A Sandman Mystery Theatre Disappointment


Amazon have just informed me that Volume 3 of the Deluxe Sandman Mystery Theatre collections has been cancelled.

This is what you call a pisser.

I assume sales didn’t justify it, so I shall blame you lot out there. Hustle and buy Volumes 1 and 2, persuade DC that continuing is commercially viable, and incidentally treat yourself to some bloody brilliant stuff, and I shall smile upon each and every one of you, fondly.

In person, if you’ll pay travelling expenses.

That’s Friday night buggered then.

Theatre Nights: A Repeat Performance


The second Deluxe Reprint Volume of DC/Vertigo’s Sandman Mystery Theatre arrived today, and I’m even more delighted to see that Volume 3 is already scheduled for July this year. It gives me hope that the entire series will be collected, including those later stories that missed out when the first Graphic Novel series was abandoned.

Volume 2 is thicker than the first, collecting as it does the four-part stories, ‘The Vamp’, ‘The Scorpion’ and ‘Dr Death’, and the never-before-reprinted Sandman Mystery Theatre Annual, an extra forty pages. This will be balanced out to some degree by Volume 2, which collates only two stories from the series, ‘Night of the Butcher’ and ‘The Hourman’ and completes itself with the one-off Sandman Midnight Theatre.

If a six-monthly schedule can be maintained, given that Volume 3 would take us to issue 34 of the seventy published, then we’re looking at six volumes for the complete run, finishing in early 2019. These Deluxe editions are brilliant: if I were independently wealthy, I’d be looking to translate my collections of Lucifer, Fables and Preacher into that format.

Of course, what would be completely and utterly ideal would be a new performance, a new play, the re-uniting of Matt Wagner, Steven T Seagle, Guy Davis, Wesley Dodds, Dian Belmont and all the other denizens of the Mystery Theatre, advancing out of the dust and neglect to fill our eyes beneath the prosenium arch for four more Acts.

But it won’t be. It’s already eighteen years since the final, abbreviated play. Guy Davis no longer draws comics. The Mystery Theatre years sometimes seem as distant and distancing as the Thirties do when we re-read those tales. But to be able to re-read those tales, and to introduce them to new eyes without committing them to penury-by-eBay, is delightful.

Welcome back, old friends.

Theatre Nights: A Repertory Revival


I’m delighted to confirm the arrival of Sandman Mystery Theatre Book One, a single softback Graphic Novel collecting issues 1 -12 of the original series, the plays ‘The Tarantula’, ‘The Face’ and ‘The Brute’ into a single volume.

Better yet, it’s already possible to pre-order Book Two, comprising issues 13 – 24 (‘The Vamp’, ‘The Scorpion’ and Doctor Death’ PLUS the never before repeated Mystery Theatre Annual 1), due in January 2017.

Given that other Vertigo series such as Preacher and Lucifer have already been reissused in this kind of heavy-duty, big-chunk GN, until the entire series is available, I feel on safe ground in saying that this time DC are committed to putting the entire run into print.

That’s going to mean six Books all told, and if the Annual’s going to be collected in with Book Two – whose pre-order price is less than both the pre-order and actual prices of Book One – I’m expecting that Sandman Midnight Theatre and the two Winter’s Edge shorts will be made permanently available.

This is simply great news. I spent a lot of time and words a year or so back explaining just why this series was so utterly brilliant, and now you’re going to be able to get hold of it and see that I was right!

