Sandman Issue 20: Masks and Facades

Continuing my re-read of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman which I started here, as I’m focusing on portraits I’m skipping most of Volume 3 Dream Country and heading straight to the last issue, issue 20: Façade. “Façade” is fascinating from the portrait perspective and I believe the cover art for volume 3 is a representation of this issue.

“Façade” features Urania “Rania” Blackwell, DC Universe’s Elemental Girl and her inability to cope with living in her post-superhuman existence. Following her retirement, Rania is completely isolated, her only point of contact are phone calls to the agency to inquire the status of her disability cheque.

Rania has the ability to transmutate into anything… except transmutating flesh is difficult. She gained these powers through contact with “the orb of Ra”, a process that leaves her looking alien and monstrous. As a result, each time Rania enters the public sphere she must create a version of her face, to cover her disfigurement. Unable to transmutate flesh (the smell of rotting meat lasts for weeks), Rania creates silicon faces instead. These silicon faces harden and fall off in a day, but Rania keeps them. Throughout the issue we see blurred images of masks hung around Rania’s apartment. From this perspective, they look like Greek theatre masks.

While there is one photograph of Rania before she gains super powers, the masks themselves operate as a series of self-portraits. If portraits are meant to convey the essence of a person, presenting them as a mask subverts that objective, as a mask is meant to hide the true identity, transform a person, and allow them to play a role. And yet, as Rania notes herself, the masks are a part of her identity as well, telling the figure Death that: “I couldn’t throw them away. They’re part of me.”

Death response to this assessment of human identity is striking, as she offers her own:

You people always hold onto old identities, old faces and masks, long after they’ve served their purpose.

But you’ve got to learn to throw things away eventually.

Gaiman, The Sandman “Façade”

Is Death right? Do we dwell on the portraits of our past too much? Do we dream of days gone by, or dwell on our past miseries? I can’t help but think of pop psychology. How often do we locate the source and meaning of our current actions from events that happened in our past. How often do we react in a way because of a past identity, a past hurt or trauma? Can we ever move past it to form a new persona, or is it always built off layers of shattered masks, a series of silicon portraits continously created and discarded but never completely thrown away?

Too many deep questions for a Thursday afternoon. I’m off to take a nap. Until next time, take care!

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