Sandman Overture 3


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

Theatre Nights: The Hero


Sandman Mystery Theatre 69-70. 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.
It’s been a strange time in Manhattan.
A month has passed since the end of The Goblin. Christmas has passed and we are coming up on New Year, the advent of the Forties.
Russia has invaded Finland and O’Grady’s buying a paper to read about it. Burke doesn’t think about it, but O’Grady upbraids him: people not thinking about things is why the world is as it is. Burke’s definitely mellowing, because he hasn’t got an acid retort.
In fact, he’s been seeing Doris regularly this past month and is starting to have certain ideas.
Larry Belmont has been recuperating in hospital, and is about to be sent home with a nurse. Dian’s been visiting him every day in the Hospital. She’s also been visiting Wesley’s house every day, but only to work in her office. She hasn’t been staying at night, an act of contrition over the guilt she feels for his heart attack.
Dian’s intent on resolving all the loose ends in her life before the new decade starts. She’s finished her novel, she tells the publisher Richard Manten introduced her to that it’s good and he’ll want to publish it. The only loose end she hasn’t been able to work out is Wesley. Wesley hasn’t been to see Larry yet. Wesley hasn’t found the words, nor the courage.
Strangest of all though is Wesley himself. The thought of being confronted by Larry has him paralysed, but more than that, though he continues to dream, Wesley has not put on the gasmask.
And now there’s another killer, a man dressed as a soldier of the Great War (with Sandman-esque gasmask). He is actually such a soldier, a man abandoned, believed dead, now returned and taking bloody vengeance on those who betrayed him. Burke and O’Grady pull the case.
But where normally Wesley would be on the trail, he’s got other things on his mind: a letter from Poland, delivered by hand through the auspices of Janos Prohaska (told you he wasn’t dead). It’s a plea for help from Gerald Dodds: Wesley’s brother.
In view of our knowledge of the imminent demise of this series, the left field appearance of a hitherto unmentioned and even unsuggested brother smacks of contrivance. Which it is. But it has to be allowed that it is wholly within Wesley Dodds’ character as we have known him throughout this season not to talk about his family.
Gerald fills in the background for us in his appeal for Wesley’s help: he is trapped in the Warsaw ghetto thanks to having been fingered as half-Jewish, and has no other recourse.
The brothers haven’t seen each since Paris, 1918, a visit organised with their father. Gerald – who is presumably older than Wesley – received a public violent slap across the face for paying more attention to Parisian women than his father’s commentary. Both brothers were upset about Edward Dodds flaunting his new mistress in front of them so soon after their mother’s death, but it was Gerald who took action by seducing her and making sure they were discovered.
Gerald was sent away, and disowned. No doubt Wesley’s sending away, to school in the Far East, followed shortly. The two have had no contact since. Gerald has lived his own life seemingly without any resentment at losing his ‘inheritance’. He has no claim on Wesley, save only that if the roles were reversed, he would come to his brother’s assistance.
Wesley’s resentful of the intrusion, inclined immediately to be dismissive of Gerald, but already family sympathy – combined with the restlessness he currently feels about his life in New York – prompts him towards what would be required to simply abandon his life to fly off.
The beginning of that process is contacting Hubert Klein in the Medical Examiner’s office. Klein’s concerned about the latest killer and assumes that’s what the Sandman is on to him about, but before they can progress, he is knocked out from behind.
This is what it takes to get Wesley into his gasmask, racing off to the precinct with Dian. Unfortunately, it’s icy, there’s a commotion near the precinct where the soldier is being pursued, and the car skids on the ice when Dian brakes suddenly, but it knocks down a pedestrian. It’s Burke.
And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the Soldier wielding a grenade, the Crimson Avenger trying to shoot him and the Hourman, trying to bring him in alive. Three superheroes, each in costume, in each other’s faces until Dian, in her ‘Sandy’ mask tips the balance in Sandman’s favour.
That’s the climax to the First Act: the next decade is clearly going to be very different.
The mis-matched trio do follow the soldier, without getting anywhere or ever reconciling: the Avenger even protests being hauled out of the blast zone of a grenade by Hourman’s speed! But their presence, the knowledge that there are others who can be left to protect the city, helps speed Wesley’s decision. The case goes unresolved, at least in the pages of the second and final Act, as Wesley begins to lay down the threads of his New York life.
Judge Schaffer reappears in time to offer a convenient plane to the Polish Resistance. Wesley promotes his secretary to Business Manager: she is, after all, his only employee.
Dian gets a call from her publisher: she is right, her novel is good and he does want to publish it: a contract is in the post.
Burke survives the accident, bruised but otherwise unhurt. It’s enough to affect his temper into kicking off before Doris, but despite her exposure to his darker side, she accepts his proposal and agrees to marry him.
The Sandman visits Burke in his office to announce his disappearance. He leaves files with Burke to assist him on previous cases. Burke is never going to reconcile himself to the age of heroes that is fast overtaking New York, but he accepts the truce, and the Sandman departs, unaware that behind his back, Burke calls him Dodds.
Wesley even manages to visit Larry, on his return home, to apologise and to assure (without once mentioning the M word) that Dian is and always will be the centre of his heart and that he will protect her for the rest of his life. It satisfies Larry, at least until the end of the Act, though we may presume a change of heart in view of what follows.
And lastly there is Dian. Wesley wants her with him, but she still cannot bridge that last gap without more. At the airfield, he takes her aside, gives her a ring that belonged to his mother, takes her as his wife in the heart (though not in any legal or religious sense). That is enough for Dian, enough for her to agree to join him in the plane, which takes off and flies away from New York.
And it’s done. The case is never solved. Whether the Hourman or the Crimson Avenger brings in the soldier, who he is, what lies behind his rampage, we will never know, for that story is completed in the issues 71 and 72 of Sandman Mystery Theatre that can be found only in Lucien’s Library in the Dreaming, in the section devoted to books their author imagined but never wrote. In the end, it doesn’t matter, it was never part of the story. Like so many plays, the murders were a backdrop to what mattered.
Some of it is a little unconvincing: it’s stretching credibility that Wesley Dodd’s business empire is run solely by himself and one secretary, no other employees and the times are not conducive to a female CEO. Equally, the sudden revelation that Burke knows who the Sandman is comes equally out of left field, and is based on no evidence in this or any previous Act. It’s neat but the deduction is pretty mystical.
But it’s a wrap-up. It’s about ending things in as stable a manner as possible, and sometimes strict plausibility has to be sacrificed when all you have is 24 pages. The Mystery Theatre would never open again. Burke and Doris, O’Grady on the edge of his promotion, Larry Belmont’s medical condition, Hubert Klein, Judge Schaffer, none of these would be seen again, their lives interrupted.
The lights fall, save for spotlights trained on the leading man and the leading lady, that follow them as they turn and disappear into the wings. The cast remain, frozen, in darkness, until the audience, silent and shuffling, have left the Theatre. Behind them, a commissionaire in besplendent uniform closes and bars the door. As the final members of the audience walk down the steps, the lights within go out. We do not know if the actors ever return to their dressing rooms, removing one final time the greasepaint, wigs and costumes that have sustained their repertoire for this season of plays.
The Mystery Theatre stands dark and deserted. Only ghosts perform there now.

