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: 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: The Blackhawk


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

Theatre Nights: The Phantom of the Fair


Sandman Mystery Theatre  41-44 . Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (script), Guy Davis (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
As I’ve previously stated, the Golden-Age Sandman appeared fully-formed, without explanation or origin. It took until 1986 for a retrospective origin to be written, only for that to be superseded by Neil Gaiman within two years.
That temporary origin was a typically convoluted affair by Roy Thomas: wealthy socialite, Wesley Dodds, learns of rumours that an assassin will attempt to kill King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England when they attend the forthcoming New York World Trades Fair. The supposed assassin is the Crimson Avenger, in fact a hero, one of the very earliest (before Superman) and sometimes mistaken for a villain in his early career. The Crimson is also the only hero apart from Sandman to start off in business suit and mask.
Now, rather than do anything sensible like go to the Police, Dodds decides to tackle the Avenger direct. As the Avenger operates with a gas gun, Dodds dons a gas mask (I assume that the green suit, orange fedora and grey cape are mere decoration). However, when he finally confronts the Crimson, in the Fair, he is shocked when the Crimson recognises his voice and unmasked. The Avenger’s real identity is crusading publisher/editor Lee Travis, who happens to be Dodds’s cousin (of course he is, comics can never accept that unrelated things can happen).
The true villain is an individual calling himself The Phantom of the Fair. Thus, though this origin has been wiped from existence, it came as no surprise that it should be obliquely honoured by the production of a play under the title of the villain.
And the Royals visit the Fair, and the Crimson Avenger is present, and there are nods and hints to the coming world of heroes, but this is a far different Phantom, with a far different aim in mind, and The Phantom of the Fair is the most visceral and disturbing of all the plays in this season, because underlying this story is sex, homosexual sex, a forbidden and illegal world in the New York of 1939. And the Phantom is a leather-clad figure of obsessive, perverted disgust and twisted self-loathing.
There is too much in this story, little details and moments, gathering in and binding, to speak of in any review. I shall do no more than touch upon the progression of the play throughout its engulfing four acts.
The story is set in and around the site of the famous 1939 New York World’s Fair, ‘The World of Tomorrow’, with its many famous features: the Trylon and the Perisphere, Democracity, the Lagoon of Nations etc. The setting awes and inspires Dian Belmont, so much so that she brings father Larry back for her second visit. Wesley, typically, is incapable of surrendering to the appeal of this vision of a better world without simultaneously seeing it for a fiction, a comfortable self-blinkering exercise that excludes evil by simply avoiding looking at it.
Unfortunately, others share that same view. Cannily, Wagner/Seagle/Davis begin by showing us the committee behind the Fair attacking its President, Grover Whalen (all the members are historically correct) over the financial failure it seems likely to be. This sets up a tension over the Fair’s reality before Wesley starts undermining it in his narrative.
But the killer who calls himself the Phantom of the Fair is equally determined to undermine the vision of the Fair. Even as Wesley and Dian enjoy their day, Lieutenant Burke is on the site – miles out of his jurisdiction – investigating the first in a series of murders, bodies been left provocatively to be found, and the notes that come with them assert the Phantom’s determination that what he represents be carried into the Day after Tomorrow, amidst its glacial perfection.
The Phantom turns out to be a very ordinary guy, with an ordinary name and a prosaic means of access to the Fair based on his involvement in its construction. His name is unimportant, and he is colourless in his public persona, but underneath, in solitude, he is a mass of seething passions and hatreds. Through his escalating cruelty, and growing delusion, we piece together a background that an almost make us feel sympathy to him: youthful experimentation with his cousin discovered by an overly-dominant father with his own, denied, tendencies, beatings and torture experienced and now regurgitated against young gay men that the Phantom both desires and loathes. I’m not going to go into any details as to the tortures the man inflicts, save to say that they include castration (and when his madness truly breaks, confronted by a Sandman who is seeking vengeance, not justice, this time), and it is implied that the [phantom has already castrated himself
It’s sick and it’s vile, and whilst the play does not indulge itself unnecessarily in graphic display, it does not shrink from what it is describing.
Nor do Wagner/Seagle/Davis concentrate solely upon the sickness of the Phantom. Burke, unsurprisingly, reacts to Hubert Klein’s diagnosis that the victims were homosexual (the medical grounds for this decision are clinically, and almost hilariously spelled out) with a disgust that underpins his every further action in the case.
