The Sandman: Overture, issue 1


I confused myself in the comics shop earlier, about how long ago it really was since Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series ended. but it is still the best part of twenty years since the final issue of the series, and twice as long as the series ran. And I’ve always been counted among those who would happily have sold a reasonably distant member of their family for another story. And now finally that’s not necessary (just as well given I don’t have any suitable kin to offer), because Gaiman has not merely agreed to write that one more story, but has actually completed it and the first issue has been published.

Of course, DC being DC, the event is going to be milked for all its worth and the herd in the next field as well for, whilst Gaiman’s story will consist of only six issues, these will only be published on a bi-monthly basis, meaning that the end of this story will not be known until September 2014. To ensure our money doesn’t get stagnant in our pockets keep us going in between episodes, we will be able to buy ‘Special Editions’ of the previous month’s comic, with ‘extras’. I will say no more.

So, what’s it like, returning to the Dreaming with Gaiman after all these years? Has he still got it? Does this feel right, does it feel authentic? Hell, yes, it’s like never having been away.

Gaiman’s story is the one before it all began, the one that ends with issue 1, almost twenty-five years ago, when Dream of the Endless was captured by the self-styled Magus, Roderick Burgess, returning from a mission that has left him desperately tired and weak. This is that story, so already we know two things. The first is that this is taking place during the Great War in Europe, and the second is all of Dream’s future to come.

Stories are always difficult to tell when you know their ending in advance. The ingenuity of The Day of the Jackal (on film at least) lay in how it sprang its story of why the Jackal failed, when his approach had been so impossibly meticulous. Gaiman has an advantage in that this story need not connect itself in such a sense to the already-known series, since all it has to do is to deliver a ‘desperately tired and weak’ Sandman to a pre-arranged point, but Gaiman wouldn’t be Gaiman if he ignored that challenge.

What we have so far is a mysterious dream sequence far away in space, on a planet that is not Earth, and whose inhabitants include a race of intelligent, if immobile plants, one of whom dreams of a strange black-petaled, white-faced plant that senses something deeply wrong on this planet, and then burns. This incident creates ripples: Destiny reads in his book of entertaining his sister Death, who is perturbed that she has just collected their brother Dream a hundred galaxies away, and it is never very good when one of the Endless dies.

Then there is the Corinthian, disobeying Dream by entering the waking world, by killing. He is brought to Dream’s London offices to be uncreated away from all his friends, but Dream’s intentions are disturbed by a summons: not a common thing but not unknown,yet this is a summons that cannot be refused. Dream has time only to return to the Dreaming, leaving the Corinthian to roam unchecked, to collect his helmet of office and his pouch of sand (he wears his ruby already) before being summoned in an instant to, we assume, this planet of humanoids, insects and plants.

He arrives prepared for anything. Except for what he finds: a fold-out, four page spread of Dreams: nor dreams, but Dreams: himself, replicated, variegated, over thirty different incarnations, all answering the summons.

Where this leads is two months away, in another year.

Overture comes with alternate covers, at least for issue 1. As was traditional, Dave McKean has also returned, but series artist J. H. Williams III has drawn an alternate cover, as depicted above, which is the one I’ve chosen. Williams has been one of the leading artists in comics for over a decade, and he is immaculate in this issue, meticulous in his detail and in full command of his craft. Parts of the art is in black and white, although it might be better to describe it as grey and white. Practically the only quibble would be that, in the London office sequel, his Sandman is hugely reminiscent of the Shade, from James Robinson’s Starman, but then I like the Shade so I’m fine with that.

This is, as usual, very much a first issue, setup and mystery, and a generously depicted atmosphere. There are still stories to be told within Gaiman’s Dreaming, within Gaiman’s Endless. This is the first: I will not be alone in hoping it will not be the last.

On Writing: NaNoWriMo update: day 7


Currently I’m up to almost 14,750 words and I’ve been writing every day, though not in the amounts needed to ‘win’ NaNoWriMo by reaching 50,000 words by 30 November at the latest. The current total includes more than 50% already written, which is technically cheating. Hopefully, I’ll catch up a bit next week, when I’ve got seven days off work and hope to steam ahead a bit: after all, I’m nearly through the first phase and looking forward to introducing my second lead character, while in the meantime a supporting character looks to be turning into almost a third lead.

