Count Ninety-Nine & Kiss Me: Sandman Mystery Theatre & Midnight Theatre

Ask a fan what the most successful Sandman spinoff is and they’ll tell you it’s Lucifer. And they’d be right. I’d tell you the same thing, matter of fact. Penned by Mike Carey and drawn (mostly) by Peter Gross and Dean Ormstead, Lucifer ran seventy-five issues, plus some miniseries and specials, and is a sort of tonal heir to Sandman.

And yes, there is a television series, which I confess I have not seen. People seem to like it, and I am all for people liking things, but from what I’ve read, its connection to the comic book series seems tenuous.

There was also The Dreaming, an anthology series that was less a spin-off than a follow up, and ran for sixty issues after Sandman wrapped up in 1996. It’s tough to describe what The Dreaming was and why it failed. There was some thematic continuity, thanks to the editorial eye of Alisa Kwitney, but the series picked up on only one aspect of Gaiman’s aesthetic, a feyness that’s certainly present in his work, but isn’t the only thing there. I’m struggling with how to put this delicately. You know how Tori Amos is amazing, and a lot of songwriters who consider themselves “influenced” by her miss…something…crucial in her work and end up sounding extremely out of the late nineties and thus difficult to listen to? The Dreaming was kind of that. It’s never really been published in collected editions, despite the bankability of any book with “Sandman” slapped on the cover, and to the extent there were ongoing stories, they ended up undercut by Gaiman’s occasional returns to the franchise, or various stand-alone miniseries by high profile creators (most often Mike Carey, and Bill Willingham, who’d go on to create Fables. There’s also a Dead Boys mini by Ed Brubaker, which I didn’t know about until a week ago. As much as I’ve said I was going to avoid the peripheral Sandman stuff, I have a morbid curiosity about how Willingham’s often-evident-on-the-page conservative politics or Brubaker’s grim and gritty vibe mesh with the Sandman universe).

And then there’s Sandman Mystery Theatre.

Launched in 1993 when Sandman was enough of a massive hit that the Vertigo imprint had coalesced around it, Sandman Mystery Theatre was written by Matt Wagner, most renowned at that point for his creator-owned work on Grendel, and drawn by Guy Davis. Davis would draw the first arc, briefly hand off to John Watkiss and RG Taylor, and then return to draw the bulk of the seventy-issue run. Set in 1930s New York, the series centered on Wesley Dodds, the Golden Age Sandman who made a three-panel appearance in Sandman’s first issue.

It falls into some of the pitfalls of “modern noir”—the worst come early on: in the second arc, “The Face”, 30s-era Asian stereotypes get re-presented pretty uncritically, and a “coloring error” led to Asian characters being portrayed with bright yellow skin, which has been corrected in reprints—but overall, it’s a savvy noir series. Wagner and Davis change Dodds from a proto-Bruce Wayne into a frumpy introvert, with a background in Eastern philosophy that makes him more of a precursor to the Question. His relationship with Dian Belmont is rich and complex, Nick and Nora without the quips or the rampant alcoholism. As the best retro noir tends to, Wagner takes the formal aspects of the genre and uses them to explore things Chandler and Hammett couldn’t have gotten into print, from explicit sexual crimes, to anti-semitism, to the rising tide of Nazism.

You’d be well within your rights here to ask what any of this has to do with Sandman. The answer is, not much. The entire series takes place within issue one of Sandman, and Morpheus makes only a handful of appearances in the series, haunting Wesley Dodds’s dreams.

But they did meet, that one time…

Sandman: Midnight Theatre came out in the fall of 1995. Publication-wise in terms of Sandman, this puts it right between the end of The Kindly Ones and The Wake—the first issue of The Wake features a cameo by Wesley Dodds, out of costume. This’d be issues #71 and #72, if that’s the way you’re scoring at home. But like the entire Sandman Mystery Theatre series, it takes place within issue one’s chronology. Midnight Theatre falls between “The Python” and “The Mist” storylines in terms of Sandman Mystery Theatre (issues #36 and #37), both in terms of publication and in terms of narrative chronology. It was a one-shot, co-plotted by Wagner and Gaiman, with Gaiman scripting, and art by Teddy Kristiansen, who’d worked with Gaiman a few months before on an issue of The Kindly Ones arc.

