A Spot of Adventure: The Golden Age


This third post about a Golden Age comic featuring characters who were members of the Justice Society of America will sadly be different to those I wrote about Flash Comics and All-American Comics. It’s nothing to do with Adventure Comics being published by Detective Comics Inc., rather than All-American Publications, and therefore falling under Harry Donenfeld’s purview instead of Charley Gaines. Rather it’s a fundamental difference in both the comic and the DVD.
This time, I’m not working from a complete run: Adventure was not cancelled nor turned into a Western title. Instead, it continued uninterrupted through the Fifties and well beyond, to 1983 before its first cancellation after 490 issues. The period I’m seriously interested in is the Golden Age era of characters like The Sandman, Hourman and Starman, beginning with issue 40 and continuing to issue 102, after which there was a radical change of content, with Adventure becoming a vehicle for Superboy, at first as a solo star and from 1959 as part of the Legion of Superheroes.
The DVD starts with issue 40 and its run over those sixty two issues is far from complete, neither in numbers nor complete issues. I confess to little interest in the post 1946 Superboy era. But I’ll run my eye over it and comment.
As a prelude to the first issue on the DVD, and cribbing shamelessly from Wikipedia, I’ll quickly summarise the pre-history. The comic started as New Comics in 1938, a humour comic. It was re-named New Adventure Comics with issue 12, before adopting Adventure from issue 32 onwards. It evolved into an adventure series, including stories about futuristic scientist-detective Jor-L, a year before Superman debuted, and arrived at a superhero series with the introduction of The Sandman in issue 40.
Which is where I come in.
The Sandman went straight onto the cover of Adventure 40, the pulp detective figure in business suit, cape and gasmask, exactly as we know him now… except that the suit is orange, not green, and the fedora green, not orange. The story, which I’ve seen before in reprint, is credited to Larry Dean but it’s actually by Gardner Fox and Bert Christman. Apart from a surprisingly slow and atmospheric sequence where Wesley Dodd (not Dodds) mooches round his house and leaves a doll in his bed before cracking open the secret tunnel to The Sandman’s lab, it’s not a good story, naïve simple, uninterestingly drawn. It’s just a start.
The rest of the issue is undistinguished. Tiny is a one-page cartoon about a tough-talking, tough-acting bulldog, Barry O’Neill an ongoing serial about some kind of crime buster and Federal Men an FBI story about G-Man Steve Carson that’s interesting only for being by Siegel and Shuster. These are all in full colour, but Jack Woods, a cowboy serial, offered two pages of monocolour, all red shades, like Victor and Hornet used to, before dropping to B&W, and Captain Deesmo, an aviator series, was B&W throughout. Don Coyote, a cartoon two-pager set in some vague and implausible Sixteenth Century Britain that looks like Camelot, was full colour, and dreadfully silly, but it was back to B&W for Bulldog Martin, a broad-shouldered amateur troubleshooter, and Socko Strong, a boxer. Back to colour for Skip Schuyler, Government Agent, and the rather more Terry and the Pirates-esque Rusty and his Pals, which was credited to Bob Kane. Last up was Anchors Aweigh!, starring Don and Red, two Navy adventurers.
In short, the line-up, as might be expected, was a bunch of adventurers in various genres, with art and stories crudely ripped off from newspaper strips. Nothing stands out as more than enthusiastic, or crudely energetic and, The Sandman aside, nothing is interesting except to see the likes of Siegel and Shuster and Kane on series that didn’t make them famous. Adventure 40 was cover dated July 1939, making it contemporaneous with Action 14, and two months after Batman’s debut in Detective 27. The next complete issue available is Adventure 70: long before then, I’m pretty sure neither Federal Men nor Rusty continued.

Next available issue, no. 48 is represented only by the six-page debut of Hour-Man, and not even from Adventure but its reprint in a 1974 Giant-Size Justice League of America comic I once had. Issue 51 is represented only by the ten-page Sandman adventure, by which time art is by Craig Fleishman and it’s all running, jumping and leaping. And issue 57 offers only an eight-page Hour-Man adventure, featuring his buddies the Minute-Men of America and introducing his recurring enemy, Dr Togg.
From Adventure 61 onwards, the DVD offers a solid run of consecutive issues, but these are no more complete. This issue was Starman’s debut, catapulted onto the cover to displace The Sandman, and of course expected to be Detective Comics’ next break-out star, to stand alongside Superman and Batman. Jack Burnley’s art distinguished the feature, being by one of the best Golden Age artists there was. The run consists of no more than the Starman series, not of itself a hardship, until issue 70.
Unfortunately, apart from all these Sandman and Hour-Man adventures we’re missing, the debut of The Shining Knight in issue 67 also goes by offstage.
From various reprints down the years, I was already familiar with a couple of the stories in this initial eight-issue run, so this was my first chance to really see Starman in solo action. The highlight is Jack Burnley’s art, intelligent, well-rounded and anatomically superior to everyone else around him. It’s too simplistic overall to be termed photorealism but it goes closer to that than any other comics artist of the era in its avoidance of exaggeration. The stories? I can be quite as enthusiastic about them. As short adventures, they’re usually competent at worst, and Starman’s wise-cracking is a foretaste of the likes of Spider-Man.
On the other hand, Ted Knight’s self-portrayal as a hypochondriac weakling is laid on with a fourteen foot trowel. That’s not so bad in itself, but it begs the question why his fiancee, Doris Lee, an attractive, forthright, intelligent young woman, puts up with him for more than one story, given that most people faced with such a weak wuss, convinced he’s got every malady under the sun whilst actually being physically hale, would have concluded that the only thing wrong with him was the absence of a spine and given him the very elegant pointed-toe sandal in the unmentionables.
Either that or concluded that he’s a hopeless addict forever racing off for his fix.
In contrast, issue 70 is a complete comic, with The Shining Knight appearing next after Starman. It’s my first solo story with the Knight, and interesting for that, but it’s a slapdash effort with a bits and pieces story, and I found it weird that Justin, museum assistant, talks natural American English when he’s in street clobber but slips back into ‘Forsooth’ language the moment he gets his armour on, and comments on it!