But it’s the writing every day which is the important part, and as far as I’m concerned, the ‘win’ isn’t 50,000 words plus by three weeks on Saturday, it’s the final page of the book.

 

The Prisoner: episode 16 – Once Upon a Time – synopsis


Thunder crashes. The full title sequence runs. We hear Leo McKern’s voice again in the catechism.
We open on a shot of the Green Dome, rising above the Village. In Number Two’s office, the Butler is steering a breakfast trolley. The Chair is occupied by a pulsating Rover. The Butler carefully deposits his tray on a side table. He operates the controls to cause a chair to slide up out of the floor. A moment later, a man rises through the floor, head bowed. We recognise him as the charming Number Two of The Chimes of Big Ben.
Number Two looks around him, disgustedly. He orders the Butler to take the breakfast away. He snatches up the red phone and snarls at the person on the other end to get rid of that ‘thing’ (i.e., Rover): he is not an inmate. Irritably, he orders the Butler to leave the coffee, shouting at him when he doesn’t move quickly enough.
He logs onto surveillance of Number Six, who is having breakfast in his kitchen. Carrying his cup and chewing a piece of toast, Number Six gets up and starts pacing back and forth. Number Two steps up to the gantry beneath the screen, almost putting himself into the pictiure. Why do you care? he muses, repeating the question.
He grabs the yellow phone off the desk, asks for Number Six. We hear the latter’s phone beep, see him answering. Why do you care? Number Two asks. I know your voice, the Prisoner replies. Number Two confirms he has been here before, and repeats his question. You’ll never know, Number Six says, putting down the phone and leaving his cottage.
Number Two continues to watch him as he makes his way through the sparsely attended square. Number Six button-holes a man with an umbrella, who reacts fearfully to being spoken to, and implores him to go away.
Coming to a decision, he snatches up the red phone again. He argues with the person to whom he is speaking, insisting that they have been going about things the wrong way, that he told them so first time. If they want him, they must do it his way, and there is no alternative: he demands approval for Degree Absolute.
This is clearly a serious, and irrevocable step, and one that is risky for Number Two himself. He acknowledges this. He is a good man, was a good man, if they they can get Number Six, he will be better. Number Two is willing to sacrifice himself. Consent is given, to start tonight, but though Number Two objects, he is given only seven days, which he believes is too short.
We cut to the Control Room. Number Two bustles in, announcing Degree Absolute, and requiring all subsidiary personnel to be removed. The Supervisor challenges him, proposes to check, but Number Two overrules him. The staff are told to leave, to submit their time sheets on the most favourable rates, leaving Number two, the Controller, and one operative on the twin-arm device.
Number Two takes one of the screens and tunes into Number Six, asleep in bed. The Controller counts to six, and announces that the first waveform is clear. A second count is made. Onscreen, Number Six grows restless. Number Two orders a third count, diminished, holding on five. Number Six threshes about, but remains asleep. A sweating Number Two is satisfied. As he leaves, the Supervisor says he would be sorry to lose him.
In his bedroom, Number Six sleeps. The ceiling light descends towards his face on its cord. It starts to flash. Number Two, sounding very weary, starts to croon the nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty. Number Six remains undisturbed, with the lamp over his face, as Number Two wanders round singing other rhymes. No matter how loudly he sings, Number Six is not disturbed. Number Two lies down on a shaped couch.
In the morning, he raises the blinds and looks across the village, as did Number Six on his first appearance. He wakes Number Six, asking him if he wants to go walkies. Number Six grins vacuously and leaps out of bed.
After he dresses, Number Six is wheeled across the square and into Number Two’s Office by the Butler. Whilst Number Two talks to himself as much as Number Six, the Butler walks over to one of the floor-discs and is dropped through the floor. Number Two leads Number Six to another disc, before his Chair: they drop out of sight. They emerge in a dark corridor, along which they are carried on a moving causeway. This leads to a pair of thick metal doors, which Number Two unlocks,
Inside the room, it is dark, until Number Two switches on the light to reveal a strange large room. It features objects such as a playpen, which which the Butler, wearing snow-glasses, stands, shaking a rattle, a free-standing door, a mini-tractor, a seesaw, a kitchen unit contained behind bars. Excitedly, Number Six goes to the playpen, seizes the rattle and starts shaking it. Number Two dons an identical pair of snow-glasses, and sets the clock by the entrance. The doors slide shut. The week begins.
Number Two starts to recite Shakespeare’s ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech as he chalks three objectives on a blackboard: A. Find Missing Link, something that has been in Number Six’s brain, even as a child, B. Put it together, refining it, tuning it, making Number Six theirs, and if he fails, C. BANG.
Number Six is taken for a walk in the park, to the seesaw,but as soon as Number Two brings up the word father, he is let down with a bump. From the park it is to school: the Butler fetches Number Two a cane and a mortar board, Number Six a straw boater. ‘Report to my study in the morning break,’ snaps Number Two.