Theatre Nights: Two Short Stories


Vertigo: Winter’s Edge. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (plot and dialogue) and John K Snyder III (artist), Vertigo: Winter’s Edge 2. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer) and Paul Rivoche (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Throughout its publishing history, Sandman Mystery Theatre was published by Vertigo Comics, the Adult and Mature Reader imprint of DC Comics. Vertigo specialised in more adult material, dark, noirish, frequently imbued with horror: not blatant gore or gratuitous sex, but a genuine exploration of more serious themes, as the Mystery Theatre demonstrates.
In the late Nineties, Vertigo twice published Winter’s Edge anthologies, squarebound 96 page comics in which one of the imprint’s series would act as a framing device to eight page shorts featuring other series form the line. Sandman Mystery Theatre was represented in both.
Spirit of the Season, in 1997, was plotted by Wagner and Seagle, dialogued by Seagle, and drawn, in a neat, precise, slightly stylised manner, by John K Snyder III. The story is set in the Christmas season, starting with Dian and Wesley out Christmas shopping. Dian’s full of fun, though Wesley, whose thoughts lie behind this story, is his usual quasi-curmudgeonly self, focussing only on the emptiness and hollow materialism of a consumer oriented season.
The two separate: Wesley has something to do alone and Dian, joking about buying a girlfriend his Christmas present, is happy to let him go. Wesley’s destination, his intention, is uncharacteristic for an avowed atheist, believing in no religion. He is going to a synagogue.
It’s to do with another woman, and something he feels unable to share with Dian. But the woman is Marina Dodds, Wesley’s late mother, who (we learned in The Mist) was Jewish. Wesley has paid for an observance plaque, and for a candle to be lit in front of it every year on the anniversary of her passing.
There is no candle tonight, but it is no negligence on the part of the Rabbi, rather Wesley’s own failings, as his mother’s anniversary was a week before. The Rabbi gives him a Kaddish prayer to contemplate, to ease him: despite his beliefs, Wesley takes the prayer to a pew.
This short story is the only time in the entire run that we are treated to any insight into Wesley’s relationship with his mother. Though he hints that he was denied parental comfort and involvement as with his father, it’s plain to see that Wesley is still more closely involved with his mother’s memory, paying for rituals he does not believe in for her benefit, being protective towards the much-spat upon Jews. Where does he so much as mention his father’s Christian religion, or make any act in his honour?
In the pew, a young, beshawled woman sits, crying. Wesley offers support and learns her story: her name is Yora Zacoff and she is a refugee from Nazi Germany, spirited out by her father and, after his death, cared for and eventually married to an older guardian, Alexi. But the marriage was brief: four days ago, Alexi died of consumption, and she has not slept since, trying desperately to get money to pay for his burial.
The conversation is interrupted by gentile thugs, breaking into the synagogue to steal gold candelabra and candlesticks. They are confronted by the Sandman, who downs two of them, but the third is about top batter his way out before he is grabbed by Yura, fierce in the defence of her faith. She is about to get her head smashed in when the Sandman puts the last man to sleep.
The thugs may be collected by the Police before they wake, but the Sandman offers the brave Yora a gift: a small whiff of gas, to grant her peaceful sleep, and a release from her stress.
Wesley Dodds then rejoins Dian Belmont, ready now to share his story with her.
Spirit of the Season was a superb vignette, folding down a complex and moving story into a mere eight pages, a masterpiece of story-telling. In sad contrast, City of Dreams was an appallingly slight piece. This was published in late 1998, contemporaneously with Sandman Mystery Theatre 69, the penultimate issue. It was written by Seagle and drawn by Paul Rivoche, best known for his work on Mr X, a series with a background of futuristic architecture.
City of Dreams is also an eight-pager. It uses three full pages to depict a dream in which the Sandman pursues a man through a fantastic, futuristic city, ending with him leaping ostensibly to his death, only to survive and escape.
It then cuts immediately to an exhibition of a futuristic city, to which Wesley has dragged Dian due to his dream. The Christmas connection is her kissing him in public, despite the absence of mistletoe.
Both see the city’s architect attempting to throttle his partner. Wesley changes to the Sandman whilst Dian, claiming to be a reporter, pursues the man with questions.
He turns on her in a fury but the Sandman intervenes. This leads to a reprise of the dream fight and the leap from the balcony, although the result this time is a bathetic fall destroying the model, which was flawed in any event. The sole twist is that, in the initial struggle, the Sandman’s gasmask is partly displaced, and he gets a whiff of his own gas.
The final page effectively reprises The Goblin by Dian calming down the confused Sandman and sending him home.
City of Dreams is a very poor story, feeling bloated even at only eight pages, it’s story dull and negligible. The only point of interest in it is the near immediate repetition of the distracted Sandman as a potential menace. This suggests that Seagle planned to develop the schizophrenic nature of Wesley Dodds and the Sandman in future stories, and the potential menace one role has for the other. But it never was.
One sublime, one ridiculous. There is nothing now to detain us. We must return to the Mystery Theatre for its final performance.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their final call to performance, in a play titled The Hero.
Break a leg.

