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Classic Comic Compendium: Sandman Midnight Theatre

A celebration of The Sandman and The Sandman Mystery Theatre coming together, but also a story that stands on its own as a compelling mystery in the tradition of old British pulps.

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“I don’t understand cricket. I wonder if anyone does.”

In The Sandman #1, Dream is kidnapped by a group of magicians who were hoping to ensnare Death. They kept him imprisoned, causing havoc across the worlds as is detailed in that series. However, that issue also revealed that the universe tried to replace what was missing. It did so in the form of Wesley Dodds, the dreaming detective, who dressed up in a gas mask and trench coat and hat carrying around a sleep gun as the Golden Age hero, The Sandman. 

Early in the launch of Vertigo, building upon some of the foundations lain by Gaiman and his collaborators on The Sandman, one of the building blocks chronicled some of the adventures of Dodds in Sandman Mystery Theatre. It’s one of the line’s underrated gems, delivering many wonderful four-part mysteries, while also chronicling the sometimes rocky romance of Dodds and Dian Belmont.

A couple of years into the run, though, as the main Sandman series wound down, we finally got a tale of how Wesley Dodds and Morpheus interacted in the magnificent original graphic novel, Sandman Midnight Theatre, from Neil Gaiman, Matt Wagner, Teddy Kristiansen, and Todd Klein. You can argue that it’s more Sandman Mystery Theatre than The Sandman, as it largely features spillover from the ongoing plot of Dian and Wesley’s conflict regarding his excuses and leaving her in the dark about his nightly activities (tying in to issues 21 through 28 of that series), but it brings the pair to England. There they find themselves embroiled in a blackmail plot that leads to the occult order that summoned and trapped Dream in that aforementioned first issue. That may sound a bit involved, but everything you need to know from both series are included for your reading enjoyment in this tale.

In his introduction to the story in the Midnight Days collection, Gaiman likens his approach to it as taking British pulp adventures in the vein of Dennis Wheatley and Leslie Charteris a modern sensibility, and I think that’s an apt description. A large part of the tale involves a dinner party and the occult organization, perfectly falling within the realm of something like The Devil Rides Out. Only a little more restrained, perhaps echoing more of the fiction of Dion Fortune or Aleister Crowley.

It takes on a moody and atmospheric tone as it’s told through the beautiful artwork of Teddy Kristiansen. There aren’t a lot of artists in comics that really do what Kristiansen does, embracing a kind of Expressionist approach with his colors and characters, resulting in something of a surreal feel. This particularly comes into play during the sequences with Wesley’s dreams, where scenes already up for interpretation are given a further distance. Although the perspective in some of them should be very familiar to longtime readers right off the bat.

Todd Klein marries his own style used throughout The Sandman, complete with the black background white text splotchy balloons he uses for Dream himself, with the styles John Costanza established for narration boxes and journaling in The Sandman Mystery Theatre. It’s a really nice way to blend the feel of both series with some simple visuals.

While it’s absolutely a celebration of The Sandman and The Sandman Mystery Theatre coming together, Sandman Midnight Theatre from Gaiman, Wagner, Kristiansen, and Klein still stands on its own as a compelling mystery in the tradition of old British pulps.

Sandman Midnight Theatre

Writers: Neil Gaiman (story & dialogue) & Matt Wagner (story & plot)
Artist: Teddy Kristiansen
Letterer: Todd Klein
Publisher: DC Comics / Vertigo
Release Date: July 27, 1995 (original) | July 11, 2012 (deluxe edition)
Available In: The Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days: Deluxe Edition collection

Read last week’s entry in the Classic Comic Compendium!

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