He quizzes the schoolboy Number Six about an incident of talking in class, nine days ago. Number Six has been accused, wrongly. He knows the true culprit but will not give him away. For nine days he has refused. He accepts the term ‘fool’ but says he is not a rat. It is a matter of honour. For his refusal to conform, he is left with the Butler, who brandishes the cane.
He emerges a graduate. Headmaster Number Two praises his prize pupil for hos he has overcome his rebellious spirit, and learned to conform. He demands Number Six say why he resign. Number Six protests mildly that it is a secret. Number Two’s pressure leads to screams and a fight in which Number Six starts to choke the older man. Unhurriedly, the Butler replaces the cane in the cupboard, selects a truncheon and crashes it down on Number Six’s head.
When Number Two recovers his breath, the pair manhandle Number Six onto a table. A hairdryer like device is placed over his head. A still-gasping Number Two admits he is beginning to like Number Six.
Restored, Number Six sits on a rocking horse. Number Two prowls round him, verbally sparring. They get into long to-and-fros, counting letters, numbers. Number Six has a block on the word six and will not, cannot say it. They repeat various, nonsensical combinations of the word Pop at each other, during which Number Two explains, obliquely what it stands for: Protect Other People.
The sparring continues into real sparring: boxing training, protective headgear, Number Six as the Champ, Number Two as his trainer, needling, forever needling him over his resignation, until Number Six punches him down. Then they become fencers, Number Two contemptuous of his opponent until his foil is twisted away, out of his hands. Still he taunts Number Six, accusing him of cowardice, of being the one-man band, but unable to cross the threshold to kill. Number Six backs him against the door, strikes with the button foil, just missing. Number Two taunts and he strikes the door again, but now the button has come off. Undaunted, Number Two throws forward his contempt until Number Six shrieks and lunges – but only into Number Two’s left shoulder. ‘You missed, boy, you still can’t do it’. He mocks Number Six’s shocked apology.
The two clean themselves up, Number Two’s arm in a sling. Then another approach: Number Two as interviewer using the kitchen. Number Six seeks a job, but he has no concern for the traditions of the Bank: he just wants to work, to have a job. But it’s more than a stamp-licking job, he is important, he is being groomed for his true role in Intelligence, his future. He drive a motorised toy car to the interview where this is explained to him.
Surreally happy, Number Six drives the toycar around until he is halted by the Butler, in policeman’s helmet, blowing a whistle. He is tried for speeding before Number Six, the judge, tries to alibi it on his job his secret job, above the law. Over his protests, he is fines a sum he cannot pay, and is, literally, dragged off to jail, hand-cuffed inside the caged itchen.
Number Two hammers at him again, verbally, demanding the secret of his resignation. Number Six resists, begins to slur his voice, act drunkenly. Number Two’s mastery over him starts to dwindle as the Prisoner invites him to kill him, produces a carving knife from the kitchen drawer, lies down.
Instead, we go on to a war scene, artificial smoke, the sound of bombs, the two men straddling a mid-air plank, pilot and release-operator on a bomber. Number Six’s inability/resistance to the word six creates an overshoot, a second pass, a bailing out.
Number Two interrogates Number Six in German. Number Six is apologetic, almost hangdog, but as the harangue continues, his demeanour changes. He starts to count numbers. He says the word six, starts to relish it. Removing his jacket, he nonchalantly walks from the cage.
Number Six’s acceptance of the number six has changed the dynamic. Number Two is no longer in charge. The Butler massages his temples as Number Six starts to ask penetrating questions about the psychological procedure of Degree Absolute, it’s dependance upon complete trust and its risk to any doctor who has his own problems. Number Two is effusive in his answers, admitting that he has flaws. They still have time to work on this though, but when he draws back the velvet curtains, the clock shows that only five minutes remain.
He rushes over to the kitchen, opens and bottle and pours himself a whiskey. He is still gabbling about time as Number Six experimentally slides the door to and fro, until he slams it shut and locks it. Number Two grabs the bars, then laughs as the Butler comes forward and takes the key from Number Six: he thinks you’re in charge now, he shouts.
Number Six looms over him, threatening to enter. Number Six turns fearful, pleading with him to stay away. When the door is open, he stumbles out and falls. Number Six pursues him as the man begins to disintegrate. Number Six starts counting down the time, with Number Two still protesting it’s not too late. But the inexorable march of seconds is counted down. Number Two lurches back into the caged kitchen, takes another drink, as the seconds run out. On zero, he ceases breathing and falsl to the floor, dead.
Number Six looks as if he too has come out of a trance. The steel doors slide open to reveal the Supervisor, who congratulates Number Six. He walks over to the cage and looks at Number Two. We shall need the body for evidence, he state, an edge of contempt in his voice. Number Six smashes his glass violently on the floor.
A hinged metal door slams down from above, sealing the kitchen. The Supervisor asks Number Six what he desires, to which the Prisoner replies, ‘Number One’. ‘I’ll take you’, says the Supervisor. They walk towards the doors, leaving an empty Embryo Room, silent but for a nursery rhyme.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1966


