Vertigo: Winter’s Edge. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (plot and dialogue) and John K Snyder III (artist), Vertigo: Winter’s Edge 2. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer) and Paul Rivoche (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Throughout its publishing history, Sandman Mystery Theatre was published by Vertigo Comics, the Adult and Mature Reader imprint of DC Comics. Vertigo specialised in more adult material, dark, noirish, frequently imbued with horror: not blatant gore or gratuitous sex, but a genuine exploration of more serious themes, as the Mystery Theatre demonstrates.
In the late Nineties, Vertigo twice published Winter’s Edge anthologies, squarebound 96 page comics in which one of the imprint’s series would act as a framing device to eight page shorts featuring other series form the line. Sandman Mystery Theatre was represented in both.
Spirit of the Season, in 1997, was plotted by Wagner and Seagle, dialogued by Seagle, and drawn, in a neat, precise, slightly stylised manner, by John K Snyder III. The story is set in the Christmas season, starting with Dian and Wesley out Christmas shopping. Dian’s full of fun, though Wesley, whose thoughts lie behind this story, is his usual quasi-curmudgeonly self, focussing only on the emptiness and hollow materialism of a consumer oriented season.
The two separate: Wesley has something to do alone and Dian, joking about buying a girlfriend his Christmas present, is happy to let him go. Wesley’s destination, his intention, is uncharacteristic for an avowed atheist, believing in no religion. He is going to a synagogue.
It’s to do with another woman, and something he feels unable to share with Dian. But the woman is Marina Dodds, Wesley’s late mother, who (we learned in The Mist) was Jewish. Wesley has paid for an observance plaque, and for a candle to be lit in front of it every year on the anniversary of her passing.
There is no candle tonight, but it is no negligence on the part of the Rabbi, rather Wesley’s own failings, as his mother’s anniversary was a week before. The Rabbi gives him a Kaddish prayer to contemplate, to ease him: despite his beliefs, Wesley takes the prayer to a pew.
This short story is the only time in the entire run that we are treated to any insight into Wesley’s relationship with his mother. Though he hints that he was denied parental comfort and involvement as with his father, it’s plain to see that Wesley is still more closely involved with his mother’s memory, paying for rituals he does not believe in for her benefit, being protective towards the much-spat upon Jews. Where does he so much as mention his father’s Christian religion, or make any act in his honour?
In the pew, a young, beshawled woman sits, crying. Wesley offers support and learns her story: her name is Yora Zacoff and she is a refugee from Nazi Germany, spirited out by her father and, after his death, cared for and eventually married to an older guardian, Alexi. But the marriage was brief: four days ago, Alexi died of consumption, and she has not slept since, trying desperately to get money to pay for his burial.
The conversation is interrupted by gentile thugs, breaking into the synagogue to steal gold candelabra and candlesticks. They are confronted by the Sandman, who downs two of them, but the third is about top batter his way out before he is grabbed by Yura, fierce in the defence of her faith. She is about to get her head smashed in when the Sandman puts the last man to sleep.
The thugs may be collected by the Police before they wake, but the Sandman offers the brave Yora a gift: a small whiff of gas, to grant her peaceful sleep, and a release from her stress.
Wesley Dodds then rejoins Dian Belmont, ready now to share his story with her.
Spirit of the Season was a superb vignette, folding down a complex and moving story into a mere eight pages, a masterpiece of story-telling. In sad contrast, City of Dreams was an appallingly slight piece. This was published in late 1998, contemporaneously with Sandman Mystery Theatre 69, the penultimate issue. It was written by Seagle and drawn by Paul Rivoche, best known for his work on Mr X, a series with a background of futuristic architecture.
City of Dreams is also an eight-pager. It uses three full pages to depict a dream in which the Sandman pursues a man through a fantastic, futuristic city, ending with him leaping ostensibly to his death, only to survive and escape.
It then cuts immediately to an exhibition of a futuristic city, to which Wesley has dragged Dian due to his dream. The Christmas connection is her kissing him in public, despite the absence of mistletoe.
Both see the city’s architect attempting to throttle his partner. Wesley changes to the Sandman whilst Dian, claiming to be a reporter, pursues the man with questions.
He turns on her in a fury but the Sandman intervenes. This leads to a reprise of the dream fight and the leap from the balcony, although the result this time is a bathetic fall destroying the model, which was flawed in any event. The sole twist is that, in the initial struggle, the Sandman’s gasmask is partly displaced, and he gets a whiff of his own gas.
The final page effectively reprises The Goblin by Dian calming down the confused Sandman and sending him home.
City of Dreams is a very poor story, feeling bloated even at only eight pages, it’s story dull and negligible. The only point of interest in it is the near immediate repetition of the distracted Sandman as a potential menace. This suggests that Seagle planned to develop the schizophrenic nature of Wesley Dodds and the Sandman in future stories, and the potential menace one role has for the other. But it never was.
One sublime, one ridiculous. There is nothing now to detain us. We must return to the Mystery Theatre for its final performance.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their final call to performance, in a play titled The Hero.
Break a leg.