Mage III: The Hero Denied (and an apology deserved)


Just over three years ago, and as part of the series on Uncompleted Stories, comic book series that have never seen their full intentions come to fruition, I commented on Matt Wagner and what we had all, in the beginning, was going to be his most significant work, Mage.

Mage was conceived as three series, each of fifteen issues (the last of which being double-sized), representing different stages in the life of everyman, Kevin Matchstick (a metaphor for Wagner himself), who learns that he is the modern incarnation of the Pendragon: of King Arthur.

The first series, ‘The Hero Discovered’, appeared between 1984 and 1986, from Comico. The second, ‘The Hero Defined’, did not arrive until 1997, a delay engendered in large part by Wagner’s struggle to regain the rights to his work after Comico went into bankruptcy in 1990.

And after that a long silence, still prevailing in 2014 when I wrote. I had anticipated/resigned myself to another decade, but we were well beyond that period, and so I categorized Mage as Uncompleted, and that was that. Thankfully, I am not a prophet.

About four or five months ago, Wagner announced the appearance of ‘The Hero Denied’, to the same fifteen issue format, again to be published by Image Comics, who brought us the second series. And today, my visit to Forbidden Planet in Manchester has seen me bring back issues 1 and 2 of the final story.

It’s far too soon to pronounce. Wagner is still drawing in the same style he used for ‘The Hero Defined’, with his son Brendan as colourist. A decade has passed since the events of that story: Kevin may still go in for the same black-and-white Captain Marvel influenced t-shirts, but he’s bald on top. He’s also married, to Magda, witch and one of the Weird Sisters of Mage II, and they have two children, Hugo, aged about eight or nine, and Miranda, about two. They’ve been in hiding from the nasties, but chance has exposed Kevin, less than a week before Magda’s potion of pure protection will be ready, after eight years preparation.

The Umbra-Sprite is once again moving, as are the Sprite’s spawn, but these are now Grackle-thorns, and all six are female. They still hunt for the Fisher King, who was absent from series 2, but they still seek revenge upon the Pendragon, and especially now his children, of whom Hugo, by the end of issue 2, has learned that neither the world nor his Dad are what he’s so far been let to believe.

No sign yet of the Third Mage, he who will follow Mirth and Wally Ut, nor yet a glimpse of anyone who may be that Third representative of Magic, and no attempt yet to come to even a premature verdict on what I have read, nor will there be until Mage, but in this year when Twin Peaks came back, and when I took a thirty year old manuscript and made it something on the verge of publication, here’s another moment of unexpectedness, and resignation refuted, to make this world, at least momentarily, less of one where faiths fail, possibilities close and stories go without endings.

To Matt Wagner, my profound thanks.

 

A Sandman Mystery Theatre Disappointment


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

This is what you call a pisser.

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

In person, if you’ll pay travelling expenses.

That’s Friday night buggered then.

From Uncompletion to Completion: welcome back Mage


A few years back, I did a series on Uncompleted Stories (of which one post remains unwritten, though I will get to it one of these days), about comic book series/stories which were never ended and which, by implication, would remain forever without an ending.

One such was Matt Wagner’s Mage: intended to comprise three series of fifteen issues, of which only two have appeared, then and now. Fifteen years had passed at that point since Mage II – The Hero Defined. It’s eighteen years now, but you may officially now laugh and point at me, and cry jeers about my lack of faith but, starting in May, we will finally have Mage III – The Hero Denied.

Like the second series, it will be published by Image Comics, in four blocks of four monthly issues, each block separated by a skip month in which the Graphic Novel compilation of each block will appear, which at least settles one question for me: I will forego my curiosity, my eagerness for the story, and I will wait for the books.

So: one more thing to anticipate. 2017 is rapidly becoming a year of unexpected comebacks: Twin Peaks, Mage, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books final book (when, oh when, will that be translated and published in English?) and even my thirty year old novel.

And Mage is going to take me into 2018 as well.