Justice League of America 46, “Crisis between Earth-1 and Earth-2!”/Justice League of America 47, “The Bridge Between Earths!” Written by Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky (pencils) and Sid Greene (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

On Moro Mountain on Earth-1, Hawkman is chasing a stolen bullion truck when a cold fog envelopes him and it turns into a fur coat lorry. Puzzled, he overcomes the crooks with a morningstar and his fists.
On Moro Mountain on Earth-2, Sandman is chasing a stolen fur coat lorry when a cold fog envelopes him and it turns into a bullion truck. Puzzled, he overcomes the crooks with his Sandgun and handfuls of sand that he transmutes into a concrete wall, and glass handcuffs.
Elsewhere on Earth-2, Dr Mid-Nite is just taking down a bunch of crooks robbing a bank, using his new weapon, the Cyrotuber, a multi-barrelled gun whose anodes use different medical techniques – ultrasonics, cryogenics, lasers – for offensive purposes. Suddenly, he is spun around in the hands of the Flash – the Earth-1 Flash – who is astonished to see him on Earth-1.
And Batman is duking it out with a crook who suddenly starts duking it back very powerfully: he has been shifted to Earth-2 and is battling Wildcat.
More than superheroes are affected: weddings are disrupted when bride and groom are switched, sports when boxers are replaced by golfers. Black Canary switches from an Earth-2 rooftop to an Earth-1 swamp, from which Green Lantern retrieves her. Solomon Grundy, the marshland monster, breaks out of the prison globe created for him by Doctor Fate and Green Lantern of Earth-2, but lands on Earth-1, and Blockbuster, being investigated by the Alfred Memorial Foundation, vanishes in a burst of energy and is sent to Earth-2.
In the midst of all this, a JLA signal is sent to Ray Palmer, who is assisting his Italian exchange scientist colleague Enrichetta Negrini with her experiment, but his size and weight controls refuse to work.
At the JLA’s sanctuary, Mid-Nite and the Canary volunteer to fill-in for any Leaguers who have been swept to Earth-2. Meanwhile, at the JSA’s headquarters, Doctor Fate has tried and failed to send Batman back. Both teams are interrupted by news of rampaging monsters and go out to do battle.
On Earth-1, the joint League/Society team comes up against Solomon Grundy and, after an exhausting fight, capture him by opening a crevasse in a mountain, dropping him in and closing it up. The mixed Society/League team tackle Blockbuster, with only Batman aware of who he is and how to stop in: Blockbuster trusts Bruce Wayne. Before Batman can yank off his cowl, Wildcat attacks and is smacked back into Batman, stunning him and leaving him face down, but when he awakes, he does indeed calm down Blockbuster. Wildcat comments that it doesn’t matter that he’s exposed his true face: he’s on Earth-2 after all.
Meanwhile, the Spectre is on his way into space to head off some rogue asteroids, responding to a request from Starman who is otherwise engaged. A mysterious force envelops him and draws him into Warp-space, where he meets a strange character, a traveller from the Anti-Matter Universe. When the Spectre tries to stop the Anti-Matter Man from going any further towards the positive matter Universe, and explosive mutual destruction. But though he can touch anti-matter without being blown up, the effects on his psycho-matter body are weird and unpredictable and he is beaten.
Going in pursuit, the Spectre sees that Earths-1 and 2 have somehow been drawn out of their respective positions and into Warp-space, where they are on a collision course.
In order to halt them, the Spectra expands to giant size and, placing himself between the planets, holds them apart – his hands on one Earth, his feet braced against the other.
With the monsters beaten, the League and Society are at an impasse. Ray Palmer still can’t shrink. The Anti-Matter Man has landed on the Spectre’s back and is walking forwards. And the gravitational forces of two planets are eroding the Spectres strength, Gradually, he begins to shrink, allowing the planets to move closer to one another.
End of part one.

