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.