Though he’d been bounced out of the Justice Society by Starman, Tick-Tock Tyler is still around as The Hour Man, minus the hyphen. Bernard Bailey’s art is a bit more sophisticated when it comes to faces, and he’s drawing Hour Man’s hood as a tight-fitting cowl and eye-mask, which I’ve certainly never seen before, but the story’s a joke, with the villain a dwarf on a flying carpet who looks like a visitor from outer space, though he’s not. Maybe I’m not missing much?
The Adventurer theme of issue 40 hasn’t been abandoned completely, as the next strip is Steve Conrad, Adventurer, an ocean diver hired to find buried treasure who’s up against modern pirates. This was the last episode of a story, if not the story, I don’t know. It’s all very early Terry and The Pirates wannabe (as an irrelevant aside, has there ever been a more exciting title for an adventure strip?)
After a brief prose story with a twist ending, next up was… ok, I was wrong… Federal Men, though judged on its art, it certainly wasn’t Joe Schuster any more. And judged by the way the story didn’t throb with frenetic energy, it wasn’t Jerry Siegel either. It certainly wasn’t good.
I was surprised to see Paul Kirk – Manhunter as the next strip, especially as it’s nothing like the series as I have always known it. I discovered Manhunter as that classic back-up story by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson in Detective way back in 1974 – I had the privilege of reading it month-by-month – and later in a handful of Simon-Kirby reprints of the costumed hero original, but this Paul Kirk is by Ed Moore who, if he’s the artist, was the worst so far in this issue. Who and what Kirk is is never explained but he never gets out of street clothes and comes over as more of a private detective than anything else, certainly not a big-game Hunter.
Bringing up the back of the book is, thankfully, still the Sandman, but this is that brief period between the adoption of the yellow and purple costume, plus Sandy the Golden Boy, both accoutred with capes, and the arrival of Simon and Kirby. The dream theme is absent, the art crude and ill-proportioned – this guy can’t get legs right – and the story nondescript, lacking the manic energy of the business-suited Sandman stories.
It was interesting to see a complete issue, but the next eight issues on the DVD, not all consecutive, were back to single stories, Starman once more.
Interestingly, Manhunter replaced Starman for the cover of issue 73 (though we only get to see Starman’s story) and this is the costumed Manhunter, and what’s more it’s Simon and Kirby at their excellent best. And they cover feature again next issue before Sandman and Sandy take back the cover on a full-time basis, from which I take it that the determined push to build Starman into a Superman/Batman level star was already showing itself to be doomed.
Issue 78 switched things up with a Manhunter story, though it was taken from a reprint edition, not Adventure itself. This was vintage Simon/Kirby, all-out action, distorted figures, a truly ugly villain and a pretty girl. I’m not sure I’d want to read too many Manhunter stories all at once, but it was good fun.
It was back to Starman for issue 81, the last of the single story issues, and a change of artists with the story, a reprint from the Seventies, credited to Mort Morton Jr and Jerry Roussos. Given that it features a blind boy getting shot in the head and discovering he can now see, the new firm are clearly not an improvement.
There’s a gap next to issue 87, but that represented a sea change, as from hereon, with only a couple of exceptions, we get complete issues. Sandman kicked off the issue with a story I’d already seen in reprint, but next up was the oddball and little-considered Genius Jones, by Stan Kaye. It’s a crackpot cartoon about a boy genius who knows everything and gives answers at a dime a time. This was my first known exposure to the original and it had me goggling, unable to tell if it were genius or madness.