Enrichetta Negrini has dreamed, all her life, of shrinking space, warping it so that man can step directly onto other planets. Her space-warping machine is running well, so she goes off for a tea break.
Ray Palmer’s size and weight controls suddenly turn burning hot, as if they have had an overload of power. The only possible source for this is the Space warp machine, so Palmer turns it off.
Immediately, Solomon Grundy and Blockbuster (but no other transportee) are returned to their native Earths, where the two mixed teams have to start another battle against crazed and super-powered monsters. In the midst of the fight, Doctor Fate receives a summons from his crystal ball and returns to JSA HQ, where he discovers the Spectre, the Anti-Matter Man and the threat to both Earths. This calls for all-out attack, so he summonses all the heroes from both Earths to follow him into Warp-space. This leaves the two monsters free to rampage, but Green Lantern has a scheme to take care of this.
In Warp-Space, the heroes split into three teams: Fate, Hawkman and Green Lantern attack Anti-Matter Man’s head, The Flash, Wildcat and Batman their foes midriff, from a ring placed at that height by Fate, and Mid-Nite, the Canary and Sandman his feet, from atop Spectre’s back.
Everybody starts well, but Anti-Matter Man hits back at all nine, sending their powers back at them. Nevertheless, the heroes work together to improvise splendidly, and even manage to knock Anti-Matter man out. They then lever him off Spectre’s back and away from the twin Earths.
Back on Earth-1, Palmer has changed into his Atom costume, and Enrichetta is still on her tea break (she’s supposed to be Italian, not British!). Despite the Space-warp machine being switched off, the Atom is able to tune a monitor screen onto the Spectre and discover what is happened, and he can then leap through the screen to bring help to the Spectre.
It’s a rather two-edged sword help, however: the Atom has brought a second of his size-and-weight controls, with which he intends to shrink the Spectre to an inch, then expand him instantaneously to full-size. As every object thus treated, except Palmer himself, explodes violently on re-sizing, this is not good news for the Spectre, although the force of the explosion will blast the Earths back to their normal positions in space (apparently without adverse effect). The Spectre, being a noble creature, agrees to sacrifice his existence.
Whilst the Atom sets things up, the nine heroes continue battering the Anti-Matter Man, and he them in return.
Finally, the Atom is ready. He shrinks into an oxygen molecule to protect himself, operates his controls, shrinks the Spectre and blows him up, brobningagedly.
When the shock waves are over and the Atom returns to his normal shrunken size, he is greeted by the sight of a nebulous, massive Spectre reforming, having imbued all the molecules of his body with a magnetism that would draw them back from all over the Universe. Once he’s restored, they go in search of their team-mates, arriving just as the shock-wave of the Spectre’s explosion blows Anti-Matter Man back to his own Universe.
Of course, all this time, Solomon Grundy and Blockbuster have been rampaging unhindered: not so, for Green Lantern used his power ring to beam the pair together, where they have been pounding the shit out of each other ever since. The heroes arrive on time to see the two monsters knock each other out simultaneously. When they wake, they have knocked the hate out of each other and become great friends.
The JSA lead Grundy and their displaced people back to Earth-2, the JLA lead Blockbuster and their displaced people back to Earth-1. The Atom suggests they should tell Enrichetta Negrini to give up her experiments but the rest of the League overrule him: scientific progress must be allowed to advance. Besides, they’re always there to save the day!
* * * * *
The fourth team-up sees the first change in the creative line-up. Bernard Sachs’ retirement from comics in 1965 left Justice League of America in need of a new inker and, after a one-off use of Frank Giacoia on issue 44, Sid Greene settled into place just in time for the big JLA/JSA event.
