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: Return of the Scarlet Ghost


Sandman Mystery Theatre  49-52 . Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (script), Guy Davis (artist), with ‘Joe Kirby’ (writer) and Daniel Torres (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Return of the Scarlet Ghost incorporated the 50th issue of Sandman Mystery Theatre as its Second Act and, in keeping with comic book tradition, the issue was a special, extended story, which guest artist Daniel Torres brought in to draw some very entertaining pages that formed an integral part of the extended in-joke underlying this play.
On the serious side of things, Return of the Scarlet Ghost chooses the New York Pulp/early comic book Publishing industry at the end of the Thirties as its backdrop. It’s accepted now that most, if not all, of the pulp magazine publishers were mob-backed, money laundering outlets for Prohibition profits. Indeed, one of the reasons comic books were so enthusiastically embraced by publishers was that they used fallow time at the printers, enabling a greater proportion of money to be washed clean.
It’s mildly surprising to see this being set out in this series, given that Vertigo‘s parent company, DC, was also amongst that number: DC‘s owner, Harry Donenfeld, ex-printer, ex-publisher of Spicy (i.e. soft porn) Detective stories, was a close friend of the notorious Frank Costello.
But these are liberated times and DC has moved so far from its Thirties roots that such things can be brought up now without a sense of residual embarrassment.
And it’s in-keeping with the more light-hearted side of the story, to which I’ll come shortly.
We focus on Darrigo & Darrigo Publishing, which is beholden to Italian Mobster, Don Alfonso Gamboni. We’ve seen the Darrigo brothers, Shelley and Franco, before, at the Beaux Art Ball in The Hourman, where Wesley attended in a circus acrobat’s masquerade costume version of his second comic book incarnation.
The Darrigos are hustling to make a living, with busy offices. They publish spooky, gruesome magazines, one of them being ‘Sandman Mystery Theatre’, highly-fictionalised adventures of our favourite gas-masked hero, in lurid pulp terms, with illustrations of the original business suit/gasmask Sandman costume. But they’re arguing about embracing the growing comics market, about people (in the shadow of European War) wanting heroes in bright colours.
But a rival mobsters wants to increase space for his subservient publishers: Finn represents the Irish mobs and he’s employing the Pettys – Colm, Peter and Sean, two brothers and a cousin – to strongarm Darrigos off the market.
The Pettys are an interesting and highly repellent study in thuggishness that I’d love to call mindless but which is perhaps better described as unthinking. All three are wrapped up in almost a mystique of masculinity, which in their case is the idea that a real man is defined by drinking a lot, fighting a lot, fucking whores a lot, and not letting anyone tell them what to do (that latter aspect does not apply to their orders from Finn).
We first meet them beating up a newstand owner in public, as a warning not to sell Darrigo magazines. Then they intercept a delivery lorry, smash the driver’s head in with a crowbar, stuff his clothing with paper and light it and the lorryload after dousing everything with kerosene, leaving him to burn to death.
Their next job is to invade a printing shop where they (impliedly) kill a man by dangling him into the press until it rips his arms off (thankfully off-panel).
Ironically, the Pettys are getting their ideas from ghoulish magazines published by Darrigo, whilst Colm and Peter’s younger brother, Mike, gets himself a job drawing comics for Darrigo.
For once, Wesley Dodds and the Sandman are not drawn in by dreams, but rather by Dian Belmont’s attempts to progress her as yet non-existent writing career.
Dian is attracted to the pulp magazines, for their vigour and the vividness of her writings. Her stomach is still bothering her and she’s generally out of sorts, to the point of preferring Wesley to hold her rather than make love with her, but none of this prevents her coming to a decision to direct her ambitions towards the pulp market: after all, it actually enables her to start, and finish, stories.
But when it comes to selling to Darrigos, Dian’s a non-starter: she’s a broad, and broads can’t write adventure stories. Dian steams in frustration, but gets encouragement from a surprise source, crime reporter Jack McCall (as seen in the Annual), who is writing these stories under a psuedonym.
Unfortunately, that places Dian directly outside the door of Darrigo’s editor’s office when the bomb sent by the Pettys goes off.