Theatre Nights: The Goblin


Sandman Mystery Theatre 65-68. 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 Goblin is a superb play, both sublime and tragic. It is sublime due to its deft interweaving of the crime that it tells with the overarching development of Wesley and Dian’s relationship. It puts Dian Belmont front and centre in a way she has never been before, showcasing both her vulnerabilities and the inner strengths that none suspected lay in her in The Tarantula. It starts hares that would have far-reaching consequences on the story as it lay to progress in coming months. It encompassed a whole-hearted declaration of love from Dian that, for once, came from a position of strength and not weakness.
It is tragic because this was the last full play the Mystery Theatre would perform. Falling sales had led to Sandman Mystery Theatre being cancelled with effect from issue 70. Two Acts, a truncated, deliberately unfinished play to deliberately disrupt the carefully developed sequence of almost six years work.
The Goblin is magnificent in itself, and glorious in terms of what it promised to foreshadow. But we would never discover those promises.
The story began in banal circumstances. A baby cries in the night, disturbing the sleep of its parents (in Hays Code approved single beds: an intriguing detail). She, unconcerned, wants to go back to sleep, he, worried, goes to check on their little man.
They are being robbed, of cash and baby, by the ‘Goblin’: a strange, misshapen, grunting, long-armed, long-legged, horribly ugly little man. The Goblin beats his head in with a bottle, then uses it to brain the wife when she comes running.
We have a murder, and we will have Burke and O’Grady on the case, but first we have a dream: Wesley has dropped off briefly, at the Belmont house for a dinner insisted upon by a DA, who’s running late. Larry wants to speak to Wesley about Dian, about how much she sees of him, how often she stays at his house: in short, Larry wants to know about Wesley’s intentions! And Wesley, who has allowed himself to think that this issue is solely between himself and Dian, and is thus settled, has no answer. Larry warns him he’s going to have to come up with one, and soon.
Wesley seeks his usual refuge from such issues in the Sandman. To avoid thinking about it, he plans to spend the night monitoring the Police radio bands.This leads to him catching Burke and O’Grady’s assignment and rushing out to reconnoitre. He’s not alone: the Goblin is also on the rooftops. When he runs, the Sandman pursues, but where the agile little monster ca clear the gap between roof and roof, the Sandman cannot. He falls.
He’s lucky enough to fall into the back of a garbage truck, which breaks his fall, but the Sandman is plainly not right. Some sort of head injury, a concussion at least. He’s not in his right mind for the rest of the play, his cryptic utterances muddled and strange, his actions paranoid and dangerous. He accuses and attacks innocent passers-by, folding them into his pursuit of the missing child. He attacks Humphries at one point, even tries to do the same to Dian. And though he does bring down the villain at the end, it is unknowingly, by coincidence.
In short, he becomes a menace equal to those he pursues. The lot of saving and solving falls solely upon Dian.
I’ve jumped ahead slightly in relating that. It’s easy, on a superficial reading, to attribute the Sandman’s confusion, his madness, upon the injuries he sustains in his fall, but there are deeper issues here.
Larry’s question, his incipient disapproval – reinforced by a coversation with Humphries about a ‘hypothetical’ instance where Etta might be sleeping with a man outside of matrimony in which Humphries is insistent that no father could approve – is what drives Wesley downstairs to his laboratory. But he cannot concentrate until he dons the Sandman’s gas mask and fedora – a pathetic sight as rendered by Davis.
Before that comes two panels that chill me, as Wesley defends himself to himself:
“No matter what we’ve been through of late – I can’t be held responsible for Dian’s happiness or reputation if they come at the cost of my own beliefs.”
And:
“In the end, I know I’ll do what’s logical…” (emphasis in original).
Those words horrify me, frighten me. I can’t recognise love in them, nor humanity. Even reading them now, fifteen years after the event, I crave to know what consequences would have followed from those thoughts. But they are nothing but a ghost trail.
But despite obliterating himself in the Sandman, Wesley Dodds sleeps. And its in his dreams that he hears the vital Police message, compelling him into rushing out, in daylight, without thought of concealment, almost knocking Dian down. What follows for the Sandman is not solely the result of concussion, no indeed.
Dian’s on the spot because she’s moving in. That is, she’s accepted Wesley’s old offer of establishing a writing office at his home, and she’s here to set up. The decision, taken the preeceding night, after Wesley’s ‘talk’ with Larry, is another factor in his concerns.
Etta, Humphries’ daughter, is firmly established in the household, without however relinquishing any of her poliotical beliefs (later in the play, Davis depicts her as having taken to wearing trousers!). Before Dian even starts, Etta’s persuaded her to join her in volunteering, at All God’s Children Orphanage, a private insitution set up by socialite Carmen Bohage (not out of charity but for social kudos).