Theatre Nights: The Hero


Sandman Mystery Theatre 69-70. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
It’s been a strange time in Manhattan.
A month has passed since the end of The Goblin. Christmas has passed and we are coming up on New Year, the advent of the Forties.
Russia has invaded Finland and O’Grady’s buying a paper to read about it. Burke doesn’t think about it, but O’Grady upbraids him: people not thinking about things is why the world is as it is. Burke’s definitely mellowing, because he hasn’t got an acid retort.
In fact, he’s been seeing Doris regularly this past month and is starting to have certain ideas.
Larry Belmont has been recuperating in hospital, and is about to be sent home with a nurse. Dian’s been visiting him every day in the Hospital. She’s also been visiting Wesley’s house every day, but only to work in her office. She hasn’t been staying at night, an act of contrition over the guilt she feels for his heart attack.
Dian’s intent on resolving all the loose ends in her life before the new decade starts. She’s finished her novel, she tells the publisher Richard Manten introduced her to that it’s good and he’ll want to publish it. The only loose end she hasn’t been able to work out is Wesley. Wesley hasn’t been to see Larry yet. Wesley hasn’t found the words, nor the courage.
Strangest of all though is Wesley himself. The thought of being confronted by Larry has him paralysed, but more than that, though he continues to dream, Wesley has not put on the gasmask.
And now there’s another killer, a man dressed as a soldier of the Great War (with Sandman-esque gasmask). He is actually such a soldier, a man abandoned, believed dead, now returned and taking bloody vengeance on those who betrayed him. Burke and O’Grady pull the case.
But where normally Wesley would be on the trail, he’s got other things on his mind: a letter from Poland, delivered by hand through the auspices of Janos Prohaska (told you he wasn’t dead). It’s a plea for help from Gerald Dodds: Wesley’s brother.
In view of our knowledge of the imminent demise of this series, the left field appearance of a hitherto unmentioned and even unsuggested brother smacks of contrivance. Which it is. But it has to be allowed that it is wholly within Wesley Dodds’ character as we have known him throughout this season not to talk about his family.
Gerald fills in the background for us in his appeal for Wesley’s help: he is trapped in the Warsaw ghetto thanks to having been fingered as half-Jewish, and has no other recourse.
The brothers haven’t seen each since Paris, 1918, a visit organised with their father. Gerald – who is presumably older than Wesley – received a public violent slap across the face for paying more attention to Parisian women than his father’s commentary. Both brothers were upset about Edward Dodds flaunting his new mistress in front of them so soon after their mother’s death, but it was Gerald who took action by seducing her and making sure they were discovered.
Gerald was sent away, and disowned. No doubt Wesley’s sending away, to school in the Far East, followed shortly. The two have had no contact since. Gerald has lived his own life seemingly without any resentment at losing his ‘inheritance’. He has no claim on Wesley, save only that if the roles were reversed, he would come to his brother’s assistance.
Wesley’s resentful of the intrusion, inclined immediately to be dismissive of Gerald, but already family sympathy – combined with the restlessness he currently feels about his life in New York – prompts him towards what would be required to simply abandon his life to fly off.
The beginning of that process is contacting Hubert Klein in the Medical Examiner’s office. Klein’s concerned about the latest killer and assumes that’s what the Sandman is on to him about, but before they can progress, he is knocked out from behind.
This is what it takes to get Wesley into his gasmask, racing off to the precinct with Dian. Unfortunately, it’s icy, there’s a commotion near the precinct where the soldier is being pursued, and the car skids on the ice when Dian brakes suddenly, but it knocks down a pedestrian. It’s Burke.
And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the Soldier wielding a grenade, the Crimson Avenger trying to shoot him and the Hourman, trying to bring him in alive. Three superheroes, each in costume, in each other’s faces until Dian, in her ‘Sandy’ mask tips the balance in Sandman’s favour.
That’s the climax to the First Act: the next decade is clearly going to be very different.
The mis-matched trio do follow the soldier, without getting anywhere or ever reconciling: the Avenger even protests being hauled out of the blast zone of a grenade by Hourman’s speed! But their presence, the knowledge that there are others who can be left to protect the city, helps speed Wesley’s decision. The case goes unresolved, at least in the pages of the second and final Act, as Wesley begins to lay down the threads of his New York life.
Judge Schaffer reappears in time to offer a convenient plane to the Polish Resistance. Wesley promotes his secretary to Business Manager: she is, after all, his only employee.
Dian gets a call from her publisher: she is right, her novel is good and he does want to publish it: a contract is in the post.
Burke survives the accident, bruised but otherwise unhurt. It’s enough to affect his temper into kicking off before Doris, but despite her exposure to his darker side, she accepts his proposal and agrees to marry him.
The Sandman visits Burke in his office to announce his disappearance. He leaves files with Burke to assist him on previous cases. Burke is never going to reconcile himself to the age of heroes that is fast overtaking New York, but he accepts the truce, and the Sandman departs, unaware that behind his back, Burke calls him Dodds.
Wesley even manages to visit Larry, on his return home, to apologise and to assure (without once mentioning the M word) that Dian is and always will be the centre of his heart and that he will protect her for the rest of his life. It satisfies Larry, at least until the end of the Act, though we may presume a change of heart in view of what follows.
And lastly there is Dian. Wesley wants her with him, but she still cannot bridge that last gap without more. At the airfield, he takes her aside, gives her a ring that belonged to his mother, takes her as his wife in the heart (though not in any legal or religious sense). That is enough for Dian, enough for her to agree to join him in the plane, which takes off and flies away from New York.
And it’s done. The case is never solved. Whether the Hourman or the Crimson Avenger brings in the soldier, who he is, what lies behind his rampage, we will never know, for that story is completed in the issues 71 and 72 of Sandman Mystery Theatre that can be found only in Lucien’s Library in the Dreaming, in the section devoted to books their author imagined but never wrote. In the end, it doesn’t matter, it was never part of the story. Like so many plays, the murders were a backdrop to what mattered.
Some of it is a little unconvincing: it’s stretching credibility that Wesley Dodd’s business empire is run solely by himself and one secretary, no other employees and the times are not conducive to a female CEO. Equally, the sudden revelation that Burke knows who the Sandman is comes equally out of left field, and is based on no evidence in this or any previous Act. It’s neat but the deduction is pretty mystical.
But it’s a wrap-up. It’s about ending things in as stable a manner as possible, and sometimes strict plausibility has to be sacrificed when all you have is 24 pages. The Mystery Theatre would never open again. Burke and Doris, O’Grady on the edge of his promotion, Larry Belmont’s medical condition, Hubert Klein, Judge Schaffer, none of these would be seen again, their lives interrupted.
The lights fall, save for spotlights trained on the leading man and the leading lady, that follow them as they turn and disappear into the wings. The cast remain, frozen, in darkness, until the audience, silent and shuffling, have left the Theatre. Behind them, a commissionaire in besplendent uniform closes and bars the door. As the final members of the audience walk down the steps, the lights within go out. We do not know if the actors ever return to their dressing rooms, removing one final time the greasepaint, wigs and costumes that have sustained their repertoire for this season of plays.
The Mystery Theatre stands dark and deserted. Only ghosts perform there now.