Once again, Fox finds a new structural angle for the story, breaking up the teams for the first time, as well as starting the action in media res instead of spinning off from a regularly scheduled meeting.
This sounds like a good idea in theory but, due to a number of factors, is considerably flawed in practice. For one thing, with the action, especially at the beginning of the story, taking place in a variety of locations, the story is constantly flitting rapidly from one viewpoint to another. This is a technique that, in the modern, hyperactive, ADD world, is not merely inevitable but mandatory, but despite the fast pace of contemporary Marvel Comics, this kind of story-telling was not Gardner Fox’s metier, and it shows in the plotting.
Once the two split-teams are gathered, the next phase is to set them up against the displaced monsters. Once this situation is defused, temporarily, Fox then introduces a seemingly random and unconnected element with the Spectre out in space encountering, first, the Anti-Matter Man, who he can’t defeat, and secondly a pair of Earths on a collision course that no amount of patented Fox pseudo-science can make plausible.
And there’s Ray (the Atom) Palmer paying not the slightest bit of attention to his Italian exchange scientist colleague and her undescribed experiment.
Yes, the opening part of the story goes haring about all over the place. Sekowsky’s art looks tons better, more solid, more substantial, with fewer of those idiosyncratic poses that look so uncomfortable, and bigger too: he’s drawing larger, trying to import a bit of Kirby dynamism, and squeezing the story into fewer panels overall.
But that’s nothing as to the second part. Signorina Negrini goes for what proves to be an exceedingly long tea break and the first thing Palmer does is turn off her experiment, because it seems to be stopping him from shrinking off to play superhero. Questions of scientific ethics, not to mention respect (but then she’s only a woman, and anyway, she’s furrin’) don’t come into it, especially as Palmer’s hot to have the experiment shot down in flames at the end.
But the little lady’s experimental space warping machine is the spanner in the works, and the moment it’s switched off, the entire displacement plot of the first half of the story gets thrown out of the window, and we can concentrate upon that sub-plot about the Anti-Matter Man to the exclusion of everything else.
Wait though, it gets better and better! Switching off the spacewarp machine sends Solomon Grundy and Blockbuster back to their native Earths, but it doesn’t affect anybody else who’s been displaced. Batman’s still on Earth-2 with Bruce Wayne’s facing hanging out for all the world to see and Wildcat fatuously commenting about how it doesn’t matter his revealing his true face, as if there isn’t/wasn’t a Batman in the Justice Society who might have some secrets left to preserve.
Not that it matters because, after a decent interval in which we can re-run the fights of the first half, Doctor Fate scoops everybody up and out into warp-space to tackle the Anti-Matter Man.
I shall decently postpone discussion of that fight for some paragraphs whilst I jump ahead to the colliding Earths. Enrichetta’s still off down the tea shop and presumably not at all concerned about the fact that her completely distracted host is back up there with her machine, her lifelong dream experiment. And Palmer’s now become the Atom and has found out all about the current crisis, and indeed transports himself to the scene in warp-space via the viewscreen of a space-warping machine that’s been switched off since page 2.
We know it’s still switched off because nobody’s plying backwards and forwards between the two planets, which are definitely not affected by the immediate presence of another powerful gravitational attraction, and indeed they haven’t even looked up to notice another Earth right where you’d expect not to find one.
But The Atom’s here to save the day. The Spectre recognises him at once despite the fact that he’s not long since returned from twenty years of imprisonment within Jim Corrigan’s earthly form, has never attended a Justice Society meeting since his revival and whose closest acquaintance with the Justice League has been the four members recently fighting the Anti-Matter Man, none of whom even descended to stand on the Spectre’s capacious back.