Now, all we need is another Play (or a dozen) from the Sandman Mystery Theatre and I’m almost going to be a happy bunny…

Theatre Nights: A Repeat Performance


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

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

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

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

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

Welcome back, old friends.

Theatre Nights: A Repertory Revival


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

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

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

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

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

Uncompleted Stories: Mage


The Mage gang(s): l-r, Sean Knight, Edsel, Mirth, Kevin Matchstick, Wally Ut, Joe Phatt, Kirby Hero

If anything were to happen to him tonight, which we fervently hope it won’t, artist/writer Matt Wagner would undoubtedly be best known for his character Grendel: monster, crimelord, force of evil.
Indeed, Grendel was Wagner’s first creation, a very primitive and sloppy version of him appearing in black and white in an anthology published by the long-gone independent publishers, Comico. But this Grendel was poor and primitive, and Wagner turned to another character for his first series, Mage, a fifteen part colour series which began with art and story-telling that, whilst a cut above the Comico Primer was still that of an artist feeling his way, but which, over the full series, grew increasingly polished and attractive.
Partway through the series, Wagner reintroduced Grendel as a back-up: a gorgeous, stylish, art-deco influenced illustrated story as opposed to an orthodox comic, laying out Grendel – Hunter Rose, novelist, Olympic Fencing Champion, philanthropist, ruthless and implacable crime-lord – in his prime and until his death.
After Mage finished, Wagner returned to Grendel as a concept and a series, primarily as writer for other artists, occasionally drawing stories, as Grendel developed as a force, possessing others, destroying their lives with the attraction of its evil. By the end, Wagner had established a long continuity extending all the way to the fortieth century and the robotic Grendel Prime.
Yet Hunter Rose still exercised the greatest fascination, and Wagner has returned time and again to his prime Grendel, in stories that precede and sometimes foreshadow that too-early established death, including a memorable and excellent two-part team-up with Batman.
But thirty years ago, when Mage was eagerly awaited every other month, that would have seemed unlikely. Grendel was only its back-up, not even a comic as I’ve already said. It was Mage that would be the masterpiece of Matt Wagner’s career.
That series from Comico was subtitled The Hero Discovered, and it was published between 1984 and 1986. It was to be the first of three limited series, each of fifteen issues duration, set to tell the complete story of Kevin Matchstick – visually Wagner himself – and Mirth, the Worldmage. After its completion, it was republished in three Graphic Novels by Starblaze, the then book publisher of the collected Elfquest, in the same format.
If you want to read Mage –  The Hero Discovered now, you need to find those rare volumes.
Because the reason Mage is not going to be the primary work of Matt Wagner’s career is that thirty years later it remains Uncompleted.
In the beginning, the story seemed to be as crude as the artwork: Kevin Matchstick, an everyman, isolated figure, without ties or relationships, encounters a punky, perky street tramp who, we soon learn is a Mage: not just any Mage, but the Worldmage. Kevin resists believing, though he is quickly forced to accept that magic exists given Mirth’s display of it.
It also takes him some time to believe what Mirth has said about power being awoken in him: Kevin has great strength and is practically invulnerable, although this latter functions only when he is in serious danger. Indeed, despite the ever-increasing evidence, Kevin doesn’t merely have difficulties in believing that he now has a destiny, he actively resists believing, the more so the longer Mirth refuses to tell him all he needs to know.
