The Sandman, Part 2
Gender and Familial Identity
In this instance, we’ll explore how Gaiman revitalizes the roles of women and trans/queer characters (a segment of the comic book population which has been trampled by sexist expectations in the comic book medium previously). We will also explore how he resuscitates the roles of family identity (an age-old and worn-out theme in the hands…
The first part of this exploration dealt with the narratives of identity in several layers: the real world’s evaluation of the comic book medium, the author’s plight, its transmission through the character’s identity, and the frames through which we view all of it. Part 1 revolved around the Sandman himself and his resonation through the real world, the creators, and frames of perception. However, there is an enormous cast of characters besides Morpheus, and they are rarely ancillary.
Due to the fluid structure of the stories, the reader often finds that those who are presumed disposable become indispensable linchpins of the intricately woven whole narrative. The books, as a whole, often deal with the identities of those who are marginalized and stereotyped the most egregiously in fiction, specifically women and the trans/queer community. The story fleshes these characters out beyond tropes and brings them to their own life. In fact, this is one of Gaiman’s talents: bringing topics which have been stereotyped and flattened into irrelevance back into breathing and unique life.
The Feminine Mystique
One can’t talk about gender identities in The Sandman without talking about the volume A Game of You. This graphic novel deals primarily with a cohort of women. In fact, the eponymous main character has rather little to do with it. The women direct the course and meaning of the story; an event rarely seen in traditional comics. The story regards the eclectic group of women in one apartment building who are forced to enter Morpheus’s realm and combat the repercussion of Barbie’s saccharine dream world run amok. The main character and tenant, Barbie (yes, the reference to the doll is entirely intentional) had a perfectly false-as-plastic life with ex-husband Ken, which has since crumbled. Through this experience she goes from a two-dimensional, infantile personification of girly perfection to a real, albeit broken, woman.
Then there are the other characters, as David Bratman aptly describes them, “Foxglove and Hazel, a lesbian couple who accompany Thessaly (a powerful and ancient witch despite her mousy appearance) on the journey into Barbie’s dream-land, and Wanda who does not. Wanda is Barbie’s closest friend, and a pre-op transsexual who has, we learn, stayed pre-op because she’s afraid of surgery” [ 1 ]. The identities of these women come into focus all the more clearly because they contrast so drastically with the “Barbie” image of societally perfect and widely worshiped womanhood. These are women at the margins of society’s approval. Even Barbie herself falls from the false grace of her previous image to become more real. In the reality of their contrasting identities, all the women gain a stronger footing in their importance as characters.
Wanda’s identity is supremely important in the story’s internal narrative regarding womanhood. As Bratman describes her, “And Wanda, I would say, is the most human, the most sympathetic and the most deeply understood character in the entire story” [ 1 ]. Gaiman himself says of Wanda that she is “the only character who was doing noble and valiant and brave and good things” [ 2 ]. Wanda is definitely the most solid and secure in her identity, a trait that flies in the face of some antiquated notions that trans people are simply confused.
When Wanda is faced with others who would question the validity of her gender identity, she doesn’t let it go without a fight. George tells her about why she can’t accompany the other women saying, “… it’s like uh gender isn’t something you can pick and choose as uh far as gods are concerned,” to which Wanda responds, “Well that’s something the gods can take and stuff up their sacred recta. I know what I am” [ 3 ]. Her strength of identity makes her a beacon of personal certainty in a story where everyone else is wondering who they are and what they are becoming. Wanda knows what she is and, as a result, redefines the scope of female identity in the medium of comic books.
A certainty of one’s role is often at odds with a personal journey. We so often see such concepts as the “refusal of the call” or personal insecurities with regards to a character’s concept of themselves, particularly for protagonists. Yet that surety of self, and the conviction backing it up, make Wanda a rock for others in the story to rely upon.
Gaiman often writes female identities into unexpected roles. One of the best examples of this is Morpheus’ own sister, Death. Gaiman does away with the expectation of a faceless, nebulously-male, grim reaper in favor of a petite, often-smiling and down-to-earth personification who is far more compassionate than her brother, Dream. Death is complicated in her behavior over the course of the series. She is often kind to the humans she takes, though she can be very firm with her brother by smacking him out of his moody stubbornness. When Dream comes to her, unloading his angst and uncertainty, she calls out his melodrama, pulling no punches [ 1 ]. However, she is typically gentle with her human charges. When Death takes Wanda, she gives her the gift of a fully expressed female identity. Barbie looks on, saying,
“I dream of Wanda. Only she’s perfect … and when I say perfect, I mean perfect. Drop-dead gorgeous … and she looks happy. Wanda’s with this woman I don’t know [Death]. And the woman goes up on tippie-toe and whispers something into Wanda’s ear. Then Wanda turns around and she sees me, and she waves. They both wave” [ 4 ].
In this, Death isn’t monstrous or terrifying, but downright cute and kind. And one wonders if Death gives her gift in solidarity; a heartfelt gift from one woman to another.
There are “incarnations” of death in human history that certainly differ from the Grim Reaper and other moody stereotypes of the end of life. In Santeria, there is the Oricha Eleguá, who has a more childlike, mischievous personality. He has, in a transition to Roman Catholic sainthood, taken on merciful aspects in regards to Purgatory and similar concepts. While the individual traits of the entity aren’t an exact match, the two have some commonality. Both present death not as a horrible destination of dread, but simply a necessary thing in the life of all things.
But here we come into an interesting tidbit that seems a little on the nose to be a coincidence. Eshu is the proverbial flip-side of Eleguá. The former is often comforted and counseled by the latter. While there isn’t much in the way of a gender duality here, there is still some of amount of identity re-personification—not so much dissociative identity disorder, as much as a divine cooperation between two halves [ 5 ].
