Theatre Nights: Sandman Midnight Theatre


Sandman Midnight Theatre  (Prestige Format) . Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner and Neil Gaiman (story) Matt Wagner (plot), Neil Gaiman (script), Teddy Kristiansen (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Like the Annual, the previous year, Sandman Midnight Theatre, though being an essential part of the overall story, and crucial to the relationship of Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont, has never been collected*. It is difficult, and expensive to find, having been published as a one-shot Prestige Format edition.
For those who misremember the Programme Notes, Sandman Mystery Theatre was a spin-off of Sandman, despite it featuring the original Sandman, Wesley Dodds. The Sandman ran  from 1940-45 in Adventure Comics, with only rare and occasional revivals from 1966 onwards. He debuted whole and entire: Wesley Dodds was already slipping out at night, with gas-mask and gas-gun, to crusade against crime, without reason or explanation.
There were other mysteries in the Sandman’s career, which were dealt with, piecemeal, but the last of these was an origin, finally told in 1986 by Roy Thomas, a Justice Society fan and continuity obsessive. Thomas’s origin was typically convoluted, weighed down by his compulsion to link in more things than any story could decently support.
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was born out of a flash of inspiration at a meeting with representatives of DC who were interviewing British writers and artists that same year. Gaiman, a reporter and aspiring writer was read a list of characters available for treatment: mention of The Sandman sparked an image in his head that translated into a character vastly different from the human crimefighter: Gaiman’s Sandman was the embodiment of Dream, and his story was set in mythical terms and roles.
Despite Gaiman’s private belief that it would last a year if he was lucky, this Sandman became a major success, commercially as well as artistic: enough to create an audience receptive to a new version of the Golden Age Sandman.
And Gaiman’s issue 1, which covered a mere 70 years, dispensed with the Roy Thomas origin in a less than a page, substituting a simple yet profound concept that instinctively felt right. In 1918, self-styled Magus Roderick Burgess attempts to bind Death, but instead captures her younger brother Dream, who remains a prisoner in a pentacle until he is accidentally released in 1988.
The Universe knows someone is missing, and slowly it attempts to replace him. Wesley Dodds’s nightmares have stopped since he started going out at night. He puts evil people to sleep with gas, then sprinkles sand on them, leaves them for the Police to find in the morning. The idea came to him in his sleep. He doesn’t dream about the man in the strange helmet anymore. No more burning eyes. Everything’s all right. Wesley Dodds sleeps the sleep of the just.
We begin with a dream, of Roderick Burgess and his pale captive, a dream in which Wesley Dodds is both people. In the waking world, he’s late to a much-anticipated meeting with Linus Benchley, an elderly friend of his father’s, a US diplomat and former Ambassador to Great Britain, who’s equally looking forward to an evening catching up with Young Dodds (a terminology that reminds me of a late friend, who was a mentor to me).
But the evening is interrupted, terminally, by the arrival of a mysterious letter, containing photographs. Bentley ushers Wes out hurriedly, draws himself a bath, listens to the radio playing a song about Havana, them carries that radio into the bath, electrocuting himself. An aghast Sandman, watching from without, bursts in, too late to rescue more that a couple of fragments of envelope from the fire: a symbol comprising the letters O, A and M in a triangle, and a London postmark.
So the much-travelled Wesley comes to England for the first time ever, the England of London fogs, classified adverts on the cover of The Times, strange accents, rain at Lords, and an audacious Jewel-thief known to the Police as the Cannon.
But England also holds one Dian Belmont, who has been introduced by Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten (in the absence of Roddy on a tea plantation in Ceylon) to good works in the East End of London, among the poor, unwashed and destitute, the whole thing run under the auspices of the ever-optimistic and jovial Reverend Armitage Hawley, Bagsy to his friends.
It is, of course, a compilation of cliches, but it is done with both affection and knowingness by Gaiman, and there isn’t a reader worth his or her salt that doesn’t finger Bagsy for the Cannon (or ‘Canon’) from his first appearance.
Dian is angry that Wes has followed her. She’s found something worthwhile, something that can make a difference, working with good people who are what they seem to be, without secrets. She hasn’t moved 3,000 miles away from Wesley Dodds only for him to follow her. And despite his plea that he is tracking Linus Benchley’s killer, Wes has to agree that he is following Dian, that he loves her so much.
It’s enough to get Dian to forget her animosity long enough for an afternoon in Wesley’s hotel room, but for no longer than that: she does not want to see or hear from him – or the Sandman – again whilst in England.
That we know will be a vain wish, for things now start to converge. OAM stands for the Order of Ancient Mysteries, Roderick Burgess’s circle, and an evening is planned for Fawney Rig, the Sussex mansion where Burgess bases himself. Where a being captured 21 years ago is imprisoned.
Letters of invitation go out to a host of curious creatures, who react in various strange ways. They include an MP, a Nazi sympathiser, a schoolteacher with a curious attitude towards snakes, an actor, a poet, a painter who paints forgeries, an arms manufacturer. And Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten, like so many others a blackmail victim.
Like Benchley, Annabel’s thoughts turn to suicide, but she is swayed by Dian, who will accompany her and who will, in dead of night, find and steal the evidence of Annabel’s depravity, at age 17, with her elderly poet, now dead, that is being used to destroy her.
But the gathering is an unusual one, with powerful undercurrents, undercurrents almost too powerful for Annabel and Dian both, but not for two other, not entirely unexpected party guests, Mr Wesley Dodds and the Reverend Bagsy Hawley. There is not one but three persons on the prowl at dead of night, and both the Sandman and the Cannon are far better safecrackers than Dian Belmont.
But what is sought for is found, and the ungodly are duly smitten, though in one spectacular case by the even more ungodly than all. A massive donation finds its way, anonymously of course, to the Reverend Hawley’s mission.
Above all, though, the Sandman finds what he has sought, without knowing even that he sought, let alone what his objective. In a cellar beneath Fawney Rig he finds a being, tall, pale, shaded eyes, long, lank black hair. Someone who looks upon him with pity, for having a part of the pale man in him, who who sends him away, unable to assist, with the instruction to forget. And except in one final dream, in which Wesley understands everything, even the knowledge that such knowledge cannot be taken into the waking world, he forgets. If the Sandman remembers, he does not say.
Sandman Midnight Theatre is a brief joy, a charm in its slim pages, the only moment at which both Sandman meet, in the only circumstances in which such things are possible. For a moment, the Theatre audience see as if through more than the curtain that descends upon the stage.
And of course the experience leads Dian back to Wes, to America. It’s the one part of the play with which I have issues, because its presentation is very much that of a defeat for Dian Belmont, a defeat she accepts with weariness. Wesley has undergone no lesson or change pertinent to why Dian crossed an ocean to escape him: he’s crossed that ocean to bring her back, unchastened. Instead, it is Dian who has sought to place herself amongst real people, true people without secret lives, only to find that both Lady Annabel, and Bagsy Hawley conceal lives unimaginable from their exteriors. And it Dian who, for vouching for the Sandman to the Cannon, receives the unnecessarily caustic reminder that she too is not a person without a secret life.
That Dian’s return is predicated upon her will being broken is a very dubious outcome to say the least.
This one-off story was painted by Danish artist Teddy Kristiansen, who is known basically for gothic and horror work. Kristiansen’s style, angular, eschewing photorealism and any of the panoply of Eisnerian storytelling styles, lends itself confidently to what, in many respects, is a talky, static story. Whilst he can produce stylised depictions that are easily recognisable as Wes and Dian, his facial art is heavily stylised. This works superbly on Bagsey, who is an affectionate caricature of the Saint, and upon the aged Burgess, not to mention the gallery of grotesques who attend Fawney Rig.
But it is noticeable that, except in one highly affecting moment, Lady Annabel, an essentially serious character, is painted as a virtual blur, all but featureless. That moment comes when she and Dian first arrive at Fawney Rig: up to that point, Annabel has been painted as a sweet but shallow woman, collected and reserved, almost more minor aristocrat’s wife than the real thing. Even when the veil is ripped aside, and she is confessing to a more than ribald past, as a supposedly sweet innocent, Kristiansen paints her at a distant, an unreal, unformed figure, her hair primly done up in a bun.
It is as this wholly external shape that Annabel conducts Dian through Fawney Rig, which she knows of old, with her poet, with others. In their room she fiddles with her bun as she asks Dian to leave her alone for a little while. “I want to remember him. Just for a little while.” she says, half-turned, her hair shoulder-length, unbrushed, looking ten years younger, and Kristiansen puts something in her unfathomable eyes as she looks inwards, something that we could look upon for the ten years Annabel has lived since then without ever really knowing what is in her mind or her heart.
It’s an astonishing panel, one that is hard to turn from.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, once more upon the stage of the Mystery Theatre, in a play titled The Mist.
Break a leg.