Theatre Nights: The Goblin


Sandman Mystery Theatre 65-68. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The Goblin is a superb play, both sublime and tragic. It is sublime due to its deft interweaving of the crime that it tells with the overarching development of Wesley and Dian’s relationship. It puts Dian Belmont front and centre in a way she has never been before, showcasing both her vulnerabilities and the inner strengths that none suspected lay in her in The Tarantula. It starts hares that would have far-reaching consequences on the story as it lay to progress in coming months. It encompassed a whole-hearted declaration of love from Dian that, for once, came from a position of strength and not weakness.
It is tragic because this was the last full play the Mystery Theatre would perform. Falling sales had led to Sandman Mystery Theatre being cancelled with effect from issue 70. Two Acts, a truncated, deliberately unfinished play to deliberately disrupt the carefully developed sequence of almost six years work.
The Goblin is magnificent in itself, and glorious in terms of what it promised to foreshadow. But we would never discover those promises.
The story began in banal circumstances. A baby cries in the night, disturbing the sleep of its parents (in Hays Code approved single beds: an intriguing detail). She, unconcerned, wants to go back to sleep, he, worried, goes to check on their little man.
They are being robbed, of cash and baby, by the ‘Goblin’: a strange, misshapen, grunting, long-armed, long-legged, horribly ugly little man. The Goblin beats his head in with a bottle, then uses it to brain the wife when she comes running.
We have a murder, and we will have Burke and O’Grady on the case, but first we have a dream: Wesley has dropped off briefly, at the Belmont house for a dinner insisted upon by a DA, who’s running late. Larry wants to speak to Wesley about Dian, about how much she sees of him, how often she stays at his house: in short, Larry wants to know about Wesley’s intentions! And Wesley, who has allowed himself to think that this issue is solely between himself and Dian, and is thus settled, has no answer. Larry warns him he’s going to have to come up with one, and soon.
Wesley seeks his usual refuge from such issues in the Sandman. To avoid thinking about it, he plans to spend the night monitoring the Police radio bands.This leads to him catching Burke and O’Grady’s assignment and rushing out to reconnoitre. He’s not alone: the Goblin is also on the rooftops. When he runs, the Sandman pursues, but where the agile little monster ca clear the gap between roof and roof, the Sandman cannot. He falls.
He’s lucky enough to fall into the back of a garbage truck, which breaks his fall, but the Sandman is plainly not right. Some sort of head injury, a concussion at least. He’s not in his right mind for the rest of the play, his cryptic utterances muddled and strange, his actions paranoid and dangerous. He accuses and attacks innocent passers-by, folding them into his pursuit of the missing child. He attacks Humphries at one point, even tries to do the same to Dian. And though he does bring down the villain at the end, it is unknowingly, by coincidence.
In short, he becomes a menace equal to those he pursues. The lot of saving and solving falls solely upon Dian.
I’ve jumped ahead slightly in relating that. It’s easy, on a superficial reading, to attribute the Sandman’s confusion, his madness, upon the injuries he sustains in his fall, but there are deeper issues here.
Larry’s question, his incipient disapproval – reinforced by a coversation with Humphries about a ‘hypothetical’ instance where Etta might be sleeping with a man outside of matrimony in which Humphries is insistent that no father could approve – is what drives Wesley downstairs to his laboratory. But he cannot concentrate until he dons the Sandman’s gas mask and fedora – a pathetic sight as rendered by Davis.
Before that comes two panels that chill me, as Wesley defends himself to himself:
“No matter what we’ve been through of late – I can’t be held responsible for Dian’s happiness or reputation if they come at the cost of my own beliefs.”
And:
“In the end, I know I’ll do what’s logical…” (emphasis in original).
Those words horrify me, frighten me. I can’t recognise love in them, nor humanity. Even reading them now, fifteen years after the event, I crave to know what consequences would have followed from those thoughts. But they are nothing but a ghost trail.
But despite obliterating himself in the Sandman, Wesley Dodds sleeps. And its in his dreams that he hears the vital Police message, compelling him into rushing out, in daylight, without thought of concealment, almost knocking Dian down. What follows for the Sandman is not solely the result of concussion, no indeed.
Dian’s on the spot because she’s moving in. That is, she’s accepted Wesley’s old offer of establishing a writing office at his home, and she’s here to set up. The decision, taken the preeceding night, after Wesley’s ‘talk’ with Larry, is another factor in his concerns.
Etta, Humphries’ daughter, is firmly established in the household, without however relinquishing any of her poliotical beliefs (later in the play, Davis depicts her as having taken to wearing trousers!). Before Dian even starts, Etta’s persuaded her to join her in volunteering, at All God’s Children Orphanage, a private insitution set up by socialite Carmen Bohage (not out of charity but for social kudos).
By accident, this brings Dian into the heart of the Sandman’s case. We already know there is something rotten there, as we’ve seen Mrs Bohage delivering unwanted children to the far less salubrious surroundings of Standard House, a public orphanage as grim as they come, owned/run by the hardened Mr Ricketts.
Etta is impossible, utterly unmaternal, martinet-like, but Dian is a natural with the children, almost too good for Mrs Bohage. The presence of the children, her feelings for them, spurs Dian on to the final step: she insists her father be home early where she will finally unburden herself over the secret of her abortion.
But things get in the way. Dian has already arranged a literary dinner with Richard Manten, the essayist, having reminded him that she is firmly spoken for. In the course of the play, Manten will a) extravagantly praise Dian’s budding novel, b) arrange for an (initially) disappointing interview with his publisher and c) kiss her, though again we will never get to find out where Seagle planned to take this diversion.
However, between her appointment with Manten, and her late arrival home after Mrs Bohage sends her to Standard House – where her eyes are horrifyingly opened – Dian leaves herself no time to talk to her father, a missed opportunity with terrible consequences.
The following day, Dian takes the decision to transfer her services to Standard House. The children there are in greater need of love, but whilst Ricketts accepts Dian, he is insistent that she stay within strict bounds: in his strange, cruel way, Ricketts does care for his inmates, even the malformed and misshapen kept in virtual prison. He refuses to allow them kindness and hope that will last only as long as someone is bothered to do so. It’s a bleak philosophy.
But in Burke and O’Grady’s world, evidence leads them towards Standard House. Ricketts has a (distant) criminal past and the bundles of cash in his desk drawer call attention to him. At  All God’s Children, Etta recognises the birthmark of a recently abandoned baby as being the stolen child, and goes to tell Dian
But Dian has other things on her mind. Only a night after not telling her father when she meant to, the truth bursts out in terrifying manner. An overpaid bill from Sunny Hills, initially sent to Wesley Dodds and re-directed here has been opened by Larry. Larry knows about Sunny Hills, and knows the only reason people go there. Larry wants to be told that what he knows isn’t true, hasn’t happened. And Dian can’t do that.
He rants and raves. Dian cries. He accuses her of whorish behaviour and she defiantly takes the name, if it’s meant to apply to her being a woman and loving a man. He forbids her from ever seeing Wesley again. She refuses his orders. He collapses with a heart attack.
Thankfully, Larry survives. Even more so, his first thought on wakening is to assure his guilt-stricken daughter that it really is not her fault.
This bombshell unexpeectedly brings about the solution. The sick Sandman is drawn to the hospital, only to be sent away by Dian in hatred and fury. She goes to the Precinct to tell whoever needs to know, where she meets Burke. He’s there after the DA’s assistance, and even his gnarled heart – increasingly softened as it is by the eager Doris – is nudged by it.
But he’s still Homicide, and if Dian’s been at Standard House he wants her handwriting to eliminate her from the billhead clue.
Suddenly, everybody converges on Standard House. Dian and Etta, to aid the unspervised children.The Sandman, pursuing the Goblin, driven by a dream of Dream, who tells him he can no longer hide but must wake. Carmen Bohage to dump another child, carrying a note from the cleaner, Clara, the handwriting of which Dian recognises. Burke and O’Grady, pursuing Mrs Bohage after Etta’s tip-off.
And Danny, the Goblin-child, a mute, polio-infected child being used by his mother, Clara, to steal money so that they can afford at last to have a home where she can take care of him. The murders were never meant, the fruit of panic.
The Sandman gasses Clara and Danny. Dian manages to get him to go home, to safety. Burke now seriously wants to know why Miss Belmont is always getting mixed up in his cases.
One last resolution remains. The Sandman is back home, still paranoid and fearful. With words of love, with a fearless determination to resolve what is wrong, Dian persuades Wesley out of his mask, into his real life. No longer oppressed by circumstances, openly and freely Dian declares her love and commitment to her man. And Wesley, going into this with cruel rationality, emerges broken, emotionally cracked, sobbing desperately for the child he lost.
Dian reassures him, cradling him like that infant. Remember that both of this pair lost their mothers when young, that Wesley’s father sent him to the other side of the world to be educated, alone and distant. She promises him, if and when the time comes, they will have their child (that the time never comes, not in that way, is a sorrow only the reader knows).
It’s a powerful story, even despite the careless slip that has Danny the Goblin named Jimmy in the Third Act. It trailed many developments (as well as those I’ve indicated in the narrative, there is Dian’s mention of the hitherto un-referenced murder of her cousin Buck, which Seagle would not have brought up without an intention).
All of it gone, all of it lost. The Goblin was written and drawn unknowing of the closure of the Theatre. Seagle’s next task was to be to turn off the house lights in only two Acts.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance. Before we come to that last play of our season, they will act out two sketches featuring our leading man.
Break a leg.