But he welcomes the stranger, even though this stranger immediately tells him that he’s here to save the day by blowing the Spectre into smithereens. Glad to, says the Spectre, demonstrating once and for all that it’s different when you get dead, whilst not letting on that he’s got a Get-Out-Of-Being-Spread-Across-The-Whole-Damned-Universe-Free Card tucked up his non-existent sleeve.
All that leaves is picking up the two monsters who have ingeniously been pitted against each other all this time to keep them off our backs, and who conveniently beat all the hate out of each other (yeah, you wish) just in time for the last page.
As you may guess, this is not the finest of stories.
What makes this story into such a mess is difficult to determine. One obvious, but superficial factor, is that this story takes place in 1966: the Year of Batman, or at any rate the Year of the Batman TV Show. The ridiculously camp approach the series took, and we’re not going to start any debates about that here, was most disastrously copied over into the comics, and at times it renders the book unreadable. I shall only give one example, gliding over the entire fight-the-Anti-Matter-Man bit and quoting this one caption: “This Contra-Cat is a claw-happy fighter who relishes a bang-up, rock ’em sock ’em rhubarb!”
You can thank me for that later.
A less obvious, but more influential factor was Marvel. Five years had passed since Fantastic Four 1, since the Marvel Revolution, and though DC were still in fervid denial, putting Marvels success down to “Bad Art”, the truth was that only the restrictive distribution deal National held over Marvel’s head had kept the upstarts from commercially swamping DC already.
Gardner Fox had been writing his detail heavy, plot heavy stories for over twenty five years. Subconsciously at least, they knew their peak was behind them. In The Comic Book Heroes, Jones and Jacobs write of the increasing amount of rewriting Fox’s plots were needing just to make any sense at all. DC were holding on to an aesthetic dominance that, increasingly, only they believed in, were holding back a tide they couldn’t contain.
They would do so a while longer. Fox still had two more team-ups he would write, but this year was a sign of cracking, of giving way to something he really didn’t understand, that Schwarz hadn’t yet got a handle on. The story was a mess.
That wasn’t all. Of the JSA members present, Doctor Fate becomes the only character to feature every year to date, Dr Mid-Nite and Black Canary turn out again, and the rest of the line-up completes, in one story, the full Justice Society line-up: Sandman and the Spectre, the last two overlooked founders, and Wildcat, who guested with Mr. Terrific, but had a later shot as a member.
The Spectre had been returned in Showcase by Fox and Schwarz, with clear intentions to revive him for a series, though those intentions had been dashed, and it was only the boost provided by this team-up appearance that enabled Schwarz to go ahead with his plans.
And interestingly, Dr Mid-Nite gets an update on his second appearance, trading in his old, one-note blackout bomb gimmick for the surprisingly interesting Cyrotuber, although his decision to apparently only speak in medical terms was a decided counterweight.
But it’s poor Sandman at whom we must look. Like Doctor Fate, he returned to his old costume, the distinctive if somewhat impractical business suit, cape and gas mask. But unlike Fate, and more in the fashion of Mid-Nite, he’s saddled with a new weapon: the Sandgun. And no, it does not shower malefactors with sand, as you may fear. That, the Sandman keeps in his pockets, continually throwing it at people and then using the Sandgun’s peculiar energies to transform it into concrete, or unbreakable glass.
I was just about 11 when I first read this story. I knew not a single thing about Sandman, about his background, about how he really used to operate. I had no alternative but to believe that this was how he’d fought crooks all along. He’s called Sandman. He’s going to fight with sand. I just couldn’t seriously believe it.
As for the story’s viability, post-Crisis? Not a minute, Slim.