No, seriously…

The Shining Knight was still running, though his art was disappointingly poor. Starman was back as fourth feature, with only three pages to his name. Manhunter got a full share but with terrible art that was trying desperately to ape Jack Kirby with none of the weight of line or detail.
A terribly unfunny one-page cartoon, Jack Potts, gave way to Mike Gibbs, Guerilla, an all-purpose freedom fighter in Nazi-occupied Europe and the one last story to represent the pre-superhero Adventure. Apart from the independent female French resistance Agent, Captain Hwarti (what kind of French name is that?), turning up in Holland, the episode was little better than mediocre and of course it featured a dyke being breached, why would you think it wouldn’t?
Four issues later, paper rationing was cutting a bit deeper. Adventure was down to a bi-monthly status, plus a cut in pages, the cut being Mike Gibbs. The next issue available was no. 100, cover dated October/November 1945, making its actual publication date somewhere round the end of the War in the Pacific. Guerilla was back, in a story with a powerful anti-racism message all the stronger for being set in a War context, but Manhunter was gone now. I wish there were more issues to track these changes more accurately.
At least issue 101 was available, with a dreadful Sandman cover. The previous issue looked like Jack Kirby but wasn’t credited as such, but this story was just plug-ugly, an attempt to copy Kirby by someone with no capability whatsoever. Starman’s story suffered from weak art and dumb writing. We were a long way from the days of Woodley Allen, Doris Lee and Ted Knight’s hypochondria, leaving the stories perfunctory in the extreme and full of incidents like Starman escaping noticing by standing against a poster and ‘blending into’ a background composed of completely different colours from his costume.

Superboy as drawn then

And then, with a jump to issue 109, everything had changed, and I mean everything. In fact, it had happened with issue 103: Sandman and Starman cancelled, Genius Jones shipped out to Detective’s More Fun Comics and a complete line-up switched from that title to take over Adventure. It’s still the Golden Age, for a few years yet, but this is not the stuff I wanted the DVD for.
Because Adventure had become the home of Superboy, from now until 1969. Coming with the Boy of Steel were Aquaman (technically, the Earth-2 version, as would later be defined, with the yellow gauntlets), Johnny Quick, the formula-reciting super-speedster (also featuring in Action Comics) and the Green Arrow (who was also appearing in World’s Finest). The Shining Knight was the only surviving feature. Johnny’s adventure had a bit of vigour to it, but the new watchword was bland.
Frankly, Superboy doesn’t interest me at all, especially knowing how Jerry Siegel wanted to write the character, as a prank-player. The first few stories feature Clark and his schoolfriends, in little do-good stories, and young Kent is nothing like the klutz we expect. But I have to credit the Xmas story in issue 113 (cover-dated February!) as a touching little tale, involving neither crime nor villain, just the response of a community to the terrible misfortunes of a man who, for 32 years, has played a secret Santa to the town’s kids, and who needs the good offices of a Santa himself. It managed to be sweet without being sentimental: just a small-town America story that rang true.

Yellow gauntlets

Twenty issues or so onwards, not all of them available, enables me to give a bit of a reasoned assessment of Adventure in this form. Superboy’s series is definitely not what I expected from my exposure to the character in the early Sixties. There’s no Ma and Pa Kent, no Smallville and precious little villains. Instead, Superboy uses his powers to help his friends, sometimes in the face of rich boy cheating from Orville Orville, or just genuinely to help against misfortune. There’s not even any melodramatic disasters going on. It’s decidedly low-key and, except as a change of pace, undramatic.
The Green Arrow is just bland. He’s definitely The Green Arrow at this point, and as far as Oliver Queen is concerned, there’s a near total absence. Neither Oliver nor Roy have any personality, and we practically only see them out of costume when they’re just about to change into it. And the era of the trick arrow hasn’t started yet: there’s the occasional use of the boomerang arrow and little else. You really couldn’t imagine this guy becoming the Ollie Queen we’ve know since 1969.
Aquaman is similarly drab, but what do you expect from two characters created by Mort Weisinger to be knock-offs. Again, though the blond stiff is described as the Monarch of the Sea, we’ve a decade to wait for the introduction of Atlantis, and this Aquaman just fights sea-style menaces, most often the pirate Black Jack. Between them, Aquaman and The Green Arrow don’t have enough personality to fill a thimble. Oh for the relative depth of the All-American characters.

The Green Arrow: never on Adventure’s cover

Johnny Quick, however, is head and shoulders above the rest, though his slot at the back of the comic suggests he wasn’t as popular as he deserved to be. The very idea of speed automatically makes the series more vigorous, even if some of the science is more than dodgy, and the stories are jam-packed with incidents. And to that some Kubert-influenced art from Mort Meskin and Johnny Quick makes continued reading worthwhile.
Though the Shining Knight would go on until issue 166, he disappeared from Adventure after issue132 due to a profusion of ad pages, which even started appearing in the middle of stories as opposed to between the various features. I hate to say it, but a lot of those ad pages featured art better than Sir Justin was getting! The chivalrous hero was back in 137, after two missing issues, with his occasional sidekick, the Bronx boy, Sir Butch of Beeler’s Alley. And by issue 143, he was enjoying the best art of his career, though not yet from the young Frank Frazetta, but rather Ruben Moreira.
To be honest, the is-he-or-isn’t-he? of whether there’ll be a Shining Knight story is the most interesting thing in this phase of the title, no disrespect to the still-entertaining Johnny Q. For instance, in issue 149, he’s bumped for a five-page tale of the life of author Jack London.
Adventure hit issue 150 with a cover date of March 1950 and no fanfare or special features, although I couldn’t help but be amused to discover Johnny Quick’s villain – a man who hypnotised people into believing that he could walk through walls – being named The Spectre. Nah, buddy. And Frank Frazetta made his debut (?) on The Shining Knight: nice art, and the first to make a flying horse’s wings look realistic.