Theatre Nights: The City


Sandman Mystery Theatre 61-64. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The departure of Matt Wagner was meant to open up a new era for the Mystery Theatre. Steven T Seagle was full of ideas, not least that the hitherto rigid four-Act format of the series might be varied, suggesting three-Act and five-Act plays would now start to appear. And he delivered a taster of what might be in his first solo effort, The City, by adopting a Rashomon approach that interlaced a series of contemporaneous stories, each seen through the eyes of a different cast member, whose interactions repeat and reflect from differing viewpoints across the four Acts.
The crime of this story is a simple one, solved by the sandman in a single Act. A protection racket enforcer bullies two Italian barbers, father and son, one of whom cuts his throat. As he is the third they have disposed of, they desperately need to dispose of the bodies. They do this by dragging them into an abandoned warehouse and setting light to it, but the fire is put out before the bodies are too badly burned.
Because a witness has seen a man dragging the bodies, the two Prima’s are put into a line-up at the Police Station. The witness picks both out but cannot distinguish between them, until the son confesses, trying to exonerate his father. But the Sandman intervenes that night, forcing the father to confess: the throats were cut by a left-handed person and his son is right handed. Wesley returns home to find Dian in his laboratory: the two go to bed and make love for the first time since the abortion.
That’s Wesley’s day (and narrative). It begins with Dian watching him in bed as he sleeps. She rushes off after breakfast, which Wesley has made himself since Humphries has, reluctantly, asked for personal time off. Burke is at the line-up, though he’s not handling the Prima’s case: his own line-up is next.
But in the second Act we see the day from Dian’s perspective (and narrative). It begins with her thoughts as Wesley sleeps, but she then takes a phone call from a contact who she hopes can advance her literary ambitions. He has seen the latest chapters arrive from the mysterious recluse, Gerald Leavy. But this tme there is a clue as to the elegant Leavy’s wherabouts, the return address of what proves to be a very seedy Staten Island private hotel. Dian heads out to the Island to try to find him.
The hotel is indeed seedy, and the Leavy who lives there is a drunken, illiterate brute obsessed with his money. A less likely writer could hardly be found, and cetainly not someone capable of the work of a true stylist. With the aid of another writer at the hotel, Richard Manten, a socialist essayist, equally sceptical that ‘Leavy’ could possibly be Leavy, Miss Belmont investigates, even to the extent of borrowing Wesley’s old Sandman gas-mask and a spare gas-gun.
The mystery is not difficult to divine once Dian brings the gas gun rather wildly into play. The real Leavy lives in a nearby sanatorium, no longer able to walk due to his opium addiction. The drunken brue of the hotel is merely a front to maintain his privacy. Behind the gas-mask, Dian gets to talk literature for hours. She has only just returned Wesley’s things when he returns from his mission.
The Third Act is devoted to Humphries’ day. Despite the freedom and respect Wesley Dodds presses on him, Leslie Humphries is the perfect gentleman’s gentleman, always putting his master’s needs first. But on this occasion he is forced, reluctantly, to ask for a day to deal with personal matters, because these relate to his daughter, Ella.
We have already seen a be-wigged young woman performing for stag films, but being dragged out by a Polish lover who wants her covered. Now Humphries is visited by one of his colleagues who, having cleared up his master’s latest stag film, has taken a clip of the film from which Humphries is horrified to recognise Ella. She is supposed to be in Canada, visiting relatives.
Weak though he is, and in many ways unworldly, Humphries begins a search in the New York porn industry for Ella, determined upon rescuing her from what vile forces have forced her into this life. In the end, he locates her, and brings her back to the mansion, but the true story is very different. Ella is acting willingly, to raise money for the communist cause, of which she is a passionate convert: the Polish man was, indeed, her lover.
Nevertheless, she consents to go back to the Dodds mansion with her worried father, unrepentant of her beliefs yet willing to accept his parental direction to the extent of seeking a more ‘respectable’ course in life. Humphries is, for the moment, content. Ella, on the other hand, is determined to kick against the traces: what she has done is deemed to be whorish, whereas Miss Belmont sleeps openly with Master Dodds. An interesting point.
These three stories surround each other, their common moments building into a more comprehensive whole. The Fourth Act, which is dedicated to Lieutenant Burke, is something of an interloper. Burke’s participation in the stories of the Sandman, Dian and Humphries has been largely peripheral: he has taken a call from Humphries when the latter was trying to report the making of films and promised to pass it on to Vice (and we see in Burke’s Act that he does make a point of pressing the case). But his concern is with an unrelated case, the death of a young man, dropped from the Staten Island funfair big-dipper for failing to pay debts.
It’s our first chance to look under Burke’s skin, to understand something of his sourness, with life and with himself. Burke only has the Law: he sees himself unfit for decent people.
But in between Acts, Weaver has re-introduced him to Doris, a nice looking woman in her late thirties who has always liked Tony Burke. The Lieutenant is beginning to see that there may be a choice for him where before there has not only been no choices, but he has proudly espoused his life as being entirely fit and right for him.
Even the case of the murdered boy is an expression of his nascent need to want to be seen as worthy in Dorus’s eyes. The lad may have been killed outside Manhatten, but he’s a cousin of Doris’s, and that makes him family. With O’Grady in tow, Burke heads off precinct, relying on the custom that allows him to dip into another station’s work.
Burke’s promised a result to Doris, and in pursuit of this, knowing that her family relationship makes her a target to the two killers, he asks her and her sister to pose as targets at Coney Island. Though scared, Doris trusts in Tony to protect them. And Tony Burke is as good as his word: though Weaver takes a flesh wound, Burke corners the killers and, happily, returns fire, killing both without a moment of remorse.
It makes him more of a hero with Doris. Yet Burke takes only satisfaction at having ended the threat of two vicious men, any displays none of the vicious pleasure we would usually expect from his coarseness. He’s becoming concious of the desire to rise above what he’s been. He asks to start seeing Doris, and she happily obliges. A happy ending.
But not for Seagle. The City was the only experiment he would be able to write, and though he got his wish to write a non-four-Act story, it came in circumstances that no-one would have wished. Six months after the end of The City, Sandman Mystery Theatre would ring down its curtain for the last time.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Goblin.
Break a leg.

