Saturday, March 4, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House

The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve heard from some veteran Sandman people that the series really gets going with this, volume two. For what it’s worth, on a first reading, I prefer volume one. The joy of sheer discovery there, of finding such a new vocabulary for thinking about what a traditional comic book can be like, is exhilarating. Here, interesting and haunting as it is throughout, I see Gaiman relying on some of his own tropes. I still enjoyed this a lot – and volume three is sitting by my bed waiting for me to finish up my reactions here – but I find it (for now at least) a notch below the first.

Still, there are moments here that really work. Sister death, a goth beauty, is a terrific invention (as is the hermaphroditic Desire at the end), and some of the panels with her still haunt me days later. It’s almost a throwaway, but the one where she takes the life of an infant – in a SIDS like death – is haunting. The taken soul lets out a complaint, “But it was so short,” and then we see a stricken mother realizing what’s happened. It’s a huge story told in two quick moments.

More broadly, I find the Rose story intriguing. She’s a “vortex,” a character who causes dreaming to become communal rather than individual, and, as such, she’s a threat to the “controlled chaos” of the realm of dreams. I find I like that more in concept than in execution here, though. In the stretch where we see dreaming unraveling – when the oddball denizens of Rose’s boarding house slide into one another’s dreams – it feels to me as if Gaiman is working a bit too hard. I feel a collision of clichés more than what I think the effect should be: the frightening discovery that we cannot protect our most private (and therefore most vulnerable) aspects from each other. (As an FWIW, that’s precisely the horror that Darl represents in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.)

I don’t characterize that as failure. I don’t think it’s even quite the wrong note. It’s just the right note played a little out of tune.

To a lesser degree I feel the same way about some of Gaiman’s intriguing indulgences. It’s entertaining to see Morpheus agree to meet once a century with an Englishman who’s decided he doesn’t want to die. The episode is clever and compelling, but it also feels like an interruption of the larger story. It feels like Gaiman claiming for himself the power of Morpheus. “In place of your regularly scheduled dream, I am presenting you with this.” So, yeah, it’s intriguing and probably worth doing. It also feels like an indulgence, like an author who’s so intoxicated with the new space he’s opened up that he can break with the pattern he’s implied from previous issues.

I like the way this one wraps up. Morpheus’s conversations with Desire suggest what must be the next chapter – who is Rose’s grandfather and what does that mean for our understanding of the endless as a whole. So, I’m not at all down on this series. I just feel, after the explosive joy of the first volume, that I’m settling into what promises to be a good stretch of episodes after this.

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