The Shining Knight’s last adventure in Adventure would be in issue 166 but that’s yet another issue that isn’t included on the DVD. Since I bought it for the Golden Age issues, for those up to and including 102, and since issue 164, the nearest to that point, is cover-dated May 1951, three months after All Star 57, the generally acknowledged end of the Golden Age, I’m treating this as the terminus point for this post. It’s same as ever, no Shining Knight to go out on, Superboy, Johnny Quick, Aquaman, The Green Arrow.
There’s the best part of 330 other issues on the rest of the DVD, extending to the final issue of the run in the early Eighties. When I get round to those, it’ll be a whole other story.

Theatre Nights: A Repeat Performance


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

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

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

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

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

Welcome back, old friends.

Theatre Nights: A Repertory Revival


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

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

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

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

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

Theatre Nights: The City


Sandman Mystery Theatre 61-64. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The departure of Matt Wagner was meant to open up a new era for the Mystery Theatre. Steven T Seagle was full of ideas, not least that the hitherto rigid four-Act format of the series might be varied, suggesting three-Act and five-Act plays would now start to appear. And he delivered a taster of what might be in his first solo effort, The City, by adopting a Rashomon approach that interlaced a series of contemporaneous stories, each seen through the eyes of a different cast member, whose interactions repeat and reflect from differing viewpoints across the four Acts.
The crime of this story is a simple one, solved by the sandman in a single Act. A protection racket enforcer bullies two Italian barbers, father and son, one of whom cuts his throat. As he is the third they have disposed of, they desperately need to dispose of the bodies. They do this by dragging them into an abandoned warehouse and setting light to it, but the fire is put out before the bodies are too badly burned.
Because a witness has seen a man dragging the bodies, the two Prima’s are put into a line-up at the Police Station. The witness picks both out but cannot distinguish between them, until the son confesses, trying to exonerate his father. But the Sandman intervenes that night, forcing the father to confess: the throats were cut by a left-handed person and his son is right handed. Wesley returns home to find Dian in his laboratory: the two go to bed and make love for the first time since the abortion.
That’s Wesley’s day (and narrative). It begins with Dian watching him in bed as he sleeps. She rushes off after breakfast, which Wesley has made himself since Humphries has, reluctantly, asked for personal time off. Burke is at the line-up, though he’s not handling the Prima’s case: his own line-up is next.
But in the second Act we see the day from Dian’s perspective (and narrative). It begins with her thoughts as Wesley sleeps, but she then takes a phone call from a contact who she hopes can advance her literary ambitions. He has seen the latest chapters arrive from the mysterious recluse, Gerald Leavy. But this tme there is a clue as to the elegant Leavy’s wherabouts, the return address of what proves to be a very seedy Staten Island private hotel. Dian heads out to the Island to try to find him.
The hotel is indeed seedy, and the Leavy who lives there is a drunken, illiterate brute obsessed with his money. A less likely writer could hardly be found, and cetainly not someone capable of the work of a true stylist. With the aid of another writer at the hotel, Richard Manten, a socialist essayist, equally sceptical that ‘Leavy’ could possibly be Leavy, Miss Belmont investigates, even to the extent of borrowing Wesley’s old Sandman gas-mask and a spare gas-gun.
The mystery is not difficult to divine once Dian brings the gas gun rather wildly into play. The real Leavy lives in a nearby sanatorium, no longer able to walk due to his opium addiction. The drunken brue of the hotel is merely a front to maintain his privacy. Behind the gas-mask, Dian gets to talk literature for hours. She has only just returned Wesley’s things when he returns from his mission.
The Third Act is devoted to Humphries’ day. Despite the freedom and respect Wesley Dodds presses on him, Leslie Humphries is the perfect gentleman’s gentleman, always putting his master’s needs first. But on this occasion he is forced, reluctantly, to ask for a day to deal with personal matters, because these relate to his daughter, Ella.
We have already seen a be-wigged young woman performing for stag films, but being dragged out by a Polish lover who wants her covered. Now Humphries is visited by one of his colleagues who, having cleared up his master’s latest stag film, has taken a clip of the film from which Humphries is horrified to recognise Ella. She is supposed to be in Canada, visiting relatives.
Weak though he is, and in many ways unworldly, Humphries begins a search in the New York porn industry for Ella, determined upon rescuing her from what vile forces have forced her into this life. In the end, he locates her, and brings her back to the mansion, but the true story is very different. Ella is acting willingly, to raise money for the communist cause, of which she is a passionate convert: the Polish man was, indeed, her lover.
Nevertheless, she consents to go back to the Dodds mansion with her worried father, unrepentant of her beliefs yet willing to accept his parental direction to the extent of seeking a more ‘respectable’ course in life. Humphries is, for the moment, content. Ella, on the other hand, is determined to kick against the traces: what she has done is deemed to be whorish, whereas Miss Belmont sleeps openly with Master Dodds. An interesting point.
These three stories surround each other, their common moments building into a more comprehensive whole. The Fourth Act, which is dedicated to Lieutenant Burke, is something of an interloper. Burke’s participation in the stories of the Sandman, Dian and Humphries has been largely peripheral: he has taken a call from Humphries when the latter was trying to report the making of films and promised to pass it on to Vice (and we see in Burke’s Act that he does make a point of pressing the case). But his concern is with an unrelated case, the death of a young man, dropped from the Staten Island funfair big-dipper for failing to pay debts.
It’s our first chance to look under Burke’s skin, to understand something of his sourness, with life and with himself. Burke only has the Law: he sees himself unfit for decent people.
But in between Acts, Weaver has re-introduced him to Doris, a nice looking woman in her late thirties who has always liked Tony Burke. The Lieutenant is beginning to see that there may be a choice for him where before there has not only been no choices, but he has proudly espoused his life as being entirely fit and right for him.
Even the case of the murdered boy is an expression of his nascent need to want to be seen as worthy in Dorus’s eyes. The lad may have been killed outside Manhatten, but he’s a cousin of Doris’s, and that makes him family. With O’Grady in tow, Burke heads off precinct, relying on the custom that allows him to dip into another station’s work.
Burke’s promised a result to Doris, and in pursuit of this, knowing that her family relationship makes her a target to the two killers, he asks her and her sister to pose as targets at Coney Island. Though scared, Doris trusts in Tony to protect them. And Tony Burke is as good as his word: though Weaver takes a flesh wound, Burke corners the killers and, happily, returns fire, killing both without a moment of remorse.
It makes him more of a hero with Doris. Yet Burke takes only satisfaction at having ended the threat of two vicious men, any displays none of the vicious pleasure we would usually expect from his coarseness. He’s becoming concious of the desire to rise above what he’s been. He asks to start seeing Doris, and she happily obliges. A happy ending.
But not for Seagle. The City was the only experiment he would be able to write, and though he got his wish to write a non-four-Act story, it came in circumstances that no-one would have wished. Six months after the end of The City, Sandman Mystery Theatre would ring down its curtain for the last time.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Goblin.
Break a leg.