The intent is obviously to bolster sales numbers for Sandman Mystery Theatre; no one was going to be jumping on Sandman at this late stage in its run. It contributes very little to the narrative of Sandman, except maybe fleshing out the relationship between Alex Burgess and Paul McGuire from issue one, who show up again in The Kindly Ones and The Wake, but even that amounts to a fleeting glimpse.

Really this is a Sandman Mystery Theatre story, following up on Dian Belmont’s departure from New York at the end of “The Python” and her return from England with Wes Dodds at the beginning of “The Mist.” It explains the couple’s reconciliation, and sets up Dian Belmont’s tenure as a romantic partner to Dodds as well as a crime-fighting partner to his masked alter ego.

The story centers on a party at Fawney Rig in 1939, the home of Roderick and Alex Burgess, and the place of captivity for Morpheus. Although it isn’t referenced often in the series, Wesley Dodds is haunted by visions of Morpheus in his full regalia, most notably his helmet. The gas mask Dodds wears as the Sandman is a fairly multivalent symbol, invoking the first World War and the next one looming—Dodds quotes Wilfred Owen to a Nazi in this issue—but is now linked visually to Morpheus’s helmet. It isn’t Dream (or dreams) that brings Dodds to London. He’s pursuing a rather poorly sketched mystery involving the death of a family friend, which leads him to the party at Fawney Rig. Dian ends up at the same gathering, following an intertwined thread of her own. The couple’s earlier encounters in London are poignant, fraught with Dian’s sense that she’s lacking in purpose, and Wesley’s inability to reconcile the two sides of his identity.

The point of crossover comes in the basement of Fawney Rig, and amounts to two pages, but those two pages contain a fairly significant retcon. In Sandman #1, we’re left with the sense that Wesley Dodds is motivated to adopt the Sandman persona because dreams caused by Morpheus’s absence from his proper role. But here, we’re told that Dodds contains some piece of Morpheus.

It’s not a line Wagner follows up on in his series, but James Robinson and Geoff Johns, both serious DC continuity wonks, will give tug on that narrative thread in the JSA series launched four years down the line, where the death of Wes Dodds links up with some mildly unintelligible stuff involving Hawkman, the Silver Age Sandman who figures prominently in Gaiman’s The Doll’s House storyline, and Doctor Fate.

Gaiman also adds a bit of a Zhuang Zhao wrinkle to Wes Dodds/the Sandman, suggesting a deeper split in their duality than Wagner portrayed, the butterfly dreaming it’s a man.

For the story itself, it’s not one that plays to Gaiman’s strengths as a writer, although the party scenes where we float through conversations about magic, blackmail, and the specter of the coming war, sparkle. The mystery that should give the story its spine is barely there, and wrapped up without any real sleuthing on the part of…well, anyone involved. Sandman Mystery Theatre arcs tended to be four issues long, with much of the backing cast recurring. The stories have room to breath, where this one doesn’t, forced to introduce setting, cast, and plot over sixty-four pages. The format does allow Sandman Mystery Theatre some of its most lush art—Guy Davis is a perfect fit for the series proper, but the foggy, fluid paintings of Kristiansen here lend themselves to both the sojourn to London and to Dream’s presence/absence haunting Dodds more immediately than in the regular book.

Dodds is given to forget his encounter with Morpheus, lending the story a frustrating “It was all a dream” ending, but the reconciliation of Wes and Dian underlines the fact that “it was all a dream” doesn’t undo the story that proceeds it. The dream has weight, impact, and leaves the dreamer changed.