There is, of course, an adversary, an incarnation of evil, the Umbra Sprite, with his five identical sons, the Grackleflints. They are in search of the Fisher King, which gave many people a great big stonking clue as to where exactly Wagner was going: that Kevin has started to come into his power gives them increasing problems and requires ever more serious menaces, drawn from Celtic myth, to try to overcome him.
But Kevin has servitors: the teenage girl, Edsel, who takes her own name from her favourite car, and who wields a mean baseball bat, and Sean Knight (another clue), the ghost of a Public Defender: they recognise Kevin for what he is and work for him, and sacrifice themselves when the time comes, for his defence.
At the end of issue 5, Wagner’s art took a leap in sophistication, and his control of the airbrush meant an increasing subtlety in colouring. Mage grew ever more complex and intriguing, until the final revelation that stuns Kevin into near inertia.
For Mirth is Myrthin, or Merlin, Edsel’s baseball bat is the current form of Excalibur and Kevin is the leader, the Pendragon, heir to the legend of Arthur.
Having accepted his role, Kevin mounts an attack on the home base of the Umbra Sprite, only to find him dead, killed by his son Emil, whose distinguishing characteristic among the Grackleflints is initiative. Kevin confronts the Wild Hunter, the horned God of the Pack, with antlered forehead, mounted on a motorbike and surrounded by dogs that bear the faces of those who have died for Kevin and the Pendragon. He brings down the house, literally, ending this phase of the menace.
The sequel was promised ‘soon’.
Apart from the Starblaze reprints, Wagner put Mage aside in favour of Grendel at that time. He did write and draw a short, four-part backup in Grendel 16-19 as a bridge to the second series, but plans along those lines were disrupted when the struggling Comico went into bankruptcy in 1990, leaving Wagner struggling for several years to regain the publishing rights to his two characters.
Because of this, it was 1997 before Wagner was able to publish Mage II – The Hero Defined, which appeared from Image Comics both as a fifteen part series and, subsequently, a four-part republication in Graphic Novel format, in comic book size.
Mage II was met by a mixed response from its audience, which flocked eagerly to the long-awaited sequel but recoiled from it when they found it radically different from The Hero Discovered. I admit to finding it hard to accept: thin, conventional, shallow in comparison to its predecessor. This was a purely emotional response, and an objective analysis counselled patience until Wagner had what he was doing. Which was giving his readers something different.
What disappointed people at the outset were changes in both art and story. Despite the evidence we had of Wagner’s range as an artist, his experimentation on giving the reader something unexpected, and intriguing, Mage II was drawn in a very straight, comicbook cartoon realistic style. Wagner used flat lines, black outlines, and a plain colour palette. The airbrush colours of The Hero Discovered were not to be seen. Stylistically, it was very conventional, and far from being in tune with contemporary approaches.
And it was fully in keeping with the story which seemed to offer no more than a more funky, less rigid form of superhero action. Kevin is teamed up with Joe Phatt (who can run incredibly fast) and soon meets Kirby Hero (now there’s a symbolic name for you) who is incredibly strong and invulnerable.
They, like him, are incarnations of mythic figures, Coyote and Hercules respectively. Kevin and Joe are on the ‘Nasty Hunt’, tracking down nasty predator creatures and despatching them, with no greater or ulterior purpose: Kirby is doing much the same in an interval from carrying out these Twelve Labours imposed on him by his Dad.
