Last year, I wrote a rather gushing review about the first Audible adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s marvellous horror-fantasy comic Sandman. If you missed the review, and/or you somehow don’t know what Sandman is, why you should care or why it’s such a big deal that we’re getting both an audiobook adaptation AND an upcoming Netflix adaptation/retelling, then I go into a few details about the comic, its general history and why I love it so much.
For now I’ll just say that I’ve loved Sandman ever since I was a semi-innocent teenager reading the first two storylines for the first time… and my love hasn’t lessened over the years, because as I grew older I started seeing just how many references the comic had… not just to old obscure comics, but also to various world mythologies, folklore, literature and historical events. There are so many levels to experience the comic on that few comics can ever hope to match it.
Now, the second Audible adaptation was released last month… and while the first one went through the first three collections (Preludes & Nocturnes, A Doll’s House and Dream Country), the second one adapts the fourth and fifth collections (Season of Mists and A Game of You), plus most of the sixth (Fables and Reflections). Which I have been looking forward to, because Season of Mists and A Game of You are in my opinion two of the best Sandman storylines… though I will admit that while pretty much everyone agrees with me about Season of Mists, A Game of You is... a little more controversial.
See, when the comic was first published, A Game of You was probably the least popular storyline of all. People did NOT like this story. Partially, this was because it seemed so detached from the rest of the story; the main character and the familiar fan favourites only show up sporadically while new or previously minor chars take up the spotlight… and partially I think it was because in many ways, when you read it, this comes across as a bit of a “shaggy dog story.” It seems to build up to something grand and spectacular, only to peter out and end with a rather underwhelming whimper.
This is because A Game of You is a devious story. It PRETENDS to be a story about a Chosen One who visits a magical realm and together with a small band of companions saves it from certain doom and destruction… but what it’s ACTUALLY about is much more subtle. In fact, A Game of You is a story about identity. Much of it is about how nobody is exactly what they seem on the surface, and that everyone has so much more to them than the world around them will ever know… but perhaps most importantly it’s about being a woman. Not in the “now that you’re entering puberty you may notice some changes” sense, but it’s a subtle examination of what it means to be a woman, the various roles women adopt or reject (either of their own free will or because they’re forced to, or both), and how society colours your identity as a woman.
And this is where we get to the single most controversial part of A Game of You. The most memorable, most frustrating, most infuriating, most admirable, and most all around awesome part: The character of Wanda
If you haven’t read A Game of You, be forewarned that I’m headed straight into spoiler territory from here on.
Now, the story itself focuses on Barbie, who had been a minor character in previous Sandman storyline A Doll’s House, and her life after she broke up with her boyfriend and moved into an apartment building. It also introduces the other tennants, a rather colourful bunch that include a lesbian couple named Hazel and Foxglove, a bespectacled art history student who calls herself Thessaly, a mysterious loner called George… and most importantly, Barbie’s best friend Wanda.
Other than George, Wanda is the only major character in this story who never shows up anywhere outside A Game of You, but she absolutely one of my very fave characters in the comic altogether. You know how some characters just show up on the page and you instantly think “Oh my god, this char is the COOLEST!”? That was my reaction to Wanda when she first showed up and got all the best dialogue in all the scenes she was in.
Wanda is bold, confident, supportive, and funny. She can get mean towards people she doesn’t like and tends to keep others at an arm’s length, but once you’ve earned her trust she’s probably the most heroic and selfless character in the storyline… she probably ranks fairly high among heroic and selfless characters in the entirety of Sandman, really. And, as Barbie and the readers find out, she’s also a trans woman.
And she dies at the end of the story.
I think you can see where the controversy started. This story came out in the 1990s, and trans characters were not exactly common in mainstream media, much less trans women that were depicted positively, and as anything other than a joke. Back then, a trans woman in any media generally meant a lot of homophobic jokes and/or mockery of “the man who thinks he’s a woman.”
Wanda, however, was not portrayed like that. Neil Gaiman portrays her as a nuanced and sympathetic person with a sharp wit and a big heart. She may not have been the VERY first positively presented trans person in comics, but she’s definitely AMONG the first. Sandman was always ahead of its time when it came to LGBTQ representation… even if in some instances you can definitely tell that it was written by a white cishet guy in the 1990s, you can also tell that it’s a white cishet guy who REALLY TRIES. Neil Gaiman had a lot of queer friends in the 1990s and seems to actually have LISTENED to them about queer stuff.
