appear, but the afore-mentioned interaction with other DC creations will probably start annoying me very soon, especially if it serves to make me feel dumb for not getting the reference. Some self-contained plot points are often too oblique or passed over to seemingly bear any real significance, such as the opening and closing scenes with Dreams androgynous, Bowie-like sibling Desire who he knows is hatching some sort of plot, and other mentions of the estranged Endless nuclear family whose names and predicaments readers are presumably expected to remember in anticipation of later appearances. I suppose this isnt really asking too much of a reader, especially in a medium such as comics which would be released separately and allow readers the necessary time to re-read before each new issue, but collected together in a colourful paperback volume that its just too tempting to speed through, some of the smaller details tend to get lost on me. Fortunately I have these reviews to help refresh my memory.
Gaimans literary flair comes to the fore in the better issues collected here, adding some very nice touches that more poncy readers, such as myself, will enjoy. Some are merely nice touches, such as Shakespeares everyday speech being presented in perfect iambic pentameter (despite claims that he is a poor playwright, before some unseen meddling took place on the part of Dream) and the numerous puns of The Collectors, where the apparently just-like-everyone-else serial killers unconsciously conduct casual gossip in terms of murder (the journey was a killer/wouldnt be seen dead here/just to die for, etc.) Its satisfying that Gaiman doesnt talk down to readers, allowing the more attentive ones to enjoy the wordplay without drawing enough attention to it to alienate the casual superhero fan, but it does serve to make seemingly unconnected scenes relevant in a new context, particularly Gilberts foreshadowing of an attack by a man named Fun Land by telling Rose the original, unedited story of Red Riding Hood, something the wolf-shirted, wolf-hatted man unknowingly references in his own assault. Adding to the enjoyment of the text is an area of comics rarely singled out for special mention, the speech bubble lettering handled in each issue by Todd Klein. Primarily responsible for developing Dreams own distinctive speech, written in white on a uniquely black speech bubble, Klein also takes some nice liberties with the speech of other non-humans to further express their general disposition or, in the case of Matthew the crow (looking to become my favourite recurring character of the series, if only for his name), the screeching sound of his voice.
The pencil art continues to be handled primarily by Mike Dringenberg, though he is sorely missed in issues twelve and thirteen when Chris Bachalo and Michael Zulli take his place, respectively. These newcomers styles lack the skilled realism of Dringenbergs characters and backgrounds, and would be suited to a more traditional comic publication than this, best expressed in Bachalos enthusiastic depictions of the muscular, costumed false Sandman, which he seems far more at home drawing than the more fantastical dream imagery. Zullis take also lacks the realism that would have benefited the Men of Good Fortune historical detour, and it doesnt help that the faces of Dream and Death dont even resemble their established features. Dringenbergs return is greatly appreciated, his most memorable achievement here being the first-person perspective offered of the Corinthian, serving to associate the reader directly in his murders and eyeball crunching. It actually made me feel a little queasy, especially as the chosen sound effect was so perfectly articulated on the page that I had to do it justice by reading it aloud, only worsening the effect. As a slightly subversive comic, it also takes a few liberties at times to demonstrate its credentials, such as rotating the panels and text by ninety degrees for the dream sequence of issue ten.
The Dolls House is a much stronger story than the earlier Preludes & Nocturnes, but does tend to lose itself in its own lofty ideals. Once again, the ending is fairly disappointing and melodramatic, and its a little irritating seeing Dream continuously provide a good moral telling off to naughty arcana before punishing them, extending to a well-intentioned but predictable musing on the barbarism of the slave trade, when conversing with Hob Galding in the eighteenth century. Hes far more interesting when hes emotionally unstable, like in the prologue, or confusingly creepy, such as his unexplained statement to Hippolyta that her unborn child will belong to him. Gaimans writing continues to be inspired by Alan Moore in places, particularly in its sardonic observation of the seventies costumed hero trend and the similarity of Hippolyta with Watchmens Laurie Juspeczyk, while the eerie dolls house complete with miniature apparition Dream couldnt help but remind me of Beetlejuice. Still, his own style is clear enough, and despite some fundamental problems I have with it, Im eager to see how the story develops... after another interesting set of detours provided by the unconnected tales of Dream Country.
Kai'ckul (the Sandman) tries to keep order in his kingdom of sleep against the forces of darkness and nightmares. This collection contains the full seven-part Doll's House storyline.