By accident, this brings Dian into the heart of the Sandman’s case. We already know there is something rotten there, as we’ve seen Mrs Bohage delivering unwanted children to the far less salubrious surroundings of Standard House, a public orphanage as grim as they come, owned/run by the hardened Mr Ricketts.
Etta is impossible, utterly unmaternal, martinet-like, but Dian is a natural with the children, almost too good for Mrs Bohage. The presence of the children, her feelings for them, spurs Dian on to the final step: she insists her father be home early where she will finally unburden herself over the secret of her abortion.
But things get in the way. Dian has already arranged a literary dinner with Richard Manten, the essayist, having reminded him that she is firmly spoken for. In the course of the play, Manten will a) extravagantly praise Dian’s budding novel, b) arrange for an (initially) disappointing interview with his publisher and c) kiss her, though again we will never get to find out where Seagle planned to take this diversion.
However, between her appointment with Manten, and her late arrival home after Mrs Bohage sends her to Standard House – where her eyes are horrifyingly opened – Dian leaves herself no time to talk to her father, a missed opportunity with terrible consequences.
The following day, Dian takes the decision to transfer her services to Standard House. The children there are in greater need of love, but whilst Ricketts accepts Dian, he is insistent that she stay within strict bounds: in his strange, cruel way, Ricketts does care for his inmates, even the malformed and misshapen kept in virtual prison. He refuses to allow them kindness and hope that will last only as long as someone is bothered to do so. It’s a bleak philosophy.
But in Burke and O’Grady’s world, evidence leads them towards Standard House. Ricketts has a (distant) criminal past and the bundles of cash in his desk drawer call attention to him. At  All God’s Children, Etta recognises the birthmark of a recently abandoned baby as being the stolen child, and goes to tell Dian
But Dian has other things on her mind. Only a night after not telling her father when she meant to, the truth bursts out in terrifying manner. An overpaid bill from Sunny Hills, initially sent to Wesley Dodds and re-directed here has been opened by Larry. Larry knows about Sunny Hills, and knows the only reason people go there. Larry wants to be told that what he knows isn’t true, hasn’t happened. And Dian can’t do that.
He rants and raves. Dian cries. He accuses her of whorish behaviour and she defiantly takes the name, if it’s meant to apply to her being a woman and loving a man. He forbids her from ever seeing Wesley again. She refuses his orders. He collapses with a heart attack.
Thankfully, Larry survives. Even more so, his first thought on wakening is to assure his guilt-stricken daughter that it really is not her fault.
This bombshell unexpeectedly brings about the solution. The sick Sandman is drawn to the hospital, only to be sent away by Dian in hatred and fury. She goes to the Precinct to tell whoever needs to know, where she meets Burke. He’s there after the DA’s assistance, and even his gnarled heart – increasingly softened as it is by the eager Doris – is nudged by it.
But he’s still Homicide, and if Dian’s been at Standard House he wants her handwriting to eliminate her from the billhead clue.
Suddenly, everybody converges on Standard House. Dian and Etta, to aid the unspervised children.The Sandman, pursuing the Goblin, driven by a dream of Dream, who tells him he can no longer hide but must wake. Carmen Bohage to dump another child, carrying a note from the cleaner, Clara, the handwriting of which Dian recognises. Burke and O’Grady, pursuing Mrs Bohage after Etta’s tip-off.
And Danny, the Goblin-child, a mute, polio-infected child being used by his mother, Clara, to steal money so that they can afford at last to have a home where she can take care of him. The murders were never meant, the fruit of panic.
The Sandman gasses Clara and Danny. Dian manages to get him to go home, to safety. Burke now seriously wants to know why Miss Belmont is always getting mixed up in his cases.
One last resolution remains. The Sandman is back home, still paranoid and fearful. With words of love, with a fearless determination to resolve what is wrong, Dian persuades Wesley out of his mask, into his real life. No longer oppressed by circumstances, openly and freely Dian declares her love and commitment to her man. And Wesley, going into this with cruel rationality, emerges broken, emotionally cracked, sobbing desperately for the child he lost.
Dian reassures him, cradling him like that infant. Remember that both of this pair lost their mothers when young, that Wesley’s father sent him to the other side of the world to be educated, alone and distant. She promises him, if and when the time comes, they will have their child (that the time never comes, not in that way, is a sorrow only the reader knows).
It’s a powerful story, even despite the careless slip that has Danny the Goblin named Jimmy in the Third Act. It trailed many developments (as well as those I’ve indicated in the narrative, there is Dian’s mention of the hitherto un-referenced murder of her cousin Buck, which Seagle would not have brought up without an intention).
All of it gone, all of it lost. The Goblin was written and drawn unknowing of the closure of the Theatre. Seagle’s next task was to be to turn off the house lights in only two Acts.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance. Before we come to that last play of our season, they will act out two sketches featuring our leading man.
Break a leg.

