The Mid-Season Replacements: Lucifer


No, he doesn’t look like that all the time

Hmm.

Most of the disappointment is of my own making. Like the unsuccessful Constantine, what makes the character really work is pretty much impossible to put on television. It’s too dark for the audience, it’s too dangerous in its ideas, it’s too strong for the powers that be that run television who, ultimately, only want something pretty to go in between the commercials and sell those. On those terms, Lucifer was never going to work.

What, then, gets onto the screen? Perhaps, if I set up the character’s history on the screen, the story that attracted the attention of the Goggle-Box, you can then see by how much it’s had to be watered-down, diminished, to fit the plasma.

Lucifer Morningstar, Angel, Son of God, the first Rebel, Ruler of Hell, the Devil, was introduced in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, in issue 4. Dream, seeking to recover his lost accoutrements of office, had to retrieve one from a Demon of Hell. Having succeeded, he humiliated Lucifer by walking out, untouched, leaving the Ruler of Hell swearing to destroy him.

Subsequently, in the ‘Season of Mists’ storyline, Dream’s honour compelled him to go to Hell to free a prisoner he had unjustly condemned. Lucifer’s response was to close Hell, driving out the dead, the damned and the demons, closing all gates and handing the key to Dream, who would then have the responsibility of deciding Hell’s fate. That was one hell (excuse me) of an act of revenge.

But Lucifer had grown tired of his role, had for too long seen himself as no more than a puppet to the divine plan, his every independent move merely fulfilling God’s wishes. Demanding free will, he abdicated. He would go on to open a nightclub in LA, called Lux, where he would play cocktail piano when the mood took him.

Thereafter, Mike Carey took up Lucifer in his own series, a long, complex story about Lucifer’s compulsion to escape, utterly, the imprisonment of God’s designs for him. To finally free himself from the entanglement of his father. His travails involved primarily other supernatural beings, including the Host of Angels, and included the creation of a new Universe, and Lucifer’s own ultimate escape into a void that would finally see him achieve freedom on the only terms possible.

It was a complex interplay of moral and ethical questions as to predestination, free will and the burdens of divinity. You can see how that couldn’t possibly play on telly.

I started watching the pilot with lowered expectations, but hadn’t really lowered them enough. Lucifer’s internal struggle with his fate, and omnipotence, was reduced to his decision to take ‘a vacation’ to run the nightclub. The course of the episode sets up the terms of the series. A popular singer (named Delilah but clearly meant to be a relatively early career Madonna) is shot to death in Lucifer’s company. He helped start her on her musical career, so Lucifer decides to use his powers to find the killer and ensure their hellish punishment. To do so, he teams up, unwillingly on her part, with Detective Chloe Dancer, a pariah amongst her colleagues (which includes her ex-husband). He will go on to be her unofficial colleague.

It’s not much, really, is it?

To that extent, I was prepared for a massive dumbing down, but hoped that the writers might be able to capture Lucifer’s voice, especially from Carey’s series: bored, superior, supercilious, grave, detached, in complete command, and gloriously funny in its utter disdain for virtually everybody else he encounters. And no, they can’t.

They make a very half-hearted attempt to bring some of that in, but it’s lost amongst what they’ve chosen to emphasise instead. The TV Lucifer is basically a decadent seducer, hot on sex, a tease and a small-time tempter, even as he denies any responsibility for the sins you humans enjoy to commit. He giggles nervously when he talks, as if concerned about the response of the people he meets, he’s far too upfront about who and what he is, as opposed to Carey’s Lucifer, who made no secret of what he was but who sat at a distance from humans who, for the most part, were far below his attention and concern.

And the idea of Lucifer as an unofficial police adviser, a sort of supercharged Castle, not to mention all those other crime of the week where gifted amateur shows Police how to do it series, is just beneath the Prince of Hell.

What I want to see is, I know, beyond any possibility of occurring. What I’d live with instead is way beyond this sneery, cheap-sex-drenched, pathetic display.

So. Like I said, I gave Constantine three weeks, I’ll do the same for Lucifer. But I’m not confident. Not one bit.

Sandman Overture 3


Twenty years ago, at the height of his self-appointed role as chief proselytiser for self-published comics, Dave (Cerebus) Sim addressed a convention of retailers.
One element of his speech was the absolute necessity of the would-be comics writer/artist looking at his/her work honestly and objectively, and working out how long it took to produce a single comic. What that was didn’t matter as much: three times a year? Four times? Six? What was essential was that the artist clearly identified how long it would take to produce an issue that met the standards they wanted to maintain, and then commit to a publishing schedule accordingly.
And once that schedule was established, it was imperative that the artist should maintain it. For the book to slip, for it not to be out when it was promised, was fatal. The publishing schedule was a contract between creator and reader that must not be broken.
This aspect of the speech aroused the ire of Comics Journal editor Gary Groth. Sim was attacked over the speech and for several issues it was not allowed to refer to Sim without the embellishment that he was an anti-creator who believed artists should crank out work on a monthly schedule like the Marvel field-hands.
This wasn’t what Sim had said, but Groth has never been above reducing opponents’ opinions to a straw man that is absolutely indefensible. Besides, this was Sim preaching self-publication as a means of escaping from editorial and publishorial control to produce a pure vision, and Groth’s self-image was indeibly tied to the notion of the Publisher as a sympathetic enabler, guiding creators to their best work.
Whether Groth liked it or not, Sim was right. The original Elfquest series by Wendy and Richard Pini was self-published in a magazine format three times a year, because that was what it took to produce a story with great personal significance to Wendy and her husband. After it had finished, and WaRP Graphics had become an independent comics company, Richard Pini determined that, in order to be commercial, WaRP’s titles had to appear as comic book size, and no less than bi-monthly. To produce the second Elfquest story to this directive, Wendy’s art had to be inked by a hired artist: the difference was more than noticeable.
And as a reader, I can attest to the importance of maintaining that regular schedule, no matter how attenuated it may be: you can wait four months between installments as long as it’s four months. If it becomes six, or seven, or even five, and you no longer have any sense when there will be more to read, interest is diminished. The irresistible example is Fantagraphics’ own Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez, edited by, yes, Gary Groth. After a long period of bi-monthly publication, maintained without difficulty, Love and Rockets started, for whatever reason, to be very sporadic in appearance. Groth defended it as artistic integrity, with Los Bros not prepared to release work until it was right. For this reader, it was a pain: both brothers were engaed in long, complicated serials that, when months would pass without an update, grew increasingly harder to follow and, concomitantly, increasingly harder to care.
All of which is by way of prefix to the long-awaited third issue of Sandman Overture by Neil Gaiman and J H Williams III.
Let us remind ourselves that it is now over a year since this project was announced, announced as a six-issue series, to be published bi-monthly, starting in November 2013. Those familiar with the calendar will easily be able to work out that the final issue of the series should be published in September of this year. Instead, the third issue was released last week, at the very end of July.
It’s very good, in fact it’s more than very good, it’s the best issue to date and a reminder of what made Sandman such a compelling series in the first place.
It’s not a story though, it’s still not a story. It’s a journey, undertaken by Dream and the Dream of Cats, who are the same entity in different bodies, but with thoughts shaped differently by those self-same bodies.
They are walking along an unfeasibly long and fanciful bridge, to reach the City of the Stars, to meet a Star that has gone mad and which is, in an as yet unexplained manner, the heart of the Vortex.
They meet the three Fates, who are surprised at the Cat, who offer knowledge by barter that Dream does not believe he needs.They look under a bed and collect a small girl called Hope that, the Crone implies, it would better not to have discovered.
A War has begun. The Universe is already dying. The colours are exquisite.
More is implied, more of the past is revealed. Gaiman is folding in the beginnning of things for which we know the end.
But at this point, and until the whole thing is available, whenever that will prove to be, I don’t really care. If I hadn’t already bought issues 1 and 2, the first of them in all innocence, I would cheerfully say forget it, and wake me up when the Graphic Novel is available, assuming I’m still alive to see it.
Officially, the series is now quarterly. The Director’s Editions have been quietly forgotten except by those of us unmannerly enough not to let the point go that by any measure this has been a debacle that stains Gaiman’s name as much as DC’s, and he’s got a much brighter name to stain.
Officially, therefore, I’ll be blogging issue 4 round about the end of November/beginning of December. I have not marked any date on my calendar.