The Prisoner: Who was he, really?


Is it him?

According to one of his co-creators, he always was John Drake. The upright, moral agent, who believed in what he did. Who was committed to his job. Who devised the idea of a retirement home for aged spies, where they could live, safe and protected. Who resigned, from a job that he was the last you could imagine abandoning, because he learned that his proposal had been adopted, but perverted into an interrogation camp. Who resigned knowing that only by this route could he infiltrate this abomination and bring it down.
But his other co-creator had a diametrically opposite opinion: he was anybody in the world except John Drake. He was everyman, the ultimate individual, the one man setting himself against the overwhelming force of the establishment, a growing, cynical, authoritarian establishment requiring conformity to itself in all things. He had no name, because he needed no name, because he was symbol, not person.
Plus there was the legal position that if Number Six were John Drake, the royalty payments due to Drake’s creator, Ralph Smart, would have made the show impossible to produce.
I’ve already commented that, by deliberately blanking Number Six’s name and background, other than his being a spy, allowed Number Six to appear complete with an assumed history. As one who, however young, was there for the first broadcast, I can confirm that our entire family (with the exception of my six year old sister, whose bedtime fell before either programme started) watched the first episode believing The Prisoner to be an extension of Danger Man. To us, and to the vast majority of that first night audience, Number Six was John Drake, no question.
The lack of a ‘real name’ for Number Six created certain difficulties for the scripters, especially in those episodes in which the Prisoner succeeded in returning to London, or, in the case of The Chimes of Big Ben, met former trusted colleagues and friends in the belief that he had done so. Extraordinary contortions were required to get around the necessity that not one of these persons who had worked closely with Number Six in his previous life address him by his actual name.
Not even his fiancée, even when she is convinced that his mind has somehow been transferred into the stranger’s body of Nigel Stock, addresses him by name.
The closest any of these episodes comes to acknowledging this quandary is in Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, when the Colonel has invaded Number Six’s old headquarters and is challenged to give his name: cleverly, ‘Number Six’ asks “code or real”, and is allowed to identify himself by his various code-names, “Duvall”, “Schmidt” and “ZM73”. Incidentally, none of these code-names have been identified as ones used by John Drake in Danger Man.
In every other scene, devices have to be resorted to, Number Six must be addressed as ‘my friend’, or ‘old man’. The most obvious moment comes in Many Happy Returns, when Number Six can call his old, old friend the Colonel, James, but the Colonel’s only personal reference to him is by the deliberately ironic ‘Number Six’.
It’s an interesting dichotomy: Number Six, the epitome of the individual, lacks that most individual of aspects: a name. Throughout the series, even to his ‘triumph’ in the final episode, when his designation is taken from him, he is nothing but Number Six, the name of a cypher. The man who asserts himself against the weight of all authority ultimately has no individual identity.
Or does he?
The Girl Who Was Death certainly sails very close to the wind of identifying Number Six as having been indeed John Drake. It’s an episode full of in-jokes, and by the very presence of these, we should treat any information in it as being tendentious, but the episode makes an immediate and strong link to McGoohan’s former role. The Agent’s first appearance sees him adopting the same cap and raincoat combination that was characteristic of John Drake.
And Christopher Benjamin, who played Drake’s self-satisfied liaison, Potter, in the two episodes of the aborted Series 4, returns playing what we are invited to assume is the same character.
It’s a very broad hint that Number Six is the former John Drake, though of course the name is never spoken. The hints, however, could not be clearer.
For many years, before the advent of video and DVD, a substantial number of viewers were insistent that Number Six was actually identified in Once Upon a Time as Drake: Leo McKern barks out a pre-advert line that sounded like “Meet me in the morning, Drake”, though the greater availability of the series has helped dispel that myth by allowing everyone to hear it correctly as “morning break”. And elsewhere in the same episode, the nursery rhyme, ‘See saw, Marjorie Daw’ is used in its oldest form, where the next line is ‘Jacky shall have a new master’ (the version I grew up on wasn’t ‘Jacky’, though I can’t tease out the memory of what it was): Jacky, or Jack, is a diminutive of John, a popular variant of the original: John who?
Like so many enigmas about this series, the answer lies in the viewer’s own mind, in what they read the runes as saying. We must, finally, come back to McGoohan’s insistence that Number Six was not Drake, and that originally, to emphasise that there was no actual connection between his former series and his new one, he wanted another actor entirely to play the part, but Grade insisted he wanted McGoohan himself. And who, in all the world, then or since, could have played Number Six in the manner that ensured the series would survive so long?
You pays your money and you takes your choice. I began by believing, in 1967, that The Prisoner was a direct, as opposed to thematic, sequel to Danger Man, and that Number Six was John Drake. No matter how much I know he isn’t, I prefer to believe in the continuity between the two, and that Number Six was always more than just a Number.