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.