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.

The Sandman: Overture. Issue 2


Since the transition to the New 52 Universe and the corporate/editorial diktat control of its comics, DC has made many fuck-ups. So often have they been inconsistent, illogical, inept, contradictory, incompetent and downright iditic that there is even a website dedicated to Has DC Done Something Stupid Today?, complete with a counter, ticking off the days since the last fuck-up.

To the best of my knowledge, The Sandman: Overture has not featured on this site, and to be fair to DC, my understanding is that it is not they who are responsible for the unconscionable delay between issue 1 (early November 2013) and issue 2 (late March 2014, though only picked up today).

The series was announced, well over a year ago, as Sandman Zero, in which Neil Gaiman would al long last tell the missing Sandman story, the prequel, the adventure from which Dream was returning in issue 1, wearied beyond measure and vulnerable to Magus Roderick Burgess. It had all Sandman fans slavering, though at least one of these slavering fans had a deeply cynical response to the way DC proposed to milk the project. It was to be a six-issue series, drawn (and beautifully) by J H Willams III, but it was to be published over twelve months, alternating with special ‘Director’s Editions’ of the previous issue.

What we actually had, therefore, was that utter throwback, a bi-monthly title, dressed up as something fancy and gaudy and super-good for us, when it would have looked twice as good if honestly announced. But of course it could not be honestly announced because bi-monthlies are contemporaries of the dodo. And how much trouble would it seriously to adhere to standard practice and get half or two-thirds, whatever suits the artist’s speed best, inhouse before you schedule publishing the first of them?

But it didn’t happen that way. And Neil Gaiman has taken responsibility for not having gotten his ass in gear and writing issue 2 when J H Williams III was ready for issue 2. It’s been a PR, a Publishing and a Credibility disaster of mammoth proportions.

For many months now (five, in total) it has reminded me of nothing so much as D’Arc Tangent. Now, to understand that reference you will need to be at least fifty years old and well-read in comics, but for the majority of you, D’Arc Tangent was a black-and-white magazine style comic, an SF story of both epic and personal proportions, starting in 1982. It was a collaboration between Phil Foglio and an individual going by the name of Freff. It also featured an editorial consultancy by Chris Claremont, whilst he still had any credibility. Space Opera and True Romance, effervescent comedy and deep heartbreak, it was a truly brilliant piece of work that had everything you could ever want.

Except an issue 2.

Foglio and Freff fell out irrevocably over the direction of the story. Apparently, Foglio threatened legal action if Freff tried to continue the story without him. So it died an ignominious and insignificant death, leaving issuie 1 as a beautifully construicted waste of time, a nothing of no importance at all. It might well never have existed.

Which is how I’ve been feeling about Sandman: Overture 1 for all the year so far. It was good, but so what?

I’m still not rid of that feeling. There was no ‘Director’s Edition’, not that I saw or heard, and what happens next? Are we to expect issue 3 in late May, or will it be more like August? How much of it has Gaiman written by now? Given the contents, and the glorious quality of the art, how long does Williams need to draw an issue?

What I can say about issue 2 is that it is superb. I wouldn’t have it any different, certainly not to the detriment of the art, but that doesn’t mean it was worth the wait. As others have pointed out, not much happens in this story. Dream correctly identifies that the ‘crowd’ he met in the first issue’s pull-out is merely himself, or aspects of himself. We are never given a definitive example as to how they are different: there seems to be aspects dependant on different spatial areas, temporal locations and species (there is a more than welcome return for the Dream of Cats). and there is a highly intruguing hint at a past event Gaiman mentioned briefly in the series, a quarter-century ago, in that the Universe, or all there is, is threatened by the Vortex Dream let live…

But the most unexpected part of this story is that it begins with Dream instead of Dream: with Daniel Dream, that is, the current face of The Dreaming, required to keep a most mysterious appointment with Mad Hettie, in a dream place she seeks both to return to and avoid. Dreanm retrieves something, a nonworking pocket watch, that may be of interest not to himself but to Dream. And Dream in all his aspects has been pulled to his present location because an aspect of Dream is dead. And is this a different aspect, or one we have seen destroyed already?

And is this very scene, amongst the multitude of self the spark for Dream’s long decision to drive himself towards the only alternative to a change he can’t effect?

Once we have this story as a whole, I think we will have a web that folds many things into one thing, like Dream en masse becomes Dream, in his most familiar aspect. I hope I’m not driven to be cranky again by getting there.

 

