I’m quickly approaching the halfway point in my Sandman journey, and what a ride it’s been. Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series delights as often as it makes me go “Huh?” This particular installment, A Game of You, is distinctly the latter. I enjoyed the experience of reading A Game of You, though I can’t pinpoint whether I actually enjoyed the story overall.
Before I dive into this volume, let’s take a breather to touch on Sandman continuity. The series jumps around from one storyline to the next. Some volumes contain three to five standalone stories, while others tell a single cohesive tale. As evidenced by this installment, Gaiman will often pick up what was essentially a side quest from a previous volume (in this case Barbie’s dreams from The Doll’s House) and make them the core focus of a full volume. In other outings, we get Sandman adjacent stories that build out the world but otherwise impact the primary narratives within. The result of this approach, at least for me, is an ongoing anticipation, a yearning to see what Gaiman will do next. Sometimes he doles out a smash hit, and other times he gives me a head-scratching, labyrinthine puzzle to solve. A Game Of You falls neatly into the latter pile.
A Game Of You stars Barbie, who resided in the house with Rose Walker during Volume Two: The Doll’s House. In that volume, Barbie dreamed she was the princess of a whimsical fantasy land. Volume Five puts Barbie front-and-center. She lives in a grubby New York apartment building with her friend Wanda (who happens to be transgender), a witch named Thessaly, a creepy old guy named George, and the couple Foxglove and Hazel. When characters from Barbie’s dreams in The Doll’s House start to bleed into the real world, things get really obscure really fast. Soon, Barbie is given the Porpentine, a stone amulet that sends her to The Land, where she must venture to confront the Cuckoo, a villain shrouded in mystery.
Neil Gaiman never shies away from the weird and the wacky. A Game Of You continues the trend, adding a dash of macabre horror. To be clear, Sandman peddles in horror often, but this issue stands out with some truly horrific sequences. Some of the scenes contained in this tome are disturbing in their gore and well-depicted enough by the artists that they’re palatable for a weak-tummied reader like me. Despite my physiological reaction, I enjoyed the horror-leaning nature of A Game of You. Gaiman fosters a looming sense of dread, then balances it with the cartoonish whimsy of a dreamlike children’s fantasy world.
In other words, A Game Of You has an interesting vibe, for lack of a better word. Terrible things and imaginative ideas exist in harmony here, and they play off each other well. Barbie’s journey through The Land opens like a fairy tale-esque quest, then devolves into a tale of betrayal and pain. When she finally reaches her destination, Barbie must reckon with the thing that scares her most, and you know damn well I’m not gonna spoil that for you.
The plot, as I’ve already hinted, is a winding road. It’s not particularly hard to follow on the surface: Barbie is summoned to The Land and must venture to the Cuckoo’s palace to confront the villain. However, I did get a little lost. The Land is a creepy, outlandish place, and I struggled to feel grounded throughout the story. That may partially be the point; Barbie treks forth, completely uncertain of her final goal or what accomplishing it may wreak upon the world. In general, I felt like I was being tugged along on a leash, catching up on story beats only to be forced into the next one with little time to process. Pulled forth by forces unknown, I trudged through the story hoping the end would make some sort of sense out of the madness. It (mostly) did.
The true hero of the story, as far as I’m concerned, is Wanda. Barbie’s friend encourages her to live in the moment and be herself, something Wanda struggled with as evidenced by later reveals. While tenants of the apartment complex backdoor their way into The Land to save Barbie, Wanda remains vigilant, guarding her friend’s vulnerable body. Unwavering in the face of sheer terror, Wanda sticks by her friend. I’m team Wanda all the way.
As Sandman stories go, A Game Of You isn’t my favorite. But it has distinct elements that make it worthwhile, like the overall themes and tone. It was entertaining to read, if only because I felt compelled to see it through. My interest in the story hinged upon the ending, and it largely delivered a satisfying conclusion. At the end of the day, I’m just glad I got to hang out with Wanda.
Rating: Sandman Volume Five: A Game Of You – 7.0/10