*Edited to add: This statement is incorrect. Sandman Midnight Theatre was reprinted in the Graphic Novel compilation Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days, published in 2000. The GN is out of print, but is considerably easier to find on eBay/Amazon than the Prestige Format Original.

Dad’s Army – the NEW film?


No. THESE people.

It’s been a long day, and all I wanted to do when I got home was relax and catch-up with what the Internet had to show me about the last twelve hours. It wasn’t overly impressive, but at least it wasn’t too ridiculous until I got to the Guardian and discovered this little piece under Culture about a New Dad’s Army film. A NEW Dad’s Army film.

And yes, people are planning to do this, and Jimmy Perry is going to be involved in the writing, which is the most outrageous piece of treachery imaginable because he, of all people, must know that it can’t be done. It can’t be done, because with the exception of once young and naive Ian Lavender, they’re all dead, and you’ll never be able to get him playing Private Pike and convince anyone anymore.

Dear old Arthur Lowe, with that unmatchable fussiness and pomposity and self-importance built upon a core of genuine patriotism and unshakeable belief. The elegant John Le Mesurier, detached, relaxed, so carefully amused at everything around him. Clive Dunn, gone beyond the years of his aged character, always a half-step behind himself. John Laurie, with his rolling eyes, his perpetual air of gloom, prophet of unending despair. Doddery Arnold Ridley, the forever gentleman, gamely going on beyond his ancient strength. James Beck, poor, died-too-soon Beck, the conniver and fiddler, and of course Lavender himself, a boy being asked to do a man’s job, without ever being accorded the respect due the man.

How can you possibly think that there are seven actors who could begin to measure up to these men in the perfection of their casting, in the communal spirit of their acting, in the conviction they brought to the truly English ability to see ourselves in the most serious of situations and yet wring laughter that exposes, yet does not mock, lacerate or tear? What unfathomable arrogance animates the people who might take on these roles to think that they can by anything but a pygmy in comparison to the originals? It can’t be done. The people can’t do it, the writing is no longer possible in these times where cynicism has become an integral part of all our souls, whether we want it or not.

The past cannot be remade and yet be recognisable.

So far, the only names put forward are Toby Jones as Mainwaring and Bill Nighy as Wilson. I don’t know Jones, have no idea of his talents, but he can never overcome not being Arthur Lowe. As for Nighy, he is a consummate actor, a genuine player of strength, easily capable of the bones of what made Arthur Wilson, but he can only ever be Bill Nighy displaying those characteristics. He cannot be John LeMesurier.

Those people no longer are with us. Their moulds are all broken. Worse even than the travesty of Still Open All Hours, a Dad’s Army project has no hope of success. We have all of us seen Dad’s Army so many times over, enough to practically recite each script, see each joke from the instant its foetal seed enters the script, yet we still laugh, each time, over and again, at the dozenth repeat.