Theatre Nights: The Crone


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

Theatre Nights: Return of the Scarlet Ghost


Sandman Mystery Theatre  49-52 . Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (script), Guy Davis (artist), with ‘Joe Kirby’ (writer) and Daniel Torres (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Return of the Scarlet Ghost incorporated the 50th issue of Sandman Mystery Theatre as its Second Act and, in keeping with comic book tradition, the issue was a special, extended story, which guest artist Daniel Torres brought in to draw some very entertaining pages that formed an integral part of the extended in-joke underlying this play.
On the serious side of things, Return of the Scarlet Ghost chooses the New York Pulp/early comic book Publishing industry at the end of the Thirties as its backdrop. It’s accepted now that most, if not all, of the pulp magazine publishers were mob-backed, money laundering outlets for Prohibition profits. Indeed, one of the reasons comic books were so enthusiastically embraced by publishers was that they used fallow time at the printers, enabling a greater proportion of money to be washed clean.
It’s mildly surprising to see this being set out in this series, given that Vertigo‘s parent company, DC, was also amongst that number: DC‘s owner, Harry Donenfeld, ex-printer, ex-publisher of Spicy (i.e. soft porn) Detective stories, was a close friend of the notorious Frank Costello.
But these are liberated times and DC has moved so far from its Thirties roots that such things can be brought up now without a sense of residual embarrassment.
And it’s in-keeping with the more light-hearted side of the story, to which I’ll come shortly.
We focus on Darrigo & Darrigo Publishing, which is beholden to Italian Mobster, Don Alfonso Gamboni. We’ve seen the Darrigo brothers, Shelley and Franco, before, at the Beaux Art Ball in The Hourman, where Wesley attended in a circus acrobat’s masquerade costume version of his second comic book incarnation.
The Darrigos are hustling to make a living, with busy offices. They publish spooky, gruesome magazines, one of them being ‘Sandman Mystery Theatre’, highly-fictionalised adventures of our favourite gas-masked hero, in lurid pulp terms, with illustrations of the original business suit/gasmask Sandman costume. But they’re arguing about embracing the growing comics market, about people (in the shadow of European War) wanting heroes in bright colours.
But a rival mobsters wants to increase space for his subservient publishers: Finn represents the Irish mobs and he’s employing the Pettys – Colm, Peter and Sean, two brothers and a cousin – to strongarm Darrigos off the market.
The Pettys are an interesting and highly repellent study in thuggishness that I’d love to call mindless but which is perhaps better described as unthinking. All three are wrapped up in almost a mystique of masculinity, which in their case is the idea that a real man is defined by drinking a lot, fighting a lot, fucking whores a lot, and not letting anyone tell them what to do (that latter aspect does not apply to their orders from Finn).
We first meet them beating up a newstand owner in public, as a warning not to sell Darrigo magazines. Then they intercept a delivery lorry, smash the driver’s head in with a crowbar, stuff his clothing with paper and light it and the lorryload after dousing everything with kerosene, leaving him to burn to death.
Their next job is to invade a printing shop where they (impliedly) kill a man by dangling him into the press until it rips his arms off (thankfully off-panel).
Ironically, the Pettys are getting their ideas from ghoulish magazines published by Darrigo, whilst Colm and Peter’s younger brother, Mike, gets himself a job drawing comics for Darrigo.
For once, Wesley Dodds and the Sandman are not drawn in by dreams, but rather by Dian Belmont’s attempts to progress her as yet non-existent writing career.
Dian is attracted to the pulp magazines, for their vigour and the vividness of her writings. Her stomach is still bothering her and she’s generally out of sorts, to the point of preferring Wesley to hold her rather than make love with her, but none of this prevents her coming to a decision to direct her ambitions towards the pulp market: after all, it actually enables her to start, and finish, stories.
But when it comes to selling to Darrigos, Dian’s a non-starter: she’s a broad, and broads can’t write adventure stories. Dian steams in frustration, but gets encouragement from a surprise source, crime reporter Jack McCall (as seen in the Annual), who is writing these stories under a psuedonym.
