“That which you send out shall be returned threefold”
This is one of the principles of Wicca that I learned in junior high. I’d always been drawn to the occult, to witches, but it was bigger than that. I was a trans girl, closeted for survival’s sake, and I sought something bigger than myself. I sought a dream. Of power. Of belonging. Of others like me. A coven, one might say.
In looking for that dream, I found The Sandman, where there were witches aplenty. Ethel Cripps, Thessaly, the Three-In-One — and there was her: Magic Wanda.
Wanda Mann was introduced in the first issue of A Game of You, the fifth story arc of The Sandman, which ran from November 1991 to May 1992. Set in New York, it followed the life of a troubled young woman, as quite a few of the arcs did: Barbie (no last name, like the doll; she’d been introduced in an earlier arc appropriately called The Doll’s House) was out on her own after the failure of her marriage. Wanda was Barbie’s best friend and foil—confident where Barbie is shy; “camp” (a word here misused to mean ‘incapable of passing as cisgender’) where Barbie is “pretty”.
Other women were introduced in that first issue as well and their stories continued after A Game of You. But Wanda? Wanda was introduced, lived, and died—all in A Game of You. Three-in-one.
What a nightmare for a young girl to see; far from the dream I wanted. I was far from the only one to see Wanda and, as if through magic, want to change her story, however—or at least respond to it.
Before we discuss that, of course, we have to discuss Wanda’s story—from beginning to end, playing the game of you.
The majority of the arc centers around Barbie, whose real world is invaded by refugees from her dream land (no, not that one), seeking to escape an apparently malevolent force known as the Cuckoo. Ostensibly a supporting character, Wanda serves a number of important roles both in the story’s plot and construction.
It is through Wanda rather than Barbie that we are introduced to the rest of the arc’s major players, after all—she runs through these outsiders looking for cream so she can make Barbie coffee—and she acts as a confidante and protector for Barbie at all times. In a more complicated way, she provides a counterpoint to the story’s prevailing attitude towards women and female power.
At a pivotal point in the story, the main cast—Wanda and the other three women the arc centers around: Thessaly, Hazel, and Foxglove—gather together as a makeshift coven with plans to enter the Dreaming, a literal land of dreams, and rescue Barbie from the Cuckoo. In the process of drawing down the Moon to do so, Thessaly misgenders Wanda and asserts that the Moon’s path is not for Wanda. (“The Moon is ever ours”, she says to Hazel and Foxglove, but never Wanda.) Furthermore, Wanda reacts to the magical workings with dismay, vomit, and disbelief; Hazel and Foxglove (in her words) “[fall] into it […] natural as anything” in contrast.
In case we didn’t get it, this point becomes further reinforced when Wanda is explicitly told by one of the Cuckoo’s agents that the Moon doesn’t think Wanda is really a woman. Wanda is too confident to take this passively and says to Hell with the Moon and the witch and the reanimated flayed-off face if they don’t see she’s a real woman, but the point remains: Even among witches, outsiders, and monsters, the trans woman does not belong.
Drawing down the Moon is a Wiccan ritual, believed to have been done by the witches of Thessaly in Ancient Greece. The modern ritual, Wikipedia conjectures, is common in many Wiccan traditions, but was likely popularized by the writings of Gerald Gardner. In junior high, I learned about it from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft, which is at least a bit more credible than the writings of Gerald Gardner in terms of how ‘ancient’ particular practices actually were. I did it once – I stood under the Full Moon, my body forming a Y in what the Complete Idiot’s Guide informed me was ‘Goddess Pose’. I appropriately felt like a complete idiot.
But that wasn’t Gerald Gardner’s fault for exaggerating how ‘ancient’ the ritual really was. Other sources (such as Plato’s Gorgias in 380 BC) corroborate that the “Thessalian enchantresses” did indeed “[…] bring down the moon from Heaven at the risk of their own perdition.”
When Barbie & Friends make it back home, "waking up like it was all a dream"—Gaiman notably has Barbie refer to their return to the waking world as “the Dorothy Option”—they find that Thessaly bringing down the Moon brought the perdition of everyone else in the city. It was a hurricane, Auntie Em. Most specifically, the hurricane killed Wanda—she finally got to be a witch by way of a house dropping on her. (Well, an apartment building—this IS New York after all.)
