Sandman Mystery Theatre 45-48 . Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (script), Matthew Smith and Richard Case (artists).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
After the intensity of The Phantom of the Fair, it’s, uh, fair to say that The Blackhawk is a considerably lighter piece, though far from light in itself.
Once again, Wagner/Seagle are dipping into established DC history. Blackhawk (as he’s usually known) is a long-established character, created in part by the legendary Will Eisner during the Second World War, and enjoying decades of success. He was the leader of the Blackhawks, a squadron of independent fliers drawn from the Allied Nations, fighting against the Nazis.
Though the definitive name of Janos Prohaska wasn’t established until after Crisis on Infinite Earths, and ignoring a period when Blackhawk became an American volunteer in Poland, the character has always been a Polish flyer whose brother and sister were killed in a German air-raid, and who swore vengeance.
But all that began in 1941. In the Mystery Theatre it’s still 1939, and in America at least, the inevitability of War is accepted, and certain people are fixing to do something about it. One such group includes Judge Shaeffer, and he, in turn, wants Wesley Dodds to join. It’s prefaced by a gift of tickets to an Air Show, to which Wes takes Dian. The star of the Air Show is a highly-skilled Polish flyer, one Janos Prohaska. And the Resistance Group’s purpose is to fund a highly-skilled Polish flyer in defending his homeland: of course it is Janos Prohaska.
Like other plays before it, the plot of The Blackhawk is primarily a backcloth for the more important elements of the the ongoing series, and the development of the regular characters. That story is relatively simple: Judge Shaeffer invites Wesley into the secret group which is proposing to fund Prohaska in the defence of his homeland against the Nazis. However, one of the group, for reasons of both ideology and cupidity, is trying to discredit Prohaska as a murderer of women. Burke is heavily involved, convinced Prohaska is guilty and determined to beat a confession out of him. In the end, the Sandman breaks Prohaska out of jail and sees him onto a plane out of the country as part of a scheme intended to draw out the real villain. Prohaska is exonerated, but at story’s end it is reported that his plane has been shot down, with no survivors.
No, what distinguishes this play is its depiction of three of the principals: Dian, Burke and Janos Prohaska himself. Only Wesley and the Sandman are constants whose position does not move in these four Acts, and that is in part an underpinning of Dian’s story.
Despite her decision to devote herself to writing, Dian is finding it very difficult to get going. Her ideas seem grand in her head, but feeble on paper (tell me about it!). It doesn’t help that she’s feeling off colour, prone to stomach upsets, bleary in the morning. It’s still hard for her to totally accept Wesley’s other life, even if she is taking more of an active part in supporting him. In her current state of health and mind, she sees herself as once again competing, passively, for Wesley’s attention, and overlooked too often as he follows his dreams.
Dian’s also musing more than we’ve seen before upon her mother, perhaps as a result of Larry’s comments in The Phantom of the Fair that she immediately deflected. Uppermost in Dian’s mind is that her mother was the only one in her circle of friends to stop after one child. Dian speculates that her conception was a mistake, and sees a lot of her mother in herself, or vice versa.
It’s something I’ve always liked about the Mystery Theatre, that even though Dian was, to an extent, press-ganged into returning to America and committing herself whole-heartedly to Wesley and the Sandman, it is not a simple, once and for all commitment for her, and her reservations and fears continue to affect her.
By the second half of the play, Dian’s being much more proactive: dressed in a mask, she chauffeurs Janos to a meeting with the Sandman. When he tries to call her Lady Sandwoman, she demurs, but she accepts the (tongue-in-cheek) title of ‘Sandy’. As usual, being there at the heart of things arouses Dian’s spirits.
But whilst Dian, by virtue of her narrative roles, remains up front, for once this play is as much about Lieutenant Tony Burke as it is about anyone else. What is Burke? What has been thus far? The truthful answer is that Burke is a monster. In some ways he’s a stereotype, the embodiment of every hard-boiled cop ever to feature in pulp crime fiction. Burke is a cop through and through, and he’s a bloody good cop. But only in the terms of the times.
We’ve seen, over and again, how rude, arrogant and overbearing he is. No-one on the force is as hard as Tony Burke, nobody can so much as hint at a weakness without his fastening on it and contemptuously putting the guy down. He’s a mass of prejudices, he’s obsessed with bringing the Sandman down because, despite the costumed vigilante’s obvious intent of assistance, he’s a vigilante. Burke’s a cop, he has authority, he is Authority. The Sandman has no right to do what he does.