There;’s a certain amount of jostling for command between Kevin and Kirby: Kevin’s the Pendragon, by definition a leader, and he definitely sees it as his role to lead and others to follow (whether they agree or not). Kevin sets priorities, aims and goals and cannot understand why Kirby insists that his burden is more important to him than Kevin’s exploration of a growing menace that draws them and a whole host of other ‘superhero’s to a Canadian town where the Pale Enchanter is brewing up a plot.
There’s the Prester, the Hornblower, the Dragon Twins and more: they don’t wear costumes but they each have superhuman abilities and credentials: it’s like a more serious version of the Justice League International only with less team-work. Only the Hornblower (whose Horn, in a manner typical of this slightly loopy take on superheroes, is actually a kazoo) is seriously loyal to the Pendragon, and Kevin’s discomfiture at this, and his irritation, leads him to send his most supportive ally to his death.
Is there a Mage involved? Kevin hasn’t seen Mirth in god knows how long, but he knows he’s prophesied three Mages. It’s just that he cannot believe that street tramp Wally Ut is the second Mage. Wally’s a bit of a joke, like the Hornblower, which was again a characteristic of The Hero Defined, as if Wagner found this superhero stuff to be risible and couldn’t keep from taking a rise out of it.
Nevertheless, the danger is serious. The story leads to a long underground sequence of growing seriousness. The Pale Enchanter is ultimately revealed to be Emil Grackleflint, who is disposed of by the returning Umbra Sprite. It is he who draws off the evil, for now, not Kevin who forces it away.
Because this is a very bad ending for Kevin. His insistence on having his way takes over Kirby’s next Labour, destroying it and alienating both Kirby and Joe. Wally is revealed as being indeed the Worldmage: in fact he’s Mirth, in another incarnation, yet Kevin has resolutely refused to listen to anything Wally said. And in forcing himself in his arrogance into a conflict that was not properly his to begin with, Kevin has done the unthinkable: he has destroyed Excalibur.
An astonishingly dark ending and an extraordinary set up for Mage III – The Hero Denied.
Mage II appeared from 1997 to 1999, with the initial collections appearing at intervals from 1998 to 2001. Those of use who had undergone a ten year dealt to read it were prepared to deal with another decade for the final part of the Trilogy but it is now fifteen years and the most we have on the prospect of The Hero Denied is ‘soonish’, a publication interval that does not appear in anyone’s previews.
If Mage III were to miraculously appear on the schedules in 2015, that would be thirty-one years since the story began. Matt Wagner had in his mind a clearly-defined trilogy. How detailed that vision was in respect of book 3, no-one but he will ever know, but in 2014 he is not the same man, the same artist or writer he was in 1984, learning his trade, extending his skills. Whatever the third part will be, it will, by definition, not be what he originally intended.
It might very well be better. If Mage tells the story of Kevin Matchstick, might it not be very fitting and the best thing that could happen for him to be seen at three different times by an author who has grown older and more experienced? Maybe. Or maybe, as such things have gone before, the extended scale of time, the removal from the impulse that drive the story in the beginning leads to an inability to recapture what made the story so fascinating at the outset.
Because we readers have gotten thirty years older and thirty years more experienced, at the same time as has Wagner.
As thing stand, the story of Mage is like The Lord of the Rings as if The Return of the King had never been written or filmed. It is Uncompleted. Unlike the two Swamp Thing examples, it could be completed. But a long time has passed. We may yet find that, in Harlan Ellison’s superb phrase, The Wine has been left open too long and the Memory as gone flat.
We would need the story to be completed to know whether that is so and I have given up any expectations that that will ever be so.