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 Cannon


Sandman Mystery Theatre 57-60. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Matt Wagner (story idea), Michael Lark and Richard Case (artists)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The Cannon marks the end of Matt Wagne’s involvement in the Mystery Theatre, bringing a five year association to an end with one final story idea. The season, the approach, was his own idea, and his name should burn forever as a Patron. Henceforth, until the all too early end, Steven T. Seagle would have the Director’s role to himself.
The Cannon is also the last play to be set decorated by guest designers, the team of Michael Lark (pencils) and Richard Case (inks). Their work is neatly evocative of the era, wthout need of any of the hindering scratchiness of some of their forebears: their delineation of the people and the fasions of the time opens the door in your imagination.
And it’s the second and final appearance of the Reverend Armitage “Bagsy” Hawley, alias the Cannon, smiter of the Ungodly, and converter of tainted money to the good of the poor and weak.
Bagsy’s return is not only a delight in itself (though Seagle favours a slightly less broad portrayal of the Reverend, almost completely eschewing the self-mocking humour that underpinned Bagsy in Sandman Midnight Theatre) but it comes at a crucial junction for Wesley and Dian, who are both in need of a counsellor who can assist them in getting through the effects of the past few days.
Though the Reverend Hawley gives oonly the messages that his faith dictates must be given – that abortion cannot be acceptable, that Dian must tell her father, and very soon, and that she and Wesley must marry (this latter advice is give to the pair, though otherwise Bagsy’s counsel is for Dian in her needs) – he is nevertheless a comfirt to both at a time when the stress of what has had to be done threatens to destabilise their relationship.
That he works out that Wesley is the Sandman and is bold enough to bring it up before Dian and Humphries is just further evidence that here is one smart man.
And boy, is he needed! The play begins literally a couple of days after The Crone. Wesley has come to collect Dian from Sunnyhills, feeling guilt over what has happened, and feeling weak for feeling guilty. Meanwhile, a liner from England, setting off before the Declaration of War, approaches New York harbour, carrying the seemingly empty-headed Percy Russell, excited at his first sight of the colonies, a phrase his shipboard compatriot, Bagsy Hawley, advises him against using.
Though he’s not long for this world, Percy is the reason for the Cannon being himself in the New World. Ostensibly a businessman, the jovial Percy is a cold and calculating crook, not to mention a Nazi sympathiser, who’s gotten himself into a bigger game than he realises and which gets him and his frightful wife killed early on. Because Percy’s trying to cut in on a deal involving Gold: tons of it, a syphoned-off part of what the Nazis have stolen from the Jews in Germany.
There’s a bidding war going on, courtesy of the Gamboni family, for which th entrance fee is the extreordinarily rare 1933 double-headed Eagle gold dollar: a coin withdrawn from circulation before it was even issued, and illegal to even own since the Gold Surrender Act of the same year.
But it’s what’s going on between Weley and Dian that is more important.No sooner is she home than his inability to know what to say leads to a quarrel. Wesley is beginning to realise his own bereavement, the denial of his chance to be a father, to be a better father than was his own. Dian feels that she is being blamed, especially unfairly give that Wesley abdicated any part in the decision to her.And his admission that, with a son, he might have given up the Sandman results in a stony-faced Dian pointing out that it may have been a daughter, and that he has never offered to make that concession for her.
Tears follow, bitter tears and accusations that she is being blamed, that Wesley will batter her with blame. His denials are not impressive, especially when Humphries interrupts to draw Percy Russell’s death to Master Dodds’ attention, in light of the dream he had that morning.
So the investigation begins, with the Sandman at one end and the Cannon at the other. They will cross paths with some suspicion, at least on the Sandman’s part, at first, before agreeing, initially tentatively, then officially, to work together.
And Lieutenant Burke is placed on the case. There’s no appearance by Weaver, nor reference to dinners with Weaver’s wife and sister-in-law, but the Lieutenant is definitely mellowing. He’s been assigned a partner, rookie Detective Dan O’Grady, and he’s noticeably less caustic with him than we’ve seen all along. Hell, he even compliments the kid over his attitude to the captured Tony Gamboni.
Burke even manages to accommodate a joint investigation with Agents Stone and Hart, who come into the matter when their investigations into illegal gold-trading lead them, via the back door, into this nest of murders.
But Bagsy’s true mission, though he never suspected it, is as mediator to Wesley and Dian. From the moment of his first encounter, before the end of the First Act, his presence serves to limit the probability of their quarrel continuing.
Not for long though, and it is the normally placid and composed Wesley who finds things too much for him to bear. Dian produces photographs from London to show Bagsy, of which Wesley was not aware. When she dismisses the idea of his breing interested in them, he not being the sentimental kind, the hurt iverwhelms and Wesley rushes out into the garden.
Bagsy’s ability to lend a non-judgemental ear, his gentle understanding of how deeply Wesley has been hurt, and his gentle leading back to the fundamental point that Wesley loves Dian not only soothes his ‘patient’ but, in an unstated manner, gives Dian the space to understad how much she has hurt, and to prepare herself to begin to welcome her love back, intent on what banids rather than divides.
Not so long after, she returns to his bad,though not yet to his embrace. She wants and needs his presence: sex has too much of a visceral connection to life and pregnancy for her just yet.
She’s far from reconciled to what has happened,and to the as yet still implied likelihood that there will never be another time for she and her love to bring forth a child of their union (and she’s right, though she and Wes stay together for life,to the very end of the Twentieth Century). The sight of a child, later on, leaves Dian in floods of tears, attracting the concerns of a passer-by, a Presbyterian Minister.
Faith plays a deep, though not religious role in this play. Dian receives comfort from a stranger who cares not about denominations, merely a person in pain. And even as Dian receives support in one Church, Bagsy enters another to dispense ill-gotten loot for good. Only Wesley, understandably, takes no form of spiritual guidance: the Cannon’sadvice is administered in strictly secular conditions and terms.
Incidentally, there is an issue here as to Bagsy’s particular brand of the Faith. When we first met him, in Sandman Midnight Theatre, he was distinctly an Anglican: it was a fundamental aspect of his gently parodistic nature that he be entirely English. In New York, however, he speaks of taking confession, is himself shrived, and the gangsters who plan to kill the Cannon speak in terms of sending him back to his boss, the Pope. Is Bagsy Catholic? No, certainly not. But Seagle didn’t understand that.
Once Bagsy confronts Wesley over being the Sandman, his usefulness becomes merely that as a colleague in justice. Though even here he is of more than practical assistance, as Wesley understands the value in the freedom to to be both his public and private selves.
But Dian needs more. She needs the Reverend Armitage Hawley’s advice about ‘her friend’s pregancy and termination. It’s not easy, but it points her to where she needs to go, to begin to draw together her public and private selves, by speaking to her father.
So it’s over. Bagsy leaves to return to London, never to be seen again. Ironically, he finds himself next to a man who is going to a destination even he does not know, save that it can no longer be Germany: this is the unnamed man who has been behind this failed attempt to rause money for the Third Reich.
The true end, though, is one final dream, a dream by Wesley Dodds. It is not of a crime, at least not in the sense we have been led to expect, nor of any fabulous crook. It is a dream of a baby, born growing and leaving Weley behind on a New York lake shore he cannot escape.
It’s a sobering moment.
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 City.
Break a leg.