How can you hope to take away the face, the twist of the mouth, the cast of the shoulders, the very voices that have done all that, and pretend that strangers are these old friends? You can’t. It’s impossible.

Don’t do it. Don’t be so utterly stupid as to waste so much time, energy and money on a thing that will never have a soul.

Obscure Corners – Walna Scar


Walna Scar fell, and it’s road leading upwards

Technically, Walna Scar and its environs is not that obscure a corner. It’s a part of the Coniston fells, the continuation of the Dow Crag ridge after it has descended over Blind Pike and Buck Pike. But it’s not in the Wainwrights, or not to those of us old enough to remember the Blessed’s reluctant rejection of the very idea of the Outlying Fells, in the closing pages of Book 7.
On the other hand, there’s enough interesting and attractive country, and summits, on that long ridge accompanying the eastern wall of the Duddon Valley, and Walna Scar fell is the only 2,000′ plus top in those Outlying Fells, making it an obvious target for a day in which solitude is a primary desire.
And I confess that solitude was specifically what I required on this outing, as it took place on FA Cup Final day, 1998.
I am a long-term football fan, and I love the FA Cup. Since 1968, I have lined up on Cup Final Day to watch the whole proceedings, throughout all of BBC and ITV’s coverage (the BBC has always been best). I was seriously committed to the Cup Final, but I didn’t want to watch that year. Each year, I’d choose a team I wanted to see win, but the choices on offer were Arsenal under the still-relatively new Arsene Wenger and Newcastle United under the former Liverpool manager Kenny Dalgleish.
I passionately wanted to see Wenger lose the Final. I passionately wanted to see Dalgleish lose the Final. I could not sit there and see either of them win.
So, with no alternatives available short of crossing the Vibrational Barrier into Earth-2, I boycotted the game and went to the Lakes instead. I didn’t even discover the result until the Sunday paper was delivered. The Lake District is a wonderful alternative to most things under the sun.
The road to Walna Scar the fell is the road to Walna Scar the pass, of course. It was a sunny May Saturday, and despite the limited nature of my expedition, I didn’t award myself a lie-in: alarm at six, hit the road at seven, the Cumbria border at eight, and parked up at the head of the narrow, climbing lane past the old station generously before nine.
I have a history with the Walna Scar Road, dating back into my father’s life-time, when on a soporifically hot August afternoon, we took up Wainwright’s recommendation about the sweet and gentle gradients of the Boo tarn approach, long since obliterated by quarry activity. Easy it might have been in normal conditions, but all of us struggled to lift our heavy legs at all, and we managed no more than three zigs and two zags before giving up and trudging down to the shore of the Tarn to rest.
Later, at least one of our multifarious visits to Goatswater was made by following the Walna Scar Road as far as Cove Moor, before turning up into the wide basin above.
And one of my very first solo expeditions was to Dow Crag, and thence the Old Man, via the pass and the ridge.
The point is that, as far as the pass, the way is as rutted and eroded and busy as any walk in the Conistons is likely to be, and the solitude you seek will not surround you until you break with the processions and, at Walna Scar top, turn left, not right, up the bare, trackless grass slope that leads away from the high fells.
The top of the fell is absurdly easy to reach: 100 feet of climbing, and the ground levels out onto a wide, grassy top, with the small summit cairn less than fifty feet away.
But that brief ascent makes all the difference. The crowds have gone a different way, no doubt marveling at your eccentricity in going off in the wrong direction, and now you are on your own for the next couple of hours.
All the hard work has been done, but Walna Scar’s summit invites a gentle stroll west and south, towards the two subsidiary summits of West Pike and White Maiden, little more than half a mile away.
West Pike, the lower of the two, overlooks the Duddon Valley, a sovereign guarantee of beautiful views. Visit this first, and return to White Maiden.
This, for me was the highlight of the walk, as this narrow, slightly peaked top, looks out over a steep fall to the upper valley of the River Lickle, a place of closely planted trees and logging, a wilderness with no seeming access, especially from White Maiden. Further west, a jumbled ridge with no paths enabling the continuation of the walk, leads to the rough but shapely Caw, worthy of a separate expedition in itself another day.
There’s no more progress to be made in this direction, but the walk and the solitude can be pleasantly extended by descending the eastern flank of White Maiden, crossing a gently rock-strewn slope towards Red Gill, which, further downslope, becomes Ash Gill Beck. There are no paths, but when you reach the former bridge, cross the Beck and work left towards Ash Gill Quarry, where a good track heads across the fellside towards the lower slops of the Old Man.
I actually got into trouble near the bottom of this section, not from the landscape or anything like that, but from my left contact lens, which abruptly dried out completely on me.
This was not nice at all: it immediately became so dry, and so painful that I had to extract it, but I had not brought the lens carrying case with me, nor did I have my glasses in the rucksack. The lens was far too dry to even attempt to pop back in, and all I could do was to gently decant it into a compartment of my wallet (which I never usually carried onto the fells) and carry on with grossly mismatched eyesight: excellent in my right eye, extremely myopic in the left. It was such a hot, sunny day that it was far from ideal to maintain a permanent squint.
From the base of the Gill, it was a simple stroll towards the Walna Scar road as it emerges from the shadow of the Old Man. At this point, you might expect to kiss your solitude goodbye, but there are ways. I started down the old route back to Torver that I’d not walked in over twenty years, to give myself a view on Banishead Quarry and it’s waterfall and pool. Though this loses a small amount of height,, which is not recommended on a hot Saturday, it enabled me to strike off east, on sheeptracks that toyed with being intermittent, but which conducted me back comfortably to the roadhead, in peace and quiet. indeed, the main drag was visible more of the way, a hundred yards and more to the left, and if the track was ever seriously threatened, I would just have walked over there. But it kept me away from people until the time came to swing back towards the gate, and the car.
The quiet part of the walk is relatively short, there being no feasible link from Walna Scar fell and its subsidiary to any other high ground, and even the crossing of the lower part of the Moor cannot be said to be lonely, but on a day when you wish to get away from all others for a time, this is an enjoyable short expedition, during which you will learn nothing as to the progress of football matches taking place in London.Walna Scar fell, and it’s road leading from Coniston