Suddenly, everything becomes very serious indeed. Though not a family member, Wesley is accepted as much as Larry Belmont for contact with the unconscious patient. Burke, who is very quiet after the events of The Blackhawk is placed in charge of the investigation, for once to Wesley’s relief. But Dian’s fate, and Wesley’s realisation of just how much she means to him, is at the centre of things.
Fittingly, Dian not only survives, but awakens after a dream, a Dream-inspired dream in which she quotes words that Dream of the Endless spoke in the Sandman Midnight Theatre special. It’s the longest single dream of all those depicted in this run, and it leads her back to consciousness.
Wesley goes into full assault mode as the Sandman, again seeking revenge as much as justice, although he’s not aware at first that Dian remains in active danger. Finn’s unhappy with the Pettys, and is bringing in a specialist to seal the deal: the specialist is The Face and the plan is simple. The Pettys drop an insurance policy in the ruins of the Darrigo office, $25,000 on the death of Dian Belmont, the Face kills her.
The Sandman catches the Pettys in the act of dropping the policy in the ruined offices. The Pettys jump him and start to administer a beating, but the Sandman regains his gas gun and puts them out. They then spill the beans. A panicky Wes jumps into his car and sets off towards the hospital, overriding the Police wavelengths and posing as Burke sending orders for all men to get to the Hospital. The real Burke intervenes to countermand the orders, until Wesley, in a vicious fury, threatens him that if Dian is harmed, Larry Belmont will know exactly who kept his daughter from being protected. Browbeaten for once, Burke acquiesces.
Ironically, it’s neither Wesley nor the Police that saves Dian, but instead her father, who takes a minor stab wound in grappling with the Face. Larry makes an enemy too, but before the Face can follow up on his two-for-one offer, the Sandman captures him, unaware until a chance remark that he’s dealing with an old enemy.
The Pettys’ end is different. They are found, bound, by young Mike, who releases them, though not before the Police reach the scene. It’s here that the stupid mindset of the Pettys reaches its apotheosis: Peter Petty runs, refusing to accept the Police telling him to stop. He does what he wants, not what anyone else tells him, and he’s shot dead for it, because he’s fucking thick and his mindset is bullshit.
But that’s still not all of the story. There are multiple Sandmans in this tale, as there are multiple Scarlet Ghosts. We’ve seen the old gas-masked Sandman, created by gardner Fox and Bert Christman, perpetuated in the pulp magazine horror of Darrigo Brothers version of ‘Sandman Mystery Theatre’. We’ve seen the ‘reality’ of our Mystery Theatre hero. But in issue 50, that extended episode, we see a third Sandman, as Dian brings back from Darrigo Brothers’ offices the first issue of a Sandman comic.
This is Daniel Torres’ contribution to this play, a tribute to the legendary writer/artist pair, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (who, though not the creators of, are most associated with the second Golden Age phase of Sandman, the yellow and purple clad athletic bruiser).
‘Joe Kirby’ writes this new, naive, Kirby-esque comic, featuring a straight take-off of that other Sandman. It includes the Sandman’s teenage partner, Sandy, the Golden Boy, aka Sandy Hawkins, but the Sandman is Jack Simon, not Wesley Dodds.
It#s affectionate, it’s a beautifully weighted in-joke, and maybe it can be seen as a way for the continuity of the Mystery Theatre to edge itself closer to the DC Universe.
But whilst Wagner, Seagle and Davis can indulge themselves in this little fantasy, they cannot resist a final twist: in a somewhat time-bending fashion, the Scarlet Ghost story, displaying a third version of the fictional villain, has already become a Saturday morning film serial: but Jack Simon is now a crusading reporter, not a colourful costumed crimefighter: he is more real, more adult as such. It’s a comment that needs no underlining.
Speaking of final twists, Dian’s enforced hospital stay enables the doctors to carry out tests that reveal the source of her malaise of the last two plays, though some among you will have already anticipated this: in the final panel, she drops a bomb that can hardly be unexpected, but which is: she’s pregnant.
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 Crone.
Break a leg.