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (Vol. 3) #13


I might have known.

After a year of blogging the new series of Astro City, I gave up last month, tired of continually saying one or other variation of ‘it’s good – bit it’s not satisfying’. I promised not to blog the series again unless the gang came out with something worth talking about.

So, here we are with issue 13…

It’s called ‘Waltz of the Hours’ and it covers twenty hours in the life of Astro City, one hour for each of twenty four pages. And those hours are all jumbled up, chronologically, so that we experience this day is a disconcerting, kaleidosopic manner, effect preceding cause. And this deliberate fracturing of the story is not some desperate gimmick on the part of Busiek, but rather an intentional turning of the story inside out. We cut from hour to hour, back and forth, between the seven principal characters, three civilians, four super-characters.

That the story is about time is apt for our three civilians, Zvi, Laura and an un-named man, who we eventually learn is the unintentional precipitator of events. I’ve named them (so to speak) in the order in which we are introduced to them: Zvi a part of an NRGistics project, working through the N-field to operate a robot on the surface of Io, a moon of Jupiter, Laura a bank clerk in a humdrum, dead-end job, frustrated that she never gets to see her so-called boyfriend because his job/career is so demanding on his time, and the unknown man, also committed to a time-consuming scientific project at Fox-Broome University. Zvi and the unknown man also feel guilty and deprived at not spending enough time with their partner.

Three people, civilians all, with the common problem of time.

And the unknown man falls asleep, monitoring a carefully calibrated experiment, as a result of which an ancient, puissant being finds a way into this world. He has had many names in many times and places, but the one he holds for himself is The Dancing Master, and he it is who begins the dance, the dance that lies in everybody. The dance of life, of possibility, of love, of romance.

And for most of a day, the Dancing Master turns Astro City into an unpredictable, unstable stew of different possibilities, lighting flames, until he is confronted by the Hanged Man. For the first time, we see a glimpse into who and what the Hanged Man might be or have been (whether Busiek should reveal the origin/nature of this mysterious protector has been debated for several months, the majority opinion being that he should not).

The Hanged Man persuades the Dancing Master that this is not his place or time, and that he should return to the Older Lands, despite their emptiness and coldness. But the Dancing Master must perform the task for which he was summoned before he leaves, knowing the way to return.

There are three civilians in need and two more superhumans. The first of these is Jack-in-the-Box, fighting to bring down Gundog. The villain traps the Harlequin Hero in a Ryman Sphere, that slows down time, and continues on his self-imposed task of robbing five banks in a day. But he’s bored: bored of the black leather and the fake southern accent and the whole thing. His second bank is the one where Laura works, by which time the Dancing Master’s influence is starting to take effect. The two fall for each other across a bank counter.

So much so that, after robbing the branch, he leaves Laura with the guns to cover everyone, and she, giddy and delighted, does so. But after the third bank, he comes back, chucks down all the money, tells them to tell the Police he’s retired, and he sweeps Laura off to Maine, where his Great-Uncle’s been wanting him to come in on this lobster joint. Laura’s from Iowa, but she’s always wanted to live by the sea.