Unfortunately, that places Dian directly outside the door of Darrigo’s editor’s office when the bomb sent by the Pettys goes off.
Suddenly, everything becomes very serious indeed. Though not a family member, Wesley is accepted as much as Larry Belmont for contact with the unconscious patient. Burke, who is very quiet after the events of The Blackhawk is placed in charge of the investigation, for once to Wesley’s relief. But Dian’s fate, and Wesley’s realisation of just how much she means to him, is at the centre of things.
Fittingly, Dian not only survives, but awakens after a dream, a Dream-inspired dream in which she quotes words that Dream of the Endless spoke in the Sandman Midnight Theatre special. It’s the longest single dream of all those depicted in this run, and it leads her back to consciousness.
Wesley goes into full assault mode as the Sandman, again seeking revenge as much as justice, although he’s not aware at first that Dian remains in active danger. Finn’s unhappy with the Pettys, and is bringing in a specialist to seal the deal: the specialist is The Face and the plan is simple. The Pettys drop an insurance policy in the ruins of the Darrigo office, $25,000 on the death of Dian Belmont, the Face kills her.
The Sandman catches the Pettys in the act of dropping the policy in the ruined offices. The Pettys jump him and start to administer a beating, but the Sandman regains his gas gun and puts them out. They then spill the beans. A panicky Wes jumps into his car and sets off towards the hospital, overriding the Police wavelengths and posing as Burke sending orders for all men to get to the Hospital. The real Burke intervenes to countermand the orders, until Wesley, in a vicious fury, threatens him that if Dian is harmed, Larry Belmont will know exactly who kept his daughter from being protected. Browbeaten for once, Burke acquiesces.
Ironically, it’s neither Wesley nor the Police that saves Dian, but instead her father, who takes a minor stab wound in grappling with the Face. Larry makes an enemy too, but before the Face can follow up on his two-for-one offer, the Sandman captures him, unaware until a chance remark that he’s dealing with an old enemy.
The Pettys’ end is different. They are found, bound, by young Mike, who releases them, though not before the Police reach the scene. It’s here that the stupid mindset of the Pettys reaches its apotheosis: Peter Petty runs, refusing to accept the Police telling him to stop. He does what he wants, not what anyone else tells him, and he’s shot dead for it, because he’s fucking thick and his mindset is bullshit.
But that’s still not all of the story. There are multiple Sandmans in this tale, as there are multiple Scarlet Ghosts. We’ve seen the old gas-masked Sandman, created by gardner Fox and Bert Christman, perpetuated in the pulp magazine horror of Darrigo Brothers version of ‘Sandman Mystery Theatre’. We’ve seen the ‘reality’ of our Mystery Theatre hero. But in issue 50, that extended episode, we see a third Sandman, as Dian brings back from Darrigo Brothers’ offices the first issue of a Sandman comic.
This is Daniel Torres’ contribution to this play, a tribute to the legendary writer/artist pair, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (who, though not the creators of, are most associated with the second Golden Age phase of Sandman, the yellow and purple clad athletic bruiser).
‘Joe Kirby’ writes this new, naive, Kirby-esque comic, featuring a straight take-off of that other Sandman. It includes the Sandman’s teenage partner, Sandy, the Golden Boy, aka Sandy Hawkins, but the Sandman is Jack Simon, not Wesley Dodds.
It#s affectionate, it’s a beautifully weighted in-joke, and maybe it can be seen as a way for the continuity of the Mystery Theatre to edge itself closer to the DC Universe.
But whilst Wagner, Seagle and Davis can indulge themselves in this little fantasy, they cannot resist a final twist: in a somewhat time-bending fashion, the Scarlet Ghost story, displaying a third version of the fictional villain, has already become a Saturday morning film serial: but Jack Simon is now a crusading reporter, not a colourful costumed crimefighter: he is more real, more adult as such. It’s a comment that needs no underlining.
Speaking of final twists, Dian’s enforced hospital stay enables the doctors to carry out tests that reveal the source of her malaise of the last two plays, though some among you will have already anticipated this: in the final panel, she drops a bomb that can hardly be unexpected, but which is: she’s pregnant.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Crone.
Break a leg.