Return of the Scarlet Ghost is the last of the plays to be collected in Graphic Novel form, making it more or less easily available for reading. The series was slow to start, with an collection of The Tarantula quickly appearing, but several years passing before the next collection was released. After that, an annual schedule followed, until 2010, pairing this and The Blackhawk. There have been no further volumes since and, given DC’s concentration since 2011 on its New 52 revision (in which Wesley Dodds is not even a hero), it seems likely that the remainder of the run will stay uncollected. Which is a shame because, from this point, only two more collections would have been needed to present a complete run.
Henceforth, I will be reviewing the original issues themselves, and anyone wishing to actually read the story will find it difficult and expensive to do so, if indeed the individual issues can be found at all almost twenty years later.

Theatre Nights – Dr Death


Sandman Mystery Theatre  21-24. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plotter), Steven T. Seagle (scripter), Guy Davis (layouts), Vince Locke (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
And so it comes to a head.
The Mystery Theatre’s sixth play is one of its most important. Like no other before or after, it’s mystery and its murderer are of little importance, a mere background to the essential question of what Dian Belmont will do with the almost certain knowledge that her boyfriend, Wesley Dodds, is the Sandman.
Though this is the one-in-three play that would not normally feature Guy Davis, we are blessed with his work for four more issues, as layout artist, underlying finishes by Vince Locke. It’s an interesting mixture of styles: Davis’ familiarity and his depiction of the characters as we expect to see them, merging into Locke’s looser, scratchier style that frequently pictures Dian and Wes as much younger than we know them. An excellent metaphor for the emotional clumsinesses both display.
The texture is simultaneously more flexible and wide-eyed style.
It’s Dian’s turn again to narrate, and the DA’s daughter has one thing on her mind throughout, unable to see anything except in terms of Wes’s secret and its implications for him, her and them. That old people, washed out people, are dying after receiving prescriptions that suggest death is of no concern to Dian, whilst she struggles with the burden of her knowledge and, more importantly, the fact that she has had to discover this for herself, rather than by Wes trusting her – loving her – enough to share this with her.
The activities of ‘Dr Death’ are very much on Wes’s mind. We are no longer privy to his internal narration, so we don’t know to what extent he is still hung up on wanting to tell her, but for the moment his dreams are driving him again. A former boxer, reduced to heroin-running. A concert pianist whose hands have been ruined by arthritis. An ageing stripper, a clapped-out stand-up, all dying courtesy of a corrosive drug that, when combined with alcohol, burns out their stomachs.
The diagnosis comes from Hubert Klein, settling into his role as the Sandman’s confidant, and even growing a little more confident in the face of Burke’s dismissiveness and instinctive anti-Semitism. It’s as if the opportunity to play a role similar to his beloved pulps is increasing Klein’s real-life confidence. Indeed, in Locke’s hands, Klein and Dodds start to look alike, owlish glasses and receding hairline: a page of chemical analysis surprises us by turning out to be the Medical Examiner, not the hero.
The only thing snapping Dian out of her preoccupations is, paradoxically, reinforcing her concerns. Whilst swimming at the YWCA at the start of the play, Dian bumps into her cousin Lucy, a younger, vivid redhead. The family relationship is deliberately left unstated, but the impression created, by the distance between Larry Belmont and ‘Uncle Bill’ is that Bill is Dian’s late mother’s brother.
Lucy invites Dian out to the farm, upstate, a horse ranch, but she’s even more enthusiastic about her boyfriend, Raymond Kessler. Surprisingly, Kessler is at least twice Lucy’s age, a fit and virile Doctor with an unhealthily intense sexual appetite and an astonishing and faintly sinister recovery time. And Raymond, as things progress, is not just horny, but also self-centred: when Lucy gets a bit sore from ‘overuse’, he simply has her use her mouth.
No, this is not a healthy relationship, but at first Dian only sees it as a reflection of her increasingly inadequate relationship with Wes. She becomes squabblesome, to his dismay, for which he is quickly willing to take the blame. We see an horrific dream, culminating in the shadow of the Sandman – Gaiman’s be-helmeted Dream, that is – and are stunned to find that it is Dian who is dreaming, not Wes. But there is only one solution, Dian finally decides, taking her cue from Lucy.
