Theatre Nights: The Annual


Sandman Mystery Theatre Annual 1. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plotter), Steven T. Seagle (scripter), Guy Davis (artist) The Eyewitness, David Lloyd (artist) The Butler, John Bolton (artist), The Stakeout, Stefano Guadino (artist) The Body, George Pratt (artist) The Cop, Alex Ross (artist) The D.A., Peter Snejberg (artist) The Mugger, Dean Ormston (artist) The Bystanders, Guy Davis (artist) The Solution.
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Sandman Mystery Theatre‘s first and only Annual has to be treated here. It was published contemporaneously with issue 19, the third act of The Scorpion, but it poses the greatest difficulty in finding its true spot in the continuity of the Theatre’s productions. It portrays a carefree and happy Wesley and Dian, a Dian still ignorant of Wesley’s other identity and his activities, and unless we go all the way back to that interregnum between The Brute and The Vamp, it is almost impossible to find an emotionally plausible moment for it to happen.
But in his chapter, Larry Belmont mentions not having seen much of Dian since the Buster Calhoun concert, putting the album exactly contemporaneous with The Scorpion, inside as well as out. Improbable as it may seem, between Dian’s preoccupation with Wesley and the Sandman’s preoccupation with his dream-driven pursuit of the Scorpion, the Annual must take place in the early part of the last play. Given that the events of the Annual cover several nights, perhaps as much as a week, that’s difficult to do, but it’s got to be imagined.
The Annual has no overall title, but it might best be known as The Park. It’s a simple story, divided into nine chapters, spread amongst eight set designers, each chapter set in or around Central Park, which Wesley, in the opening chapter, by Guy Davis, thinks of as the heart of New York City. As such, it escapes the proscenium arch, and is like an open-air performance, with scenes taking place against different landscapes: a refreshing variation.
It begins with a Sunday afternoon date with Dian, for walking, talking and kissing, during the latter of which Wesley sees, but cannot act upon, a terrifying mugger rob a young couple. The Mugger dresses like a monster, with tin hat, goggles, bandanna across his face: bulky in appalling mismatched clothes, wielding a gun and a spiked stick. What disturbs Wesley most is that this apparition has sprung to life without passing through his dreams.
Over the course of the next eight chapters, the Sandman investigates, the Police investigate (at one point identifying the Sandman himself via a sketch, though not even Burke believes he’s the mugger). Some scenes skate around the park: we see how Humphries came to be Wesley’s butler, and learn his secret, we see Larry Belmont trying to handle the demands of this job, we here from a body buried in the Park, accidental victim of an early intervention by the proto-Sandman, sans gas mask and gas-gun, spraying his sleep gas from an aerosol can. We see small boys listening to horror serials on the radio.
And the Sandman unmasks the mugger as a quasi-illiterate immigrant, without a job, with five children and a heavily pregnant wife to deed, with no money, desperate to provide for them.
He’s dealt with with mercy: the mugger’s outfit is left to be found by the Police, the immigrant wakes in his own bed with $300 donated by the Sandman and a warning to use this chance wisely.
It’s theatre in the round, a large part of the fascination being in how different artists treat the New York in 1938.
David Lloyd turns in another immaculate eight-pager as Humphries loyally watched Wesley’s back in the park, whilst musing on his role in life as a servant, and his introduction to the peculiarity of Master Dodds’ service. Lloyd’s art is a modified version of his V for Vendetta style, less heavily chiaroscuro (the chapter is drawn to be coloured and V/Lloyd were at their very best in black and white). On this evidence, Lloyd should certainly have been hired to design a complete play, and it was the Theatre’s loss that the engagement was never made.
In contrast, John Bolton contributes a surprisingly ragged and simple three pager covering the Sandman’s first, fruitless stake-out in the Park. It’s a very long way from, indeed almost unrecognisable against his work in the Seventies and Eighties that made him so much in demand.
Indeed, several of the designers turn in sloppy-looking, almost amateurish, as if they are trying to blur their lack of familiarity with the 1938 setting.
George Pratt, in particular, and Dean Ormston are the worst examples of this syndrome, with Pratt’s ragged, amateurish approach to figures and faces a tremendous disappointment from so talented an artist.
Of course, the star is Alex Ross, then at the peak of his early popularity, here contributing an eight page black and white chapter centred upon Larry Belmont and including Burke. In many ways, Ross is the complete antithesis of a Mystery Theatre designer, his photo-realistic style being worlds away from the impressionistic approach that suits the world of the Theatre, but by drenching his interiors in Forties shadows, Ross beautifully captures the noir aspect of the chapter: one might almost expect Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe entering through a door, gun drawn.
In some ways the least effective chapter is that drawn by Peter Snejberg, in which Dian walks home through the park, after visiting the cinema, unaware that the mugger is following and being thwarted by a series of coincidences.
Snejberg, years before his successful stint on Starman, produces a three page sequence in that style. It’s light and attractive, but his portrayal of Dian is almost unrecognisable. She’s presented as being much slimmer than Davis draws here, and dressed in blouse and skirt that is calf-length, as opposed to the smothering, figure de-emphasising dresses more appropriate to the time. Indeed, the final panel hikes her skirt up to almost knee-length, making her look more like someone from the late Fifties, a teenager from the advent of the Rock’n’Roll era than the Dian we recognise.
Overall, the Annual is a highly enjoyable effort, one that was not repeated, more’s the pity, though a couple of short Mystery Theatre tales of similar length to these chapters appeared in a couple of Vertigo anthologies to remind us of the effectiveness of a short story.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play entitled Dr Death.
Break a leg.