Wanda may die a witch’s death, but she lived as a superhero—in her dreams, at least. In the first chapter of A Game of You, Wanda and Barbie get breakfast (not at Tiffany’s; they make that joke in the comic), where Wanda discusses her past hobby of enjoying ‘Hyperman’ comic books, specifically the Weirdzos—analogues to the imperfect clones in the Superman mythology called Bizarros. The Bizarros (and, accordingly, the Weirdzos) mimic traditional mainstream America imperfectly, creating sometimes satirical, sometimes broadly comic, parodies of what readers expect to read. In fact, Wanda reveals, she liked the Weirdzos so much that she wanted to be one.
Later in the story, the reader dives into various characters’ dreams, with Wanda’s providing our only insight into her inner world. In her dream, Wanda becomes tied down by a group led by Bizarro Superman—I mean, ‘Weirdzo Hyperman’—and repeatedly misgendered and dead-named as the group drags her into an operating room to give her ‘the surgery’. After all, what else would a trans woman dream of?
The thread comes to a head during the story’s larger climax, where Barbie confronts the Cuckoo in the Dreaming. It’s there that the Cuckoo, who one should note is not a reliable narrator or a child psychiatrist, claims that “boys and girls are different” in their fantasy lives. Specifically, little girl fantasies take on a ‘changeling’ or ‘cuckoo’ (like the bird) lens: “I am secretly a princess and will return to my real home one day”. Little boy fantasies take on a ‘superhero’ lens: “I am secretly a hero and those who sneer at me will admire my greatness”.
When I was in junior high, this section bothered me. When I was in college, this section incensed me. Now? Now, this section—this entire volume—divides me into three.
Associating superheroes, using the Superman pastiche created in association with Wanda, so explicitly with boyhood and masculinity…didn’t that invalidate Wanda’s identity? Nowadays, the trans community tends to reject language that lends credibility to the assigned gender; this resonates with me—I was an early bird, so any ‘male’ presentation never felt more real than a dream to me. It was something I cut away as soon as possible.
But those things aren’t true of every trans person. For some, especially late-transitioners, they were that person sincerely or tried to be with all their heart, even if someone else wanted to fly out of their ribcage. ‘Boyhood’ fits for them as a place their token travelled through in the game of you.
And then, of course, we factor in The Times ™. In November 1991, I was a literal baby. I found out about The Sandman through the Internet, which didn’t exist back then. In my lifetime already, I’ve seen the language evolve from ‘MtF’ to ‘trans woman’, with various spacings and added asterisks. Think of the history, I tell myself. It’s so much bigger than you.
The story closes with Barbie attending Wanda’s funeral, where her horrible unaccepting family cut away everything that was Wanda about her until they had a dead body they could pass off as their son. When everyone leaves, Barbie delivers three gifts to Wanda—first, lipstick in her favorite shade: Tacky Flamingo. Second, a Hyperman comic. Third, she crosses out the incorrect name on Wanda’s tombstone and writes her real name in the lipstick.
In dreams, Barbie sees Wanda one last time, wearing a beautiful pink dress like Glinda the Good Witch. With Death of the Endless at her side, Wanda is “perfect”—a word here used to mean cisgender. With all the physical cutaway, it is indisputable that Wanda is, was, and will be (wherever Death takes her) a woman. Why, the Moon and the witch and the reanimated flayed-off face were wrong all along! Yay.
I mean, she’s still dead, even when the Cuckoo got a happy ending. This still makes me furious. Because, now, every year brings a new record amount of trans women being murdered. Now, CNN has reported that thirty-three states have introduced more than one hundred bills aim to limit the rights of transgender people—especially young girls like I was. And let’s not even get into the present anti-trans situation in the United Kingdom, where author Neil Gaiman hails from.
But I try to think of the history.
