12 February 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Sandman Mystery Theatre, Part IV: The Vamp

Comic hardcover, 98 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 1994)

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

Writers: Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle
Artist: Guy Davis
Colorist: David Hornung
Letterer: John Costanza

With this, its third volume, Sandman Mystery Theatre has jumped above the lackluster performance of The Face and The Brute and even exceeded its strong debut in The Tarantula. There are two important creator changes in this volume. The first is that Guy Davis, who illustrated The Tarantula, returns to the series, and it is all the better for it. The fellows who did The Face and The Brute just didn't have his skill; Davis draws some of the most real people in comics. I shudder to think how the cute Dian Belmot would look in the hands of your typical superhero artist. Perhaps more importantly, Steven T. Seagle joins Matt Wagner as co-writer.

I dunno if he's responsible for the subtle changes that made this story really work, but it really really does. One of the recurring themes of SMT has been prejudice, a natural enough topic for a story set in upper-crust 1930s New York City, but unfortunately it had a tendency to get a little bit obvious, with its protagonists (Wesley and Dian) being properly undiscriminating in a world where everyone else tosses off ethnic slurs against the Chinese. The Vamp handles this with a bit more nuance, such as scenes where Dian is repulsed by the idea of lesbianism, showing that she's not quite the hero we "enlightened" 21st-century readers might like her to be. And Lieutenant Burke, who in the first volume revealed that he considered his sister dead to him because she married a black man, is himself the target of racism, when he's stared at upon entering a social club. One of the members tells him they don't have any Italians, and Burke growls back, "I'm Sicilian." The club member simply replies, "Well, whatever you are, we don't have any of those either. At least I don't think we do." The take on 1930s racism feels much more complex as a result. Also, I laughed at that scene, and indeed, I found The Vamp much more prone to humor than its predecessors, though that never came at the cost of atmosphere-- all of the light moments were well-placed.

The characters are also on fine form here. Wesley and Dian's relationship continues to grow, and the theme of Dian "waking up" from her long sleep also continues, as she even does some amateur sleuthing of her own. Wesley and Dian's relationship is one of the better-portrayed relationships I've read in comics. The two characters love each other madly, but that doesn't make things magically easy for them, yet the conflict and misunderstandings in their relationship all come across completely naturally. Lieutenant Burke also gets fleshed out, going from yet another random cop to a competent detective who also happens to be a complete asshole. He's the sort of character you love to hate-- or in my case, you just love.

Story-wise, this is probably one of the better mysteries the series has given us. Though the perpetrator of the murders is pretty obvious to the reader from around the halfway point, the detection by the Sandman, Burke, and Dian all feels logical, and the end of the story works particularly well, with none of the leaps that made some of the previous stories unsatisfying. All told, The Vamp was a brilliant piece of work that left me immediately looking forward to the next installment of Sandman Mystery Theatre.

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