Squeaky Bum Time: Ah, well…


We did everything we could. It’s finished 3-0 to FC United, but it’s also finished 2-0 to Chorley. Congratulations to the Champions, and all back to Gigg Lane as we go through the Play-Off dance for the fourth year in a row.Ashton United on Tuesday night and, we hope, Fylde or Witton Albion next Saturday.

Addendum: apparently the Chorley fans have invaded the pitch, which is understandable, but allegedly have been hitting Buxton’s players, which is not on. I’m not alone in wondering if there will be consequences of this…

If there are, I’ll be back with an update. The Bum is not done yet!

Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Separation


I have long been ambivalent about The Separation, which was first published in 2002. I have never entirely understood its ending, which has never seemed like a true ending, but rather a stopping, leaving more than just the usual mysteries that are a hallmark of Christopher Priest’s work, that are the necessary, and indeed right, concomitance of a writer whose work is founded so deeply in Unreality.
Like almost all of Priest’s fiction, The Separation concerns itself with at least two different versions of events, the opposition of which and the lingering uncertainty as to which, if either, is Real and which is Divergent. Usually, there is a dominant version, corresponding to either everyday ‘reality’ or else a near future version of the same that is discernible in the same terms. Usually, the story starts in the dominant reality.
That seems to be the case in The Separation, which opens with popular historian writer Stuart Goddard attending an unsuccessful signing session in a Buxton bookshop on a rainy afternoon. Goddard writes historical accounts of recent history based almost entirely of the collected oral testimony of participants. This session is attended by a woman who is responding to his appeal for information about a Second World War RAF Flight Lieutenant, J L Sawyer, who appears briefly in Churchill’s memoirs, and about whom there seems to be a mystery, or rather an obscurity.
The woman presents him with an envelope containing copies of her late father’s memoirs: he may be the relevant Sawyer. Gratton, already busy on other things, takes the manuscript back home, though he doesn’t read it immediately.
So far, so (beguilingly) mundane. But there are already a couple of off-key references: a Sino-American War, an address in Antananarivo, Republic of Masada, massive economic stagnation in an even more paranoid, near-Third World United States. Priest does not waste much time in showing his hand: Gratton was born on 10 May 1941, and his first success was a book about that very day, about what people were doing on the day the Second World War ended.
It’s a dramatic change of direction for Priest, to begin a story set indisputably in what his readership will define as Unreality. As things develop, the story takes on a structure similar to that of The Prestige: two, relatively short sections are set contemporarily in 1999, centred upon Gratton, but each serves to introduced longer sections set in the War itself, dealing with the events of that time in two completely incompatible worlds: Gratton’s War of 1939-41 that is confined to Europe and ends in a negotiated peace and the deposal of both Hitler and Churchill, and the 1939-45 World War with which we are familiar.
Is this latter reality Real? It’s tempting to think so, but this time Priest has thoroughly undermined the reality of either history. There are contradictions and almost parallels everywhere, not just between the separate accounts but within them, and both versions contain one common incident that, in itself, signals that history is doubling upon itself and dividing in each version.
The book centres upon J L Sawyer, Flight Lieutenant and Registered Conscientious Objector in one person. Or rather two persons, for Sawyer is identical twins (another echo of The Prestige), Joe and Jack, each given confusingly converging names and identical initials.
For all that they are twins, the brothers are very different, as evidenced by their War service: Jack, usually known as JL, is the RAF Bomber pilot, Joe the CO and Red Cross Ambulance Driver. At first, they’re united as sportsmen, 1936 Olympic Bronze medallists in the coxless pairs, but from that point their differences drive them very much apart.
JL’s memories come first. They begin with his plane being shot down on May 10, 1941, in an attack on Hamburg: JL is badly injured in his left leg and head, the rest of his crew is killed except for navigator Sam Levy. JL gets the plane as far back to England as he can before it crashes: he and Levy are later rescued from a dinghy.
This early account is told, somewhat repetitively, in alternating chapters to JL’s recollection of Munich 1936, his worldly naivete in thinking only of sport, being presented with his medal by Rudolf Hess, (who later propositions him), rescuing the lovely Birgit from persecution as a Jew, worshipping her but finding Joe has acted whilst he mooned, and their separation being marked by Joe and Birgit’s marriage.
But JL’s account is directly contradictory of Gratton’s 1939-41 reality: Joe is dead, killed in the Blitz in London, and JL goes on to a brief but fascinating attachment to Churchill’s staff, asked to question the prisoner ‘Jonathan’ – in reality the newly captive Hess, who has flown to England to propose peace.
There is another internal parallel: JL has already seen enough of Churchill to have decided that there are two of him, virtual twins, the one who goes out in public, in morale boosting visits to Blitzed areas, with his homburg and his cigar, being a near identical double: slightly taller, slightly slimmer, but otherwise a duplicate.