But whilst Burke is the dinosaur tendency in almost everything in this series of plays, representing a contrast with Wesley Dodds, we then find that Wes is almost as disturbed by homosexuality as the Lieutenant. This is amply displayed in a wonderfully pitched scene in the gay bar Burke has terrorised, in which Wesley pretends to be one of the clientele, but is forcefully jerked out of his pretence by discovering his old friend and former college mate Robert Li in there. With his boyfriend.
Wes’s floundering is shown up even more by Dian’s rescue, her beautifully fictional ‘truth’ about his being there, and her blythe acceptance of Robert’s inclination: indeed, she has regarded it as obvious since she first met him.
But Wesley is seriously thrown, and Davis draws a wonderfully uncomfortable Mr Dodds, body language blaring, when Robert calls upon him to ensure their friendship is not compromised. He’s disturbed as much at being disturbed as at his discovery which, as such things are wont to do, immediately re-colours various elements of their shared past.
And the drama reaches its perhaps inevitable peak when Robert himself becomes the last victim of the Phantom, and the Sandman discovers that it is not possible to become inured to sudden, violent death.
Because its subject is so visceral, The Phantom of the Fair is probably the most powerful of all the stories in this season. It’s a subject that could so easily have been handled crassly, but Wagner/Seagle/Davis are on top of their form, and they avoid all the traps to produce a stunning drama, in which cross-currents constantly tug the story this way and that, and which enables them to build a complex interplay that encompasses many moments of no direct relation to the course of the story.
There are too many to go into detail about, and besides I don’t wish to spoil your own pleasure, but I have to draw attention to one deftly drawn, minimalist moment early on. Dian has dragged her father to the Fair. He’s quickly impressed with the size of the Fair, and also its cleanness, commenting that her mother would have liked it. We don’t see Dian’s face, or even body language, as they are minuscule figures in a crowd, but her response – “She… It is nice, isn’t it?” – opens up an aspect of Dian we have not previously seen, she having before this seemed to be perfectly at ease with the loss of her mother.
Perhaps, significantly, this inspires her to encourage her father towards a romantic liaison with his secretary, and to drag him into an exhibition of nude painting (though Davis is again wickedly effective in putting a revealing expression on Dian’s face).
One other, almost extraneous aspect of this play is the ongoing ‘superheroising’ of the world of the Mystery Theatre. For a start, Burke’s abrasive ways with Whalen (who is more concerned with protecting the Fair’s image than catching a serial killer nutcase – telling, given that Whalen was a former Chief of Police) leads to Mayor LaGuardia bringing in his best detective as back-up to Burke.
This is the legendary Jim Corrigan, loosest cannon on the force, back from suspension at long last. Burke doesn’t like Corrigan (Burke, in case you hadn’t noticed, doesn’t like much of anybody, but in this case he loathes interference). Corrigan reassures him that he’s not out to steal Burke’s glory: he’s a ghost, he won’t be seen. If Burke solves this, no-one will know he was there: if Burke misses anything, Corrigan will pick it up.
Of course, the comics fan has jumped liked a scalded cat at the first mention of Corrigan’s name, because we know that, before the year is out, Gats Benson will kidnap Corrigan and dump him in the river in a barrel of cement. Corrigan’s spirit will emerge and rise towards heaven, only to be sent back with vast supernatural powers to fight Evil as The Specre.
It’s a nod, nothing more, and to be frank it’s one of only two unsatisfactory elements to this play. Corrigan comes and goes within a page, and that’s it. He’s referred to as having phoned in information twice, but really he’s a cameo without point to the story, and his absence is a loose end.
Of more substance, but of equal irrelevance to the Phantom’s story, is Wesley’s encounter with none other than the Crimson Avenger. This one at least had to be included, in view of his central importance to that discarded origin, but he’s another diversion, a moment in which The Sandman crosses over into a non-existant series.
Investigating the Fair at night, The Sandman finds a bunch of mobsters strong-arming a man who owes them money. He doesn’t tackle them, but the Avenger does,since they’re here because of the case he’s pursuing. Big red cloak, even bigger automatics and a simple willingness to kill scum: the Avenger may be another midnight adventurer like the Sandman, but his mercilessness repels Wesley Dodds (but then inspires him to seeking vengeance against the Phantom.
It’s a longer episode, and the two players don’t actually meet: the Sandman tosses a distracting gas canister from under a bridge, distracting the last man from killing his hostage, and far from being grateful, the Avenger doesn’t like anyone horning in on his act. His ‘We’ll meet again” is a threat.