This isn’t to say that Wanda is completely unproblematic as a character, if you see her with modern eyes. There’s quite a bit of accidental 1990s-esque transphobic language here… there’s several casual “but she’s really a man” comments from other characters, a bit of over-focus on how Wanda hasn’t had surgery yet and is in fact afraid to, and Wanda herself sometimes lapses into what seems like a defensive insecurity about her identity… and I totally understand why she does because she IS constantly being bombarded by intolerance from all sides.
But while Gaiman’s story does overall seem to unambiguously be on Wanda’s side, and the 1990s casually transphobic tropes do seem to reflect more the actual transphobia that trans people did and still do have to deal with, there are a few eyeroll-worthy moments here, such as the fact that Wanda’s surname is “MANN.” There’s also the fact that… well, the “dead trans woman” trope was a cliche already back then, and as I said, Wanda does die at the end of the story.
It gets a little worse because… well, let me just explain the circumstances real quick.
While Barbie is caught in her dream world, Thessaly, who is in reality a very old, very powerful witch, starts a ritual with Hazel and Foxglove to “call down the moon” and make the moon goddess give the three women an entry way into Barbie’s dream world. Wanda is barred from the ritual and forbidden from joining them on their trip, ostensibly because she has to guard Barbie’s sleeping body but really because the moon goddess only accepts “real women” and either Thessaly or the moon goddess (it’s a little unclear which) doesn’t consider Wanda a real woman. But Thessaly’s meddling with the moon causes a huge storm, and homeless Maisie Hill is trapped under some debris, so Wanda rushes out, rescues her, and gives her shelter in the apartment building. The two bond a little as Maisie tells Wanda about her transgender grandchild, who apparently was accepted by both mother and grandmother the way Wanda never was by her own family… but was later found murdered. At the end of the story, the apartment building collapses in the storm. killing both Wanda and Maisie. Barbie survives because Maisie and Wanda shield her sleeping body with their own… and of course Thessaly, Foxglove and Hazel survive because they weren’t physically in the building at the time.
I don’t know if you see the problem here… but I can tell you that I’m not the only one who thought there MAY be some SLIGHTLY unfortunate implications about the fact that all the white cisgender women survived the story, but the trans woman and the black woman did not. Not only that, but the story of Maisie Hill’s grandchild who was found murdered means that technically there were two trans women in this story, even if one was only mentioned… and they BOTH die horribly. And the one who was only mentioned was a BLACK trans woman. Meanwhile, all the cisgender white women are perfectly fine.
Yeah. I don’t think Gaiman meant anything by writing it that way, but it’s easy to see why he has gone on record stating that he would have written it differently if he wrote it nowadays.
Now, to be fair, unlike many trans characters who get killed off, Wanda is far more important as a character in her own right than she is as a character who dies. It’s not a case of “fridging” (you know, when a minor character is killed off just to show how this affects the main character) because Wanda has what may be the most heroic and tragic deaths in the series: Wanda’s easily the most heroic and noble character in the story and she dies saving other people, even though the circumstances of her death could have been avoided if Thessaly and the moon goddess hadn’t been such bigots.
Lots of people have pointed out the not so subtle anti-trans attitudes of Thessaly and the Moon goddess had to be a sign that Neil Gaiman really didn’t consider Wanda a woman either, because, well, an ancient witch and a goddess said she wasn’t a woman, how could they be wrong? But I think this is misreading the text, especially since we do get a brief glimpse of Wanda post-death, as she appears in Barbie’s dream alongside Death… whom we all know is the most sympathetic and probably the wisest person in the series bar none. And it’s VERY clear that Death unconditionally accepts and appreciates Wanda as the woman she is.
This says, at least to me, that Thessaly and the moon goddess (neither of whom are portrayed as particularly sympathetic, although Thessaly has become a bit of a fan fave despite Gaiman trying to make her unlikeable) are full of it. Wanda was ALWAYS a woman,
And unlike many “fridged” characters, the aftermath of Wanda’s death is ultimately about Wanda and not about how her death affects the main character: Wanda’s transphobic family bury her under her deadname, “Alvin,” and talk about how her death was a “punishment from God.” Barbie is understandably upset at this, and it’s VERY clear that we’re not meant to side with Wanda’s bigot family.