And JL’s primary conclusion about prisoner ‘Jonathan’ is that he is also not Hess, but a very nearly identical duplicate (a theory that was raised in real life, although it has little authoritative support).
After this, the rest of JL’s account is relatively perfunctory. The War continues, he spends two and a half years in a German Prison Camp, emigrates to Australia on finding that Birgit has remarried, and generally fades away, his remaining history of no import.
JL’s memoirs are, of course, directly contradictory of Stuart Gratton’s reality. Needless to say, he starts pursuing the originals immediately. But JL’s daughter has vanished, her name can’t be traced, her address is non-existant. And a parcel arrives from Masada, the homeland created after the War for the Jews, who were not going to be allowed into Palestine and, in keeping with a proposition genuinely made, have instead been settled upon, and displaced the native population of Madagascar.
The parcel is from Sam Levy, JL’s navigator on that fateful raid, now long and happily settled in Masada. His statement is the fourth and shortest section of the story, the final section being comprised by ‘research’ materials Levy has gleaned, including many many pages from Joe’s diary. There is an immediate collision of realities: JL died in the bomber crash on 10 May 1941, Joe survived the bombing raid in London.
This final section sets out the reality that pertains to Stuart Gratton’s world. It is told primarily but not exclusively from Joe’s viewpoint. But it is undercut, and thus so is the entire book, by a troubling syndrome that develops after Joe’s head injury in the Blitz.
Joe becomes prey to hallucinatory fugues, complete real and realistic periods of existence that continue for differing lengths of time, that lead in one way or another, to confrontation with JL. But JL’s presence curtails the fugue, sending Joe back to the point at which it begins, after which the future envelops in a manner that is similar, but far from identical to Joe’s illusion.
Joe grows steadily more concerned at the recurrence of these fugues. His marriage is crumbling. He discovers JL has been visiting Birgit behind his back, exactly as in JL’s story. He suspects JL s his baby’s father, not himself. He grows ever more disturbed by Birgit’s reliance on her elderly neighbour, Mrs Gratton (yes), and her strange, middle-aged son Harry (Stuart Gratton’s adopted father’s name is…). What is real? Is any of what he is living real, or is he in a fugue that may, at any moment, unravel?
And, as a Red Cross representative, Joe finds himself drawn, as a fluent German speaker, into participant in a completely unofficial, but ultimately successful Peace Conference, headed on the German side by Hess and on the English side by the King’s younger brother, George, Duke of Kent.
And Joe makes two crucial interventions in the peace talks, one in private conversation with Hess, the other to Churchill, who is refusing to even contemplate peace, as a result of which the accord is signed, the War ends, both Hess and Churchill offer Joe jobs in Berlin, and he sets off whom to his wife and the baby due to be born soon. The only drawback is that, on return to England, Joe learns that JL is dead, in the last British bombing raid of the War.
But when he arrives at his home, it is to a series of shocks: the Grattons have moved in, the baby is born, a son, that the Grattons have already decided, with Birgit’s full compliance, to call Stuart. And sat in an armchair, his presence not revealed at first, is JL, in his RAF uniform.
It has been a fugue, a very long fugue, covering six moths, and all of the fugues we have already seen, and Joe’s life unwinds all the way back to the Red Cross ambulance bearing him back to Manchester with his Blitz-induced injuries.
And the book ends.
And it’s that ending that undermines everything. The Separation has already proved itself to be a thing of uncertainty, every moment, every step on ground that is not firm, that is as stable as shifting sand, liable at any moment to turn into something else. But whilst we are clued in late to the unreality of much of what Joe is recording, as his successes grow ever more grandiose and compelling, his unyielding views persuading everyone, the disappearance of all reality casts everything into doubt.
Who is Stuart Gratton? Is he the son of J L Sawyer (one of them, at any rate)? Does his version exist at all? How does JL’s memoirs, diametrically opposed to Gratton’s world, exist in it? Is there anything in this book in which we can truly believe?
Has the story ended or, as I said above, has it merely stopped?
I can’t give you any answers because I don’t know any. The Separation is, for someone like myself, who needs some form of anchor in fiction, both unfulfilling and thought-provoking. It is, either way, a book that demands to be read.
I should also say that I found the idea that Britain would have compromised in 1941, would have cooperated, or at least adopted a position of benevolent neutrality towards Nazi Germany – even with Hess replacing Hitler as Fuhrer – extremely difficult to swallow. I look on such things with hindsight – I was not born until ten years after the war ended – and see the Nazis as an evil that had to be defeated, come what may, and the argument that Britain would have stood down from War to enable Germany to crush Bolshevism is plausible only in a theoretical sense.
Otherwise, my one overall criticism of the book is that, for large portions, especially in its later stages, it ceases to e a story and becomes an alternate history. Priest shows he knows how to construct a believable alternate world, but in places it becomes too interested in itself, to the detriment of the narrative.
Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary book, without the shape of a resolution that would make it a work of genius.

