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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

LGBT History Month presents The Sandman: A Game Of You

written by Neil Gaiman
pencils and inks by Shawn McManus
additional art by Colleen Doran and Bryan Talbot
additional inks by George Pratt, Stan Woch and Dick Giordano
colours by Danny Vozzo

What's It About?
Recently divorced, Barbie has moved to New York and now lives in a small, rundown apartment building. There she is part of a Tales Of The City-esque community of fellow renters: her best friend Wanda, secretive Thessaly, troubled couple Hazel and Foxglove and the downright creepy George. Broke and single, Barbie drifts with no particular direction in life. Its a simple life, if a trifle dull.

As a child she had a series of recurring dreams, a story that unfolded night after night. The dreams ended years ago but now they're back: the characters of her dreams have come to New York to find her. She has a world to save and there are forces out to stop her, even kill her. But is this other world real? And can you die in your dreams?

What's Good About It?
At the top of this review I invoked a comparison with Armistead Maupin's Tales Of The City. For those not familiar with it, Tales Of The City is a long-running novel series set in San Francisco that are equal parts character drama and social history. Maupin's series is considered incredibly significant for his portrayal of LGBT characters of all stripes.

Like the Tales Of The City, A Game Of You is based around a varied group of neighbours. Though A Game Of You is a fantasy book it uses the web of relationships between the characters to establish a realistic, believable world before the fantastic elements come into play. By the time a giant talking dog lumbers into the rational world we know the characters as people with opinions, pasts, likes and dislikes. One particular novel presents a series of vignettes based in the characters' nightmares lending them an even deeper psychology that informs your reading of their interactions. When the story moves the characters away from the real world and into the fantasy realm of Barbie's dreams its the psychological complexity that Gaiman gives them that carries the story.

The emotional stories of each character continue throughout the book regardless of the setting. After the realistic world of that grubby, cramped New York apartment building a shiny fantasy world might seem inconsequential but the fact the characters are all on an emotional journey makes it matter. The experience changes each and every one of them and because we know them so well by this point we understand those changes.

Amongst the characters, and the reason for this being an LGBT History Month review, are Hazel, Foxglove and Wanda. The relationship between Hazel and Foxglove is portrayed as complex and not entirely happy. Simply placing these two women in an idyllic, entirely untroubled relationship would smack of tokenism, the fact they have problems is an important normalising element. Over the course of the book the reader comes to understand the relationship between the two women, the reasons they remain together despite their problems.

Wanda's character arc revolves around her sense of identity as a trans woman, both in how others view her and in how she views herself. It isn't just a question of physicality, as this is a series with a strong mystical dimension there's also the question of how her own sense of gender identity is reflected in her soul. The resolution to this arc is bitter-sweet but ultimately rather affirming. Its also a complex journey, drawing on the perspectives of several characters from several different philosophical viewpoints.

What's Bad About It?
As a Vertigo title this book was written for a mature audience. This doesn't just mean sex and violence, though there are scenes of nudity and some quite brutal scenes of violence, it also refers to the emotions of the characters. There is a small sub-plot about one of the characters being a domestic abuse survivor and the ambiguous feelings she has towards her for abuser, a plot that could of course be triggering. Overall, the mature readers tag of a Gaiman books equals frankness: the swearing, the violence and the sex is all in service to the plot not a juvenile, titillating after-thought. Its never gratuitous but it is best to be warned of its presence.

My only real criticism of the book lies in its use of fill-in artists (hence all those “additional” credits) which we'll get to in the art section.

What's the Art Like?
The art in this book is handled by three different art teams which would not be a problem except for the fact the book contains only one story. The vast majority of the art is handled by Shawn McManus who was mostly likely intended to be the sole artist on the book, The Sandman commonly changing artists at the end of each story arc.

McManus draws in a style that is just a little caricatured. Anatomy on the homeless woman and the men in the background is realistic though the expressions are exaggerated a little for effect. The mixture of realistic and exaggerated elements in the art means that the giant dog-thing that has slipped out of its world of fantasy doesn't look completely out of place. It looks out of place enough for effect against the broadly realistic humans surrounding him but by drawing it with the same methods as the people McManus keeps it in the same visual world. This mixture of the real and the imaginary is important in A Game Of You as it is in much of the rest of The Sandman.

Portions of chapter five are drawn by Bryan Talbot with inks by Stan Woch. As previously noted this is “fill-in art”. What this means is that for whatever reason McManus could not finish his issue on deadline and so some of it was outsourced to another artist so it would print on time.

Of the two fill-ins Talbot's work fits in the best. Lines become finer and the art is greatly defined by small lines to lend emphasis and shading to the picture. Character design, however, remains entirely faithful to McManus' designs. Wanda and Barbie are entirely recognisable as the same people from the first example if maybe a little thinner in the face.

Colleen Doran's art does not fit as well, being significantly different in style to McManus. As you can see Doran's style is sketchy in the extreme with a minimal, impressionistic approach to background. Shapes are as often defined by the extent of colour as by an actual outline. Now, it would be churlish to expect an artist to alter their style to fit in with another artist, any criticism here is directed at the editorial decision to have Doran fill in for McManus. The sudden shift, which lasts all of a chapter, serves no artistic purpose of its own (no narrative change in tone, setting or so on) and is quite disruptive - like a film having an entirely different group of actors playing its characters on different sets for its middle half hour.

Other Information
The Sandman: A Game Of You (ISBN 1-56389-089-5) is priced at £12.99 and is available from Amazon here. This is the fifth of ten books collecting Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, an overview of which including recommendations for where best to start and where best not to can be found here.

Several of the characters from this book reappear in Neil Gaiman's Death: The Time Of Your Life (reviewed here) which acts as a semi-sequel to A Game Of You.

1 comment:

  1. Actually, Colleen's artwork looks MUCH better in the most recent printing of the trade collection. The problem with it here was the inking, and I believe she allowed to fix it with the most recent edition.