It’s greatly improbable, but in a few short words and smiles (thanks, Brent), Busiek persuades you that this giddy liaison will work.

Where does that leave Laura’s so-called boyfriend, we wonder, with his demanding career and conflicting schedules. Mr unknown gets home to an empty apartment, cooking for himself again, but Busiek’s kaleidoscopic handling has concealed what at least one reader with his heterosexual assumptions hadn’t twigged – that the un-named man’s partner is Zvi, not Laura. A Zvi who’s home earl;y despite his brilliant, intuitively successful day at NRGistics, when abruptly he lost his concentration. At the interference of the Dancing Master.

A beautifully told, compulsively woven tale, and a genuine reminder that Astro City can still be as good as it used to be. There’s even a magical final page, as the robot dog continues its collection of samples on distant Io. Only it too remembers the dance. It knows itself as Rover, and it is lonely for the voices of Zvi and his fellow operatives…

Lovely, intriguing, individual story. I am so glad to have ‘my’ Astro City back.

Two final points: I’m intrigued that Busiek so resolutely keeps the unknown man’s name out of it. It’s uncharacteristic, and therefore significant, at least to me. I mean, I can see the plot point notion of initial anonimity, so that we may think of him as Laura’s unnamed boyfriend, even as we are also offered the possibility that the boyfriend may be Zvi. But the revelation that Zvi and the man are partners comes after Laura’s flying car elopement with the former – and equally unnamed – Gundog, and it would have been entirely natural for Zvi to call his man by name at some point. Interesting, and I wonder/hope there may be more to this.

The other is that this is still a one-off. Don’t assume that in four week’s time you’ll be reading me blog about Astro City 14. That’s entirely down to Messrs Busiek, Anderson and Ross.

