Sandman Mystery Theatre 25-28. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plotter), Steven T. Seagle (scripter), Guy Davis (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
We begin upon a dream, as we did two years previously, when the Mystery Theatre first opened its doors for the enlightenment and entertainment of its audience. Indeed, our newest play, Night of the Butcher, is more prone to the depiction of dream than any since that debut affair.
But though these dreams wrack Wesley Dodds no less than any have to date, it is interesting that they torment him with no monsters, that they do not lead him to another menace that he must pursue and overcome to gain relief. No, Wesley’s dreams are about Wesley, and the Sandman – both his own, local version, and that unknown and unseen be-helmeted being whose imprisonment is the source of all that drives our hero.
Because Wesley – and this has been designed deliberately,so that we are privy to his inner voice, just as in the last play we listened to Dian Belmont – isn’t functioning at all well. Dian holds his secret and has walked away from him. Wes is a man in love, faced with the worse possible scenario: the simultaneous need and inability to do nothing.
I’m speaking from experience here, experience I tried, in vain, to pass on to a friend who ended up lodging with me for several months after his marriage broke down. When things go wrong, sometimes you have to sit on your hands, bite your tongue, stifle every instinctive urge you have: you hurt the one who matters and you want to put it right, to do what’s needed to demonstrate that you’ve changed and it will be different, but what they want is time, and space, and solitude, to come to terms with things as they are now.
But you’re a man: you don’t do doing nothing, you’re in the wrong and you want to get out of it, you can’t change the past so it is imperative to change the future, now. And there’s also a strong element of fear that inaction will cost you your ability to change the future in your direction, because she’ll take a decision based on your not being part of the picture.
That’s Wesley Dodds in this play, and like most men in this situation, he’s not doing a very good job of it (my poor mate blew it completely).
It’s a good thing then that the Sandman is not dealing with the usual kind of calculating, twisted, repellent evil we are used to in the Theatre. Not that the deaths, of ordinary people, hacked to death and half their body removed, is not repellent, especially when Hubert Klein introduces the idea that the killer may well be eating what he takes – a notion that falls true in the end.
No, the villain requires little detection. He’s a weird, grossly obese, barely human man, barely able to speak intelligibly, living in the sewers, and indeed is eating his victims, and enough hints are dropped to suggest that he is the product of several-generation inbreeding. All that’s needed by way of investigation is to firstly imegine him, and secondly track which sewer he hides in. As much of the latter is done by Burke – Tony Burke, as we learn, partway – as by the Sandman.
Indeed, we see more of Burke, of what lies behind the stereotype of the hard-boiled detective, in this story than we have before, as Wagner and Seigle begin to open out everyone’s favourite, foul-mouthed anti-hero. That christian name is spoken by Gina, a woman Burke visits at the height of the case, when he’s having to come to terms with the cannibalism aspect, which has gone deeper than Burke usually allows things to get.
We know nothing more of Gina than that she’s very comfortable with him, that their relationship is sexual – not at first, Burke’s too tense – and that he’s not in the least aggressive in his conversation with her.
Which is more than we can say for his accelerating anger towards the Sandman. It’s bad enough that he’s been gassed nearly half-a-dozen times already, but with Wesley in this strange, blundering state without Dian, there are more direct encounters in Night of the Butcher than in every play so far.
First, Burke is driven into a towering rage when he accidentally discovers the microphone the Sandman has had taped to the underside of his desk for several months. Then he catches sight of the gas-masked crimefighter at an outdoor crime scene and starts peppering him with bullets. Then, he catches the Sandman at the Hall of Records and proceeds to administer a serious beat-down, or, to be more English about it, a bloody good kicking, before he’s interrupted by the equivalent of the librarian, who won’t let him kicks Dodds to death.
But even that pales into insignificance in the climactic scenes in the sewers, when Burke, facing down the ‘ozark’ who has decapitated one of his two men, and has a meathook stuck into the chest of the other, knowing that the only chance any of them have is for he and the Sandman to work together, starts firing at Wes, not the killer!
Even when the Sandman has brought the killer down, literally seconds before parting Burke’s hair at the neck, the Lieutenant is so enraged at the vigilante who he considers to be every bit as much a villain as the rest that he still tries to shoot him dead – until the inevitable gas claims him again.
Yet despite an ingratitude that’s way sharper than a serpent’s tooth, that’s not Wesley’s worst moment in the story. Despite nearly being knocked to his death – twice – courtesy of Burke in the sewers, despite a monster hangover brought on by a night of actual drinking at Robert Li’s insistence (leading to the story’s best laugh, a ‘dream-page’ of nine identical blank white panels showing only a centre panel caption of ‘For the first time in nearly two years, I sleep without incident’), Wes’s lowest point comes in the nightclub to which Robert has led him when, already out of sorts, having had to bribe the doormen to overcome their racist attitude to Robert, he bumps into Dian.
And her date.
It’s in no way serious: I mean, the guy may be taller, more athletic and more handsome than Wesley, but Dian needs only that to remind herself that it’s far from what she wants. But Wes starts to getting more begging in his desperate need to have Dian back, to be able to function properly.
Of course, the moment she decides to follow up her concern about him is when Humphries is treating the Sandman’s heavily-bruised, post-Burke ribs, which leads to a flare-up of her feelings at the time of her discovery. But it provokes Wes into an unexpected flare-up in return, based on how she has not, for one second, attempted to understand his side of things.
The two part, rapidly, but Wes’s words have struck a chord that Dian can’t ignore. She not only says as much, when she phones Wes to put him on Burke’s tail. She’s not changed her mind about anything she’s said, but equally she admits that she can’t stop thinking about Wes, as much as what he does.
The end, when it comes, is rapid: too rapid to be an end to this interplay of feelings. Wes’s confusion, his uncertainty, his musings about the senility that runs in his family, and which he clearly fears, resolve themselves abruptly after the Butcher is brought down, demonstrating that although everything has been confused and impossible to interpret, it is still the dream that drives him.
And the restless Dian, confined with a parent who’s clearly more interested in the radio than her, goes for a drive, ‘somehow’ ending up where she directed the Sandman, and in time to offer him a lift home. Wes’s interior monologue has been quoting Proust: We do not succeed in changing things according to our desire, but gradually our desire changes. Dian pulls up alongside Wes and, with her old lightness, offers him a lift. They are once again in accord.
It is a beginning.
Before we prepare for the end of the play, which is in truth but an episode in a longer drama that has many more turnings to follow, we should add to our list of observations that Wesley is actually hurt so badly by Burke that it is beyond Humphries’ skill to deal with his injuries. That necessitates a Doctor, though none appears in the story. Wesley’s doctor, it appears, is McNider: Charles McNider, one assumes, who one day in the future will be blinded by a bomb, only to learn that he can then see, perfectly, in the dark.
From its first opening, the Mystery Theatre offered us a different Sandman. In this Theatre, the Justice Society could not exist: it was impossible to have this Wesley Dodds/Sandman exist in the same kind of Universe as speedsters, magicians, ghosts and wielders of magic weapons. And if we’re being strict, Ted Grant never owned a gym before becoming Wildcat, whilst Charles McNider was a surgeon, not a ‘GP’.
The Mystery Theatre doesn’t do, nor could it do, Superheroes. Or could it?
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 Hourman.
Break a leg.