More Sandman! The first thing I want to mention is that in this, the second volume of the Sandman series, we meet murdered trans women numbers one through eight. (I mentioned this in my post on the first Sandman book, but there will be more.)
So… I’ve started working on a thesis that a major theme in these books is “cultural misogyny,” which I think I will have more to say in my post on the next book, Dream Country, but which applies here too. And in this book, we get a threat of violent sexual assault and murder as a plot point; we get our first queer character who (spoiler) does not die, and (spoiler) he is a gay man who does drag but is not trans, not a woman of any sort; we get the story of Dream being a galaxy-and-epoch-scale dick to a woman he loved, without apologizing- although if I recall correctly, he makes amends later in the series (this takes place, by the way, in a kind of crypto-African… indigenous culture, or something); and we get the story of the serial killer convention.
It was actually super nostalgic for me to read this, and while I have strong criticisms, I don’t hate it. More than anything, it makes me want to hug my scared 16-year-old self, tell her not to stress about drugs or gender, that it’ll be okay. Which, y’know, is not actually in the book.
The protagonist here is Rose Walker, a character with whom I desperately identified when I was sixteen, although it’s not super clear why to me now except that she was 1. a girl with 2. cool hair 3. who was misunderstood and introverted and 4. lived with interesting people. I guess that is kind of a lot of good reasons to identify with someone when you are 16. She’s looking for her brother, who she learns is being kept chained in a basement by greedy hick caricatures who are distantly related to him, who have taken custody of him in order to receive foster parent money from the state. It’s pretty gross I guess, and I wish there were more depth to all three of the characters in this plot, but whatever, it is a comic book. Sometimes our villains are made of paper.
Anyway so Rose moves into this house- a Doll’s House- where she lives with a creepily normal heterosexual couple, a creepily creepy cryptolesbian couple, a gay man named Hal who does drag (apparently sometimes at home; my first response to this was “oh yeah like dudes who do drag just dress up for no reason at home,” but actually, that was the hater in me talking, I think it is cool that sometimes Hal is his drag persona at home [and walks home from the theater in drag] so whatever, no points added or subtracted for the Hal character), and this guy Gilbert who is awesome. Everybody in the house is more interesting than her, so she is the narrator. She has multicolored hair and lots of feelings and people attempt to sexually assault her twice in this book, which is kind of a lot and, sadly, earns the rape culture tag.
Aren’t you glad, by the way, that I only break out the rape culture tag for the most explicit and overt instances of rape culture? It would be on *everything* if I applied it everywhere it belonged. Just sayin’.
The theme that characters who transgress gender norms are engaged in a constant search for identity, instead of having found one, is introduced with Hal’s anxiety dream. To be fair, everybody is having anxiety dreams at that point, and while I think it’s understandable to have identity anxiety, I also think it’s boring and cissupremecist (ding) to have the character whose main trait is doing drag also have identity as his primary anxiety.
Whatever though. We could talk shit all day. I guess I’m not mad at the serial killer convention part- I thought about being mad at it- but it’s actually kind of a funny send-up of convention culture. And when Neil’s not talking about murdering trans women- there’s a page or two devoted to a serial killer named The Connoisseur who only kills “preoperative transsexuals” (which means: trans women, obvs)- then, y’know, fictional serial killers discussing their hobby is cool. But then we get the second attempted sexual assault on Rose, and we get the unnecessary allusion to a ton of sexual assault and murder of children at Disneyworld, which is pretty gross.
There’s also something to be said about the character who is pretending to be a serial killer but isn’t, who gets tortured to death, as false identity becomes a theme in the series. I don’t know what to say about that right now though, I am tired.
Oh also we find out that Rose knew Judy, the dyke from 24 Hours who was physically abusive with her girlfriend Donna. She types in her diary, “A year ago my best friend died. Her name was Judy. She was killed — or perhaps she killed herself — in some kind of massacre, in a small-town diner. She phoned me on the day she died. She’d just split up with her girlfriend, Donna, and she was in rough shape. I think about Judy a lot. I wish I could talk to her about this stuff… she was the smartest person I ever met.” I’m kind of split on this because, on the one hand, there goes the intimate partner violence, dismissed as just a part of a shitty breakup. But on the other hand, I mean, intimate partner violence is really complicated, and it’s not really a solution to simply ostracize perpetrators, so this is sort of a good job of showing this stuff is complicated and sort of a cop-out nonaddressing of the fact that this stuff is complicated. I dunno. You tell me.
I guess the last thing I want to say- can you tell that I don’t have a thesis or any way of tying any of this together?- is that I hadn’t realized before this reading that the story of Hob Gadling is set up exactly like the story 24 Hours was in the previous collection. It’s a stand-alone issue of the comic that is relevant to the themes of the rest of the arc of the collection, stuck in about three quarters of the way through, which not only gives a breather from the main plot but also lays out both backstory and foreshadowing for the rest of the series. I mean, I guess the Hob story does a lot more of those things than 24 Hours did, and also isn’t totally gross and heteronormative, but I thought that was an interesting parallel.
But like I said, the most important thing for me here was Rose Walker and feeling my shriveled up and hateful heart beat once or twice in recognition of the excited, terrified, winged feelings I got the first time I read this series. Identifying with Rose had a direct line to identifying with the heroines of Lois Duncan novels when I was younger, which had a direct line to me figuring out that I was trans a couple years later and transitioning. It’s pretty good and do you want to hear a funny story? I had Rose Walker’s haircut in high school. At the end of the story, she dyes her hair this awesome grey-lavender- the same as her grandmother’s, which was a nice touch- and cuts it to her chin, so I did too. My hair wasn’t exactly the same color because we didn’t really know what we were doing when we dyed it, so it was a way darker plummy purple, but still. Re-reading The Doll’s House, no matter how much shit I talk, makes my desiccated heart flutter with affection and appreciation for myself at sixteen, doing an awesome job of resisting a culture that told her she wasn’t a girl, couldn’t be a girl, and shouldn’t tell anyone that she just kept identifying with female protagonists- which mixed with a very creative integration of punk rock ethics and aesthetics to come up with a self, both external but mainly internal, that worked for her. I’m getting tingly writing about it! I don’t know how to describe the feeling you get from a glimpse, in a book, that your life is possible, when you’ve spent your childhood and adolescence with an unstated understanding that it isn’t.
And no matter how much shit I talk, and no matter how much my elation was produced by a marginalized person’s scrounging for scraps of hegemony with which to identify, I don’t think the fact that Hal wore dresses hurt how important this book was to me, either.