Not the history of murdered trans women, like Venus Xtravaganza and Carla Leigh Salazar, that already existed in 1991 and which Gaiman drew on for a serial killer character in The Doll’s House—Barbie’s origin, if you recall—known as The Connoisseur. No, I think of the history where there were no trans characters before Wanda in mainstream comics beyond subtext, allegory, and body swaps. I think of people for whom Wanda was their first known experience seeing a trans person and how it would have had to be dropped on heads like a house in a hurricane that she was a real person and a real woman and a real hero. In a time where the luckiest of us were talk show sideshows, this was practically veneration.
I think of the history where Gaiman received death threats for what he had written, never mind the story I might dream and truly needed in junior high.
Gaiman has said repeatedly that he would write A Game of You, and Wanda specifically, much differently if he wrote either in the here and now. Unfortunately, there are no rules in magic about undoing what has been done. Only about what has been done and what returns in reply to it.
This appropriately brings us to Echo.
Introduced in a 1997 story arc of The Dreaming, an anthology series set in the Sandman universe called Souvenirs, Echo is unlike Wanda in many ways—far from a hero, closer to ‘cis-passing’ in appearance, and deeply invested in the occult: a wicked witch. But Echo isn’t entirely lacking in noble Wanda-like traits—she is a guardian to her serial murdering lover Gabriel, as Wanda was to Barbie, but worse comes of that than borrowed cream for coffee. Echo loses Gabriel in Souvenirs, which should be the unhappy end.
When DC/Vertigo editorial made the decision to shift The Dreaming from an anthology to an ongoing series with a consistent narrative, Caitlin R. Kiernan was hired as the main writer based off of Souvenirs. This allowed Echo’s story to continue beyond Souvenirs; to truly become a reply and reaction to Wanda’s.
The next arc in which Echo appears, she seeks revenge on the Corinthian for Gabriel’s sake and she tries to get it through magic. She calls to something bigger than herself, her body forming a Y—Goddess Pose. But, of course, her dreams turn to nightmares since Echo isn’t just a Bad Witch, but a kind of inept one. Perdition comes down on those around her as the story goes on.
We see quickly that Echo has grown, in bitterness and suicidal ideation, a dark mirror of Wanda’s confidence: if they won’t see deeper than the physical—a body she doesn’t quite belong in, and one that has no power — then to Hell with them if they can’t see her pain. But Echo doesn’t die there, no matter how much she dreams of it.
When she does die, however, something curious happens. She dies in her sleep due to violence, heroin withdrawal, and pneumonia; flying to the Dreaming where she finds that she is changed—beautiful and cisgender. With all the physical cutaway, it is indisputable that Echo is, was, and will be (in her new life as a nightmare) a woman.
This is far from a happy ending (or an ending at all), as the Dreaming is filled with beings who resent the actions Echo took and the mistakes she made. What else would they use to express this resentment but misgendering? As time goes on, Echo finds a new purpose as a nightmare. She is promoted to the third Corinthian for a time, while the second Corinthian lives a mortal life and gets a heart. She apologizes for the horrors she’s committed. But the point remains: Even among witches, outsiders, and monsters, the trans woman does not belong. Not really.
In Echo’s finale (also the finale of The Dreaming series), she is possessed by something bigger than herself when a fixture of the Dreaming called the House of Mystery preys on her insecurity about not belonging and worms its way into her mind—a house dropped on her, you might say. The House of Mystery rewrites her history—it tells her that she is the twin of Dream of the Endless: a secret princess returned to her home at last. Cain ultimately saves the day and Dream sends everyone home free of charge…except for Echo. After all, Echo wasn’t really at home in the Dreaming. With Dream of the Endless at her side, Echo goes somewhere she can finally belong. “Surely, there is a part for you somewhere.”
This last issue of The Dreaming was released in May 2001, only a few short months before I was due to start junior high. I didn’t find out about Echo until I was in my late twenties, giving a talk on the history of transgender characters in comics. By that point, the events of The Dreaming had been deemed non-canonical, including Echo’s existence.