P.S. I got that wrong, much to my delight. Come and witness my mea culpa.

Theatre Nights: Two Short Stories


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

Theatre Nights: The Crone


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

Theatre Nights: Sandman Midnight Theatre


Sandman Midnight Theatre  (Prestige Format) . Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner and Neil Gaiman (story) Matt Wagner (plot), Neil Gaiman (script), Teddy Kristiansen (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Like the Annual, the previous year, Sandman Midnight Theatre, though being an essential part of the overall story, and crucial to the relationship of Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont, has never been collected*. It is difficult, and expensive to find, having been published as a one-shot Prestige Format edition.
For those who misremember the Programme Notes, Sandman Mystery Theatre was a spin-off of Sandman, despite it featuring the original Sandman, Wesley Dodds. The Sandman ran  from 1940-45 in Adventure Comics, with only rare and occasional revivals from 1966 onwards. He debuted whole and entire: Wesley Dodds was already slipping out at night, with gas-mask and gas-gun, to crusade against crime, without reason or explanation.
There were other mysteries in the Sandman’s career, which were dealt with, piecemeal, but the last of these was an origin, finally told in 1986 by Roy Thomas, a Justice Society fan and continuity obsessive. Thomas’s origin was typically convoluted, weighed down by his compulsion to link in more things than any story could decently support.
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was born out of a flash of inspiration at a meeting with representatives of DC who were interviewing British writers and artists that same year. Gaiman, a reporter and aspiring writer was read a list of characters available for treatment: mention of The Sandman sparked an image in his head that translated into a character vastly different from the human crimefighter: Gaiman’s Sandman was the embodiment of Dream, and his story was set in mythical terms and roles.
Despite Gaiman’s private belief that it would last a year if he was lucky, this Sandman became a major success, commercially as well as artistic: enough to create an audience receptive to a new version of the Golden Age Sandman.
And Gaiman’s issue 1, which covered a mere 70 years, dispensed with the Roy Thomas origin in a less than a page, substituting a simple yet profound concept that instinctively felt right. In 1918, self-styled Magus Roderick Burgess attempts to bind Death, but instead captures her younger brother Dream, who remains a prisoner in a pentacle until he is accidentally released in 1988.
The Universe knows someone is missing, and slowly it attempts to replace him. Wesley Dodds’s nightmares have stopped since he started going out at night. He puts evil people to sleep with gas, then sprinkles sand on them, leaves them for the Police to find in the morning. The idea came to him in his sleep. He doesn’t dream about the man in the strange helmet anymore. No more burning eyes. Everything’s all right. Wesley Dodds sleeps the sleep of the just.
We begin with a dream, of Roderick Burgess and his pale captive, a dream in which Wesley Dodds is both people. In the waking world, he’s late to a much-anticipated meeting with Linus Benchley, an elderly friend of his father’s, a US diplomat and former Ambassador to Great Britain, who’s equally looking forward to an evening catching up with Young Dodds (a terminology that reminds me of a late friend, who was a mentor to me).
But the evening is interrupted, terminally, by the arrival of a mysterious letter, containing photographs. Bentley ushers Wes out hurriedly, draws himself a bath, listens to the radio playing a song about Havana, them carries that radio into the bath, electrocuting himself. An aghast Sandman, watching from without, bursts in, too late to rescue more that a couple of fragments of envelope from the fire: a symbol comprising the letters O, A and M in a triangle, and a London postmark.
So the much-travelled Wesley comes to England for the first time ever, the England of London fogs, classified adverts on the cover of The Times, strange accents, rain at Lords, and an audacious Jewel-thief known to the Police as the Cannon.
But England also holds one Dian Belmont, who has been introduced by Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten (in the absence of Roddy on a tea plantation in Ceylon) to good works in the East End of London, among the poor, unwashed and destitute, the whole thing run under the auspices of the ever-optimistic and jovial Reverend Armitage Hawley, Bagsy to his friends.
It is, of course, a compilation of cliches, but it is done with both affection and knowingness by Gaiman, and there isn’t a reader worth his or her salt that doesn’t finger Bagsy for the Cannon (or ‘Canon’) from his first appearance.
Dian is angry that Wes has followed her. She’s found something worthwhile, something that can make a difference, working with good people who are what they seem to be, without secrets. She hasn’t moved 3,000 miles away from Wesley Dodds only for him to follow her. And despite his plea that he is tracking Linus Benchley’s killer, Wes has to agree that he is following Dian, that he loves her so much.
