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Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 26: Sandman Midnight Theatre

Every day this month, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. Today’s page is from Sandman Midnight Theatre, which was published by DC/Vertigo and is cover dated September 1995. Enjoy!

Well, that can't be fun

Sandman Midnight Theatre begins weirdly, because it’s ostensibly a standalone story (it was a fancy “prestige-format” book that are sadly lacking from DC’s output these days) but it relies heavily on knowledge of two different Vertigo series – Sandman and Sandman Mystery Theatre, and is a weird kind of faux-crossover between the two series. It’s a logical crossover – while the actual Sandman was imprisoned, a man named Wesley Dodds began to have weird dreams about him which inspired him to put on a costume and call himself the Sandman – but this book and this first page are very much founded in the two series.

The first page doesn’t do much to help us, although it’s explained as we go along. This book was plotted by Matt Wagner (writer of Sandman Mystery Theatre for most of its run), written by Neil Gaiman (writer of Sandman), painted by Teddy Kristiansen, and lettered by the ubiquitous Todd Klein. Kristiansen gives us a standard nine-panel grid, which works pretty well for this page. Gaiman gives us narration that is both well done but also rather uninformative. Wesley Dodds is dreaming, and he initially thinks he is the “pale man” (who?) but the old man (the “spider”) who is questioning the pale man. This disturbs him so much that he wakes up.

The prose is creepy (“It came like a spider, clicking and dragging itself toward him”), but Gaiman is relying on our knowledge of an old scene from The Sandman, where we find out that the “pale man” is Morpheus, and he’s trapped inside a glass ball. The old man is his jailer, Roderick Burgess, and he wants Morpheus’s secrets. So while the scene is effective if we have that knowledge, it’s a bit less so when this is the first time you see these characters.

Kristiansen, however, does a nice job with the artwork. In the third panel, Burgess doesn’t so much look like a spider as a horrifying insect, his cane in his right hand stretching to infinity. As Morpheus is watching this scene through a curved lens, we get the fish-eyed perspective, which bends the reality into eerie shapes. Kristiansen’s harsh lines make Burgess a terrifying yet also tragic figure, an old man with dead eyes and a hunched back. He appears both powerful and impotent, because he can’t get what he wants even though he’s trapped such a powerful figure. Kristiansen’s best idea is making his eyes black and completely soulless – it adds to his insect nature and also shows that he’s pretty much empty inside. This comes back to us later when we see Burgess without the filter, and he’s a sad, wizened old man, completely at odds with the skewed image we see here.

This one-shot is very good, even without a solid opening page. While the page works visually, it’s still puzzling if you haven’t been reading the two series from which it flows. Those are two very good series, however, so perhaps Gaiman can get away with assuming people have been reading them!

Next: You’d think Jim Starlin could do a good first page, but you might be wrong! If you want to know what other first pages are good, you can look them up in the archives!

3 Comments

Nice scan–that had to be a tough one to get in there!

I just got a new copy of this one a couple weeks ago: when it came out, I was reading Mystery Theatre, but not Sandman! (I’ve read a bit of the latter since, but haven’t finished it.) I couldn’t tell you if I knew exactly what was going on, on that side; but I still liked the Wes and Dian part.

The puzzling-ness of the page is part of its appeal, in my estimation. It sets up a creepy mystery surrounding the dream, while also firmly establishing the story’s mood and tone. We don’t know everything that’s going on, but we want to.

[...] Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 26: Sandman Midnight …Comic Book Resourcesby Greg Burgas Every day this month, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. Today's page is from Sandman Midnight Theatre, which was published by DC/Vertigo and is cover dated September 1995. Enjoy! Sandman Midnight Theatre begins … cardiograph, Frantic, lines, scratching [...]

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