Theatre Nights: The Crone


Sandman Mystery Theatre 53-56. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Matt Wagner (story idea) and Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Two things before we commence: the change in the dramatic credits signals a further distancing of originator Matt Wagner from the series that he originated. Henceforth, and for a short time, Wagner’s role will be to suggest themes – such as the world of nightly radio drama, and the fierce criticism it inspired – and to provide basic, rough plots. Steven Seagle, who has dialogued each play since The Vamp, ten plays back, now takes over plotting each story.
In the foyer of the letter column in the Final Act, Wagner’s further withdrawal is ascribed to his other commitments, especially the second part of his creator-owned Mage trilogy (as an aside, nearly twenty years on, there is still no sign of Wagner producing Mage 3, which leaves me fearing that the story will never be completed).
The other point is that reading The Crone in its individual issues is a very different experience to reading the graphic novels. What I’ve reviewed so far have been complete performances, page after page, without interruption or distraction, and I’ll always prefer that, but to have to fall back on the original comic, even without the monthly wait between cliffhanger and resolution, gives the story an entirely different feel.
It is more broken down, a thing of interruptions and distractions. Each Act exists as an artefact in itself, a new cover, a new entrance to be made at each stage. Adverts interrupt the flow, breaking down each Act into smaller chunks: four pages, then ads, four pages, then ads, six pages,ads, three pages.
And cliffhangers become real cliffhangers, the story poised in the arc of a leap, even if it takes literally seconds to close and put down an issue, pick up and open another. Even in those few seconds, the story is suspended, and an echo of those post-issue thoughts, the inevitable urge to outguess the creators, is triggered.
The play itself is set against the background of a nightly Radio soap opera, appropriately titled ‘The Coming of Night’ and, yes indeed, sponsored by a Soap Flakes company. The cast are, as may be expected, vastly different from their characters, and there are rivalries, hatreds and all sorts of other undercurrents at work.
And that’s before the programme finds itself subjected to a wave of murders, firstly of several successive leading men, but growing to include executives and the Producer. These murders are all committed by a dumpy, elderly woman using a sharpened hairpin, drawn from the bun and the back of her head, plunged through the victim’s neck to sever the carotid artery and then wiped fastidiously clean in the pages of a classic book which is then left by the victim.
As usual, Burke and the Sandman are rivals in seeking a solution to the latest series of Manhattan murders. But there’s an extraordinary scene in the Third Act where Burke arrives in his office to find the Sandman searching it. Astonishingly, Burke doesn’t make trouble, and it’s not just that he doesn’t want another gassing. He makes his dislike of the Sandman and his methods very plain, but for the first time he seems prepared to accept the Vigilante as an ally, as Larry Belmont has already done.
So Burke shares information, critical information as it turns out, that will lead the Sandman to the villain. And the Sandman promptly gasses him back to loathing: not the smartest of moves and one that the creators, when challenged, suggested was evidence of just how Wesley Dodds was disturbed by events in this play of greater import.
However, Burke’s willingness, however temporary, to deal with his personal demon is the first sign that our resident monster may be capable of change, may have been deeply affected by Gina’s murder in The Blackhawk. His encounter with the Sandman is immediately preceded by an encounter with an old friend/colleague, Detective Weaver, transferred back to Manhattan after a spell in the suburbs.
Weaver represents an older time, when Burke had had a personal life – a social life, even – and he wants to pick it up. After all, there’s Doris, his wife’s sister, who’s free again…
Burke runs away from both these suggestions, straight to his meeting with Sandman. But when Weaver repeats his offer in the Final Act, the case still unsolved, some of the fire seems to leave Burke. Let the case solve itself: he leaves with his colleague.
It’s not long after that the Sandman, with the aid of Wesley Dodds, solves the case. Throughout The Crone, he is his usually single-minded self, caught up in his obsession, expecting Dian to be his eager sidekick, with the same preoccupation, and to an unforgivable extent, turning his head away from what really fills her mind.
It’s a painful progression. An elderly academic, Dr Estelle Beauvedere, is set up as the potential killer. She’s the same size and age and her fervent, indeed ironclad belief that culture exists only in books and is incapable of being transmitted in any other form makes her into an inflexible opponent of other media, especially radio.
Indeed, the good Doctor inveighs against Radio’s jack-booted invasion of the home and its destructive effect on true culture in terms that, very shortly thereafter, would be universally applied to Hitler’s armies (the Declaration of War by Great Britain is announced in the background of the first scene of the play).
Wesley isn’t impressed in the slightest by Dr Beauvedere, but at least in the beginning Dian is, very much so. As is Dian’s old college friend, Nancy Fullbright, a bookshop owner and a junior Beauvedere in her opinions. Wesley’s dissection of the Doctor’s opinion, and his slightly patronising attitude to Nancy, also demonstrate how far he is from what is the central issue of this story.
