The Sandman of the late eighties was not quite the majestic, surreal series that became the most celebrated comic book of the 1990s. Instead, it was an odd mixture of horror, fantasy and typical DC fare. They were loaded with potential but the early issues of Sandman seem rough and awkward compared to the brilliant material of a few years hence.
The Doll's House, Sandman's second volume, presents Neil Gaiman's first attempt at a large-scale story arc (The series' first eight issues, collected in Preludes and Nocturnes, were interconnected but were, for the most part, individual episodes). Like most Sandman story arcs, The Doll's House is quite multifaceted. Later, Gaiman would master the art of unfolding intricate story arcs with masterful precision, but on The Doll's House, he has yet to reach his peak. Thus, this is not a great story arc but a cumbersome one that has occasional moments of greatness.
It is difficult to recap the plot of The Doll's House, as it is a messy one that slowly unveils itself as the story moves along. The least one must know before delving into any Sandman volume is that the series focuses on the "realm of dreams," and its ruler, Morpheus, a God-like being with the attitude of a morose 20-something. The Doll's House finds the dream king tracking down several inhabitants of his dominion who fled during the decades he was imprisoned by a sorcerer (see Preludes and Nocturnes) and also dealing with a "dream vortex" that has manifested itself in a punk-ish young woman named Rose Walker. Rose is searching for her lost brother, Jed, who is locked in the cellar of his abusive aunt and uncle. Given his connection to the dream vortex, it is no coincidence that Jed is experiencing strange dreams involving The Fury and The Silver Scarab of the superhero team, Infinity Inc.
Although the larger story of The Doll's House does not quite succeed, two episodes that stand somewhat independently of it do. One is "Collectors," in which Rose's search somehow brings her to a trade convention for serial killers. This tale is ingenious; a horror story that is somehow funny, terrifying and wholly original at the same time. The other is the prelude, "Tales in the Sand," in which an African tribesman indoctrinates his grandson into manhood by telling him the legend a queen and her tragic love affair with Morpheus. This chapter first demonstrated Gaiman's appreciation of indigenous folklore and his remarkable ability to weave it into the Sandman mythos. It is moments like these in which one can see Sandman shaping into something wonderful. However, when the focus is on the Walker siblings, the missing denizens of the dream world, a couple of obscure superheroes and the confusing connections between them, The Doll's House is a frustrating read at best.