22 January 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Sandman Mystery Theatre, Part III: The Face and The Brute

Comic hardcover, 206 pages
Published 2004 (contents: 1993-94)

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2011
Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Face and The Brute

Writer: Matt Wagner
Artists: John Watkiss, R. G. Taylor
Colorist: David Hornung
Letterer: John Costanza

The second volume of Sandman Mystery Theatre is decidedly weaker than the first. The first story, "The Face," sees a series of brutal murders in Chinatown escalating tensions between rival gangs to the point of war as the Sandman tries to find the murderer before that happens. Unfortunately, though the story often criticizes many of its characters for racist thinking, the story still falls victim to many Orientalist tropes itself, especially in John Watkiss's artwork, where the Chinese characters are so slanty-eyed they don't have any pupils. "The Face" of the title (again, not the same Face as in the Golden Age Sandman stuff, though quite similar) barely has any interaction with the Sandman, and the resolution of the mystery is a bit underwhelming. As in the first volume, Dian Belmont was probably the best thing about this story, especially the part where she takes matters into her own hands and steals her father's gun.

The second story, "The Brute," is a bit better but still not as successful as The Tarantula. The Sandman himself feels lost here, doing little actual investigation until things suddenly fall into place for him at the end of the story. The focus on Dian's growing conscience works well, though, as does her growing relationship(s) with Wesley Dodds and the Sandman. A lot of the story is taken up by the travails of a boxer and his daughter that, though gripping, keep the focus solidly off the Sandman himself. And the "Brute" of the title is kind of random and pointless; I'm not sure why each Sandman Mystery Theatre story has to have a gimmicky villain when the series is otherwise uninteresting in the conventions of superhero comics. R. G. Taylor's art is too stiff, and his Wesley looks too middle-aged. Overall, The Face and The Brute fails to follow up the strong beginning of the series, though it's entertaining enough on its own merits, mostly for Dian Belmont's continued growth and presence.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Sandman Mystery Theatre, Part II: The Tarantula

Comic hardcover, 111 pages
Published 2004 (contents: 1993)

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2011
Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula

Writer: Matt Wagner
Artist: Guy Davis
Colorist: David Hornung
Letterer: John Costanza

After the success of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, DC revisited the original Sandman with Sandman Mystery Theatre, a pulp-influenced reworking of Wesley Dodds. In these stories, Wesley is not a playboy, but a shy, retiring man plagued by terrible dreams to fill the gap in the cosmos caused by the capture of Dream. Instead of the array of shorts we got in the 1940s, Matt Wagner gives us a sprawling, complicated tale of the Sandman trying to track down a mysterious murderer known only as "the Tarantula." (There was a Tarantula in one of the original Golden Age Sandman stories, but he isn't related to this one as far as I can tell.)

Dodds, though, is largely an enigma in this story, driven by strange dreams and mostly seen from an outside perspective, even when a scene focuses on him. The viewpoint character of The Tarantula is very much Dian Belmont, no longer a safecracker, but still the daughter of the District Attorney. One of her friends is one of the victims of the Tarantula, and her efforts to assist in the case-- and her interactions with the mysterious Sandman, not to mention the charming Wesley Dodds-- begin to give some aim and purpose to her until-now aimless life.

The plot of The Tarantula is a labyrinthine mystery, mostly taking place at night in New York City. The mystery is well-done, cutting the difficult line between obvious and impossible just right. The primary things that makes this story work, though, is the atmosphere that it oozes-- these are the dark, decadent adventures the Sandman should have been having all along. The Sandman inhabits a world every bit as frightening as his visage, tormented by dreams that show him the worst things he can imagine.