Our understanding of Death as one of the siblings of the Endless prepares us for the suspension of disbelief involved in relating to a personification (especially a version of Death who would take Wanda so gently) of an abstract concept. It is quite a task, after all, to accept a personification who goes from the flat self-hood of embodying an idea to being a character in her own right, firm or kind in expressions of care. And the Endless are certainly characters, with their own agendas, relationships, and family drama. Death and Dream’s relationship as siblings enrich both characters. By putting the characters in the same family, the author encourages the reader to analyze them the same way we would human siblings. We can’t help but look for their similarities and differences in looks and behaviors. Evaluating the strength of the threads that bind them, or walls that separate them, is a very natural impulse.
Ultimately, their identity is all the more defined by comparison. The same could be said of their sister-brother Desire (another fascinating development of a queer character). In Desire we can sometimes see Dream’s cruelty or Death’s sporadic whimsy in the face of dark things. Desire is the twin of Despair and in Desire’s first appearance she/he plots to ensnare Dream into a relationship with a woman again, for no apparent reason but her/his amusement. Desire is a trickster, delighting in stirring the pot of urges which, it appears, even the Endless are not immune [ 6 ]. Desire’s queer identity enriches the character through a focus on the carnal implications of embodying the sexual power of both genders. As the narrator says, “Desire has never been satisfied with just one sex. Or just one of anything …” [ 6 ]. Desire is the ultimate case of identity definition by both family and gender identity, the intersection of which is where we find his/her essence.
Revamping identity is not a simple task for most of The Sandman’s cast, but Gaiman and his collaborators navigate through those stale or uncharted territories with grace and attention. From the female-dominated and fascinating cast of The Doll’s House and A Game of You, the reader can view gender identity beyond expectation and simplification of what it means to be a female character in the comics. Specifically, Wanda is the most stunning example of a trans character created as a force against cultural assumption and simplification of that identity.
Death’s female identity is also a surprising choice, adding a multifaceted flavor to the identity beyond the tired depiction of a grim reaper. Death is kind and firm, gentle but strong, innocent but wise. She is clearly an Endless sibling, yet entirely self-possessed. She is a delightfully contradictory in her role as a female, a personification of her function, and a sister of Dream. This amalgam of roles makes her crucial in her own right. Desire, another Endless sibling, is also dually defined by family, but additionally by gender identity. The melding of roles creates a uniquely powerful trickster identity. He/she pulls the carnal strings of humans’ lust with his/her androgyny, and equally, manipulates the designs of her Endless brethren.
Each persona reveals concepts of the world and the divine, blended by skillful writing with personality traits that defy many expectations we as humans tend to have regarding types of gods or spirits. While this idea of going against the metaphysical grain has been seen in niche markets of the sci-fi and fantasy worlds, Sandman has brought the idea into the full view of the consumer public. There are good reasons for this, of course. There are as many ideas about death, dreams and divinity as there are people. And as such, several different concepts that break pre-conceptions come to the forefront of Gaiman’s work.
All of these characters rise from the margins of societal representation, and the margins of the story itself, to become indispensable forces of gender and familial identity within the plot and theme of the entire series. They are the new “ragtag band” within our world, so to speak. United in their purpose, the nature of which they might disagree upon at times (because without conflict, there is no story or drama), they bring their identities and personalities into the narrative light.
- “The Endless (Despair, Death, Destiny, Dream, Destruction, Desire and Delirium) are often contentious paradoxes, exemplars of their own antithesis.” Source: Ukil, Aparna. “What Are the Powers of the Endless from DC’s Sandman?” www.sportskeeda.com, 8 June 2022, www.sportskeeda.com/comics/what-powers-endless-dc-s-sandman.
- “A subject of much public criticism, Netflix’s 2022 Sandman series has already garnered much controversy. Gaiman himself has come forward, citing the fluid nature of The Endless given in-universe altering of their own appearance in different cultures.” Source: https://www.lacasadeel.net/2022/02/the-sandman-va-sorprenderte-neil-gaiman.html The Sandman. Netflix. Neil Gaiman and David S. Goyer. Performance by Tom Sturridge, et al. Warner Bros. Television, 2022. Netflix, www.netflix.com/title/81150303.
A true Renaissance woman, Katherine’s a studious nerd across a wealth of disciplines. When not inhabiting her bellydance persona, she loves to wash off the lipstick, throw on her glasses, and inhale a new subject or technique. From dance, literature, art, neurobiology, or linguistics, she’s invested and taking notes. Her passions are constructive something— whether it’s new choreography or various written forms. Recruited out of TempleCon, she’s been a staunch contributor. Her series “Chasing At Shadows” analyzes comic adaptations and other fiction through the lens of film Noir.
- Bratman, David. “A Game of You—Yes You.” In The Sandman Papers: An Exploration of the Sandman Mythology, edited by Joseph L. Sanders. Fantagraphics Books, 2006. pp. 41-54.
- Bender, Hy. The Sandman Companion. Titan, 2000, p. 126.
- Gaiman, Neil et al. “Beginning to See the Light,” In The Sandman: A Game of You. DC Comics, 1993.
- Gaiman et al. “I Woke Up and I Was Crying.” In The Sandman: A Game of You.
- Duncan, Cynthia. “Eleguá/Eshu,” About Santeria, Cynthia Duncan. aboutsanteria.com/eleguaacuteeshu.html. Accessed 26 Sep 2021.
- Gaiman et al. “The Doll’s House: Part 1.” In The Sandman: The Doll’s House. DC Comics, 1989.