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.