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 Blackhawk


Sandman Mystery Theatre  45-48 . Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (script), Matthew Smith and Richard Case (artists).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
After the intensity of The Phantom of the Fair, it’s, uh, fair to say that The Blackhawk is a considerably lighter piece, though far from light in itself.
Once again, Wagner/Seagle are dipping into established DC history. Blackhawk (as he’s usually known) is a long-established character, created in part by the legendary Will Eisner during the Second World War, and enjoying decades of success. He was the leader of the Blackhawks, a squadron of independent fliers drawn from the Allied Nations, fighting against the Nazis.
Though the definitive name of Janos Prohaska wasn’t established until after Crisis on Infinite Earths, and ignoring a period when Blackhawk became an American volunteer in Poland, the character has always been a Polish flyer whose brother and sister were killed in a German air-raid, and who swore vengeance.
But all that began in 1941. In the Mystery Theatre it’s still 1939, and in America at least, the inevitability of War is accepted, and certain people are fixing to do something about it. One such group includes Judge Shaeffer, and he, in turn, wants Wesley Dodds to join. It’s prefaced by a gift of tickets to an Air Show, to which Wes takes Dian. The star of the Air Show is a highly-skilled Polish flyer, one Janos Prohaska. And the Resistance Group’s purpose is to fund a highly-skilled Polish flyer in defending his homeland: of course it is Janos Prohaska.
Like other plays before it, the plot of The Blackhawk is primarily a backcloth for the more important elements of the the ongoing series, and the development of the regular characters. That story is relatively simple: Judge Shaeffer invites Wesley into the secret group which is proposing to fund  Prohaska in the defence of his homeland against the Nazis. However, one of the group, for reasons of both ideology and cupidity, is trying to discredit Prohaska as a murderer of women. Burke is heavily involved, convinced Prohaska is guilty and determined to beat a confession out of him. In the end, the Sandman breaks Prohaska out of jail and sees him onto a plane out of the country as part of a scheme intended to draw out the real villain. Prohaska is exonerated, but at story’s end it is reported that his plane has been shot down, with no survivors.
No, what distinguishes this play is its depiction of three of the principals: Dian, Burke and Janos Prohaska himself. Only Wesley and the Sandman are constants whose position does not move in these four Acts, and that is in part an underpinning of Dian’s story.
Despite her decision to devote herself to writing, Dian is finding it very difficult to get going. Her ideas seem grand in her head, but feeble on paper (tell me about it!). It doesn’t help that she’s feeling off colour, prone to stomach upsets, bleary in the morning. It’s still hard for her to totally accept Wesley’s other life, even if she is taking more of an active part in supporting him. In her current state of health and mind, she sees herself as once again competing, passively, for Wesley’s attention, and overlooked too often as he follows his dreams.
Dian’s also musing more than we’ve seen before upon her mother, perhaps as a result of Larry’s comments in The Phantom of the Fair that she immediately deflected. Uppermost in Dian’s mind is that her mother was the only one in her circle of friends to stop after one child. Dian speculates that her conception was a mistake, and sees a lot of her mother in herself, or vice versa.
It’s something I’ve always liked about the Mystery Theatre, that even though Dian was, to an extent, press-ganged into returning to America and committing herself whole-heartedly to Wesley and the Sandman, it is not a simple, once and for all commitment for her, and her reservations and fears continue to affect her.
By the second half of the play, Dian’s being much more proactive: dressed in a mask, she chauffeurs Janos to a meeting with the Sandman. When he tries to call her Lady Sandwoman, she demurs, but she accepts the (tongue-in-cheek) title of ‘Sandy’. As usual, being there at the heart of things arouses Dian’s spirits.
But whilst Dian, by virtue of her narrative roles, remains up front, for once this play is as much about Lieutenant Tony Burke as it is about anyone else. What is Burke? What has been thus far? The truthful answer is that Burke is a monster. In some ways he’s a stereotype, the embodiment of every hard-boiled cop ever to feature in pulp crime fiction. Burke is a cop through and through, and he’s a bloody good cop. But only in the terms of the times.
We’ve seen, over and again, how rude, arrogant and overbearing he is. No-one on the force is as hard as Tony Burke, nobody can so much as hint at a weakness without his fastening on it and contemptuously putting the guy down. He’s a mass of prejudices, he’s obsessed with bringing the Sandman down because, despite the costumed vigilante’s obvious intent of assistance, he’s a vigilante. Burke’s a cop, he has authority, he is Authority. The Sandman has no right to do what he does.
And Burke is also guilty of tunnel vision, of choosing a culprit and fixedly pursuing them, ignoring any competing suggestion or even evidence, intent on getting the inevitable confession with a lot of back room beating, with fists and rubber hose.
As I said, Burke is a monster. That he is honest, and passionate about catching murderers is his only saving grace. And he’s been like this since his introduction in The Tarantula. Unlike every other recurring character, he has not changed one iota.
Until the first act of The Blackhawk. Even on his way to a crime scene, he’s his offensive self. Working with one of the guys who went down the sewers with him in Night of the Butcher, he’s unbearable at the man’s heightened sensitivity to violence. Then he arrives on the scene, and breaks, all at once, like a baby.
Burke’s collapse is sudden and absolute. It is he who breaks out of the room, runs for the alley, pukes his guts out. He’s lying there, unable to function, so bad that the Sandman approaches him, with concern for his condition, and Burke, who is still a long way from recovering that self he usually wields like a blunt instrument, is so defeated that he actually authorises the Sandman to go search the room, invites him into the investigation. Though not without a token warning not to disturb or take anything, accompanied by a threat of retribution that is painfully ineffectual.
What shatters Burke? It’s a real shame that this play should be designed by Matthew Smith, not stalwart Guy Davis, otherwise we would surely recognise the prostitute with whom Prohaska sleeps, to mutual joyfulness, and who is murdered as soon as he leaves. Her name is Regina Aggondezzi – Gina – and she is the woman Burke turned to in Night of the Butcher for sex but, more importantly, company.
Burke experiences death coming to his own life, to someone he cares about, and the iron man goes to pieces.
But not for long. His armour reforged, Burke fixes on Prohaska as the killer, and his determination to avenge Gina makes him even more vicious, single-minded and determined, even to attempting to suppress evidence that leads away from Prohaska. That his man gets away, that he escapes police custody, that he’s not even the killer is a tremendous blow. We sense that Burke’s response will be to dig down even deeper into his chosen role, but the monster has been exposed in this play, and we may be sure that his story has just become open to development.
And lastly, there’s the Blackhawk. The title gets handed out by the Sandman, saluting Janos as the ‘Black Hawk of the Skies’ as he flies off on what we are, at the last, led to believe is a fatal flight. It’s a crushing riposte, to the effort of the story, to the passionate Prohaska we see here, and under the arch of the Mystery Theatre we can tremble at the bleak irony, though beyond we know Blackhawk will live and fight eternally.
Prohaska’s portrayal in Sandman Mystery Theatre is in keeping with his revised characterisation introduced in a limited series written and drawn by Howard Chaykin, but it’s rather more natural, and isn’t being played for in-your-face, shock value. Here, in 1939, Prohaska still speaks with a pronounced Polish accent, which he is conscientiously trying to shed, and is unfamiliar wit America and its customs.
These combine to give the effect that Prohaska is something of a simple man, though he’s anything but. When he mentions to the Resistance Group that he’s flown in the Spanish Civil War, one of the (rich, business man) members asks which side. Given that Chaykin also made Blackhawk a former communist, the readers know that it was for the Republicans, but Prohaska, with an enthusiastic bonhomie, replies, “Why, the good side, of course.”
But Prohaska, for all he is smart, passionate, and winningly patriotic whenever he has to speechify, he’s also a larger-than-life womaniser. Not for the thrill of conquest, perhaps, but rather out of an inexhaustible appreciation for the beauty of American women.
It’s this zest that marks out Janos Prohaska, and which renders the ending so much of a comedown (if you choose to believe it). And his interplay with the Sandman is priceless, especially when, on their first meeting, the Sandman’s gas actually kills a thug (to Wesley’s consternation), thanks to an extreme allergic reaction.
Mention must be made, of course, to Matthew Smith as this play’s guest designer (Richard Case assists in the Third and Final Acts, supplying inks). As usual, the choice of guest is rather left field, Smith’s style being stark and representational, with the use of heavy blacks. Smith also eschews detail in a manner that enables him to create rather stark pages that suggest rather than depict the Thirties. He frequently prefers outlines, as witnessed by the sheer number of times Wesley’s glasses are mere black circles, his eyes invisible behind them.
It’s unusual, but not inappropriate, but in the light of Davis’s gift in depicting facial and body language, this is one occasion on which I seriously regret his being only able to draw eight issues a year.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled Return of The Scarlet Ghost.
Break a leg.

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.