So she has her hair styled, has a beauty treatment, buys and dons a stunning backless dress, and invades the Dodds’ mansions, over Humphries’ desperate attempts to keep the ground clear for the Sandman’s ongoing investigation, though he’s onto a hiding to nothing. And at last Wes returns, full of his next move, only to find Dian waiting for him, brooking no further delays or excuses, offering him what he cannot, and does not want to refuse.
But the consummation of Wes and Dian’s relationship, remarkable as it may be for both of them, is not an end in itself. Wes goes to sleep, Dian slips out of bed and begins to explore. And she finds the passageway that leads downstairs to the Sandman’s lair, and thereby proves beyond doubt that what she did not want to know is all too true.
Wes, hot on Dian’s heels, is eager to admit what she knows, is complementary of her that she’s worked things out for herself without needing to be told, and is anxious to talk, to share the intense closeness he feels to Dian as a result of both their lovemaking and the penetration of his secret, but the reverse is true of Dian. Finding out the truth scares her and repels, reinforcing her anger at having been excluded. Despite its physical success, her encounter has brought her no nearer to him. She’s spoiling for a fight, and Wes can say no right as he tries to explain what drives him. Even a protest that the Sandman has helped some people who would otherwise have had no-one to turn to rouses only a sneer from Dian at the slur it implies on New York’s Police, and her father’s career.
With everything smashed, Wes retreats to the Sandman, pursuing his investigations. Raymond Kessler has been there as a presence throughout, though he was seemingly eliminated as a suspect through not being left-handed, the discovery that he is not a doctor, but rather a jumped up drugs pusher, puts him right back in the frame.
And despite her sudden decision to back away from Wes, Dian finds herself at the heart of things again.
The loving Lucy has followed Raymond back to his house and met his scapegrace son, Roman. She’s also been disgusted to discover that the ever-horny Raymond has been dipping his wick with cheap floozies (following a night out with Dr Turner and one Wesley Dodds). So Lucy slaps Raymond, and Raymond, like the true man he is, promptly rapes her. In the morning, Lucy phones Dian to come and collect her, and asks her to bring a dress and some stockings.
Shocked, Dian rescues her cousin and gets her away. What’s even more shocking is that, once Lucy starts to calm down, to think about what has happened, she sees herself as responsible, for not having been sufficiently loving towards him.
By now, Dian is fired up. She takes Kessler’s key back to his home, but she also explores, finding, to her horror, Kessler’s heroin-addicted, bedridden mother kept upstairs. A raging Kessler, discovering her, screaming his hatred of the aged, the worn out, dragging him down, is kept from attacking Dian by the Sandman.
The lovers embrace in mutual relief, but it is Dian who withdraws first, with a look of disdain.
After he is gone, Burke arrives, to find Dian yet again at the scene of a crime. Burke wants answers as to why this is happening so often, but Dian reassures him: it will never happen again.
Outside the main performance, there are many moments of unobtrusive detail. Dian meets Kessler at Uncle Bill’s farm: her conversation with Lucy and Raymond ends with the offstage ‘krak’ of a shotgun, as an injured horse is destroyed. Kessler’s closest associate is Dr Turner, a black physician: with casual racism, Kessler describes him as ‘almost white’, yet in another scene, when a waitress ignores Turner’s order of a drink, Kessler is almost viciously angry at the insult to his colleague. An ageing Boxer leaves Grant’s Gym, calling goodbye to ‘Ted’ – a nod to the future hero and JSA  reservist Ted (Wildcat) Grant. And on the wall of the passageway to the Sandman’s retreat beneath the Dodds mansion, Dian passes another gasmask, the Sandman’s traditional costume from Adventure Comics and the Justice Society.
And mention must also be made of the appearance of a new character, an old University friend of Wesley’s from the East, Robert Li, a Chinese statistics professor who Wesley ‘fortuitously’ bumps into and manipulates, er, challenges to compile a list of all left-handed physicians in Manhattan. Robert’s return challenge, an old tradition between these friends, is for Wes to memorise two whole pages of the New York Times – which Wes gets round by memorising two pages of comic strips, starting with Thimble Theatre
But though these are understated moments, measures on the edge of sight, the audience’s eyes follow the lovers from beginning to end. And it feels like an end.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play entitled Night of the Butcher.