JLA Incarnations 3: Bwaa-ha-ha!


Justice League International

Of course DC were not going to go without a Justice League title for that long, and with the new policy being to have annual summer crossover events to demonstrate that DC’s Universe was indeed a Universe with all the dots connected, a new Justice League title was planned to start after Legends, during which the new JLA line-up would come together.
The man responsible would be editor Andy Helfer, who would quickly draw in artist/plotter Keith Giffen, who was so keen to work on a Justice League project that he would daily stick his head round Helfer’s door, hiss ‘Jussssticccce League’ and vanish, until the day Helfer told him to come in.
Though it was never publicly stated at the time, Helfer and Giffen wanted to go back to the original concept of the Justice League, starting with a ‘Big 7’ line-up that would replicate the original team. But with Superman, Wonder Woman and The Flash undergoing relaunches and upgrades in the post-Crisis era, that was clearly not possible, although Batman’s editor, Denny O’Neil, took pity on the duo and authorised them to use the Caped Crusader.
Even so, Helfer and Giffen were faced with a seemingly insoluble problem: that until the every eve of Legends itself, they had no idea exactly what characters they would have for their new Justice League.
It’s a comics shibboleth that a good story can only be good for its character. A good Flash story will not make a good Batman story, any more than it will make a good Green Lantern story. The same thing goes for team books: once upon a time, Gardner Fox could write dialogue you could put in any character’s mouth, be they Wonder Woman or Green Arrow. But not any more: team characters now had personalities, which meant that teams had to have dynamics, had to have some underlying purpose that distinguished them from the next crowd of brightly coloured zeebs, milling around.
What Helfer and Giffen needed was a format, a format that would work irrespective of the characters they would actually have to play with, a format that could not be the bland, unformed, uncommitted approach that would normally be implied. Like so many others in those days, they took their inspiration from Alan Moore.
Moore was riding at a commercial high, having taken American comics by storm with his Swamp Thing, and even more so with the immense, game-changing Watchmen. Part of Moore’s creed in the latter was that the kind of intensive personality required to put on Halloween costumes and go out in the streets fighting crime, hand to hand, was not conducive to playing nicely with others, and that teams were psychologically improbable, given the egos involved.
Helfer and Giffen couldn’t take that thesis at face value as it would destroy any idea of a Justice League, but they could adapt it. Yes, superheroes had extreme personalities, yes, they did not automatically subordinate themselves to others in team conditions. On the other hand, there was rich material there for an essentially comic approach to a team: outwardly serious and purposeful, but behind the scenes a mass of clashing egos and demands, a clubhouse in which the players could let off steam among their peers in a way that their public persona prevented them from doing.
Editor and plotter had their idea: all they needed was a line-up, and they would be fit to go as soon as Legends finished. Marc DeMatteis was brought in to write dialogue, a stream of conciousness gig from a writer usually associated with spiritual themes, and newcomer Kevin McGuire, blessed with an enviable flair for expressions – a must for this gig – as well as a clear, smooth line, to pencil over Giffen’s layouts.
Even at this early stage, it’s clear that what Helfer/Giffen were planning was a superhero sitcom, but to begin with, they worked with a strict, and dramatic underpinning, and with structural plans that led to a big change after only seven issues.
The League’s third incarnation debuted as simply Justice League – no America, no nothing. The initial line-up was a mish-mash of characters from all over, few of whom had any connection with the original League. The Martian Manhunter was again central, and Black Canary returned (albeit, in that redesigned cover-all costume that was far more practical and non-sexist, but nobody liked it). And Batman, newly wrought as grim’n’gritty and obsessive, to try to keep everybody in order.
But the rest of the team consisted of Captain Marvel (albeit for only two issues), Doctor Fate, Blue Beetle, Mister Miracle (with Oberon) and, as in-house Green Lantern for this recension, Guy Gardner. And the new, female, Asian, started as a villain Dr Light was offered JL membership by a mysterious figure who seemed to be quite authoritative but who had no official connection with the new League. As yet.
It made for a busy six months, as the League members jockeyed for position amongst each other, Batman throwing his weight around effectively, Guy Gardner throwing his weight around ineffectually, Black Canary getting all feminist, Blue Beetle already starting out as the lightweight, play-it-for-laughs figure, a role into which he was irrevocably sealed by the introduction into the League of Dan Jurgens’ Booster Gold.
This was courtesy of that mysterious background funder, millionaire philanthropist businessman, Maxwell Lord. Max was determined to take control of the League, to extend their remit and their facilities, though the fact that he was less than open about it hinted at ulterior motives, that would come out at the end of the first year.