Again, the crime, though entertaining of itself, is merely a backcloth for what is truly important. The good Doctor – too elderly, too frail – is not the killer, but once Wesley takes over sponsoring ‘The Coming of Night’ and threatens to sack the entire cast unless someone ‘fesses up, it draws out the true culprit, young Frank Bowman. Frank’s the perpetually hopeful but overlooked understudy to the leading man. Frank Bowman is also a stage name. For Francis Beauvedere.
I can’t resist a comparison between Bowman and his opposite number, Linda Rivers, understudy to the leading lady. The eager, unassuming Frank spends the entire play trying to get ahead but philosophically accepting his being passed over time after time. Linda, on the other hand, is a real, slimy shitbag, a poisonous toad willing to lie, slander and malign anyone in her way to get ahead. Nasty piece of work that she is, it’s her compliant counterpart who’s really killing people to get ahead.
I’ve spent more time on the plot than I’d intended, because the true heart of this play is the next stage of the ever-evolving relationship between Dian Belmont and Wesley Dodds. And that little bombshell dropped at the end of Return of the Scarlet Ghost.
Because, though Dian has clearly recovered physically from her injuries, her thoughts now revolve around the life growing inside her. Aside from the medical staff, only Wesley knows of her condition. Her father remains unaware, and Dian intends that to be the case until she decides otherwise.
But what of the future? Dian is by no means thrilled by her pregnancy. She had expected to be so, when the time came, looked forward to it, but that was going to be a planned pregnancy,at a time of her choosing, and that’s not what she’s got.
Everything around her fills her with fear. She doesn’t feel ready. She’s only now beginning to wake up to herself, and her abilities, a process doomed to end if she takes on responsibility for another life, utterly dependent upon her. War is coming, War is here in Europe, her thoughts turn to Annabel and Roddy in England, who have just had a baby son. (There is a continuity issue here: Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten was not even pregnant in Sandman Midnight Theatre, a few months ago, and besides, Roddy was out east with his plantations). But most of all there is Wesley.
It’s not just his dedication to, or rather obsession with his second self, and the risks and danger attendant on that profession. It’s not his love, which is constant, vital and open. It’s certainly not fear that he won’t accept his responsibilities, because he’s as reassuring on that score as anyone could wish.
But he can’t be as reassuring as Dian wants, needs. For Miss Belmont knows, from conversations offstage with Mr. Dodds, that his youth in the Orient, his long years of exposure to Eastern thoughts and philosophies, have given him a set of iron convictions by which he lives.
Because Wesley Dodds has rejected marriage, rejected it as a concept, as a necessity for himself. Though he’s prepared, in every way, to make Dian his wife in every other possible respect, that final step is one that he cannot and will not take: he will not offer her the name and the certificate of marriage.
And Dian is equally the product of her own life, thoughts and convictions. To her, in all the ways that matter, she must have marriage. It’s an impossible impasse.
Stepping outside the story for a moment, I have sympathy with both positions. When the time came, I wanted to be married, but it made no difference: I was as committed without the ring as with. And I didn’t live in an age where marriage was expected. A good friend of mine was with his partner for over twenty years without marrying (though they’ve since gone and done it!). I see both viewpoints, even as I am closer to Dian’s views. And, frankly,Wesley’s behaviour pushes me into her camp.
Because, whilst Wesley does take the pregnancy seriously, and does want to do all the right things, he can only do that when he stops to listen to Dian. And that is only at intervals from what is clearly more important: the Crone.
Too many times, when Dian needs to be at the forefront of his thoughts, Wesley is not only absorbed in the murders, but assumes that this is his lover’s primary concern as well.
Though it is never specifically stated, Seagle and Davis impart the sense that it is this, more than anything, that persuades Dian to seek a termination. And, to be honest, I’m not at all happy with Wesley’s response: he doesn’t want it to take place, but then it’s Dian’s body and Dian’s decision, and it has to be all her choice. Pilate-like, he washes his hands of all responsibility. He’s got more important things to do.
(Needless to say, Dian comes around, rededicates herself to him and his cause, wholeheartedly, which I can’t help but think is very loaded-dice).
No, as at other times in this season, Wesley Dodds does not come out of this with his image enhanced.
The Final Act (and note how much more often I’ve referred to individual Acts in this review than when I have been dealing with a collected play) ends with Dian on her way to her termination, a comfortable and above all discreet journey to a respectable and confidential place where such things are done. It’s a contrast, violently so, to the parallel experience of ‘The Coming of Night’ actress Patricia Honeywell, pregnant by her married Producer and delivered by dodgy, uncaring associates to a back street abortionist from where she emerges in a very different state to how we know Dian Belmont will fare. All courtesy of Wesley’s very discreet doctor, Charles McNider. You know, his future Justice Society comrade, Dr Mid-Nite.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Cannon.
Break a leg.