It’s enough to get Dian to forget her animosity long enough for an afternoon in Wesley’s hotel room, but for no longer than that: she does not want to see or hear from him – or the Sandman – again whilst in England.
That we know will be a vain wish, for things now start to converge. OAM stands for the Order of Ancient Mysteries, Roderick Burgess’s circle, and an evening is planned for Fawney Rig, the Sussex mansion where Burgess bases himself. Where a being captured 21 years ago is imprisoned.
Letters of invitation go out to a host of curious creatures, who react in various strange ways. They include an MP, a Nazi sympathiser, a schoolteacher with a curious attitude towards snakes, an actor, a poet, a painter who paints forgeries, an arms manufacturer. And Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten, like so many others a blackmail victim.
Like Benchley, Annabel’s thoughts turn to suicide, but she is swayed by Dian, who will accompany her and who will, in dead of night, find and steal the evidence of Annabel’s depravity, at age 17, with her elderly poet, now dead, that is being used to destroy her.
But the gathering is an unusual one, with powerful undercurrents, undercurrents almost too powerful for Annabel and Dian both, but not for two other, not entirely unexpected party guests, Mr Wesley Dodds and the Reverend Bagsy Hawley. There is not one but three persons on the prowl at dead of night, and both the Sandman and the Cannon are far better safecrackers than Dian Belmont.
But what is sought for is found, and the ungodly are duly smitten, though in one spectacular case by the even more ungodly than all. A massive donation finds its way, anonymously of course, to the Reverend Hawley’s mission.
Above all, though, the Sandman finds what he has sought, without knowing even that he sought, let alone what his objective. In a cellar beneath Fawney Rig he finds a being, tall, pale, shaded eyes, long, lank black hair. Someone who looks upon him with pity, for having a part of the pale man in him, who who sends him away, unable to assist, with the instruction to forget. And except in one final dream, in which Wesley understands everything, even the knowledge that such knowledge cannot be taken into the waking world, he forgets. If the Sandman remembers, he does not say.
Sandman Midnight Theatre is a brief joy, a charm in its slim pages, the only moment at which both Sandman meet, in the only circumstances in which such things are possible. For a moment, the Theatre audience see as if through more than the curtain that descends upon the stage.
And of course the experience leads Dian back to Wes, to America. It’s the one part of the play with which I have issues, because its presentation is very much that of a defeat for Dian Belmont, a defeat she accepts with weariness. Wesley has undergone no lesson or change pertinent to why Dian crossed an ocean to escape him: he’s crossed that ocean to bring her back, unchastened. Instead, it is Dian who has sought to place herself amongst real people, true people without secret lives, only to find that both Lady Annabel, and Bagsy Hawley conceal lives unimaginable from their exteriors. And it Dian who, for vouching for the Sandman to the Cannon, receives the unnecessarily caustic reminder that she too is not a person without a secret life.
That Dian’s return is predicated upon her will being broken is a very dubious outcome to say the least.
This one-off story was painted by Danish artist Teddy Kristiansen, who is known basically for gothic and horror work. Kristiansen’s style, angular, eschewing photorealism and any of the panoply of Eisnerian storytelling styles, lends itself confidently to what, in many respects, is a talky, static story. Whilst he can produce stylised depictions that are easily recognisable as Wes and Dian, his facial art is heavily stylised. This works superbly on Bagsey, who is an affectionate caricature of the Saint, and upon the aged Burgess, not to mention the gallery of grotesques who attend Fawney Rig.
But it is noticeable that, except in one highly affecting moment, Lady Annabel, an essentially serious character, is painted as a virtual blur, all but featureless. That moment comes when she and Dian first arrive at Fawney Rig: up to that point, Annabel has been painted as a sweet but shallow woman, collected and reserved, almost more minor aristocrat’s wife than the real thing. Even when the veil is ripped aside, and she is confessing to a more than ribald past, as a supposedly sweet innocent, Kristiansen paints her at a distant, an unreal, unformed figure, her hair primly done up in a bun.
It is as this wholly external shape that Annabel conducts Dian through Fawney Rig, which she knows of old, with her poet, with others. In their room she fiddles with her bun as she asks Dian to leave her alone for a little while. “I want to remember him. Just for a little while.” she says, half-turned, her hair shoulder-length, unbrushed, looking ten years younger, and Kristiansen puts something in her unfathomable eyes as she looks inwards, something that we could look upon for the ten years Annabel has lived since then without ever really knowing what is in her mind or her heart.
It’s an astonishing panel, one that is hard to turn from.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, once more upon the stage of the Mystery Theatre, in a play titled The Mist.
Break a leg.