But what Max was doing, behind the scenes, and with the cooperation of the Martian Manhunter, was building this League for a new role, an official role, a global role, which was revealed in issue 7, as the series was renamed Justice League International, and the team came under the sponsorship of the United Nations, with Headquarters in every major city (even Russia) in the form of Embassies.
This led to the very funny issue 8, ‘Moving Day’, which was a non-action issue focussing on the JLI moving into its Paris Embassy, Booster hitting (extremely unsuccessfully) on an attractive French lady who turns out to be their chief of staff, and Beetle coming out with the first recorded, (in)famous “Bwaa-ha-ha!”
It was a fresh, smartarse, funny and lively approach, and it was also a very popular one. So much so that two years into the Third League’s life, DC would capitalise on the series’ popularity by spinning off a second Justice League title.
Just as the original had been spun out of Legends, the spin-off was born out of another summer crossover, Invasion. The justification was that the League had bulked up so much in leading the fight against Earth’s multifarious invaders that it had too many members to function efficiently, so a bunch of them were sent off to base themselves at the Paris Embassy, where they operated as Justice League Europe.
Within a couple of issues, the original series would change its logo (and much later, its official title in the indicia) to Justice League America.
The JLE operated to a broadly similar formula, with Gerard Jones scripting off Giffen’s plots, relying to a large extent on the superficially inherent absurdity of Americans in France, ignorant of culture, inheritance and the language. There was a four part crossover between the two teams, but on the whole, the European branch of the League – led by Captain Atom, at least until Armageddon 2001, tended to have more serious adventures.
Though the story in which they relocated to London, after completely destroying the Paris embassy, was spectacularly hilarious, featuring as it did a wonderful take-off of Basil Fawlty as the traditional British hero, the Beefeater.
The Helfer/Giffen League lasted five years, most of which it spent as a successful, indeed hip series, in on the joke. The number of Leaguers passing through, at one point or another, was legion. Max Lord himself even developed a superpower, that of being able to ‘push’ people’s minds along in the direction he, but not they, wanted, although we always wound up with a nosebleed as a consequence.
But the rot was inevitable, and visible as early as this League’s second year, when Earth was menaced by the might of Manga Khan, shopper supreme. Khan, a would-be megalomaniac who’d taken courses in unnecessary shouting and expository speeches, headed a consortium that wanted to trade with Earth, and if Earth wouldn’t trade, they’d take what they wanted anyway. A good and silly idea, executed with silliness and lots of jokes, it was nevertheless a perfect demonstration that a superhero sitcom could not go very far.
The problem with comedy is that it always has to top itself, to be fresh and new. It always needs new subjects, new things to poke fun at, satirise etc. The funnier things were, the funnier the next thing had to be. Booster and Beetle as money-chasing morons. The Wally West Flash as a weak-willed, girl-crazy moron. The original Hawkman’s pomposity and disgust in face of the looser League standards. These things could work for a time, but they would always have to be accelerated, and since superheroes are, in themselves, an inherently unrealistic and absurd construction, there is not far to go before the line is crossed between satire and silliness.
This probably reached its nadir in G’Nort. G’Nort Esplanade G’Neesmacher was a Green Lantern. A dog-like Green Lantern. A dumbbell of a Green Lantern. A Green Lantern by virtue of a powerful, influential and indulgent Uncle who got him a ring and a completely empty space sector to protect. Unfortunately, the state of the space sector exactly reflected G’Nort’s head and, during the Manga Khan story, he was found in Earth’s space. And he stayed around.
Then again, maybe it was the island of KooeyKooeyKooey, and Beetle and Buster’s vacation hideout for supervillains scam. Or maybe the short-lived Justice League Antarctica. No, it was definitely G’Nort.
The silliness was unsustainable, not that Helfer/Giffen cared. The Justice League, in both of its branches, was still part of an essentially serious Universe that DC was anxious to promote as cohesive and inter-connected. The Third League deliberately played at odds with every serious portrayal of its characters in their own titles, and got away with it because of its extreme popularity. But the disconnect would, indeed could, only get greater. JLE introduced an other-dimensional Walt Disney figure, which was viable in itself but who was called Mitch Wackey, thus drawing attention to the febrile lack of rationality that was making the two titles increasingly difficult to sustain.
Nothing lasts forever. After five years, Helfer/Giffen/De Matteis were burning out. The bloom was off the rose of their comedy. Sales were falling back, the Justice League was a joke, and an increasingly non-functional joke.
As a parting measure, the creative team ended their run with a fifteen part crossover entitled ‘Breakdowns’, alternating between A and E. Actually, it was a sequence of three five-issue stories, as nobody had the stamina for a story running the full-length. Silly figures like Mitch Wackey were destroyed, brutally, the Silver Sorceress was killed – primarily, it seemed, because no-one liked her costume’s colour scheme – and the League(s) lost their UN sanction and funding. The Third League was over, but the series continued. There would always be a Justice League, and now we would be looking at the Fourth.

