The Face: Sandman Mystery Theatre 5-8. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (writer), John Watkiss (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The Face develops an immediate change of pace by relating Dian Belmont’s thoughts as its narrative device. With few exceptions, for most of its run, the Mystery Theatre‘s plays would follow this alternating pattern between Wes and Dian.
Though we don’t immediately learn this, some weeks have passed since the events of The Tarantula, during which Dian – who has not seen anything of the enigmatic Mr Dodds – appears to have slid back from her ‘awakening’.
Dian’s thoughts read more like her diary account of what happens. Certainly, the beginning echoes the first play: she and the girls are out for the night but, instead of the more familiar Harlem setting, Dian has taken her friends to an older haunt of some years before, Chinatown. And immediately she is confronted with the reason she used to come here so often, and the reason she has avoided this place for three years: Jimmy Shan, lawyer, former lover, Chinese-American.
Jimmy’s here on legal business, though he presses her to call him, something about which Dian is definitely uncertain, though her friends, seeing only the exoticism of so different a man, are far more sure of what she should do.
But Jimmy – or Zhang Chai Lao, to give him his real name – is here representing a family, or faction, or, dare we whisper it, Tong, the Lei Feng, at a meeting with their rival, the Huo Yubai, over bad blood developing between the two Tongs, bad blood based, it seems, on the vulgar, racist comedy of a Lei Feng stand-up whose act consists of jokes about the Huo Yubai. Jimmy is a peace negotiator, his eye set on a future in which his people can enter more fully into American life, and gain from so doing.
What he doesn’t know is that it is already too late. As the girls leave the restaurant to return to America, on a cold, misty, February night, one admires a face-mask attached to a telegraph pole, a culture so alien to her. Against Dian’s advice, she takes it down to study more closely. It was holding in place a severed human head.
So it begins. And though Dian knows it not, a familiar gas-masked figure is already on hand, eavesdropping on Jimmy’s meeting.
Let’s say it now: racism. Racism, which, as we have already seen, can exist between the two Tongs, but mostly the every day, unchecked, unconsidered racism between white skins and yellow. And at the heart of this play is Zhang Chai Lao,who calls himself Jimmy Shan when he is in the white world. Zhang/Jimmy: who believes himself to be part of both worlds, who wants to be a bridge by which his old world can merge into his new world, but who will find himself, ultimately, lost to both. The Face is built on his story, and it is a tragedy.
Overt racism is represented by Larry Belmont as much as, if not more than others. Larry seems to hate the Chinese, and loathe having to have to meet them, and he certainly hates Jimmy (it is never disclosed to what extent this is to do with Jimmy’s relationship with Dian, though that element is clearly important). For the most part, though open, it’s casual, such as the girl’s innocent ignorance in the opening scene, but a much more covert racism underlies the whole story.
This takes the form of the charitable drive, spearheaded by white businessmen Herbert Ross and Avery Benson, to build a new school in Chinatown. Ross is the mover and driver in this, and whilst he’s clearly sincere in his purpose, in the atmosphere of this story, it’s impossible not to see Ross and Benson as patronising of the inferior and heathen Chinee.
Though it’s not a conscious part of their thinking, Ross and Benson are clearly undertaking their part of Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden’.
It’s at the fundraiser that Dian meets Jimmy/Zhang for the second time in quick succession. Jimmy is Ross and Benson’s lawyer and liaison to Chinatown, and here we see him as the man with a foot in both worlds, smooth and confident, especially in his approach to Dian.
Dian is also re-united with Wesley Dodds for the first time since The Tarantula, impliedly several weeks ago (Dian’s ‘diary’ commentary specifies that this play is taking place in February 1938, whilst Wesley’s narration eschewed any dates).
There’s clearly an interest between the two, though we ‘hear’ nothing of Wesley’s thoughts at this stage. The relationship has no romantic elements yet, especially in the face of Dian’s emotional confusion over Jimmy/Zhang. He does seem to be mildly disapproving of Jimmy, though not on racist grounds: having spent most of his life in the Orient, Wesley tells Dian that in many ways, she’s more strange to him than Jimmy (a wonderfully seductive moment). No, it’s not Wesley that’s suspicious of Zhang, it’s the Sandman, who has eavesdropped on the Chinatown meeting at which Jimmy seeks to play peacemaker.
