22 January 2011

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.

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