There’s an amusing coda at the next day’s press conference, when reporters try to bring the Avenger up. Burke refuses to confirm his presence, is derisive of the Press’s urge to big up the costumed vigilantes: the Crimson Avenger, Sandman, Hourman (Rex Tyler is clearly active now). He even suggests, sarcastically, that they move to Central City and try to interview “The Flash” (a continuity error there: the Flash of this era was based in Keystone City).
These are yet more signs that the superheroes were beginning to intrude into the pulp-noir of the Theatre.
Back, for a moment, to the story. It ends at Robert Li’s funeral, with Wesley assisting as a pall bearer, but it’s final grace note is of continuing security issues at the Fair. The King and Queen of England have arrived, Corrigan has uncovered a plot to assassinate them. Roy Thomas’s discarded origin is ready to play. But not in the Mystery Theatre.
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 Blackhawk.
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 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.

Theatre Nights: The Brute


The Brute: Sandman Mystery Theatre 9-12. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (writer), R. G. Taylor (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
For all that it’s subjects are as grim and intense as those of the plays that precede it, The Brute cannot help feeling like a sunnier, more optimistic affair, an impression left solely by the sudden advance in the relationship between Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont, who admit, and begin to act upon, their interest in each other.
Nevertheless, the events of the play are indeed as dark and disturbing as those we’ve already experienced, as Wagner weaves a story that delves into illegal, bare-knuckle boxing, intimidation, drug-running, attempted rape (of Dian) and actual rape of a 7 year old girl, not to mention issues regarding masculinity, domestic cruelty and child neglect. A particularly full story.
Wesley is once again our commentator though this affair, which begins in the world of legitimate boxing, and not the upper levels of it, with Charles ‘Rocket’ Ramsey, an ageing bruiser getting the worst of it in another low-rent bout, knocked down without making much resistance.
Just as Jimmy Shan/Zhang Chai Lao lay at the heart of The Face, The Brute is Ramsey’s story: he’s the father and sole support of ten (?) year old Emily, who is consumptive, but he’s a fighter who’s long past his never-very-great best, in the vicious circle of being unable to earn enough for proper food unless he wins, yet being unable to win because he is not eating properly. And he desperately needs to buy medicine for Emily.
Having lost another fight, and any chance of a purse, Ramsey is approached by the seemingly sympathetic figure of Arthur Reisling, businessman with a finger in many shady pies. Reisling promotes illegal, bare-knuckle boxing, and offers Ramsey a chance to fight, $1,000 for a win, $500 for a defeat: greater money than Ramsey can hope to make legitimately, either way.
But Ramsey is honest: he can’t afford to lose his licence if he’s caught, and he takes his information to Larry Belmont, whose office is interested in Reisling already. It’s the right thing to do, but, in the world of the Mystery Theatre, to do right is to invite punishment: Reisling has men watching Ramsey, intent on beating him up for his indiscretion. And one of these is an enormously overgrown, hairy brute speaking mainly in grunts…
On this occasion, the Sandman’s intervention spares Ramsey from damage, but this is only a postponement: when Ramsey is again captured, the Brute stomps his right hand into pulp.
By then, Ramsey is desperate. On the Sandman’s advice, he has fled his home with Emily, but the slope from here is downhill all the way. Ramsey can’t afford other lodgings and take temporary shelter in a shack occupied by an elderly homeless man, who babysits Emily whilst Ramsey seeks another, legit, fight. But he’s been black-balled, word from Reisling that he’s not to get a bout, he’s captured and the Brute stomps his hand to pulp. Intent on revenge, he gets hold of an old, rusty revolver, but when he returns to their hovel, Ramsey finds Emily on the floor, crying, with blood on her panties and dress. Mr Schenk has given her new medicine for her cough, medicine from his daddy-thing that he put into her pee-pee.
It’s Ramsey’s nadir. His first action is to find Schenk and beat him to death with the gun in front of Emily, whose only words now are the muttered mantra, ‘don’t want no more new medicine, Daddy’. Then, having nowhere else to go, he goes to Reisling’s, for a confrontation, a confrontation that is short and lethal.
This is Ramsey’s story. It’s nasty, and sickening, more so than the more ‘up-market’ villainy of the Theatre‘s more traditional fare. That aspect shows itself through Reisling, a man in his late fifties, but still strong, virile, a man who involves himself in excessively manly pursuits.