Return of the Scarlet Ghost is the last of the plays to be collected in Graphic Novel form, making it more or less easily available for reading. The series was slow to start, with an collection of The Tarantula quickly appearing, but several years passing before the next collection was released. After that, an annual schedule followed, until 2010, pairing this and The Blackhawk. There have been no further volumes since and, given DC’s concentration since 2011 on its New 52 revision (in which Wesley Dodds is not even a hero), it seems likely that the remainder of the run will stay uncollected. Which is a shame because, from this point, only two more collections would have been needed to present a complete run.
Henceforth, I will be reviewing the original issues themselves, and anyone wishing to actually read the story will find it difficult and expensive to do so, if indeed the individual issues can be found at all almost twenty years later.

Theatre Nights: The Phantom of the Fair


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

Theatre Nights: The Mist


Sandman Mystery Theatre  37-40. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (script), Guy Davis (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The Mist is another step towards the world of superheroes that, now we have passed into 1939, is on the immediate horizon. It depicts two first encounters: the one between Wesley Dodds and Ted Knight, his future Justice Society colleague, Starman, and the second between the Sandman and a Canadian scientist going under the name Jonathan Smythe who, as a consequence of the events in this play, becomes the supervillain The Mist, who is to be Starman’s arch-enemy.
At the same time, this play was also part of an oblique crossover with the contemporary Starman series, as written by James Robinson.
Though the events of the two stories never actually crossed over, the stories centred upon the same object: Robinson’s series starred Jack Knight, Ted’s younger son and the latest successor to the Starman identity, whose would-be arch enemy was the new Mist, aka Nash, daughter of the original, who had slipped into senility. Stung by comments from Nash claiming that she and Jack were the same under the skin, Jack went to New York to meet the elderly Wesley and Dian, having learned that the Sandman had fought the Mist before his father: The Mist tells that story, and both halves of the whole end with the chosen object being discovered.
With Davis back to restore the set design that we automatically associate with the Mystery Theatre, the play begins with its underlying theme: two Germans, father and son, running their own, one ship, freight line, are desperate to unload at the New York docks. They’ve already been held up twenty hours, but their abrasive approach, and the fact that they are not Union affiliated, leads to trouble. The Baederstadts unload themselves, ‘scab labour’, which leads the Union heavies to take reprisals.
The spotlight in this play is upon the Unions, upon the controversy they cause just be existing in American society, which is primarily directed towards the individual and what he/she can achieve alone. Perhaps because of this inherent prejudice, the Unions have merged to a large degree with the Mob, strongarming their way towards power. Their situation is delicate enough that defiance from any quarter, no matter how small, such as the Baederstadts, has to be stamped upon.
Unable to use their usual methods, which would draw too much attention, Union Chief Cohen decides to take a chance on the mad scientist who has approached them offering certain services in exchange for cash in large amounts. The scientist is the man calling himself Jonathan Smythe, and he’s Canadian.
Smythe needs money to fund his researches. Unable to convince conventional sources, because of the bizarre and unbelievable nature of his project, Smythe has lowered himself (and keeps making it plain that that’s what he thinks he’s doing) to accept money from the Union to test his machine against targets of their devising.
Such as ships owned by German scab labour.
Though the machine appears not to work, indeed shorts out before completing its run, it is a success: the Baederstadts are out at sea when the hull simply dissolves, sinking the ship and its cargo, drowning Baederstadt senior, and leaving Junior as the sole survivor, clinging to the wreckage.
From where he is picked up, by a passenger liner returning to America from England, and carrying two passengers who’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in their cabin: Mr Dodds and Miss Belmont.
At first, it is Dian rather than Wesley who is more concerned with the castaway, and what lies behind his situation, and though Wes does remotely relate a dream ancillery to the problem, the Sandman is for once not drawn into this investigation by his dreams but by another, equally fierce conviction.
For the moment, though, the play advances without any overt action. Frederic Baederstadt is quizzed in hospital by the FBI as a suspected Nazi infiltrator, an insensitivity that paradoxically brings out Frederic’s own prejudice against the Jews. As a stranger, he cannot get a crew position at the docks, to return to Germany, which makes him easy prey for German Fifth Columnists.