*Edited to add: This statement is incorrect. Sandman Midnight Theatre was reprinted in the Graphic Novel compilation Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days, published in 2000. The GN is out of print, but is considerably easier to find on eBay/Amazon than the Prestige Format Original.

Theatre Nights: The Python


Sandman Mystery Theatre  33-36. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plotter), Steven T. Seagle (scripter), Warren Pleece (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
There’s an indefinable air of ‘back to business’ about the next production, or rather back to ‘business as usual’. The Python – a soubriquet put forward, for once, by Hubert Klein – is a serial-killer, whose spree starts with a major New York financial figure, the corrupt, greedy, immoral and deeply unpleasant Emmett Beedle, who dies from a badly-crushed windpipe.
That’s enough for the Police to be put on priority, with Tony Burke (absent from The Hourman) leading an investigation that gets incredibly complicated when the second victim turns out to be a black cleaning woman, and the third a seedy drunk in a bar.
Needless to say, the Sandman is also in hot pursuit of a Bible-spouting killer who turns out to be hiding in plain sight, and once again he turns up just in time to save Burke from the killer’s hands. Though this time he’s sensible enough to tie the wop cop up with his own handcuffs to listen to the confession.
The killer, and the investigation, are routine things, almost procedural for the Mystery Theatre, enlivened by the inimitable Burke, still displaying all the worst hard-boiled traits of the pulp Thirties/Forties cop: the cleaning lady’s son has to be the killer and Burke’s unfiltered racial epithets are unrestricted as he intends to send the kid to the rockpile, even if he’s as innocent as Jesus. Only by seeing Burke as a product of his times can we stand to have him around.
But the play’s the thing and again the Mystery is but a backcloth for what Wagner and Seagle are about, which is the ongoing relationship of Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont, a dance that has been playing out before our eyes since the first performance, but which has been the very centre of our perception since The Scorpion.
Because those looks that Guy Davis put on her face in The Hourman were a true indication that Wesley is blindly wrong to think that his love has only the self-same concerns as does he.
It’s subtly foreshadowed in the opening scene, as Wes and Dian leave a cinema after watching a Cagney movie: Dian’s eager to talk and Wes starts praising the film, but she’s talking about the newsreel, about the increasing threat of the Nazis in Europe. Then up pops Carol from The Vamp, with her… friend Nancy, chatting enthusiastically with Dian about the commercial for physical fitness maven, Jake Bonoir, whilst Wes stands aside, silent. Dian’s interested in improving her health, but Wes is contrary: yoga for him, not P.E.
And it’s like that at every turn. Dian goes with Carol, anxious to improve her physique, especially around her full hips, which the bi-sexual Carol sees as being very alright as it is. As does Wesley, or so we assume, but it’s Carol who has to say this to Dian. Dian talks about her exercise sessions, about the effect their having, how exhausting they are, but Wesley is not listening. All he can see, all he can think about, is the Sandman’s investigation, and with every unconscious slight, Dian feels it more.
The PE sessions are all part of the Bonoir method, which Bonoir has established out on the West Coast and is trying to bring to the East. It’s a tip of the head to the times, for Physical Fitness was a fad in the pre-superhero days, an element in the culture that assisted in preparing the way for physically perfect specimens in tight costumes, and Bonoir’s name is a tip of the hat to the most successful exponent of such programmes, Bernarr McFadden, the man behind Charles Atlas, ‘The World’s Most Perfect Man’.
It’s not difficult to see that Bonoir will turn out to be the Python: after all, we are looking for someone with great physical strength, strong enough to crush necks, but Klein’s fanciful insistence on suggesting that the effect required the crushing ability of an actual python derails the investigation by turning it towards another late Thirties fad, that of the Big Game Hunter.
Jungle John Barrows has an animal act that used to have a python. He’s a fake, a fraud on every level, except for one amusing sequence when the Sandman tries to put him under but the drunk-to-hell Barrows is more than agile enough to avoid capture. But all he is is a poor red herring, local colour, a means to extend the investigation long enough to make the play run the statutory four Acts.