Because this is Dian’s story, we see nothing of Wesley’s dreams, an odd omission, given that it is the premise of the Mystery Theatre. Interestingly, though there is plenty of Sandman without Dian, the audience stands back from him, watching without entering into the motives of his actions, except to the extent he speaks them aloud.
Because there is a Tong War brewing, and being brewed by an agent provocateur, apparently at the hire of Herbert Ross: but what game is Ross playing if, fervent in his charitable purposes, he is at the same time undermining their chance of success?
This agent is the Face of the title: for the majority of the plays in this series, this will be the case. Like Roger Goodman, he is the perpetrator though not the mind behind the crimes the Sandman seeks to end and punish. He’s a hired killer, name unknown, his title recognising that he is a master of disguise. When stripped of his false faces and make-up, we never get to properly see him, beyond the fact that his hair is wispy, and patchy, and his face looks as if he has suffered a chemical accident some time previously.
But the Face has a curious relationship with his body, talking to himself as if to a lover, praising his beauty and his strength until we are clear that this is someone whose marbles aren’t all in the ring.
This narcissistic regard for his body and face, the endearments addressed to himself as if to a lover, is in total contrast to his brutish, cynical behaviour with others. A killer who decapitates his victims with an axe, who displays open contempt to his employer, who brutalises a young prostitute, physically ruining her so that she can only give blow jobs after, he is a nasty piece of work. In a sense, though, he’s not the same kind of monster as the Tarantula, or others who follow: he is ‘simply’ a brutal sadist.
In the end, having been trailed by the Sandman and believing he has been set-up by his employer, he’s responsible for bringing down the real villain: not Ross but his partner Benson, ironically wearing a face as false as the Face.
And Benson’s motive is, ultimately, racist: he has a touch of Asian in his ancestry, enough to have him blackballed from a prestigious, exclusively white club he wishes to join. One man only, in the Lei Feng, knows this: by fomenting war, Benson hopes this man will be killed, preserving his secret.
The Face may be a ruthless, possibly mad killer, but Avery Benson is the monster.
His real victim, however, is Jimmy/Zhang. Despite their goodwill, Dian and Jimmy cannot stand up against the times. It takes almost the whole story for Dian to begin to see even a fraction of what Jimmy experiences, caught between the world of his culture that imposes so much upon him, and the white world that represents the only feasible outlet for his abilities, whilst refusing to allow him any status in that world commensurate with his ability. As he points out to Dian, first in bitterness and then in apology, his name is not Jimmy Shan: Dian does not even know his real name, even as she is prepared to enter into the very heart of Chinatown to give him help he cannot accept. Even Dian is touched by the racism of her times: born of innocence and ignorance in equal measures.
For Jimmy/Zhang, the moment is one of destruction. Though he awakens to a sense of rationality, though he appreciates Dian’s misunderstanding, stumbling but genuine concern for him, he’s seen too much of what he is and what he faces. Where he goes is unknown, but the life he has led to date is ended.
For Dian, it is another stage of growing. The need to become involved, allowed to diminish into quiescence, is re-awakened. She is growing towards the woman she will need to be to become the companion of Wesley Dodds, of The Sandman.
Set design for this play is by English artist John Watkiss, whose main career lies in commercial art and storyboarding. I’ve only seen his art elsewhere in two separate issues of Sandman, and whilst his style has been criticised, I like it. He’s a more conventional artist than Guy Davis, operating with a stylised photorealistic approach that shows the characters as being closer to the superheroic ideal, whilst retaining the key elements Davis had established.
Though Wesley retains his relatively short stature and glasses, he is drawn thinner and sleeker, his hair slicked back in a manner Davis did not employ. In contrast, Watkiss makes more of an attempt to copy Dian’s rounded face, though his eschewal of any hatching or character lines makes her look ugly on a number of occasions.
His style is deliberately anachronistic, and he conveys the atmosphere of 1938 with economy and flair. Overall, I’d happily have seen him return for a future production, but though Guy Davis was already being slated to become the regular artist, the policy of the Mystery Theatre was still to broaden its stage to other visions.
Thankfully, the colouring error in the original series issue 5, that had all the Chinese characters coloured a 1940s yellow, has been corrected for the Graphic Novel.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play entitled The Brute.
Break a leg.