It may not be the biggest comfort, but it is SOME comfort. And it ultimately shows that, 1990s transphobia, unintentional insensitivity and dated language aside, Neil Gaiman as the author was always on Wanda’s side. There is also a slight sense of vindication when Barbie in an act of defiance goes up to Wanda’s grave, and using Wanda’s fave lipstick, crosses out the deadname “Alvin” and writes “WANDA” in big pink letters… plus, the REAL comfort lies in some real-world context shared by Neil Gaiman himself: The same people who wrote angry letters to the Sandman comic about the “horrible creepy Wanda” characters were the same ones who some issues later wrote upset letters about how horrible it was that Wanda’s family wouldn’t even bury her under her real name.
Transphobia is something you can overcome.
But while I do love Wanda as a character and ultimately see her storyline as an accepting one, I can also see how, seen with 2020s eyes, it leaves something to be desired. Our views on trans people has changed… trans people still don’t have the general acceptance that I would have wished, and the transphobia is alive and well with the TERF movements… in fact, the TERFs in this case reminds me a little of Thessaly and the moon goddess in A Game of You, who dismiss Wanda because “she’s a man.” (It’s also this dismissal that in part leads to Wanda’s death… so if anything the story points out just how dangerous transphobia can be.) But all in all, we’re starting to get more genuine trans representation in media; we’re getting trans characters as actual characters who are allowed to have storylines about other things than being trans.
And Wanda, while being a progressive portrayal of a trans woman for the time, does have a few problems, which Neil Gaiman has acknowledged, and he’s said that if he’d written the story today there are things he would have changed. He’s also gone on record saying that when/if the upcoming Netflix series adapts A Game of You, he hopes to get some actual trans writers on the story,
So this brings us to the Audible adaptation. Because the Audible adaptation, unlike the Netflix series aims to be a VERY loyal adaptation. It’s still set in the 1980s/1990s, most of the dialogue is untouched, and it’s probably the closest thing you’ll get to having the comic in sound format… but a FEW things has been changed thanks to the adaptation being made in the 2020s. One of the most notable one is how the nonbinary Desire (brilliantly voiced by the nonbinary Justin Vivian Bond) now goes by “they/them” pronouns rather than the dehumanizing “it” of the original comic.
So I was both excited and nervous to see how Audible adapted Wanda. The transphobia and discrimination was of course a huge part of her character arc, and her death was such a big part of the story in all that they couldn’t drop it… not if they were to keep faithful to the comic. But could they soften or lessen the problematically dated parts?
In the Audible adaptation, Wanda is voiced by trans woman Reece Lyons, who… does an okay job. She’s not really a standout performance the way Justin Vivian Bond’s Desire is; she does great with Wanda’s cheeky and sarcastic lines but her delivery on the emotional parts need a bit of work. That said, there is a genuine warmth to her that I appreciate, and she DOES manage to make Wanda as likeable as she was in the comic.
As for the script… it’s probably more altered than any of the previous storylines. It still tells the exact same story, but especially with Wanda, the language and approach has been modernized a little. And I’m happy to say that a LOT of the most problematic stuff has been altered or outright removed. The discrimination and transphobia is still there, but both Wanda and Barbie are a lot more direct about standing up to it, and they use a lot more affirming and assured language in order to do so. Where the Wanda of the comic would repeat “I’m not a man!” in a rather defensive way, the Wanda of the audio drama simply reaffirms her identity by saying “I’m WANDA.”
A lot of the casually transphobic parts have also been cut; the parts that remain are more clearly put in the mouths of people we’re DEFINITELY not supposed to agree with, like Wanda’s transphobic family. Hazel no longer points out that Wanda has a “thingie,” and Thessaly no longer says “Wanda’s a man” when talking about menstruation; she simply states that Wanda doesn’t menstruate, and the necessity of guarding Barbie’s sleeping body is emphasized a lot more. Maisie Hill’s story about her transgender grandchild also doesn’t include the part where the grandchild was found murdered.
Mind you, the actual story has not been altered… so at the end of the day it’s STILL a story where the trans woman and the black woman die while the white cis women don’t… but the way Wanda’s dialogue has been altered, and the way the dialogue about her has been altered, it’s a lot clearer where the sympathy is supposed to lie, and what exactly the author’s position on Wanda is.
Is it perfect? No. But it is more clearly a trans positive story, where the trans positivity is more clearly stated, the transphobia more clearly condemned, and the tragedy of Wanda’s fate is clearer than ever. In the end, it’s a story I’m happy was told.
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