Break a leg.

Theatre Nights: The Scorpion


The Scorpion: Sandman Mystery Theatre  17-20. 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.
By now, we’ve seen enough performances in this Theatre to discern that, just as there are four Acts to each play, there are three elements or strands to each drama.
The first, and simplest, is the drama provoked by the villain, who lends his or her soubriquet to the title of the play: a creature of passions and anger, calculation and brutality, a figure driven to murder and more by forces that compel them in their heinous acts.
The second is the milieu, the setting: that part of the world of 1938 that exists beneath the smooth, sophisticated, jazz-inflected surface of New York Society, the underbelly that people wish to keep hidden.
And the last is the changing relationship between our three principal characters, Wesley Dodds, Dian Belmont and the Sandman, whose name is above the proscenium arch of the Mystery Theatre yet who, in so many ways, is the least of this trio.
Of course, these elements do not stand alone. They interlace, sometimes combining, at others opposing. The first is done by the final Act, an event that is then filed away as a memory with which to dispense, a mere ghost to the next play. And the second is also a passing experience, as the eye of the playwright restlessly seeks another depth in which to sink.
But each story has consequences for our trio of players. The Scorpion leads us to such a moment, that will have enormous effect upon our principals.
The opening Act swiftly and economically sets everything up: we begin with Wesley and Dian enjoying a dinner date, literally only a day or so after The Vamp, putting that memory to bed and raising the expectation of a re-run of their, ah, encounter. Wes, who is still suffering from the wound he receives, skilfully delays this encounter by palming off tickets to a concert by Western star Buster Calhoun. This will utterly delight DA Larry Belmont as well as aiding Wes to avoid both the concert and the hustle it’s designed to promote, seeking fundraisers for an exploitive oil venture in a Europe staring at a near future War.
So Larry has a whale of a time with what’s clearly a pretty cheap, sentimental cowboy singer, packing the worst of country into one evening. He meets the Mayor (who, though not named, is the real-life and well-known Fiorella LaGuardia) as well as a bunch of standoffish and sneeringly condescending Directors of the Oil Enterprise, who rudely take the first opportunity to get out of something they obviously regards as beneath them.
Dian and Larry also meet the rather more open-handed and approachable Cutlers, Managing Director Stephen and his business-like, determined daughter, Cassandra (an unfortunately significant name) and their hotshot,thrusting advertising executive, Terry Stetson.
Meanwhile Director 1, Dechert, goes home with his young, blonde, plump mistress, to start his own brand of sex games with her, involving pretending she is his daughter, and spanking her, a process interrupted by his sudden and violent death, courtesy of a shadowy figure who, unseen by the two ‘lovers’, steps into the room and gives Dechert a single slash on the back with a whip.
This brings in the Police, which means Burke, and also Hubert Klein, who will find himself adopted as a willing ally by the Sandman during this play (a role he relishes because of his own fascination with the pulp magazines and their crime-fighters, like ‘Dickie Bones’, a comparison that the Sandman finds uncomfortably pricking to his self-image).
But commerce continues, and Wesley, now that there is something for his alter ego to investigate, is more willing to be wooed towards investment. And Dian is willing to accompany him, not out of her own thirst for investigation, but just for Wesley’s ever-warming company.
Then, as the Sandman investigates one crime scene, finding the stamped image of a scorpion on the building, we go home with Director 2, Rummel, a sadistic, racist martinet, free with a short whip on his hispanic manservant, until he receives a lash himself. From a big, broad man with a hatred for the rich, the affected, the ‘upper class’. He wears cowboy boots, a bolo tie, and a black bandana with eye holes. He is the Scorpion.
For once, the identity of the villain is not difficult to discern. Though Buster Calhoun is dangled as an obvious suspect, he’s equally obviously a red herring, and there’s only one other person in the story who comes from Out West, and who wears bolo ties anyway, and that’s Terry, the hustler. Hustling the Company as a great investment for Wesley Dodds, hustling Cassandra Cutler into a date.
If nothing else, his extreme fury when Dodds withdraws from the proposed investment (threatening the entire deal), followed by the Scorpion’s attack on Wesley, betrays Mr Stetson immediately.
