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.