Theatre Nights: Programme Notes


In 1993, Vertigo Comics began publishing a spin-off to Neil Gaiman’s extremely successful Sandman series. Entitled Sandman Mystery Theatre, the spin-off focussed on the adventures of the original, Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds, creating the unique situation where the subject of a spin-off was the original character from whom its ‘parent’ series had been spun off.
Gaiman’s series bore almost no resemblance to the Golden Age crime-fighter, or any of the revived versions that had already been seen, but his character, Dream of the Endless, was inspired by the Sandman name, and one of the first steps he took on starting his series was to bind Wesley Dodds into its mythos. Dodds had had no origin story in the Forties, but had had a convoluted story spun for him only a couple of years earlier, by Roy Thomas, only for Gaiman to dismiss this in a single panel, providing the simpler, and much more thought-provoking notion that Dodds was driven to his alter ego by dreams caused by the absence of the mythological presence of Dream from the Universe.
This explanation was taken up by writer/artist Matt Wagner, most of whose work has been done in the independent market (Mage, Grendel), but who has occasionally dipped into DC to shake up some of its older conceptions Wagner pushed for a Wesley Dodds series that would reinterpret the character in the light of his dreams: driven by them to unravel puzzles and crime in the late Thirties: puzzles and crime that, beneath a very stylish pulp veneer, would focus upon the genuine social ills and hypocrisies of the era. In 1993, he was given his opportunity.
Mystery Theatre would never hit the commercial heights of Gaiman’s series, but it sold enough to run for just under six years: 70 monthly issues, an Annual, and a couple of short stories in Vertigo compilations. As so often happens on cancellation, there were promises of repeat business, in mini-series, but the end of issue 70 was the end, even though that was (deliberately) halfway through the latest play.
Because that was the series’ conceit: that each story arc was a four-act play, with a different stage designer, or artist, for each drama.
Matt Wagner was the inspiration behind Mystery Theatre but only wrote the first three arcs, issues 1-12. After that, he worked with Steven T Seagle from issue 13 to 52, plotting each story for Seagle to dialogue. Wagner then withdrew from active contribution, limiting himself to suggesting settings and themes, before dropping out entirely after issue 62, leaving Seagle as sole scripter.
The intention was for each arc to be drawn by a different artist whose work was suited to the noirish, Thirties setting, and the first three arcs were drawn by Guy Davis, John Watkiss and R G Taylor respectively. But Davis’s renditions of Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont, and the supporting characters, not to mention his depiction of the era, was so powerful and defining that an arrangement was worked out for him to become the series’ semi-permanent artist, drawing two arcs each year, with the third drawn by a guest artist.
To date, 52 issues of Sandman Mystery Theatre have been collected in a series of eight graphic novels, a mixture of single and double-arc collections. There are currently no plans for volume 9, though (assuming that the Annual and the short stories are not to be reprinted) the rest of the series could be collected in two further volumes.
The series ended midway through its final drama, with Wesley and Dian suddenly leaving New York, with the mystery of the latest monster unsolved, but with other mystery-men, not to mention the Police, poised to take it on, and with enough clues (allegedly) having already been given to enable the reader to decipher the mystery alone. This depiction of Wesley Dodds permeated back into DC itself, and the Justice Society, but it didn’t sell in the numbers needed to keep the series going, and in the New 52, there is no Sandman comparable.
So join me beneath the proscenium arch, as the curtain goes up on a series of plays, as the spotlight shines upon a dark stage, and those corrupted players  move upon it. Settle comfortably in your seat, ensure all mobile phones are switched off, and let the house lights dim. Appearing in our first performance, for your delectation, Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the first play by our Repertory Company…. The Tarantula.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1974


Justice League of America 113, “The Creature in the Velvet Cage!” Written by Len Wein, art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Dick Giordano (inks), edited by Julius Schwartz.

On Earth-2, the Justice Society and their guests, the Justice League, are stopping a bank robbery by the Horned Owl gang. But as they leave, a strange alarm comes from the Sandcar, putting Sandman into a panic. Something has happened that shouldn’t have: he jumps into his car and races away.
The heroes follow him to Wes Dodds’ mansion, where Hourman shows them how to access Sandman’s hidden laboratory, by moving a giant hourglass. In the lab, Sandman, gas mask removed, is bleakly surveying a scene of devastation, where someone, or something, has escaped from a glass cage.
Reluctantly, he explains a burden that he has carried alone for many years. His captive was Sandy Hawkins, formerly his sidekick, Sandy the Golden Boy.
The Justice Society are shocked. As far as they were aware, Sandy Hawkins left York City years ago, but this was just Sandman’s cover story. What really happened was that, shortly after the War, Sandman tried to construct a new anti-crime weapon, the Silicoid Gun. But when this was tested, it exploded. Sandman was dazed, but Sandy was transformed into a massive creature, made of silicon, with blazing eyes. Sandy threatened to go on a rampage, take over the world, until Sandman put him to sleep with his gas gun.
Since then, he has kept Sandy a secret and a prisoner, in these luxurious surroundings, permanently sedated to prevent him from rampaging again, whilst Sandman sought a cure for him.
His pride, and his shame kept him from telling the rest of the JSA, and seeking their help. In the meantime, he was so disgusted with himself, he tore up his yellow and purple costume and reverted to his former business suit and gas mask.
Now he needs the combined assistance of the assembled JLA/JSA to stop Sandy and recapture him.
The heroes divide into three groups, following Sandy’s trail. Superman 1, the Elongated Man and Hourman prevent Sandy from doing more than delay a high society wedding (complete with overbearing and undoubtedly Jewish Mother of the Bride), only for Sandy to turn to sand and ooze away.
Batman, The Flash 2 and Wonder Woman 2 catch up with Sandy on a backyard baseball field, but when the Flash tries to deprive him of air, Sandy simply lets himself go with the whirlwind.
Sandman and Green Lantern 1 catch up with the monster Sandy at Machismo Beach, where they confront him. Sandman attempts to gas Sandy into unconsciousness, but in the open air his sleep-gas disperses. Sandy raises his hand as if to strike, but doesn’t. Sandy is then zapped from behind by the rest of the heroes, who have seen an opportunity to strike whilst the monster was distracted.
Suddenly, the beach is subjected to an earthquake. Superman, borrowing Wonder Woman’s indestructible lasso of truth, tunnels underground to sew up the fissure and fuse it shut. He then traces its path, to deal with any damage it has caused, but there is none. And its path goes through the sites where the heroes have fought the monster Sandy.
The heroes are debating why this should be so when, with rusty vocal chords, Sandy starts to speak. He explains that the first signs of the earthquake released him from his cage and that, aware of its course, he followed its path, absorbing the vibrations with his silicon body, to prevent damage.
He also explains that he is not a menace, that the megalomania was just a short-lived phase. For all the years of his captivity, he has been harmless, but too sedated to be able to tell his old friend.
Sandman is horrified at what he has done. He begs forgiveness, but it is not Sandy’s forgiveness that he truly needs, but his own.
* * * * *
After a three-part story and a two-part story, Len Wein became the only writer to pen a one-part team-up, which was almost his swan song on Justice League of America: his last script was the following issue, thus preventing a minor synchronicity.
The rationale behind this one-off was down to Justice League of America‘s sales. Like the majority of DC’s most popular series, it had for most of its history been published on an eight-times-a-year basis. This was DC’s standard practice with a title being drawn by a single artist. Characters like Superman and Batman, who were being drawn by multiple artists, could be issued monthly, but to avoid deadline pressures, series like The Flash and Green Lantern, dependant upon Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane respectively, only appeared eight-times-a year.
Basically, the title would skip every third month throughout the year. Justice League of America was actually sufficiently popular to be elevated to the very unusual nine-times-a-year, starting in 1965 (skipping every fourth month), but the additional issue (which would directly follow the annual JLA/JSA team-up) was an 80 Page Giant, featuring nothing but reprints from the early years of the title.
By 1974, DC’s Age of Relevancy was firmly dead, but it had left its mark on sales across the line. Justice League of America‘s sales had dipped so far that the series had been cut back to bi-monthly in 1973. DC had tried to make the best of the series by expanding it to the 100 Page Giant format, with issue 110, showcasing the usual 20 page new story but supporting it with 80 pages of reprint, including old Justice Society and Seven Soldiers reprints.
Whichever way it was presented, the fact remained that the Justice League now only appeared six times a year, and it did not make commercial sense to devote a third of the year’s output to the Justice society.
The limited space required a limited scope: it would be hard to successfully menace the planet and having it sorted by two teams in only ten pages, which is why Wein chose to tell a purely personal tale, and one of the earliest continuity patches to be applied to the careers of the Justice Society.
You’ll remember that I commented, in 1966, that the Sandman had been returned in his original garb, of business suit and gas mask, rather than the yellow and purple look associated with the Simon/Kirby years on the feature. (He’d also returned with the Sand-gun, but the less said about that, the better). That was his only substantive appearance since the Forties, having otherwise had nothing more than a couple of cameos.
On the other hand, the Sandman was obviously something of a favourite with Wein, who had used him in both his team-ups to date, and in the original manner, with his gas-gun. Wein’s story filled in a necessary hole, bridging the gap between the yellow-and-purple, Sandy the Golden Boy era and the restored original costume.
As for the story itself, it’s an entertaining, well-constructed piece, but its major flaw was the same that affected the Red Tornado: the Sandman was an Earth-2 character, who appeared at best once a year, in a crowd of others. The story ended on a cliffhanger of sorts: could Sandy’s silicon form be transformed back into a human body? Could Wes Dodds’ self-belief ever be repaired? With the exception of one, very-belated and completely overlooked back-up story in 1982, this issue would not be addressed until long after Zero Hour, let alone Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Needless to say, the story would have functioned equally well in the DC Universe as it did in the Multiverse, leaving it perfectly valid post-Crisis.
One last thing to note: Doctor Fate is absent from proceedings for only the third time in twelve outings. Now that’s popularity.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1973