The surname, of Stetson, is too much to be real and when Terry is unmasked in the final act by Cassandra – who is too confident of herself whilst simultaneously hurt by Terry’s betrayal of her, and who winds up shot with her own gun – and then unmasks himself to Director 3, Lane, an effete homosexual, the name is proven false.
Terry the Scorpion is actually Terry Pritchard, son of a Texas farmer whose lands were bought out for oil, for a fair, even good price, but who was destroyed by his wealth, or rather the refusal of the wealthy to accept him as an equal, and who Terry is determined to destroy.
What has to be admired is that Seagle as scripter makes absolutely no overt correlation between Wesley’s inner contempt and disgust at his fellow businessmen and Terry’s overt rage against them. Absent their methods, these two have a great deal in common.
I’d like to take a moment here to praise Messrs Wagner, Seagle and Davis for a superbly mounted performance, showing the value of a consistent production team. Davis, in particular, cements himself as the Mystery Theatre artist, from whom all others, no matter their qualities, are but lapses. He’s not cinematic, nor dynamic, in any sense that a comic book artist is expected to be. Instead, his people are real, unidealised, their feet standing on the ground.
His art may appear sketchy, and in some places it borders upon the cartoonish – Terry’s short blond hair is composed of a few scribbles and a line to represent the hairline – and it is determinedly two-dimensional, in the sense that there is little sense of depth in any panel, but allied to his stunning colouring, the art has weight. Disbelief need not be suspended, for each and every moment takes on an enviable solidity that has no need to draw attention to itself.
And it is Davis who brings this story to a conclusion that, in terms of artistic subtlety, may be his greatest moment on this series.
For this story is, as I said above, only an episode in the development of the relationship between Dian, Wesley and the Sandman.
As I stated, the story begins in the very immediate aftermath of The Vamp, with Wes and Dian’s first sexual connection: not full intercourse, because of Wes’s very fresh gunshot wound, but in cunnilingus performed on Dian. Now, we have it on the lady’s own coded authority, in The Face, that she is no longer a virgin, and it’s probably not the first time she’s had that kind of devotion, and she’s open without being vulgar about it to both a repetition and a return of the favour.
But there’s a reason why this isn’t happening as soon as it might, that’s got nothing to do with the moralities of 1938 (both public and private), and it’s more than just the additional recovery time Wesley needs for his inconvenient wound. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s his preoccupation with being the Sandman, and the hours that need to be devoted to pursuing the object of his latest dream are precisely those during which the reaching of a greater accord with Dian would best be pursued.
Worse though, Wesley struggles within himself for the courage to confess his dual identity to his love. Especially when he is seriously ill after being struck by the Scorpion’s whip, he still creates fantastic covers involving rich man maladies, delicate stomachs and a surfeit of oysters, rather than being honest.
And Dian, for once, is not curious about the latest serial killer, finding Wesley too much in her eyes for most of the story. Only when she belatedly realises how close it comes to Wesley, and thus herself, does Dian begin to investigate in anything like her usual manner.
And that’s what brings about the ending. The Sandman sets a trap that fails. The Scorpion is wounded, leading to his final attempt to strike. Burke, poisoned by the Scorpion, given the antidote by the Sandman, pursues hotly, but is forced to accept Dian’s interference and aid. Everything converges on Lane’s flat where the Sandman subdues the Scorpion, the Scorpion suffers a stroke, Lane’s mind collapses into memories of childhood abuse by his father, and Burke and Dian pick up the pieces.
The Sandman has left his usual poem, on paper folded into the shape of a scorpion. Burke is his usual, scornful self, deriding the device but unable to recall the name of the art, except that the Sandman always does this. Offstage, in his narration of this play, Wesley recounts his decision to come clean with Dian, to risk all on telling her.
Onstage, Davis draws three panels, closing in on Dian’s face. Her eyes are on the unfolded paper, fixed and silent. As Wesley’s voice tails off in a promise now empty, Dian speaks, her eyes wide, turned to Burke. “Origami,” she says. “It’s called origami.” And her face is that of someone who has reached an unwelcome, numbing conclusion about something she would rather not have known in this manner.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a series of sketches.
Break a leg.