Because Bonoir may be the villain, but he’s never onstage for any length of time as himself: dropping in to end of sessions to promote his ‘Way’ to the paying customers, plugging his Weekend Camp, that Carol persuades an unconvinced Dian into attending without telling her it’s also nudist. Until the confrontation scene, we only see Bonoir when he’s killing, to an accompaniment of strident Bible-talk, and his anonymity isn’t enough to keep the action going long enough for Wesley’s self-absorption to finally get under Dian’s skin.
So the Barrows sequence keeps the wheels spinning. Wesley narrates to himself, it being his turn to guide the story, oblivious to Dian’s growing dissatisfaction. Even when he tries to do something for the woman he loves, he gets it wrong: having ‘gone out’ when Dian was expected round, he comes home late to find her in the Sandman’s lair, patiently waiting for him, but fast asleep. So he covers her, rather than disturb her, and goes upstairs, putting himself into a warm, comfortable bed and leaving her in a hard chair…
Things start to build up. The issue of the Nazis is becoming a subject of concern to many: Burke doesn’t care, but Klein is emotionally rocked by news that relatives have suffered at Kristallnacht. Etta is settled in and enjoying her father’s company (even as Humphries works around Master Dodds’ secret), but Larry Belmont is as deep in the Python case as Burke, and even he is not there for Dian.
Carol makes a pass, misreading signals, though the two woman are entirely level-headed and civilised about the mistake, and the discovery about Bonoir being taken in whilst she’s away is the final catalyst for an abrupt decision.
Late in Act 3, Dian receives a letter from her old college friend Anne, or Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten, as she now is in England. Annabel’s life may be unimaginably different (and reading between the lines decidedly alien) but she is secure in her happiness with the man she loves, and it is very much the case that Dian is neither. She isn’t secure in that tiny, constricted life she has with the pre-occupied Wes, nor in her ignorance of the wider world beyond, a world under clouds dark and growing darker.
And abruptly she leaves. An extended visit to England, no return ticket. Only a letter to Wesley that he receives when he is ready to pay to her the genuine attention he should have done all along though Dian specifically absolves him of blame for her departure.
It’s a finale that only whets the audience’s desire to know more, but before we leave our review of this performance, a couple of things must be mentioned: that Etta is allowed a little more time in support, expressing her admiration for Master Dodds’ firmness of purpose and mentioning off-handedly friends she has made who have influenced her thinking: and that after losing his microphone in Burke’s office, Wesley dresses up as a foreign janitor to eavesdrop whilst ‘cleaning’ Burke’s office.
But we cannot leave without making proper mention of our guest set-designer, Warren Pleece, who provides our first significantly different vision of the Mystery Theatre since R. G. Taylor two years earlier. Like John Watkiss, Pleece is a British artist, one of a pair of brothers who started in fandom  when I was getting involved there (though I never knowingly met either).
Like Taylor, Pleece makes no attempt to duplicate Davis’ command of the Thirties milieu, preferring to use a rough, almost blocky style that is deliberately 2D, and which is heavy on atmosphere rather than detail. David Hornung uses a narrower colour palette, darkening most scenes and allowing the black-and-white film trailer that makes up page 1 to dictate the overall look of the play. I don’t wish to be unfair to him when most of the problem is that he simply isn’t Guy Davis, but I find his work drab and dull, with a deliberately heavy style that leadens the whole work.
As for the Python himself, whilst the links between his victims are eventually spelled out, and are entirely logical, if diverse, we are left to construct for ourselves his motives, or rather the madness of his motives, which are suggested as having a pyscho-sexual underpinning that reverses the incestuous Albert-Celia Goldman relationship in The Tarantula. The shape is delivered, the Bible-obsession is tied in, yet in his madness as in his exterior life, Jake Bonoir never exists as more that an outline.
It’s a sad assessment on which to end the third year of Sandman Mystery Theatre, though one failure in nine productions is still a good standard. But though this was not known at the time, we were halfway through the life of our dramatic entertainment. The end was nearer than the beginning, now.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a touring edition of Sandman Midnight Theatre.
Break a leg.