Robert Neill web-site (in preparation)


I’ve added a new link to the Blogroll, which I’m also including here: if you click on http://neill.oaxweb.net/ it will take you to the first web-site to be devoted to the works of the popular historical fiction writer, Robert Neill, famous for the novel Mist over Pendle, available to this day, treating of the background to the famous Lancashire Witch Trial of 1612.

The site is the inspiration of my colleague Ron Catterall, and will in due course become home to a revised set of my essays on Neill’s sixteen novels, but we are working towards putting together as much information as can be determined about Neill’s works, his life, his approaches to writing and supplementary information which we hope will interest, entertain and maybe even enlighten those who already love Neill’s work, as well as attract the interest of those who have yet to discover Neill’s books.

We’re in the early stages, so the site as it stands is very much a work-in-progress, but you’re welcome to visit straight away, and to browse the beginnings of our investigations. What’s more, if you have any information, or opinion on Robert Neill, his life and/or writing, or even if you have something you would like to see examined or explained further, please do get in touch: all contributors will be welcomed and you can contact me direct via arduous.publications@gmail.com.

For all of you who, like us, regard Robert Neill as the truly excellent writer he was, and who wish to see him propery celebrated in this digital age, we hope we can provide a worthy tribute. Join us.

 

 

 

 

Theatre Nights: The Python


Sandman Mystery Theatre  33-36. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plotter), Steven T. Seagle (scripter), Warren Pleece (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
There’s an indefinable air of ‘back to business’ about the next production, or rather back to ‘business as usual’. The Python – a soubriquet put forward, for once, by Hubert Klein – is a serial-killer, whose spree starts with a major New York financial figure, the corrupt, greedy, immoral and deeply unpleasant Emmett Beedle, who dies from a badly-crushed windpipe.
That’s enough for the Police to be put on priority, with Tony Burke (absent from The Hourman) leading an investigation that gets incredibly complicated when the second victim turns out to be a black cleaning woman, and the third a seedy drunk in a bar.
Needless to say, the Sandman is also in hot pursuit of a Bible-spouting killer who turns out to be hiding in plain sight, and once again he turns up just in time to save Burke from the killer’s hands. Though this time he’s sensible enough to tie the wop cop up with his own handcuffs to listen to the confession.
The killer, and the investigation, are routine things, almost procedural for the Mystery Theatre, enlivened by the inimitable Burke, still displaying all the worst hard-boiled traits of the pulp Thirties/Forties cop: the cleaning lady’s son has to be the killer and Burke’s unfiltered racial epithets are unrestricted as he intends to send the kid to the rockpile, even if he’s as innocent as Jesus. Only by seeing Burke as a product of his times can we stand to have him around.
But the play’s the thing and again the Mystery is but a backcloth for what Wagner and Seagle are about, which is the ongoing relationship of Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont, a dance that has been playing out before our eyes since the first performance, but which has been the very centre of our perception since The Scorpion.
Because those looks that Guy Davis put on her face in The Hourman were a true indication that Wesley is blindly wrong to think that his love has only the self-same concerns as does he.
It’s subtly foreshadowed in the opening scene, as Wes and Dian leave a cinema after watching a Cagney movie: Dian’s eager to talk and Wes starts praising the film, but she’s talking about the newsreel, about the increasing threat of the Nazis in Europe. Then up pops Carol from The Vamp, with her… friend Nancy, chatting enthusiastically with Dian about the commercial for physical fitness maven, Jake Bonoir, whilst Wes stands aside, silent. Dian’s interested in improving her health, but Wes is contrary: yoga for him, not P.E.
And it’s like that at every turn. Dian goes with Carol, anxious to improve her physique, especially around her full hips, which the bi-sexual Carol sees as being very alright as it is. As does Wesley, or so we assume, but it’s Carol who has to say this to Dian. Dian talks about her exercise sessions, about the effect their having, how exhausting they are, but Wesley is not listening. All he can see, all he can think about, is the Sandman’s investigation, and with every unconscious slight, Dian feels it more.
The PE sessions are all part of the Bonoir method, which Bonoir has established out on the West Coast and is trying to bring to the East. It’s a tip of the head to the times, for Physical Fitness was a fad in the pre-superhero days, an element in the culture that assisted in preparing the way for physically perfect specimens in tight costumes, and Bonoir’s name is a tip of the hat to the most successful exponent of such programmes, Bernarr McFadden, the man behind Charles Atlas, ‘The World’s Most Perfect Man’.
It’s not difficult to see that Bonoir will turn out to be the Python: after all, we are looking for someone with great physical strength, strong enough to crush necks, but Klein’s fanciful insistence on suggesting that the effect required the crushing ability of an actual python derails the investigation by turning it towards another late Thirties fad, that of the Big Game Hunter.
Jungle John Barrows has an animal act that used to have a python. He’s a fake, a fraud on every level, except for one amusing sequence when the Sandman tries to put him under but the drunk-to-hell Barrows is more than agile enough to avoid capture. But all he is is a poor red herring, local colour, a means to extend the investigation long enough to make the play run the statutory four Acts.
Because Bonoir may be the villain, but he’s never onstage for any length of time as himself: dropping in to end of sessions to promote his ‘Way’ to the paying customers, plugging his Weekend Camp, that Carol persuades an unconvinced Dian into attending without telling her it’s also nudist. Until the confrontation scene, we only see Bonoir when he’s killing, to an accompaniment of strident Bible-talk, and his anonymity isn’t enough to keep the action going long enough for Wesley’s self-absorption to finally get under Dian’s skin.
So the Barrows sequence keeps the wheels spinning. Wesley narrates to himself, it being his turn to guide the story, oblivious to Dian’s growing dissatisfaction. Even when he tries to do something for the woman he loves, he gets it wrong: having ‘gone out’ when Dian was expected round, he comes home late to find her in the Sandman’s lair, patiently waiting for him, but fast asleep. So he covers her, rather than disturb her, and goes upstairs, putting himself into a warm, comfortable bed and leaving her in a hard chair…
Things start to build up. The issue of the Nazis is becoming a subject of concern to many: Burke doesn’t care, but Klein is emotionally rocked by news that relatives have suffered at Kristallnacht. Etta is settled in and enjoying her father’s company (even as Humphries works around Master Dodds’ secret), but Larry Belmont is as deep in the Python case as Burke, and even he is not there for Dian.
Carol makes a pass, misreading signals, though the two woman are entirely level-headed and civilised about the mistake, and the discovery about Bonoir being taken in whilst she’s away is the final catalyst for an abrupt decision.
Late in Act 3, Dian receives a letter from her old college friend Anne, or Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten, as she now is in England. Annabel’s life may be unimaginably different (and reading between the lines decidedly alien) but she is secure in her happiness with the man she loves, and it is very much the case that Dian is neither. She isn’t secure in that tiny, constricted life she has with the pre-occupied Wes, nor in her ignorance of the wider world beyond, a world under clouds dark and growing darker.
And abruptly she leaves. An extended visit to England, no return ticket. Only a letter to Wesley that he receives when he is ready to pay to her the genuine attention he should have done all along though Dian specifically absolves him of blame for her departure.
It’s a finale that only whets the audience’s desire to know more, but before we leave our review of this performance, a couple of things must be mentioned: that Etta is allowed a little more time in support, expressing her admiration for Master Dodds’ firmness of purpose and mentioning off-handedly friends she has made who have influenced her thinking: and that after losing his microphone in Burke’s office, Wesley dresses up as a foreign janitor to eavesdrop whilst ‘cleaning’ Burke’s office.
But we cannot leave without making proper mention of our guest set-designer, Warren Pleece, who provides our first significantly different vision of the Mystery Theatre since R. G. Taylor two years earlier. Like John Watkiss, Pleece is a British artist, one of a pair of brothers who started in fandom  when I was getting involved there (though I never knowingly met either).
Like Taylor, Pleece makes no attempt to duplicate Davis’ command of the Thirties milieu, preferring to use a rough, almost blocky style that is deliberately 2D, and which is heavy on atmosphere rather than detail. David Hornung uses a narrower colour palette, darkening most scenes and allowing the black-and-white film trailer that makes up page 1 to dictate the overall look of the play. I don’t wish to be unfair to him when most of the problem is that he simply isn’t Guy Davis, but I find his work drab and dull, with a deliberately heavy style that leadens the whole work.
As for the Python himself, whilst the links between his victims are eventually spelled out, and are entirely logical, if diverse, we are left to construct for ourselves his motives, or rather the madness of his motives, which are suggested as having a pyscho-sexual underpinning that reverses the incestuous Albert-Celia Goldman relationship in The Tarantula. The shape is delivered, the Bible-obsession is tied in, yet in his madness as in his exterior life, Jake Bonoir never exists as more that an outline.
It’s a sad assessment on which to end the third year of Sandman Mystery Theatre, though one failure in nine productions is still a good standard. But though this was not known at the time, we were halfway through the life of our dramatic entertainment. The end was nearer than the beginning, now.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a touring edition of Sandman Midnight Theatre.
Break a leg.