Justice League of America 107, “Crisis on Earth-X!”/Justice League of America 108, “Thirteen against the Earth!” Written by Len Wein, art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Dick Giordano (inks), edited by Julius Schwartz.


For months, the Justice League and Justice Society have been working on developing Transmatter Cubes, to get around the fact that they can usually only meet up at one specific period each year. Now the machine is ready for its first testing with human subjects: Batman, Green Arrow and the Elongated Man will jump to Earth-2, Superman, Doctor Fate and the Sandman will make the reverse journey.
The Red Tornado is still pleading to be allowed to take part, to find out if he can ever return to Earth-2. (He was not killed in issue 102: in only the previous issue, the JLA discovered that the Tornado had actually been blown through the Vibrational Barrier into Earth-1, where he found himself prevented from crossing back: he had been used by his creator, T.O. Morrow against the Justice League, for which purpose Morrow had carved the Tornado a human face. When the Tornado had helped defeat his creator again, he was rewarded with Justice league membership).However, as the Transmatter Cube has not yet been tested on androids, the Tornado is still to be excluded.
The heroes line up for the simultaneous experiment. Green Arrow wants them to hurry up: he’s standing in a draft. In an airtight satellite ? mocks the Atom. When the Cubes are activated, the two sets of heroes disappear from their native Earths. But they do not arrive at their destinations.
The sextet arrive on a hitherto unknown Earth, which will be known as Earth-X. The cause for their diversion reveals himself: it is the Red Tornado who, desperate to try to get home, has whirled himself into invisibility and stowed away in the Earth-1 Transmatter Cube. Except that his whirlings have upset the delicate workings of the Cube and deposited them somewhere unknown.
The septet’s musing about how to contact their friends and get home are interrupted by the shock appearance – on American streets! – of a platoon of German soldiers, in Nazi uniforms, accompanying a futuristic tank.
The Germans attack, the first tank shell crumpling on Superman2’s chest. Doctor Fate responds with a magic battering ram, but something on this world causes his magic to run awry, and the ram floors Superman instead. Then the Germans fire off gas shells, which knock the heroes out.
But as they slide into unconsciousness, they hear the German’s exclaiming with fear at the arrival of the Freedom Fighters.
These are six heroes formerly published in the Forties at Quality Comics: The Ray, The Black Condor, the Human Bomb, Doll Man, Phantom Lady and Uncle Sam. These newcomers mop up the fearful Nazis and spirit the JLA/JSA to their hidden headquarters, behind a Nazi propaganda poster.
Once the heroes recover, Uncle Sam explains the position on this Earth. When the President (Roosevelt, F.D.) suffered his fatal heart attack in 1944, the balance of Government swung the wrong way. By the time the US had the Bomb, so too did Germany, and neither dared use it. The war entered a stalemate, dragging on into the mid-Sixties. Many more people died, including the Blackhawks, and Plastic Man. Finally, the German’s invented some form of Mind Control machine, ending the war in their favour. For some unknown reason, the Freedom Fighters are immune to the device, and they continue the battle from underground.
Of course, the newcomers volunteer their aid, despite Black Condor’s doubts as to their bona fides. Doctor Fate’s magic, used cautiously, shows the assembled heroes the whereabouts of three concealed Mind Control Stations: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Mount Fujiyama in Japan and Mount Rushmore in America. Leaving the Red Tornado behind, so he doesn’t get in the way, the heroes split into three teams of four to go out and bring down each Station.
In Paris, Batman, Doctor Fate, the Ray and the Human Bomb mount their attack. The Ray flies to the observation platform and downs the guards but is in danger of being overwhelmed by their reinforcements when Doctor Fate, carrying the Human Bomb, swoops down on them, whilst Batman, scaling the outside of the Tower, frightens the life out of them.
Once inside, the quartet are confronted by an intelligent machine that makes monster opponents that neutralise each hero. However, they quickly switch, and defeat each other’s opponents, before turning to the machine. It then proceeds to override their nervous systems, paralysing them. The menace is averted – but only for a moment as the heroes, walking like automatons, march upon it and destroy it.
No-one feels better for it. It seems all three machines must be destroyed to free Earth-X from the Nazi horror.
Back on Earths 1 and 2, the Justice League and Justice Society are unable to locate their missing members. What if they have been transmitted… nowhere?
End of part 1.


