Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, horror stories, women, and appearances.

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman through the library for a while ago, and I have to say, I have no idea what to make of it. I just finished the collection called “Dream Country,” meaning I’m still very early on in the story (no spoilers, please!) but I’ve read enough to start trying to figure out what this story is.

I’ve basically figured out that they’re intended to be horror stories, and indeed, many are unspeakably horrific. It’s an odd experience, in the sense that books and movies that are even remotely scary will give me nightmares for months, but these don’t tend to creep me out at all. I would’ve expected such a visual medium to have more staying power.

Even more interesting, to me, is that some of the images have stuck with me– but they’re not of the scary stuff. “Dream Country” includes two storylines about very unhappy, desperate women– Calliope, a muse who has been captured and imprisoned by an author, and Urania Blackwell, a former something-operative who has been given the ability to transform herself into anything at all.

First, Urania– hers is a sad story, as they all are. While investigating something in Egypt, Ra granted her the power to transmute her own body, but it’s more of a curse than a gift.

“You’d think, if you can turn yourself into anything, the easiest thing in the world would be to transmute yourself into flesh. Right? No. I tried it once. Never again. I couldn’t get rid of the smell for weeks. Rotten meat. Silicate faces are easier to manage. Okay, it hardens eventually, and falls off after a day or so. But at least it doesn’t rot. And you can use the empty faces for useful things. Things normal people have. Faking real hair is easier. Mostly I use metals. It looks fine as long as nobody touche it. Nobody ever does.”

Gaiman and his artist do a great job of conveying the depth of her loneliness and despair. Her only contact with the outside world is her weekly phone call with Mr. Mulligan, a man in the Company who is in charge of her veteran’s benefits. That is, until she goes out to meet an old friend whom she hasn’t seen in years, but when a group of disabled children goes by, the friend starts in on how much freaks creep her out. Urania’s face falls off into her pasta, and she runs back to her lonely apartment. She tries to call Mulligan, but he’s been transferred to another department. She cries, an tried to figure out how in the world she can kill her invincible body, until Death lets herself in.

I like Death. She’s a cute, pale little goth girl, and she just sits on the bed next to Urania and asks, “Do you want to talk about it?” Rainie lets out her story, and Death gives her some advice: talk to Ra about it. And then, in one of those triumphant moments that always leave me with mixed feelings, Ra reveals his face to her and she dissolves. The phone rings. Standing next to Rainie’s disintegrating body, Death answers cheerfully. It’s Mr. Mulligan, asking for Rainie– “She’s gone away, I’m afraid.”

Death lets herself out, and looking at the final frames, of the dust that was once Urania, and her silicone faces, and the telephone, I am torn.

On the one hand, this is a fantastic story that features nothing but women, as complete, interesting people. It’s moving and well-done and doesn’t center on sterotypical female concerns.

On the other hand, doesn’t it center on extremely stereotypical female concerns? I can’t help thinking that Urania was in a perfect position to become a superhero, and a man in her position wouldn’t have been so worried about his appearance, and would have put on a mask and gone out to fight crime. This is a universe in which superheroes exist, after all, and there are quite a lot of male superheroes who are very funny-looking– the Thing, Iceman, Colossus, and I’m sure I’d know others if I actually read comic books.

But I don’t think it’s Rainie’s fault for being too scared to go into public. I can’t think of a single female superhero who’s made of anything but perky, young flesh. Women are raised with the idea that their appearance is one of their main sources of value– to suddenly become inhumanly ugly would do a lot to crush a woman’s willingness to be seen. It’s no wonder that she clings to the facade of silicate faces and metal hair– it’s not so different from ordinary women putting on make-up and dying their hair.

I suppose my real question is, is this a horror story for women, or a horror story for everyone that just happens to star a woman? Are we meant to think that her gender matters to her fate?

Ultimately, I think this story deserves the benefit of the doubt. Poorly executed, it could have come across as if her unhappiness was a function of female vanity, but that’s not how it felt. Rainie didn’t find a superhero happy ending because this isn’t a collection of stories that has much room for superhero happy endings. Everyone sufferes varying degrees of misery and insanity, and Rainie’s misery is different simply because “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” A man in her position wouldn’t have been a hero either– he would have died miserable and alone, just minutes before receiving a hopeful phone call from the person he loved. In which case, I’m back to being pleased to find a story in which no man appears on-panel and which is, nevertheless, a fantastic story in the collection, just as worthy of consideration as all the other unhappy stories.

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4 Responses to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, horror stories, women, and appearances.

  1. Amy says:

    I had a longer comment, but my computer ate it. Basically I wanted to let you know that I enjoy reading your blog very much, and have learned a few things already, even though I only started reading a couple weeks ago! (Also I look forward to checking out “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” based on your reviews.)

    Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, and I find his portrayals of female characters in the Sandman series to be pretty refreshing and encouraging– women can be just as beautiful/ugly/average, as good/evil/apathetic, and as flawed as any other character. He also includes older women, women of color, and queer women in the series (have you met Hazel and Foxglove yet?).

    I look forward to reading your post on Calliope, and can promise you that although the first two or three volumes of Sandman are almost entirely horror, the rest of the series branches out into numerous other subjects and genres. 🙂

    (Also, regarding Twilight, I’ve heard that it’s quite painful to read, unless you’re hoping for light, romantic entertainment. ;] Cleolinda has a good review of the series on her livejournal, if you’re interested.)

  2. eloriane says:

    Glad to hear from you!

    I am something of a cynic, so I must admit that I always approach a new work willing to be impressed, but expecting severe flaws. So far, Sandman’s impressing me a lot, for exactly the reasons you mention– women can be just as good or just as flawed as any other character.

    There was a queer woman in one of the first volumes, who got brutally murdered by Dr. Destiny (when he had the Sandman’s ruby), and I was pleased to see that she was basically normal, athough she didn’t inspire me to write anything. It sounds like there are more on the way, though, and that’s excellent!

    I was less impressed with Calliope, but that’s because even though Gaiman wrote very human actions for her, his artist drew her like some kind of contorting sex doll. It’ll be a while til I can do the post about it (I need to get the volume back from the library…I accidentally returned it today, and I want to scan some panels and the corresponding descriptions in the script to show how the artist messed up). Anyway, that’ll be here within the week.

    I am quite aware that Twilight will be a painful read, but that’s part of why I want to read it 🙂 Nothing like righteous indignation over patent absurdities to cheer yourself up after too much difficult nuance!

    Thanks again for posting, and I hope to hear more from you in future 🙂

  3. Ben says:

    I love the Sandman, and found this to be a very interesting analysis of the story, especially considering that (unless I’m mistaken) it doesn’t appear you’re very well-versed in the rich comic lore behind Urania Blackwell.

    Wikipedia has a decent article on this (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Element_Girl), but long story short — your concerns are more than accurate. Urania’s powers were modeled after a more prominent DC superhero — Metamorpho (basically Urania, but a man), who despite his appearance continued to be a hero (and is featured today in several DC comics).

    Urania, as typical of most of the stories of the time (Wikipedia says that these stories including her happened mostly in the late 1960s), she was a woman who was motivated primarily by being rejected by her lovers — first, a villain (whom she gained her powers to defeat) and later by the hero Metamorpho (who, to his credit, turned her down because he was already married). The writers, of course, decided that because Urania didn’t have a good man in her life, that she would become devastated and depressed.

    After years of not using her, Gaiman resurrects her for this little tale. Before this post, I had only seen it in the sense that it was an exposition of Death and a nice, sweet story to close a character who had been long forgotten. But, it’s interesting to view it through a different lens. I personally believe we should give Gaiman the benefit of the doubt here (perhaps he was simply taking the historical portrayal of her and wanted to end it in a charitable way?) given the complexity and depth of most of his comics writing, but you are definitely right in this other interpretation.

    I am looking forward to your post on Calliope. If you’re interested, there is a whole world of feminist comicbook blogs, incl: Girls read Comics (http://girl-wonder.org/girlsreadcomics/)

  4. eloriane says:

    Ben– thanks so much for taking the time to comment! You’re right, I had no idea that Urania had any kind of backstory. I’m also inclined to give Gaiman the benefit of the doubt; it really does sound like he was giving a proper ending to a forgotten character. It sounds like she wasn’t treated well my her other writers (it drives me crazy when women are motivated by nothing but men) but I think Gaiman did well by her.

    I adore Girls Read Comics, but this is the first comic book I’ve ever read, so a lot of it is unfamiliar to me. I’ve been a manga girl up til now– manga is organized on the shelves by title, and they have big numbers on the side so you can read them in order. I frequently gaze wistfully at the comic books section, but until I found this Sandman omnibus at the library (helpfully labeled “SANDMAN VOLUME ONE”) I could never figure out where to start.

    I expect that I’m missing a lot of the references, but I’m okay with that. A good work has to stand up to complete newcomers as well as those already familiar with the backround. And actually, I’m increasingly impressed with Gaiman’s handling or Urania, simply because she did make sense even to someone who had never heard of her. The whole series has been a really good read, and never too obscure for me to enjoy it.

    It’s going to take me a while to get around to Calliope– I need to scan some images to make my point, and I accidentally returned the book to the library when I was dropping off other things. But it should be a good post– after all, it’ll have lots of pictures of naked women!

    Thank you so much for sharing your insight, and I hope to hear from you more in future, especially when there’s such fascinating background that I’m missing out on 🙂

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