Outwardly laid-back, comfortably rich, Reisling is already of interest to the Police, but is trying to interest Wesley Dodds into investing in a development project to exploit Antarctic minerals, whilst simultaneously negotiating a precarious deal with the Mob to purchase heroin, with no apparent market for the same.
(Ultimately, Reisling’s plan is revealed as being to create a new market by flooding West Coast campuses, a project Wes ironically dismisses as implausible: ‘Even College kids aren’t that wild!’)
When Wes and Dian attend Reisling’s home for a daytime soiree, it’s noticeable that the atmosphere is entirely masculine, but for Ms Belmont. There’s Dennis Reisling, the amiably drunken, cynical adult son (who we later discover to be illegitimate) and the twins, Charles and Tobias, aggressive, permanently squabbling/fighting boys who are clearly subject to no serious parental restraint, and whose pre-pubescent testosterone displays are clearly sanctioned.
Wes is interested in Reisling as the Sandman, whose elliptical dreams have drawn him towards this amoral, self-centred figure, and Dian is interested purely through her growing enjoyment of spending time with Wes. She still remains unfulfilled, but a chance encounter outside a movie-theatre, with a street kid being beaten by his slatternly mother, begins a movement towards Children’s Charities. Dian is not a mother, and has long since been without her own (as has Wes), and she is operating from a place of assumptions and naivete, beginning to grapple with the surprising notion that parents are capable of not loving their children.
Ramsey is an example of the true spirit of parental love, Reisling of the completely opposite. As his schemes come together towards fruition, a fruition denied by the joint interventions of the Sandman and the hapless Ramsey, we learn that the Brute, this giant, thuggish creature, overgrown and destructive, is also his child. A twin to Dennis, equally illegitimate and, astonishingly, a daughter.
A daughter who, by being female, was spurned by Reisling. A daughter imprisoned in a cupboard for three years by an increasingly demented mother. A daughter perverted into this brutish sub-being, loved only by her protective brother Dennis, even as he accepts that she is only of interest to their overtly masculine father as an enforcer – a masculine role.
But even Reisling has feelings: when Ramsey intervenes, the Brute is once more unleashed. But where Dennis is shot by Ramsey before his beat-up gun explodes in his hand, it’s the mobster who shoots Maria Reisling, and Arthur himself, in an explosion of tears, who guns down his connection in revenge for his daughter.
Death and destruction is the end, though we will later hear that Reisling’s millions are doing an efficient job of keeping him from true legal redress, but Reisling’s other role in this drama is the unintentionally positive one of driving Wes and Dian together. As a fundraiser for her charity, Dian approaches Reisling, who chooses to take the contact as one intending sexual congress – despite his being over twice her age he is, of course, a Man, and what other intercourse is there to be had with a woman?
Dian’s refusal leads to sexual assault and intended rape, but though she gets away, she turns immediately to Wes for emotional support. Wes is horrified and angry, everything you would expect him to be, but his sympathetic hug triggers his own desires, ans he is kissing Dian, before berating himself for not behaving better than Reisling (Dian’s response is to say, ‘C’mere you, and shut up’ before kissing him back).
Though it’s the blackest of plays so far in this season, The Brute ends with Wes and Dian in Central Park, summarising the outcome, and flirting, which contributed to the overriding sense of the story having been positive. Perhaps it was a little giftlet by Matt Wagner to himself, for this was the last full contribution from him: from here on in, Wagner would plot, but not dialogue for the Mystery Theatre.
Set design for this production was by artist R. G. Taylor. Rick Taylor was invited to draw The Brute based on his work illustrating Renegade Press’ Wordsmith, a comic written by Dave Darrigo which centred on a Thirties writer of pulp fiction with aspirations to literary work. Taylor has gone on to work in fine art, and as a teacher, leaving behind his love of comics.
As with Davis and Watkiss, Taylor evokes the styles and sensations of the Thirties, though I find his work far too loose and scruffy for my tastes. Like many fine or would be fine artists, he adopts a loose, frequently impressionistic style that, when spread over sequential panels as opposed to single illustrations, simply looks ill-defined. His style relies on thick black outlines around faces, dominating much sketchier linework that merely looks weak and vague. His Brute is never properly drawn, his Sandman is all too often awkwardly posed. It’s one of the weakest efforts in the entire season.
But by now agreement was reached with Davis for him to do eight issues a year of Sandman Mystery Theatre, and indeed, as things worked out, another twenty issues would go by, and the season much more fully developed in all directions before Davis would once again be absent from the stage.
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 Vamp.
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.