After a short recap by Uncle Sam, we turn to Superman, Green Arrow, the Phantom Lady and Doll Man in Japan. The locals are filled with shame at having been subjugated by their one-time allies. The Mind Control Station is hidden in the centre of Fujiyama’s crater: the heroes attack from different points, but the machine responds by setting off an underwater earthquake that threatens to destroy all Japan, forcing Superman to break off and combat that. The Machine, which has apparently absorbed the lessons learned from its Paris counterpart, theorises that the greatest threat is gone, but the remaining trio come up with a plan.
Green Arrow bombards the machine with a flurry of arrows. It is contemptuous of their lack of effect, until its voice starts to slur and fail, and it ceases to work. This is down to Doll Man who, under cover of all those arrows, had slipped inside and screwed around with its wiring.
The final quartet, Sandman, Elongated Man, Black Condor and Uncle Sam, have gone to Mount Rushmore, which had had a new head added to the mountain, that of Hitler. They bust through the Nazi guards but somehow find the machine impervious to their every assault. That is, until Elongated Man works out that the bird hovering overhead throughout all the fighting is not natural, but a robot projecting a mirage.
The real machine is hidden inside Hitler’s head, affording Uncle Sam the pleasure of punching Hitler out and destroying the last machine.
Everyone returns to Freedom Fighter headquarters, dispirited and perplexed that nothing seems to have changed, that the force powering the Mind Control of Earth-X hasn’t been destroyed. But the visiting heroes then accuse the Freedom Fighters of having taken control of it, with the intention of ruling the world for themselves.
A fight starts between the two sides, the Freedom Fighters grimly aware that it is the machine’s energies that have now perverted their allies. Only the Red Tornado, standing aside, is logical enough to determine that there must be a fourth, Master Mind Control Station.
He sets off through the atmosphere, trying to find it, and discovers it in space, a satellite base. Inside, Hitler himself welcomes him, attempts to suborn him, but the enraged Tornado unleashes a punch that knocks Hitler’s head off, literally: he is nothing but a robot himself, a creation of the Master Machine, which has replaced all the Nazi hierarchy and taken control of the planet itself.
The Tornado fights back against the assault on himself, and his whirlings are sufficient to disrupt the gyroscopic balance of the satellite. Uncontrollable, it falls out of orbit, crashing in flames in the ocean far below, but not before the Red Tornado retrieves something.
The menace is over and Earth-X is free at last, but the JLA/JSA septet are stuck here. That is, until the Red Tornado unveils the device which allowed the four Mind Control machines to communicate together. This is hastily adapted to send out a signal that the relieved Justice League and Justice Society can home in on, enabling their missing members to go home.
* * * * *
The 1973 team-up is second only to that of 1965 in its importance in my eyes. The 1965 team-up of these introduced me to the Justice Society of America, but this team-up reintroduced me to comics, after a three-year absence of having grown out of them. Considering just how many comics I have bought, read and written about, this is one of the most significant events of my life.
Wein’s approach is still focussed onto the Gardner Fox tradition, which made this story easy for me to appreciate how much comics – or DC at least – had moved on in my absence: I had barely been exposed to anything but Gardner Fox when it came to the annual rite: the sole exception was the second half of O’Neil’s 1969 effort.
It’s fast, it’s brash, it’s a simply story told linearly, with its focus upon the heroes using their powers, yet with the added element of personality: Fox might have had the Golden Age Superman weighing in against Nazi soldiers, but he would never have had him say, “Ratzi, I cut my baby teeth on punks like you!”
The influence of the previous year’s inclusion of a third super-team was quickly felt. Wein had intended that to be a one-off, a salute to the double-anniversary, but Schwarz demanded another third force: the previous year’s anniversary had sold like crazy, and Schwarz’s first principle was to give the readers what they wanted.
So Wein had to cast about for an equivalent team, but ended up having to invent his own. It’s a perfect example of a story creating itself by necessity and logic from an initial element.
The six heroes gathered together as the Freedom Fighters had never previously teamed up, but they were all heroes from the Forties who had been published by Quality Comics, and who had subsequently been acquired by DC, alongside better known and more famous characters such as the Blackhawks, and Plastic Man. They fit Schwarz’s bill. Wein’s next step was to recognise that, for most of their career, these characters had been fighting Nazis, and would be best employed in the role with which they were identified.
That in turn meant having to have an active Nazi foe in 1973, and that in turn led to the establishment of Earth-X as an Earth on which Germany had won a much-prolonged Second World War.
The venue for this story was originally intended to be Earth-Swastika, but Schwarz understandably refused to allow that symbol in his book, and Wein compromised by crossing out all the cross-pieces, to leave an X.
After the initial flurry of Earths a decade previously, the idea of adding parallel worlds had rather dropped into abeyance. True, a particularly goofy issue of The Flash in 1968 had seen Barry Allen wind up on an Earth where he and the Justice League were no more than characters in comics published by National Periodical Publications, i.e, this Earth (named Earth-Prime for the purpose), but this aside there had been no development of the Multiverse in almost a decade. Wein’s creation of Earth-X was the start of the second wave, by which the number of identifiable Earths would multiply, slowly, but steadily.
One thing that irritated me for years about this story, being interested in American history and having a food working knowledge of the Presidents, was Uncle Sam’s reference to Roosevelt’s (depicted in the comic but not named as thus) fatal heart attack in 1944, when I knew full well that he’d actually died of a brain haemorrhage in 1945. Unfortunately, it took me more years than I care to recollect before I twigged to the fact that this was actually quite a subtle counterfactual by Wein. Roosevelt had been succeeded by Truman, a man he hardly knew, who’d been added to the ticket in 1944, at a time when the course of the War in Europe had turned decisively in the Allies’ favour.
In 1944, Roosevelt’s death before an Election would have brought in Henry Wallace as President, a man known as a great, almost mystical liberal, but not for his decisiveness. Uncle Sam references the balance of Government going the wrong way, which in this context it no doubt would have under Wallace, so that Germany also had the Bomb when America was ready to use it. Besides, if this death had occurred before the Summer D-Day landings, the balance of the conventional War may have been more even. Rather than an egregious mistake, which I took it to be for much too long, Wein’s little throwaway line turned out to be an extraordinarily subtle and accurate way to distinguish Earth-X’s past.
The additional slickness, and naturalness of the story impressed me, as did the art. Though I’m well aware of Dillin’s flaws now, both in his reliance on stock figures and his lack of flair, he compared well with Sekowsky, and especially the early Sekowsky, as inked by Bernard Sachs. Of course, much of this was down to Dick Giordano’s inks, clean and strong and very clear, concentrating on thin, sharp lines that define the images without removing their underlying strength. The half-page image of the Nazi soldiers looking down the Eiffel Tower at the rapidly-climbing Batman, cape flowing in a decently Adams-esque manner.
The half dozen resurrected heroes made for an interesting bunch. The Ray, with his light and heat powers and simple all-yellow costume, was obviously the best suited to break out in the modern era, though when DC finally got around to this notion, it was post-Crisis and the role went to a new Ray with a decidedly inferior new costume. Phantom Lady, who also preferred yellow, was a Forties pin-up incarnate, and was actually appropriated as cousin to the JSA’s Starman, both having the surname Knight.
In contrast, the flying Black Condor, chosen as the team paranoid, failed to impress, as did Doll Man, a precursor of the Earth-1 Atom but not half so interesting a character. He still outdid the Human Bomb, a guy who has to live in a protective suit because his mere touch sets off explosions, so every time you want him in on the action, he has to whip off a heavy duty glove and punch one-handedly whilst desperately gripping the glove in his other hand, because if he drops it, and can’t cover his punching hand up, nobody’s going to want to get near him.
And this leaves Uncle Sam, who is the incarnation of America’s national self-image, and as such is really not something you can safely discuss in a comic book about three teams of superheroes battling left-over Nazi hordes in 1973.
Because, for all the enjoyment this story gave, when you say it like that, you’re making the whole concept into one with a very dodgy moral basis. I was not long since turned 18 when I read this story. My Mum had lived through the War, my Uncle had been in the Navy during it: all around the world there were people with vivid personal memories of the conflict against the Nazis, who really did not need cheapjack little affairs like this making free with their experiences.
Perhaps that’s too heavy a thing to lay on this story: remember that its counterfactual basis was genuinely subtle and, considered purely as a superhero story, intent on thrills and entertainment, it was almost an unqualified success.
I say almost for reasons connected with the reappearance of the Red Tornado. When we last saw him in this series, he was sacrificing his life to save Earth-2, but of course Wein had no genuine intent on killing off a character with so much unfulfilled potential. In the previous issue to this team-up, Wein did what should have been done from the start: he brought the Tornado into Earth-1, made sure he couldn’t get out and set him down in the Justice League, where he could at last develop.
There isn’t much sign of development in this story: the Tornado is still mistrusted on all sides as, basically, a whirling disaster, a point very much emphasised by his being responsible for stranding everyone on Earth-X in the first place. After which, everybody roundly tells him to go stand in a corner and not interfere, just like they always did in the Justice Society.
It’s more than a bit demeaning, and an ironic contrast to Len Wein’s contemporaneous Swamp Thing, where the theme was very much that those who tormented the horrible looking creature were themselves the true monsters. Wein does, at least, attempt to rehabilitate the android in the end, by having him save the eventual day, not to mention come up with our deus ex machina (literally) in the form of a device that, for no logical reason except that Wein needs a get-out, enables the League and the Society to get home.
In a post-Crisis Universe, all of this is impossible. In the Multiverse it was a moment of realisation that I could still get fun from American comics, and the start of something whose dimensions I would not have been able to believe had I foreseen what I was doing by splashing out 10p on issue 107.
One sidebar note, that I did not realise either then or until writing this series: traditionally, the annual team-up took place in the August and September issues of Justice League of America, but with effect from this year, would in future appear cover dated October and November. I never noticed. Of course, the cover dates were virtually meaningless, back then. But from my rediscovery of comics until now, I have assumed that these were the ‘summer issues’ still.