Meanwhile, Wes and Dian settle back into New York life. It’s Dian’s turn, again, to do the talking in this play, though it’s significant that it’s only in her outward talk, to her father, that she acknowledges (claims?) to have come to the equivalent of an epiphany in London over her destiny to be with Wes: there are still little moments where Miss Belmont demonstrates her discomfort with her beau’s other life.
But though this theme has persisted persuasively, its resolution is close to hand. Dian may hate to talk to the Sandman, even in his new, more stream-lined mask, but the sight of him ‘in action’, driving him away from danger, inflames her sexually and commits her to his cause.
And the fact that, after much vague concern about the future of her life, Dian gets herself a job, as assistant to her father, opens her up to a greater understanding of both the men in her life (a patronising, but contemporarily authentic notion) and a greater reconciliation.
Meanwhile Wes, apart from reducing the ability of people to grab his gasmask, finds himself recruited to a Special Commission. With War a looming certainty in Europe, the Army at least is shedding Isolationist tendencies and is looking to prepare itself against involvement. New forms of weaponry are to be studied, and Wes is co-opted by Judge Shaeffer, and another of his father’s friends, General Briggs, for his business mind, his ability to assess and project costs and feasibility.
At which point, a pushy young applicant from Opal City, name of Ted Knight, attempts to get ahead of his rivals.
It’s not like Wes and Rex Tyler. Ted’s forwardness – which is further demonstrated in his appreciation of Dian (who enjoys the attention mainly for how it brings out an ill-concealed jealousy in Wes) – isn’t much welcomed, but the resemblance of his presentation of cosmic rays, and his search for an alloy that can contain, store and direct them (Starman’s eventual Gravity Rod) to the effect that sunk the Baederstadt’s ship, and downed a plane carrying a rival boss, leads Wes to approach Ted for advice and assistance.
So the pieces are set in motion. We see how dirty the Mob-backed Union are, intent on crushing opposition, on dragging ‘Smythe’ into their world. We see Smythe’s obsession with his research into a machine he too presents to the Committee, that dissolves live flesh into its atoms (the utter, wasteful destruction that Smythe saw during the Great War, only without the trauma of pain, blood and bone). We see Frederic Baederstadt being driven unwillingly by the Nazi Fifth Columnists, creatures of bile and hate. And at the end, Smythe falls victim to his own machine as revenge for his using it on one of Cohen’s thugs: he doesn’t die because the men don’t understand his machine and he only gets a small dose.
Enough though for pain, and panicky flight, to a motel in Opal City, where Smythe discovers that, though he’s still human in form, his body is dissolving into a Mist…
One curious thing about this play is that, although Wes relates a single dream that is related to the skein of events, the Sandman’s involvement is driven by something other than Dream. A couple of times in earlier plays, Wagner and Seagle have shown us thoughtless, automatic anti-semitism, shouted in front of Dodds: each time, the bigot has checked that Wes is not Jewish but turned away even as Wes asks what difference that makes: now Wes reveals to Dian (whilst in disguise as a streetside apple seller) that his mother was Jewish (as his father was Catholic: theirs was a marriage of elopement, held in contempt by both families, even as Wes now holds both religions in a degree of contempt, favouring Eastern philosophies).
It is Wes’s determination not to allow hatred to be brought to bear on folk of his mother’s faith, not Dreams, that propels him.
In the end of both stories, the object the New Mist sought appears in Wes’s hands, for Jack Knight to take back in fulfilment of his self-imposed task: it is ‘Smythe”s Great War Victoria Cross, an oblique reminder that once he was a real hero, though his life would be spent as a callous villain, thanks to the weaknesses he displays in the play, and its ‘reward’ for him.
That Starman story is not really within our remit. It’s a story at the other end of the Sandman’s long career, in a different world, under different stars, far from the proscenium arch, a catalyst for the long end of Wes and Dian. In that future, she is, and long has been, the revered author who is the greater draw for Jack Knight than his father’s old comrade, even as we see her resolve form, under the arch, to spend the time waiting for Wes in writing.
But ten pages of James Robinson’s story are devoted to Wes’s recollection of an old adventure with Starman, set in 1943, and these are drawn, fittingly, by Guy Davis. Costumes and villains and Gravity Rods, and a touching friendship between two men who do not start off well, and in that distant future have differing views on their old relationship. It’s an indication that, if it would last that long, the Mystery Theatre might well be able to absorb the superhero era, without making itself or the superheroes absurd.
Though Robinson is awfully bad on the Sandman’s dialogue, even as he captures Wes and Dian with great skill.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Phantom of the Fair.
Break a leg.

Theatre Nights: Sandman Midnight Theatre


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

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

Theatre Nights: The Python


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