Theatre Nights: Night of the Butcher


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.

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.

Theatre Nights: The Tarantula


The Tarantula: Sandman Mystery Theatre  1-4. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (writer), Guy Davis (artist).

The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The Tarantula is an astonishing piece of work. In the space of a single, four-act story, Matt Wagner, as writer and conceiver of this entertainment has to re-introduce and re-define the Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont, identify and illustrate Dodds’ connection to Neil Gaiman’s Dream, establish a new and original supporting cast, portray the world of late Thirties New York in which this series is to take place and ground the story in a world that may be pulpish and noirish yet which is still set on both feet in a reality that allows of characters in costumes yet remains inimical to super-heroes. Oh, and he has to fit in a kidnapping and murder mystery that unfolds a piece at a time, like the best of crime fiction.
And, with the absolutely brilliant assistance of artist Guy Davis, who builds the image of such a world in a style that is 180 degrees away from that which you might think is appropriate for a masked vigilante and makes it instantly involving and atmospheric, Wagner does a flawless job.
The Golden Age Sandman was a natural for this approach. Before transforming into an orthodox puncheminnaface muscleman, in yellow and purple skin-tights, Wesley Dodds’ world was closer to the pulps, and legendary figures like the Shadow. He was a rich man who went out in an ordinary business suit, to which he added a cape and a full-face gas mask, he displayed no powers beyond agility and energy, and he used a gas gun, and a formula of his own to put crooks to sleep.
And he had a girlfriend who, like Margo Lane knew his identity, DA’s daughter, Dian Belmont. Unsurprisingly, when the Sandman was conventionalised, Dian was dropped in favour of a Robin-esque kid sidekick. But the foundations were there for a much more serious realisation.
Cannily, Wagner sets the action in early 1938, two years before the Sandman’s ‘official’ debut. The tone is set (almost immediately): the story builds in little scenes, teased out. The mystery involves the kidnapping of Catherine van der Meer, rich girl night-clubbing, having an affair with some gangland figure. The kidnapper announces himself as the Tarantula (Sandman’s first case involved a villain of the same name but, trust me, there’s no resemblance). That she is a friend of Dian Belmont, and is taken after a night out in Harlem with her, draws us directly into her story.
Wagner also teases us throughout with the appearance of the Sandman himself. At first, we see only a shadow, in a room that the inattentive Dian enters and exits without knowing he’s there. He is then seen by Larry Belmont, the DA, who finds this gas-masked figure rifling his safe. Next, a shadow looking in a window onto a conference of mobsters.
But the Sandman is not finally seen, unobscured, until he is found by Dian at the Police Station, in the Ladies, listening in on a conversation.
And what we see is the Golden Age Sandman’s costume wound back into reality: his mask a massive First World War trench mask, his cape dismissed, a greatcoat over a tightly buttoned brown suit, over a green and black tie: a superhero in a tie. But in Davis’ hands, he is utterly plausible.
Dian Belmont is rather more in evidence in the first issue: indeed, the trajectory of the story follows her movements, with scenes that don’t feature her interpolated. Guy Davis, whose work on the story, though intended as a one-off, was instantly definitive, portrays her unconventionally, but vividly. She’s an unmarried woman in her mid-twenties, a college graduate without a job. She’s wasting her life, sleeping by day, partying by night in Harlem clubs. The story tells us that, but Davis shows it: Dian is not an elegant, slinky, sophisticated sexpot, but instead a little dumpy, a little round-faced, a bit puffy about the eyes, dressed in the swaddling, shapeless, fashionable clothes of 1938.
She’s the kind of woman who, rushing to go out with her friends, against the wishes of her protective, aware-of-crime father, can dash into a room and be oblivious of a gas-masked vigilante.
Dian awaits purpose, fulfilment, focus, an intelligent woman in a world where all the options are reserved to men. But though she fails to see a masked man in a room with lights blazing, at issues end she identifies the Sandman in a room with no lights. It is a turning point: though the shock causes her to faint, the moment (and her own, disgusted reaction to the faint) brings her into focus. The first thing she does is steel herself to identify a mutilated body that might be that of Catherine: on the surface, Dian claims to want to spare the van der Meers the pain of the experience, but we already see that she is reaching out towards doing something, towards capturing some form of meaning for herself, even before she knows what she is doing.
And then there’s Wesley Dodds himself. He doesn’t appear until page 11, but he’s present from the outset. The very first page opens inside Dodds’ dream: three tiers of primarily black and white imagery: a woman dressed in lace whose image blurs into that of Morpheus in his helmet of office, a First World War soldier overcome by gas, a tangled heap of naked women, caught in a spider’s web: the final panel, in colour, focusses on a wide, startled eye.
And his voice underpins the whole story, narrating events, discussing his philosophy, his background, his life with a remote and distant father, physically and mentally scarred by the Great War, a mother dead, a young life spent in the Orient until Edward Dodds’ death the year before and Wesley’s return, to take up the various businesses that found the Dodds fortune.
Wesley’s comments open him up for us: not all at once, nor simply. But as he explains himself into being, to himself, he also creates this new idea of Dodds, justifying his soon-to-be-explicitly revealed role as the Sandman.