The Sandman: Overture, issue 1


I confused myself in the comics shop earlier, about how long ago it really was since Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series ended. but it is still the best part of twenty years since the final issue of the series, and twice as long as the series ran. And I’ve always been counted among those who would happily have sold a reasonably distant member of their family for another story. And now finally that’s not necessary (just as well given I don’t have any suitable kin to offer), because Gaiman has not merely agreed to write that one more story, but has actually completed it and the first issue has been published.

Of course, DC being DC, the event is going to be milked for all its worth and the herd in the next field as well for, whilst Gaiman’s story will consist of only six issues, these will only be published on a bi-monthly basis, meaning that the end of this story will not be known until September 2014. To ensure our money doesn’t get stagnant in our pockets keep us going in between episodes, we will be able to buy ‘Special Editions’ of the previous month’s comic, with ‘extras’. I will say no more.

So, what’s it like, returning to the Dreaming with Gaiman after all these years? Has he still got it? Does this feel right, does it feel authentic? Hell, yes, it’s like never having been away.

Gaiman’s story is the one before it all began, the one that ends with issue 1, almost twenty-five years ago, when Dream of the Endless was captured by the self-styled Magus, Roderick Burgess, returning from a mission that has left him desperately tired and weak. This is that story, so already we know two things. The first is that this is taking place during the Great War in Europe, and the second is all of Dream’s future to come.

Stories are always difficult to tell when you know their ending in advance. The ingenuity of The Day of the Jackal (on film at least) lay in how it sprang its story of why the Jackal failed, when his approach had been so impossibly meticulous. Gaiman has an advantage in that this story need not connect itself in such a sense to the already-known series, since all it has to do is to deliver a ‘desperately tired and weak’ Sandman to a pre-arranged point, but Gaiman wouldn’t be Gaiman if he ignored that challenge.

What we have so far is a mysterious dream sequence far away in space, on a planet that is not Earth, and whose inhabitants include a race of intelligent, if immobile plants, one of whom dreams of a strange black-petaled, white-faced plant that senses something deeply wrong on this planet, and then burns. This incident creates ripples: Destiny reads in his book of entertaining his sister Death, who is perturbed that she has just collected their brother Dream a hundred galaxies away, and it is never very good when one of the Endless dies.

Then there is the Corinthian, disobeying Dream by entering the waking world, by killing. He is brought to Dream’s London offices to be uncreated away from all his friends, but Dream’s intentions are disturbed by a summons: not a common thing but not unknown,yet this is a summons that cannot be refused. Dream has time only to return to the Dreaming, leaving the Corinthian to roam unchecked, to collect his helmet of office and his pouch of sand (he wears his ruby already) before being summoned in an instant to, we assume, this planet of humanoids, insects and plants.

He arrives prepared for anything. Except for what he finds: a fold-out, four page spread of Dreams: nor dreams, but Dreams: himself, replicated, variegated, over thirty different incarnations, all answering the summons.

Where this leads is two months away, in another year.

Overture comes with alternate covers, at least for issue 1. As was traditional, Dave McKean has also returned, but series artist J. H. Williams III has drawn an alternate cover, as depicted above, which is the one I’ve chosen. Williams has been one of the leading artists in comics for over a decade, and he is immaculate in this issue, meticulous in his detail and in full command of his craft. Parts of the art is in black and white, although it might be better to describe it as grey and white. Practically the only quibble would be that, in the London office sequel, his Sandman is hugely reminiscent of the Shade, from James Robinson’s Starman, but then I like the Shade so I’m fine with that.

This is, as usual, very much a first issue, setup and mystery, and a generously depicted atmosphere. There are still stories to be told within Gaiman’s Dreaming, within Gaiman’s Endless. This is the first: I will not be alone in hoping it will not be the last.

Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane: review


I’m a bit in two minds about Neil Gaiman’s new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I enjoyed the book on a first reading, or rather it kept me fascinated and eager to reach its outcome, but there was something missing, something in my emotional response to the story and the characters, that I expected to find.
Part of the issue is a confusion about what the book is supposed to be. I came to it knowing very little about the story, except that it was being billed as Gaiman’s first adult novel since 2005’s Anansi Boys, and to me it isn’t an adult novel, and I am not responding to it as an adult novel.
Yet it is, after a fashion, an adult story. The narrator is an adult of unspecified age (but implied to be mid-forties), whose name is withheld, but he is part of the story in his adult self only in the book’s opening and closing sequences. The real story is of a forgotten period when he was aged 7, that he now recalls in impressive detail, in the person of his seven year old self with his seven year old’s perception (there is a sex scene that is plainly not understood as such by the narrator). But the precision, and the detail of memory through which the story is conveyed, is definitely adult.
Yet the tale itself, delving deeply into fantasy of the kind Gaiman exemplifies, with its underlying of a mythic element (not one taken from any recognisable myth but, like the Endless in Sandman conceived in Gaiman’s own mind) feels like the concerns of a child. Gaiman makes the point explicitly in the book, that children explore, make their own paths, whereas adults follow defined ways.
The story is set in motion by the suicide of a lodger staying with the boy’s family. The family car is missing. The boy and his father go looking for it, and find it down a long lane, near an old farmhouse, with the lodger dead from exhaust fumes piped into the car. Whilst the Police carry out their business, the boy is taken in to the farm, which is run by the Hempstocks.
The Hempstocks are three women, three generations, daughter, mother, grandmother or, as they are open (in front of the boy) from the outset about having powers or abilities that we would equate to magic, we should immediately think of them as Maiden, Mother and Crone. Gaiman has form with just such a Trinity, in Sandman: the three Fates, the Erinyes, the Kindly Ones.
They are also the only figures in the book to be named throughout: everyone in the narrator’s family, in ‘real life’, is named only in relation to the boy: Sister, Father, Mother, the lodger. The ‘villain’ of the story, whose ultimate nature is never disclosed although she is plainly a predator, is named as Ursula Monkton when she breaks into real life, though her real name is apparently Skarthach of the Keep. It’s significant that, as a direct result of her true name becoming known, Skarthach/Ursula is destroyed.
Names are of importance. Gaiman never states this, but he writes in accordance with this belief. That the Hempstocks are named is an illustration of their security, a security that remains uppermost even though the Three are reduced to Two in preserving the boy.
The ladies, Lettie (aged an apparent 11), Ginnie and Granny, are the still heart of competence in this book. They are Puissant, Powerful, though never do they express it as such – it would be too common. They are three figures who simply Are, and what they are is unbeatable – for want of a better word. They already know that the death has aroused… something, something that they call a flea, indicating it’s level of significance, at least to them. Throughout the book, they act to support and defend the boy, even to the extent of taking his memories away from him, until – as he has done on other occasions in need – he returns, in need of their recollection.
I’m not going to say more about the story. Gaiman writes simply and precisely, an adult voice for a child’s recollections, fine and precise, but never over-reaching itself into adult understanding or imagery. The eye is finely detailed, and Gaiman evokes the times (drawing on his own Sussex childhood) with an unobtrusive accuracy. Over everything arches the absolute terror of knowing that any fight between a child and an adult is impossible and unwinnable from the outset: that even those closest to and most responsible for protecting you will abandon you wholly and allow the monster to win.
I think this is a very good book, but I also think I have to adjust, to learn to see it as it is, rather that as it’s been promoted. Gaiman himself sees this as an adult novel, and has chosen to tell it that way, but the story is a child’s story, and it’s concerns are those appropriate to the child at its centre. It is far closer in essence to Coraline than Anansi Boys, or, a fairer comparison, Neverwhere.
As a final point, given Gaiman’s caution as to names, except for those who are secure or destroyed, is intriguingly reversed in one specific instance. The boy has dealings with three cats throughout the book; a kitten he names Fluffy, which is callously killed early on; a full-grown cat meant for its replacement, though it is in every way unsuitable, and which arrives with the name Monster; and a kitten that comes through from the world that is seen with the Hempstocks, a kitten the boy loves as much as Fluffy but which is ultimately not of his world: this kitten has no name.
I see that I’ve managed to get through almost 1,000 words discussing this book without even mentioning the Ocean of the title, which is, on the surface, no more than a duckpond, albeit a duckpond that can get poured into a bucket (much against its will). What that Ocean is should be discovered in the book, which you really should all read. I shall be doing so again, soon.

N.B. The book cover shown above is that of the UK edition. The American cover uses similar imagery, in that it shows a child underwater, but shows that image from a point level with the child, lacking the element of the sky above, and definitely lacking the ring of birds which creates a sense of borders, or shores, that in the UK edition directly evokes the duckpond element. The American cover is consequently darker, and more passive in the child’s figure. In addition, whilst the UK edition suggests a boy, swimming naked or possibly in shorts, the American cover is ambiguous. The figure wears a white, thigh-length garment, rendering it more female is aspect: the photos is too dark to tell what length hair the child has. I’ve often found American editions to have better covers than British ones, but this is clearly a case of the reverse. I’d love to know the rationale behind the selection of the different scenes.

JSA Legacies: No. 11 – Doctor Mid-Nite


Doctor Mid-Nite 1

Dr Mid-Nite was created by writer Charles Reizenstein and artist Stan Aschmeier (Stan Asch or Stan Josephs) and made his début in All-American Comics 25. The Doctor was a Doctor in real-life, prominent surgeon Charles McNider, who was called in to operate on a witness against mobsters, who had been shot. However, a gang member threw a grenade into the operating theatre, which killed the witness and blinded McNider.
Unable to continue his profession, McNider decided to become a crusading anti-crime columnist, with the assistance of his secretary, Myra Mason. However, whilst sat alone one night, brooding, McNider was disturbed by something entering his rooms and causing havoc. Instinctively ripping off his bandages, McNider discovered that he was actually able to see in conditions of blackness, much like the owl that had accidentally flown in his window. He decided to keep his newfound ability to himself and, after producing a pair of dark lenses that enabled him to see in the light, McNider chose to go out and fight crime, under the pseudonym of Doctor Mid-Nite. He named the owl Hooty and adopted it as his mascot.
The spelling of the good Doctor’s name has been queried but there is no settled explanation of it. The best suggestion is that Mid-Nite’s creation came in the wake of the widely-known radio serial featuring Captain Midnight, hence the different spelling to avoid accusations of copying.
Doc’s costume consisted of a black headcowl, incorporating the black lens goggles, green cape, black long-sleeved top under a red jerkin fastened by half-moon crescents, and brown gauntlets and boots. Although Marvel’s Daredevil became famous, twenty years later, as a prominent superhero who was blind, Doctor Mid-Nite was the first superhero to feature a physical disability.
When Green Lantern left the Justice Society on being granted his own title, Doctor Mid-Nite replaced him, in All-Star 8. Doc appeared in the issue as a guest star, seeking the JSA’s assistance to track down the missing Professor Able. Meanwhile, the JSA are all faced with suspects who have suddenly gone mad under interrogation: each turn out to be victims of a new drug, developed by criminal genius Elba (do not pre-empt the drama by reading Elba’s name backwards). Johnny Thunder gets into trouble and summons the rest of the JSA, but Elba locks himself into a lightless room, causing the JSA to have to call upon Doctor Mid-Nite, who goes in alone and defeats the villain, exposing him as being, shock, horror, Professor Able. The Doctor is offered membership for his efforts.
Mid-Nite remained with the JSA until their final adventure in All-Star 57, putting him third in the overall list of appearances, and his solo series lasted until 1948, when All-American was converted to a Western title after issue 102. Apart from his ability to see in the dark, the Doc carried with him a number of ‘blackout bombs’, little devices that, when thrown down, generated clouds of impenetrable black smoke, in which the criminals couldn’t see, but the Doctor could.
He returned to action in the second JLA/JSA team-up, in 1964, and two years later produced an upgraded weapon, in the form of the Cyrotuber, a multi-barrel gun which used adaptations of modern operation techniques – sonics, cryogenics, lasers – for offensive purposes.
Though Mid-Nite was, improbably, considered for a team-up with the all-powerful Spectre, outside of his JSA appearances, his only other exposure was in occasional guest slots in The Flash, where he became Flash 2’s other-dimensional doctor for things that Barry Allen couldn’t take to anyone in Central City.
Indeed, increasingly McNider’s career focussed on his medical abilities rather than his superpower (which, as he aged, began to slowly fail him). He was included in the first half of the Seventies All-Star revival, but gently eased out during the run, and did not reappear until the early Eighties when he moved to Los Angeles to become, in effect, the private physician to Infinity, Inc.
In that respect McNider took on an intern, in African-American Beth Chapel. With the Crisis looming, and his proposal to retain Earth-2 finally rejected, Doctor Mid-Nite was one of the JSA heroes that Roy Thomas rapidly chose to re-create. Simultaneously with Rick Tyler’s first use of Hourman’s Miraclo, Beth Chapel was caught in an oxygen blast that blinded her, only to find she too was perfectly sighted in the dark. Chapel chose to become the second Doctor Midnight (note spelling).