Admittedly, I was more like Echo than Wanda when I was younger, but would reading Echo’s story then have been a dream come true? There are the markings of The Times™ and the limits of language, which took their toll on both the narration boxes and Kiernan—at the time, they identified as a trans woman due to gender fluidity and non-binary identity not been well-known or accessible. But Echo’s story is one of a wicked witch, a person full of broken dreams, eventually trying to work towards something like redemption…and never getting it. Never even getting basic decency. Would that have made me feel like I belonged? Would it have made me feel powerful?
Or would it just have been my perdition?
But that’s not all. That which you send out shall be returned threefold. We have Wanda and three witches inspired by her: me, Echo, and…
Now, we come to the new Dreaming, specifically The Dreaming: Waking Hours. The Times™ are behind us; the first issue was released in August 2020. The author is G. Willow Wilson, acclaimed creator of (among numerous other works) Ms. Marvel—a character all about belonging and power and that which is bigger than yourself. The first arc of Waking Hours features this last theme quite extensively, both in its central character and in the witch it introduces.
Lindy Morris is a single mom who has the misfortune of studying the works of Shakespeare. Her thesis is centered around playing the game of ‘who’, if you’ll excuse the pun—which is to say the Shakespearian authorship question. Ruin is a nightmare who wants to escape to the waking world, as the Cuckoo and the first Corinthian did; by succeeding, he accidentally traps Lindy in a dream land, as Barbie was. But Ruin isn’t the Cuckoo and Lindy isn’t close to Barbie—so, to free Lindy (while she’s also trying to free herself), Ruin gathers a ragtag group to take action—Jophiel, an angel he’s met before, and a friend of Jophiel: the witch Heather After.
I mentioned the witch Ethel Cripps at the start of this essay; she was the mistress of Roderick Burgess, who started the entire Sandman series when he trapped Dream of the Endless for fifty odd years—he’d been aiming for Death. The original Sandman only featured Ethel as the mother of John Dee—a supervillian who killed Foxglove’s abusive ex-girlfriend. In the history of Waking Hours, Ethel had another child with Roderick Burgess and is, through that child, the great-grandmother of Heather After.
We meet Heather in the second issue of Waking Hours; when we first see her, she is wearing a beautiful pink dress like Glinda the Good Witch. She is beautiful, confident, and kind. She belongs to something bigger than herself, a magical bloodline, but her magic was self-taught and she is an impressive magical talent – not limited by this past, she created something bigger than herself to belong to: an Internet coven of witches to teach positive magic. Heather’s path is for everyone. Furthermore, she intends to be her family’s end—no more power-grabbers and wicked witches.
There is no implied magical incompetence attributed to Heather’s gender identity. True, she missteps when the Shakespearian faery Puck escapes her summoning circle instead of taking the trio to the Dreaming. After this misstep, the trio continue to plan and Heather opens a path for Ruin—from there, he petitions Dream of the Endless to spare Lindy (as she’s confronted her internal dilemmas about Shakespearian academia): a happy ending for everyone. The point is clear: even among witches, outsiders, and monsters, the trans woman can belong.
Only this isn’t the ending at all. Heather’s story continues. In the next arc, Puck strikes back at Heather for imprisoning him (however briefly) and tries to kill her. But Heather’s boyfriend Todd gathers their ragtag group to take action—finally, someone protects the trans woman like Wanda protected Barbie. Of course, Heather’s already rescued herself by the time Todd gets there by reaching out to something bigger than herself, her body forming a Y—Goddess Pose.
Like Dorothy with the Wizard of Oz, the way to safety comes with a deal—Heather has to return a King to his home and his throne.
Although, as of this writing, Heather’s story hasn’t ended yet (There are still two more issues to The Dreaming: Waking Hours), no one has disputed that she is a real woman and the only one who tried was a background character that Todd nearly destroyed for the insult. Thus, we must assume that there’s no need to cut away the physical to make it indisputable. She might get a happy ending; she might even live to see it.
Heather’s story is a far cry from Wanda’s. Yet I think of the history that is to come: that which you send out shall be returned threefold. We have Wanda and three witches inspired by her: me, Echo, and Heather. I think of the witches like me who will see Heather in the future and feel like they belong. I think of what will return threefold from Heather.
I think it’ll be perfect.