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.