Doctor Midnight 2

As Doctor Midnight, Chapel wore a radically different (and completely crappy) costume made for her by her mother. Chapel applied to join Infinity, Inc, but was not accepted until very close to the end of that series. She and Rick Tyler also started a relationship, much against Rex Tyler’s approval.
But Chapel did not last long in the part. After Crisis, she and the new, female, Wildcat were part of a team sent to the Caribbean to bring down Eclipso. It was a total disaster and everyone was killed, which demonstrated the only point of the exercise: cheap outrage and the disposal of another bunch of unwanted characters. The Creeper was subsequently resurrected, mesdames Midnight and Wildcat were never seen again.
The onus came back onto Charles McNider who, at the time, was in limbo with the Justice Society and, although an active member of the 1950 JSA, he was excluded from their mini-series. Mid-Nite did play an active role in the open-ended series: at first concentrating on his role as a physician at a free clinic in New Orleans, with another African-American female intern (who thankfully did not follow Beth Chapel into a horrible costume). But the death of an old favourite Jazz musician had McNider bringing the revived JSA into what became a battle against their old foe the Ultra-Humanite, and Mid-Nite stayed with the team for the rest of the short run.
The highlight of his performance was getting Jesse Chambers to try an old (and acknowledgedly sexist) trick to distract a guard by pulling down the zip of her running top!
McNider’s final appearance, like many others, came in Zero Hour. Like Hourman, he attacked the Extant and, in the same manner, had his ageing accelerated. Sandman, another victim, was saved in hospital, but Doctor Mid-Nite died on the operating table.
Though McNider was dead, his presence was the subject of much fan debate on-line, on the subject of whether Charles McNider may have been gay.
The debate was furious at times, not only from those who wished to defend their favourite old character but, frankly, from the bigoted who would not countenance the idea that a superhero might be gay, or why anyone would ever want a superhero to be gay? Their most ‘objective’ argument was that Doctor Mid-Nite couldn’t have been gay because being homosexual was against the law.
Those proposing this radical departure pointed to a number of elements in the original stories. Unlike every other JSA member, McNider had never demonstrated any actual interest in the opposite sex, not even the fair Myra Mason, who was his constant and devoted companion for the best part of a decade. Indeed, McNider had often been snide and dismissive towards Myra, a kind of anti-female contempt that the proponents suggested were coded messages that those who were meant to understand could read – a necessity for the repressed homosexual community.
Interestingly, James Robinson’s Starman series would reinterpret the JSA adventure where the boys’ places are taken by their girl-friends. Robinson’s version excluded female Atoms and Doctor Mid-Nite’s, and as an amusing nod, has Mid-Nite reacting in horror to Wonder Woman’s mere suggestion.
However, since the turn of the century, retrospective stories have been assiduous to establish that, actually, McNider worshipped Myra Mason but kept his feelings for her secret so as not to endanger her, not that that prevented her from being murdered in the end by one of Doctor Mid-Nite’s (retrospectively created) enemies. (Such stories also tend to portray McNider as something of an effete snob, by the way).
My take on this is that, whilst I don’t believe that Mid-Nite’s stories contained any coded messages, had DC wished to make a stance by bringing one of the longer-lasting characters out as gay – which would have been a tremendous gesture – McNider was ideally positioned for this to be done without the least violation of anything already established about him. I also think that someone felt very uncomfortable about the idea, which is why they moved to stifle that possibility. Which eventually came true with the reorientation of Alan Scott in Earth-2.
Independent writer/artist Matt Wagner – noted for his creations Mage and Grendel, and of course Sandman Mystery Theatre – had long been interested in Doctor Mid-Nite and, in 1999, he created a three-issue Prestige mini-series, reviving the character in his new form, as a much darker figure.

Doctor Mid-Nite 3

Doctor Mid-Nite 3 was Norwegian-born Doctor Pieter Cross, a radical physician who had established a free clinic in Portsmouth, in Washington State, where there was a severe drug-smuggling problem. Cross used street characters he’d saved in an anti-drugs organisation but, having fallen foul of the drugs bosses, he was kidnapped, injected with an experimental drug they were peddling, made drunk and sent away in a high-powered sports car. Before he could regain control, Cross crashed, killing another driver. Cross had his physician’s licence removed. He also lost his sight.
Whilst brooding on his situation, Cross discovered that the drugs in his system had left him able to see in the dark. Aware of the past existence of Doctor Mid-Nite, Cross decided to exploit his ‘gift’ by taking up the vacant identity. There was no connection to McNider in Wagner’s original story, but subsequent writers have obsessively added details such as Cross having interned under McNider, and then having been delivered by him in emergency conditions. It often appears that the world of superheroes has to be rendered incestuous in its connections: anything less is simply insufficiently ‘real’.
The new Doctor Mid-Nite has not appeared in any other solo stories since Wagner’s series, but was added to the revived Justice Society in (nice touch) JSA 8. He wears a near identical costume to McNider, the principal difference being that the red jerkin has a groin-guard extension. He’s been a regular ever since, in both JSA and Justice Society of America, where he has formed a partnership with the new Mr. Terrific as the two smartest guys in the team. However, like McNider before him, Cross is more physician than superhero, and his participation in the action is strictly limited. It is he who performs the autopsy on Sue Dibny’s body in Identity Crisis and whose identification of the cause of death leads to the unmasking of the unexpected killer.
Doctor Mid-Nite 3 was a character of potential, almost none of which was realised. According to Batman, the drugs affected his sight in far-reaching ways that Cross had not yet begun to suspect, though this was never expanded upon. Indeed, at one point Cross had his sight magically restored, only to discover that the loss of his other vision was crippling, and he was actually glad to have his blindness restored.
Since then, the New 52 has intervened and all the above is meaningless. No Doctor Mid-Nite has appeared as yet. Given the general lack of any real idea of what to do with one over the last fifty years, it may be wise to hold back on creating another.