And Davis plays his role in defining the Dodds of this metier: a little short, thoughtful, serious, a wearer of round-lensed glasses (even under his gas mask), a little-but-not-quite-plump: this is no Greek God hero, no athlete, no small-s superman.
The dream links Dodds, in both his aspects, back to Dream, and Sandman. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the Sandman arrived whole and entire, without an origin, at least until Roy Thomas decided to create one in 1987. It was a typically Thomas venture, overloaded with historical and comic book continuity, and it was dismissed by Gaiman in 1989, in a couple of panels of Sandman 1, and the words, “Wesley Dodds’ nightmares have stopped since he started going out at night.”
This would remain the one element of fantasy attached to Mystery Theatre, that Wesley Dodds is driven by dreams, tormenting, elliptical, nightmares that he can only dismiss by tracking down and setting to right what aspect of evil they symbolise.
The Theatre needs more than its three starring players, it needs a repertory cast. There’s Dian’s harassed, worried father, DA Lawrence (Larry) Belmont, and there’s Burke, the hard-boiled Police Detective, who finds his every step on this case preceded by the crazy vigilante he quickly hates. These two will become the principal supporting characters in the series and they’re appropriately prominent in The Tarantula.
Wagner also introduces retired Judge Thomas Schaffer, an old friend of Edward Dodds who is re-introducing Wesley to New York Society after his long years in the Orient, and Burke’s superior, Ross O’Donald, who’s clear;y intended to be a regular, but who is eclipsed by Burke very quickly and who will shrink into the background.
He’s present though in one scene that casually establishes Burke as our anti-hero (as if the scene where he beats a handcuffed suspect with a rubber hose hasn’t done enough). There’s a blank speech bubble in the graphic novel, a bubble that contained words in issue 3: in my copy, because I began with the single issues, the words are written back in.
O’Donald and Burke are sat in a bar. Burke is recovering from being gassed by the Sandman for the second time. O’Donald asks whether Burke has any family. Laconically, Burke replies, “Had a sister.” The words scrubbed from the next bubble are the equally plain, “But she married a nigger.”
It’s a vile comment, but it’s an honest one, for the character and the times, and it shows us Burke unvarnished: the inner bitterness and hatred. To blank it in the novel is stupid, a jarring moment that takes us out of the story, emphasising its mechanics. Why? The words are monstrous, but why pretend they were not spoken? Especially when the introduction, by Dave Marsh, singles out this very moment and virtually quotes them word for word?
It’s a small breach, thankfully the only breach, in Mystery Theatre‘s compulsive honesty and unflinching refusal to compromise.
In amongst all these little moments, this examination of character, these definitions of the time, we mustn’t forget there is a story to tell, a Mystery.
That story, once Wagner has laid in place sufficient pieces, working inwards from the edge to surround the figures at its centre, is almost simple. Catherine van der Meer is having an affair with former bootlegger and Mob associate Albert Goldman, which gets her kidnapped by the Tarantula.
Goldman, we eventually learn, has been molesting his daughter Celia since she was young, a situation that, it is implied, has much to do with the virtual estrangement of his wife, the frigid, alcoholic Miriam, and his son Roger, a weak, violent drunkard. Celia now has Albert under her control, and he is slowly transferring all his assets into her name.
The Tarantula proves to be Roger, driven by Miriam, though an eager sadist himself: fearful of being completely cut out of Albert’s wealth, mother and son kidnap Albert’s lover, convinced he has told her, boasting post-coitus. They also kidnap other young women, who are tortured to death to pressurise Catherine into confessing what she genuinely does not know.
The story comes to a head when the Tarantula kidnaps Celia, after Roger sees her screwing her father: by now, the separate investigations of the Sandman and Dian have come together, leading the Sandman into a confrontation in which, paradoxically, he is saved by Celia, causing her brother to be electrocuted.
We are satisfied by the plot, a necessary spine upon which to hang so many elements which define this world within the Mystery Theatre, and the characters whose relationships will change and re-change within, between and across such irruptions from the sordid life beneath the seemingly effortless Society.
There are so many little elements to this tale that I would love to gush about: I’ve already mentioned the pairing and opposing of Dian’s first two ‘encounters’ with the Sandman, and it’s equally significant to note that, just before she begins the process of transforming herself, Dian is physically spun round by the man in the gas mask.
There’s the way that Dian’s investigation parallels the Sandman’s: riffling through her father’s safe, searching the Land Records office out of hours. There’s the parallel between Larry Belmont and Albert Goldman, both fathers with adult daughters they want to, but cannot control.
And there’s Dian’s interest in Wesley Dodds, which begins as soon as he is introduced: not in any overt way, any necessarily sexual way, but rather intrigued by how different he is: when New York Society rises to applaud ‘Joltin” Joe DiMaggio, Wesley composes a four line poem mocking them, and confesses his distaste for sport.
Wesley Dodds. Dian Belmont. And the Sandman. In a series where the lives of three people do amount to more than a hill of beans.
Before the curtain falls, let me once again applaud Guy Davis’ sets and costume designs, and his utterly convincing portrayal of the people of these times. He was merely the first artist chosen, to draw the first story, but his work was so good, was frankly definitive, a fact recognised instantly by the fans, that he became the series’ ‘permanent’ artist. By the second year of performances, he would be drawing two out of each three stories.
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 Face.
Break a leg.