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After the slow and arduous multi-dimensional grandeur of Season of Mists, DCs adult comic series The Sandman returns to Earth once again, and successfully rekindles its former glory. The problems I had with the preceding story were partly down to my personal tastes regarding the series, now approaching its half-way point, but even leaving aside the shift in focus from the complex fantasy realms of the Dreaming, the afterlife and far too many other domains to list back to more localised terrestrial concerns (at least for the most part), its clear that writer Neil Gaiman has got back in touch with his juju after what was a most trying eight-issue task of exposition. It wasnt all a waste of time though; having now firmly outlined far more than readers could ever need to know about the series complicated, multi-faceted universe and politics, Gaiman and his artists are now free to explore it at their leisure. A Game of You addresses all the problems I had with its predecessor, returning focus once again to a human protagonist, one that readers will soon realise they have met before, and featuring a predominantly human cast who stand out for their bold lifestyle choices, mostly in conflict with social norms, rather than a more generalised strangeness that doesnt really go anywhere. The comparison is illustrated perfectly by the use of a New York apartment block populated by a small recurring cast of characters, as this links back directly to the Floridian guest house of weirdoes in the second Sandman collection The Dolls House. The parallel is clearly intentional, referenced by Barbie herself who was resident at both, and the reader can draw their own conclusion as to Gaimans shift of focus. Where Florida offered a plastic Hollywood couple, creepy spider-infatuated lesbians and a plot of land masquerading as a portly gentleman (weird huh?), New Yorks clientele consists of a pre-operative transsexual, a shy art history student and some non-creepy lesbians whose relationship is treated with greater care and attention than the previous women couples that Gaiman seems so fond of including in his stories. Alright, so theres a possessed guy who has birds living inside his ribcage on the top floor, and theres more to the art student than is at first apparent, but the main cast represents the strongest human presence in the series yet, encouraging Gaiman to partake in some serious social commentary that abandons the series usual thinly-veiled metaphors in favour of outright statements on identity and acceptance. The concerns of the Endless are pushed to the margins in this story, which is primarily split between events in contemporary New York and Barbies quest inside her catatonic dream of The Land, a lush fantasy world she had visited as an escape since childhood until the events of The Dolls House stole her ability to dream. Although I had a suspicious feeling at the time that all of the seemingly trivial distractions of that earlier story would come back to haunt readers later in the series, I was pleasantly surprised (and a little amused) at the return of Martin Tenbones and his other cuddly animal chums. No longer having to borrow from the extensive DC canon constructed by other writers, Gaimans own universe is now so vast and densely populated that he cant help himself from running every single idea into the ground, and the strength of each Sandman collection is decided by how interesting or tedious this process becomes. Fortunately, the return of The Land is very nicely done, illustrating some of The Sandmans larger themes of lost innocence and the nature of dreams. While the later issues of the collection may become too fantasy-based for regular readers, this is balanced out more than adequately by the disturbing events unfolding at the same time in the New York apartment, raising the stakes for intelligently twisted gruesomeness and gripping disaster in this series. The whole thing is a bit of a side-step, particularly for something as significant as a six-part story, but I think this audacity contributes to it being my favourite Sandman collection so far, as does the great cast of characters. Although the series primary characters the Endless are largely absent from this story, Dream appearing only in the last couple of issues and his sister Death having a brief walk-on cameo, A Game of You excels at sticking to the series established themes, more so in some areas than has been seen before. While Barbies fantasy Land is denied the childish innocence it once possessed, full of dangers that present themselves in the deaths of her animal friends, the saga of The Land is evidently based in part on existing fantasy templates; the arduous journey across snowy mountains is reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, while the eventual actions of Dream are much like those of Aslan the Lion in C. S. Lewis creation and apocalypse segments of his Chronicles of Narnia. Readers who feel insulted by such barefaced fantasy are given the comfort of some postmodern exposition when Barbie finally meets up with her nemesis the Cuckoo, but really the significance of the Land only dominates a couple of the later issues of this extended story, which has far more to offer than silver streams and a foul-mouthed rat. As mentioned earlier, the horror quotient is high in this story, towing an impressive line between excessive gore and intelligent plot device, causing me to admire Gaimans writing even more than I did already. Aside