And Burke is also guilty of tunnel vision, of choosing a culprit and fixedly pursuing them, ignoring any competing suggestion or even evidence, intent on getting the inevitable confession with a lot of back room beating, with fists and rubber hose.
As I said, Burke is a monster. That he is honest, and passionate about catching murderers is his only saving grace. And he’s been like this since his introduction in The Tarantula. Unlike every other recurring character, he has not changed one iota.
Until the first act of The Blackhawk. Even on his way to a crime scene, he’s his offensive self. Working with one of the guys who went down the sewers with him in Night of the Butcher, he’s unbearable at the man’s heightened sensitivity to violence. Then he arrives on the scene, and breaks, all at once, like a baby.
Burke’s collapse is sudden and absolute. It is he who breaks out of the room, runs for the alley, pukes his guts out. He’s lying there, unable to function, so bad that the Sandman approaches him, with concern for his condition, and Burke, who is still a long way from recovering that self he usually wields like a blunt instrument, is so defeated that he actually authorises the Sandman to go search the room, invites him into the investigation. Though not without a token warning not to disturb or take anything, accompanied by a threat of retribution that is painfully ineffectual.
What shatters Burke? It’s a real shame that this play should be designed by Matthew Smith, not stalwart Guy Davis, otherwise we would surely recognise the prostitute with whom Prohaska sleeps, to mutual joyfulness, and who is murdered as soon as he leaves. Her name is Regina Aggondezzi – Gina – and she is the woman Burke turned to in Night of the Butcher for sex but, more importantly, company.
Burke experiences death coming to his own life, to someone he cares about, and the iron man goes to pieces.
But not for long. His armour reforged, Burke fixes on Prohaska as the killer, and his determination to avenge Gina makes him even more vicious, single-minded and determined, even to attempting to suppress evidence that leads away from Prohaska. That his man gets away, that he escapes police custody, that he’s not even the killer is a tremendous blow. We sense that Burke’s response will be to dig down even deeper into his chosen role, but the monster has been exposed in this play, and we may be sure that his story has just become open to development.
And lastly, there’s the Blackhawk. The title gets handed out by the Sandman, saluting Janos as the ‘Black Hawk of the Skies’ as he flies off on what we are, at the last, led to believe is a fatal flight. It’s a crushing riposte, to the effort of the story, to the passionate Prohaska we see here, and under the arch of the Mystery Theatre we can tremble at the bleak irony, though beyond we know Blackhawk will live and fight eternally.
Prohaska’s portrayal in Sandman Mystery Theatre is in keeping with his revised characterisation introduced in a limited series written and drawn by Howard Chaykin, but it’s rather more natural, and isn’t being played for in-your-face, shock value. Here, in 1939, Prohaska still speaks with a pronounced Polish accent, which he is conscientiously trying to shed, and is unfamiliar wit America and its customs.
These combine to give the effect that Prohaska is something of a simple man, though he’s anything but. When he mentions to the Resistance Group that he’s flown in the Spanish Civil War, one of the (rich, business man) members asks which side. Given that Chaykin also made Blackhawk a former communist, the readers know that it was for the Republicans, but Prohaska, with an enthusiastic bonhomie, replies, “Why, the good side, of course.”
But Prohaska, for all he is smart, passionate, and winningly patriotic whenever he has to speechify, he’s also a larger-than-life womaniser. Not for the thrill of conquest, perhaps, but rather out of an inexhaustible appreciation for the beauty of American women.
It’s this zest that marks out Janos Prohaska, and which renders the ending so much of a comedown (if you choose to believe it). And his interplay with the Sandman is priceless, especially when, on their first meeting, the Sandman’s gas actually kills a thug (to Wesley’s consternation), thanks to an extreme allergic reaction.
Mention must be made, of course, to Matthew Smith as this play’s guest designer (Richard Case assists in the Third and Final Acts, supplying inks). As usual, the choice of guest is rather left field, Smith’s style being stark and representational, with the use of heavy blacks. Smith also eschews detail in a manner that enables him to create rather stark pages that suggest rather than depict the Thirties. He frequently prefers outlines, as witnessed by the sheer number of times Wesley’s glasses are mere black circles, his eyes invisible behind them.
It’s unusual, but not inappropriate, but in the light of Davis’s gift in depicting facial and body language, this is one occasion on which I seriously regret his being only able to draw eight issues a year.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled Return of The Scarlet Ghost.
Break a leg.