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 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 It took until 1986 for a retrospective origin to be written, only for that to be superseded by Neil Gaiman within two years.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: 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.

Theatre Nights: Night of the Butcher


Sandman Mystery Theatre  25-28. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plotter), Steven T. Seagle (scripter), Guy Davis (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
We begin upon a dream, as we did two years previously, when the Mystery Theatre first opened its doors for the enlightenment and entertainment of its audience. Indeed, our newest play, Night of the Butcher, is more prone to the depiction of dream than any since that debut affair.
But though these dreams wrack Wesley Dodds no less than any have to date, it is interesting that they torment him with no monsters, that they do not lead him to another menace that he must pursue and overcome to gain relief. No, Wesley’s dreams are about Wesley, and the Sandman – both his own, local version, and that unknown and unseen be-helmeted being whose imprisonment is the source of all that drives our hero.
Because Wesley – and this has been designed deliberately,so that we are privy to his inner voice, just as in the last play we listened to Dian Belmont – isn’t functioning at all well. Dian holds his secret and has walked away from him. Wes is a man in love, faced with the worse possible scenario: the simultaneous need and inability to do nothing.
I’m speaking from experience here, experience I tried, in vain, to pass on to a friend who ended up lodging with me for several months after his marriage broke down. When things go wrong, sometimes you have to sit on your hands, bite your tongue, stifle every instinctive urge you have: you hurt the one who matters and you want to put it right, to do what’s needed to demonstrate that you’ve changed and it will be different, but what they want is time, and space, and solitude, to come to terms with things as they are now.
But you’re a man: you don’t do doing nothing, you’re in the wrong and you want to get out of it, you can’t change the past so it is imperative to change the future, now. And there’s also a strong element of fear that inaction will cost you your ability to change the future in your direction, because she’ll take a decision based on your not being part of the picture.
That’s Wesley Dodds in this play, and like most men in this situation, he’s not doing a very good job of it (my poor mate blew it completely).
It’s a good thing then that the Sandman is not dealing with the usual kind of calculating, twisted, repellent evil we are used to in the Theatre. Not that the deaths, of ordinary people, hacked to death and half their body removed, is not repellent, especially when Hubert Klein introduces the idea that the killer may well be eating what he takes – a notion that falls true in the end.
No, the villain requires little detection. He’s a weird, grossly obese, barely human man, barely able to speak intelligibly, living in the sewers, and indeed is eating his victims, and enough hints are dropped to suggest that he is the product of several-generation inbreeding. All that’s needed by way of investigation is to firstly imegine him, and secondly track which sewer he hides in. As much of the latter is done by Burke – Tony Burke, as we learn, partway – as by the Sandman.
Indeed, we see more of Burke, of what lies behind the stereotype of the hard-boiled detective, in this story than we have before, as Wagner and Seigle begin to open out everyone’s favourite, foul-mouthed anti-hero. That christian name is spoken by Gina, a woman Burke visits at the height of the case, when he’s having to come to terms with the cannibalism aspect, which has gone deeper than Burke usually allows things to get.
We know nothing more of Gina than that she’s very comfortable with him, that their relationship is  sexual – not at first, Burke’s too tense – and that he’s not in the least aggressive in his conversation with her.
Which is more than we can say for his accelerating anger towards the Sandman. It’s bad enough that he’s been gassed nearly half-a-dozen times already, but with Wesley in this strange, blundering state without Dian, there are more direct encounters in Night of the Butcher than in every play so far.
First, Burke is driven into a towering rage when he accidentally discovers the microphone the Sandman has had taped to the underside of his desk for several months. Then he catches sight of the gas-masked crimefighter at an outdoor crime scene and starts peppering him with bullets. Then, he catches the Sandman at the Hall of Records and proceeds to administer a serious beat-down, or, to be more English about it, a bloody good kicking, before he’s interrupted by the equivalent of the librarian, who won’t let him kicks Dodds to death.
But even that pales into insignificance in the climactic scenes in the sewers, when Burke, facing down the ‘ozark’ who has decapitated one of his two men, and has a meathook stuck into the chest of the other, knowing that the only chance any of them have is for he and the Sandman to work together, starts firing at Wes, not the killer!
Even when the Sandman has brought the killer down, literally seconds before parting Burke’s hair at the neck, the Lieutenant is so enraged at the vigilante who he considers to be every bit as much a villain as the rest that he still tries to shoot him dead – until the inevitable gas claims him again.
Yet despite an ingratitude that’s way sharper than a serpent’s tooth, that’s not Wesley’s worst moment in the story. Despite nearly being knocked to his death – twice – courtesy of Burke in the sewers, despite a monster hangover brought on by a night of actual drinking at Robert Li’s insistence (leading to the story’s best laugh, a ‘dream-page’ of nine identical blank white panels showing only a centre panel caption of ‘For the first time in nearly two years, I sleep without incident’), Wes’s lowest point comes in the nightclub to which Robert has led him when, already out of sorts, having had to bribe the doormen to overcome their racist attitude to Robert, he bumps into Dian.
And her date.
It’s in no way serious: I mean, the guy may be taller, more athletic and more handsome than Wesley, but Dian needs only that to remind herself that it’s far from what she wants. But Wes starts to getting more begging in his desperate need to have Dian back, to be able to function properly.
Of course, the moment she decides to follow up her concern about him is when Humphries is treating the Sandman’s heavily-bruised, post-Burke ribs, which leads to a flare-up of her feelings at the time of her discovery. But it provokes Wes into an unexpected flare-up in return, based on how she has not, for one second, attempted to understand his side of things.
The two part, rapidly, but Wes’s words have struck a chord that Dian can’t ignore. She not only says as much, when she phones Wes to put him on Burke’s tail. She’s not changed her mind about anything she’s said, but equally she admits that she can’t stop thinking about Wes, as much as what he does.
The end, when it comes, is rapid: too rapid to be an end to this interplay of feelings. Wes’s confusion, his uncertainty, his musings about the senility that runs in his family, and which he clearly fears, resolve themselves abruptly after the Butcher is brought down, demonstrating that although everything has been confused and impossible to interpret, it is still the dream that drives him.
And the restless Dian, confined with a parent who’s clearly more interested in the radio than her, goes for a drive, ‘somehow’ ending up where she directed the Sandman, and in time to offer him a lift home. Wes’s interior monologue has been quoting Proust: We do not succeed in changing things according to our desire, but gradually our desire changes. Dian pulls up alongside Wes and, with her old lightness, offers him a lift. They are once again in accord.
It is a beginning.
Before we prepare for the end of the play, which is in truth but an episode in a longer drama that has many more turnings to follow, we should add to our list of observations that Wesley is actually hurt so badly by Burke that it is beyond Humphries’ skill to deal with his injuries. That necessitates a Doctor, though none appears in the story. Wesley’s doctor, it appears, is McNider: Charles McNider, one assumes, who one day in the future will be blinded by a bomb, only to learn that he can then see, perfectly, in the dark.
From its first opening, the Mystery Theatre offered us a different Sandman. In this Theatre, the Justice Society could not exist: it was impossible to have this Wesley Dodds/Sandman exist in the same kind of Universe as speedsters, magicians, ghosts and wielders of magic weapons. And if we’re being strict, Ted Grant never owned a gym before becoming Wildcat, whilst Charles McNider was a surgeon, not a ‘GP’.
The Mystery Theatre doesn’t do, nor could it do, Superheroes. Or could it?
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play entitled The Hourman.
Break a leg.