I really like Guy Davis's art. It's a little cartoony, but it works. He has a nice command of human faces, especially, and his characters look like real people: you can see Wesley's slight slump, and Dian is attractive but not a supermodel, more cute (and plump) than a knockout. On the other hand, he handles the dark and the creepy just exactly right as well. Moody and mysterious, The Tarantula is everything the original Sandman should have been all along.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Sandman Mystery Theatre, Part I: The Golden Age Sandman Archives, Volume 1

Having read all of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, I'm going backwards in DC history to read the stories of the other superheroes who have functioned under that name, beginning with one of the first in the 1930s: Wesley Dodds. The majority of these tales come from Sandman Mystery Theatre, but I'll be taking some sidesteps along the the way:

Comic hardcover, 221 pages
Published 2004 (contents: 1939-41)

Borrowed from the library
Read December 2010
The Golden Age Sandman Archives, Volume 1

Writers: Gardner Fox
Artists: Bert Christman, Creig Fessel, Chad Grothkopf, Ogden Whitney

This is the only collection of the original adventures of Wesley Dodds as the Sandman. Wesley is a millionaire playboy who owns the Dodds-Bessing Steel Corporation, but spends his nights fighting crime as the Sandman. Why? Who knows; there's no origin story of any stripe given here.

The reason why the Sandman would become such an enduring character can be instantly seen in his visual design. Dressed in a fedora, wearing a gas mask, and bearing a gas gun, he creates a potent and spooky image. One imagines adventures in the dead of night, with the Sandman's expressionless face looming at you out of the darkness. Unfortunately, the stories collected here struggled with capitalizing on that. Two early stories, "Sandman at the World's Fair" and "On the Waterfront," both feature the Sandman swimming, which means he looks goofy, a man wearing a gas mask along with his swim trunks.

Several other early tales are also jarring. "The Three Sandmen" feature Dodds recruiting two comrades from his naval aviator days to dress up as the Sandman to stop an heist in their airplanes. I'm not sure why they even have to dress up as the Sandman, given no one can see their faces in their airplanes! "Island Uprising" has the Sandman knocking out native tribes in the South Seas; hardly a creepy urban vigilante. (Though, oddly for a later Sandman story, "To Hammer the Earth" still features the Sandman battling a man planning to move the Earth out of orbit with a giant radiation gun.) "The Sandman Meets the Face" is probably the story where things finally begin to come together, with the Sandman facing off against deadly criminals in the urban underworld. The story's ruined by its goofy ending, though, where the Sandman runs the Face off a railroad bridge, crowing that it was fun while it lasted. Great, Wesley, glad you find murder so entertaining. It's a shame they kill him off, actually, as the Face has some style and could have made a good recurring villain.

The story where things really do come together is "Lady in Evening Clothes," which introduces the other element that raises the Sandman above your garden-variety superhero: Dian Belmont. Dian is Wesley's love interest, but she's no Lois Lane; Dian is a skilled safecracker who breaks into Wesley's mansion only to find out his secret identity. Raised her entire life by a criminal gang, the Sandman figures out that she's actually the long-ago-kidnapped daughter of the District Attorney, and he reunites them, the two promptly becoming recurring characters in the strip. Though the writer(s) seem to forget Dian's safecracking skills and criminal origins in later stories, she frequently accompanies the Sandman on her adventures, often instigating them by her insistence that he help her investigate a certain crime. She's as much in the fight as he is-- in "The Crook Who Knew the Sandman's Identity" she even dons the Sandman costume herself-- and their interplay is a highlight of otherwise formulaic stories of defeating gangsters.

The art is pretty typical Golden Age comics stuff, often stiff and formulaic, though it gets better as it goes, especially once the artists break out of the two-by-eight grid of the earlier stories, developing more dynamic page layouts. The colors are frequently the downfall of this art, the restrictions of the time putting the Sandman in bright green or orange suits that don't exactly ooze frightening. It's hard to give proper credit to the writers or arists here; not every story has credits, and for some reason, Jim Amash's introduction mentions artists and writers who aren't actually credited in the book. Like many collections of Golden Age comics, The Golden Age Sandman, Volume 1 (there is as of yet, no Volume 2) is fun but lightweight, with glimpses of promise that writers of later eras would capitalize on.