from the most obvious instance with the ill-fated George, the series includes some rarely seen nightmare sequences at just the right time to be of principle effectiveness, once the reader has been introduced to the characters enough for their wellbeing to matter to them. Hazel and Foxgloves nightmares are tied perfectly to their real-life human concerns: most disturbing is the naive Hazels dream of finding her aborted childs body, mutilated by the surgery as Gaiman attempts to trump even Eraserhead as a successful advertisement for birth control, but her partner has a telling vision also, one which draws a long-running background plot to a close and finally connects together Gaimans convoluted circuit of lesbianism. Wanda meanwhile is confronted with the operation she has long been terrified of undergoing, one of many challenges to her sense of identity present in both the mortal and more spiritual realms. Basing the bulk of this story on humans as opposed to the archaic mythical deities of the last volume once again allows Gaimans excellent grasp of dialogue to come to the fore, and this is mainly carried out through Wanda, presented as the everyman voice of reason who freaks out and vomits when the supernatural happenings get on top of her, and doesnt understand how the others can take to it so easily. Its obvious that Wanda (born as Alvin) is being presented as the most likeable and human figure of the story, despite the prominence of the more detached Barbie, and Gaiman is keen to exploit this normalcy in order to illustrate his progressive social points. Not only are Wandas sexuality and lifestyle in conflict with the wishes of her conservative parents, but a conversation with the world beyond would seem to make it quite tragically clear that identity is forced on individuals by birth rather than choice, a matter of chromosomes as much as anything. Its intriguing to see Gaiman take such a vicious stab at the higher powers of his universe, evidently not as enlightened as they may appear, and it makes the end of Wandas story very satisfying in a soppy, guilty-pleasure sort of way, while the mini soap opera of Hazel and Foxgloves relationship troubles will doubtless appeal to some readers in a similar way. The ending itself once again lets the story down a little, this time veering more towards the realm of an epic motion picture finale than the usual contemplative retrospective on what has transpired, but its nice that the branching plot threads were restricted to the later developments so as not to distract from the progress of the primary storyline. I was pleased to see the human consequences of extra-dimensional activities receiving the due attention this time around, now that the reader is located in the middle of it all (especially after the confusing lack of attention given to the resurrection of countless billions of dead bodies that must have occurred during Season of Mists, yet doesnt get a mention here), but the apocalyptic weather does add to the slightly cheesy, Hollywood feel of the conclusion, which also relies on ambitious cross-cuts and the cliché of a cackling arch villain. This is the only real issue I have however, and its a problem that crops up in most of the long Sandman stories when forced to deliver on the promises of the build-up, and the unique setting and cast of this tale keep it distinctive in the Sandman chronology. It was appropriate to take a break from Dream and the other Endless after the attention they received recently, though theres still a nice scene part way through in which Dream demonstrates his personal growth, indicating that one day he might not be so socially inept after all. This is a comic book did I forget to mention that? Once again the art is up to the usual excellent standard, with newcomer Shawn McManus drawing the bulk of the story and doing an impressive job that stands alongside the very best of the series. McManus style is realistic without hammering home too many details, and he is similarly skilled at rendering emotive and convincing faces and the varied backgrounds demanded by the storyline. Bryan Talbot assists on the penultimate issue, which leads to me to guess (perhaps completely wrongly) that he took care of the great-looking weather effects, and the third part was drawn entirely by guest Colleen Doran. Dorans slightly more abstract and messy style is something of a distracting deviation in an otherwise tightly focused work (the first long Sandman story not to be interrupted by a random plot taking place elsewhere), but Dorans distinctive style keeps her on rotation as an enjoyable Sandman guest artist so notable in fact, that the character of Thessaly here was apparently based on her, something that I assume to be a compliment. Daniel Vozzo continues the colouring duties hes held for some time, a simple block colouring style that isnt particularly distinctive but at least doesnt leap off the page with inappropriate luminescence as some previous artists work tended to. There are no muscle-bound superheroes or exaggerated demons here, which should make it easily approachable for readers who are interested in the world of adult comics, but afraid of the embarrassment that interest could bring. Even with jolly animals and talking severed faces, for The Sandman this is practically tame. The all-female leading cast should also help overcome the preconception that comics are purely for males, particularly as the individuals concerned dont simply get their breasts out or lezz up. Hardly at all.