Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series gives us both heroes and villains, monsters and gods. Sometimes, they are one and the same. Sometimes, it is difficult to decide on any real classification. And sometimes the most interesting of characters are only on the page for a brief time, for a snapshot of their brief lives. Not many of the monsters can make me shudder in quite the way that the Cuckoo can, though–not even the Corinthian, and that’s saying something since the Corinthian has teeth for eyes.
The Cuckoo appears in A Game of You, the fifth story arc of the series. And while many classify this as their least favorite of the bunch, it ranks among my favorites. The story is inventive, and beautiful, and grotesque, and problematic. The characters are vivid and flawed and brave and vulnerable. And it’s all a game, a game of identity. A game of you, quite literally.
Barbie is locked out of her dreams, unable to return to the Land, the dreamworld where she reigns as Princess Barbara. And her dreamworld is in terrible danger from a mysterious monster called the Cuckoo, who has taken over in the absence of the princess. Barbie is visited in the waking world by Martin Tinbones, a giant dog from the Land who has come to find her; just as he gives her an amulet which he calls the Porpentine, he is shot and killed by police.
The Porpentine returns Barbie to her dreamworld, where she is greeted by several of its inhabitants and sent on a quest to put an end to the Cuckoo. Back in the apartment, where Barbie’s unconscious body rests, one of her neighbors is revealed to have been recruited by the Cuckoo–he releases a flock of nightmare birds that are only stopped when Thessaly (another denizen of the apartment and a powerful witch) kills him. Thessaly divines the threat of the Cuckoo (by using George’s innards) and summons the moon (using menstrual blood), after which she travels to the Land with Hazel and Foxglove, who also live in the apartment building. Their neighbor Wanda is left to watch over Barbie’s unconscious body. (All of this gets a little complicated because Wanda is a transgender woman left behind because she isn’t “technically” a woman–the implications of which are big and problematic and sad.)
While in the Land, Barbie embarks on a quest to find the Cuckoo and restore order. She finally comes to the Cuckoo’s citadel–which looks just like Barbie’s childhood home. And then child-Barbie runs up to adult-Barbie, revealing herself to be the Cuckoo. Or at least, some version of herself. The Cuckoo, it seems, was born from Barbie’s childhood imaginings and fantasies, and she has become a kind of parasitic entity. She was Barbie’s imaginary friend as a child, and when she was discarded, she became tied to Barbie’s dreamworld. Barbie’s companions on her journey and Martin Tenbones are actually versions of Barbie’s discarded childhood toys, and Barbie’s dreamworld is a kind of simulation of her childhood.
The Cuckoo bewitches Barbie, who agrees to help the Cuckoo destroy the Land by allowing the Cuckoo to kill her. She’s not satisfied with her home in the Land…She wants to be free to fly away. Destroying the dream will allow her to fly away and plant versions of herself in the thousands of other dreamworlds that exist. When Thessaly, Hazel, and Foxglove arrive to save Barbie and confront the Cuckoo, they are temporarily tricked into thinking that the Cuckoo is Luz (one of Barbie’s toys and a companion on her adventure through the Land who turns out to be a spy for the Cuckoo), and Thessaly kills Luz. Barbie destroys the Hierogram and the Porpentine, which summons Morpheus, who un-creates the Land and its inhabitants. Barbie is granted a boon from Morpheus, and she uses it to ensure the safe return of herself, Thessaly, Foxglove, and Hazel to the waking world.
Against Thessaly’s wishes, the Cuckoo is allowed to fly away freely. So, what became of the Cuckoo? Who can say? Probably she’s in another dreamworld, on another dream island.