12 April 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Sandman Mystery Theatre, Part XII: Sleep of Reason

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2007 (contents: 2007)

Borrowed from the library
Read April 2011
Sandman Mystery Theatre: Sleep of Reason

Writer: John Ney Rieber
Artist: Eric Nguyen
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Rob Leigh

This book introduces yet another Sandman (DC's fifth, if we don't count the various incarnations of Dream), Keiran Marshall. When Wesley Dodds dies, Marshall acquires his gift of terrifying nightmares-- and when Marshall, a photojournalist, goes to Afghanistan, he acquires Wesley's gas gun. The story is sort of a gritty action thriller in the Middle East, but with four separate plotlines, it doesn't have enough time for any of them, and they all jump around too much. I didn't find Marshall or his supporting cast very interesting, and the portrayal of the dreams was a little too prosaic for my tastes. Eric Nguyen's art is great-looking, but his storytelling skills are lacking; I was often confused as to what had just happened.

Wesley and Dian cameo, in a series of flashbacks to their 1997 visit to Afghanistan, long after Wesley had retired from crime-fighting, but the dialogue doesn't ring true to the characters as written by Matt Wagner and Steven Seagle. Plus there's a lot of mawkish stuff about Dian dying of cancer. Overall, I don't know if importing pulp nostalgia sensibilities into the contemporary Middle East even makes sense. An okay idea with haphazard execution, and definitely a disappointing way for Sandman Mystery Theatre to go out.

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

Comic hardcover, 300 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 1942-74)

Borrowed from the library
Read March 2011
The Sandman

Stories and Art: Joe Simon & Jack Kirby
Additional Inks: Mike Royer

In 1941, DC gave the Sandman a new costume and a new sidekick in an attempt to revive a fading character by making him more like a superhero-- they even ditched Wesley Dodds's girlfriend Dian. It probably would have failed, had not Joe Simon and Jack Kirby taken over the character in 1942, fresh off their success creating Captain America for Marvel. Every story the two of them collaborated on is here. They're goofy, sure, but they're also really quite good-- they've got art by Jack Kirby, you know! Kirby and Simon's layouts are dynamic, with stretching borders and crossing the gutter and just all-out dynamism. The Sandman no longer uses his gas gun or mask here (alas), but the name is kept appropriate with the use of dreams in the stories. Frequently, characters are motivated by their dreams (or even lack thereof), and all the villains in New York City dream of the Sandman. In fact, when Wesley Dodds is replaced by an impostor, Sandy figures it out because "Dodds" mentions dreaming of the Sandman!

Some are better than others, of course, and as you might imagine from a book featuring twenty-four different stories, it eventually gets repetitive. Some are just dumb, but there are a lot of neat ones, too. I also enjoyed the glimpses of World War II propaganda; the Sandman and Sandy exhort the reader to buy war bonds, but even better is the comic about Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito reading The Boy Commandos. They get flat-out terrible at the end, but I think those ones might not actually be by Simon and Kirby-- though I'm basing that on the most fleeting of evidence! It's just weird to think that these adventures happened to the same guy as Sandman Mystery Theatre. And it's even weirder to think that that version of Wesley Dodds hung out with an obnoxious snot like Sandy. (Okay, he's nowhere near as bad as Green Arrow's kid sidekick Speedy.)

Also included is the first issue of the 1974-76 series about the second Sandman, Garrett Sanford, which reunited Simon and Kirby for the last time ever. It's weird and doesn't quite hang together-- what is General Electric's plan, anyway?-- but the concepts and visuals are as captivating as always. You can see why Roy Thomas brought back this version (and even game him a name, which Simon and Kirby did not), and why Neil Gaiman nicked some of the concepts for his Sandman series.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Sandman Mystery Theatre, Part X: The Blackhawk and The Return of the Scarlet Ghost

Comic trade paperback, 221 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 1996-97)

Borrowed from the library
Read March 2011
Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Blackhawk and The Return of the Scarlet Ghost

Writers: Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle
Artists: Guy Davis, Matthew Smith, Richard Case, Daniel Torres
Colorists: David Hornung, Daniel Torres
Letterers: John Costanza, Gaspar Saladino

The first story contained here, "The Blackhawk," continues Sandman Mystery Theatre's recent trend of including characters from DC universe. Janos Prohaska, however, is no superhero and never is-- he's the future leader of Blackhawk Squadron, an international group of fighter pilots resisting the Nazis. In this story, Janos has come to America to seek funding for his resistance efforts, and Wesley Dodds finds himself drumming up said funding, while as the Sandman, he is investigating Janos for his involvement in (of course) a series of mysterious murders.

Plot-wise, it's definitely one of the better SMT stories, with a well-executed mystery. It also finally completely dispenses with the subplot about Dian not wanting Wesley to be the Sandman; in this story, she acts as "Sandy" for the first time, actively assisting the Sandman with one of his plots. Oh, and it's got a good Lieutenant Burke subplot. I'm gonna miss that guy; Wesley Dodds pops up in JSA stories, but I sure bet he doesn't. The art is even pretty all right; Matthew Smith is the least terrible fill-in artist the series has had, and when he's joined by Richard Case on inks, he gets even better. His Dian is kinda ugly, okay, but he nails Wesley in a way that most artists on this series do not.

The next story is all weird and metafictional. "The Return of the Scarlet Ghost" reveals that the Sandman's exploits have become so well known that he's become a character in pulp magazines-- the kind of magazines this comic book strives to emulate! It's a neat idea, though it's undercut by the fact that in no previous story has anyone ever said, "Hey, you're the guys from those stories!" while in this one it happens all the time. Of course, there's death threats and murders in the publishing biz, but that's all a side show to a story about adaptation and appropriation. Not only is the Sandman fodder for pulp fiction, but some of the publishers are starting to do comic books about him! There's even an interlude where Wesley and Dian read one of the comics-- a harsh-but-relatively-accurate parody of how the Sandman was written by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby-- and make fun of their fancifulness. (I think this must've been intended to take those adventures-- especially the Sandman's kid sidekick, Sandy the Golden Boy-- out of continuity, but later comics have used both the SMT characterization of Wesley and Dian and the existence of Sandy and the Simon/Kirby gold-and-purple costume. But having both SMT and the Simon/Kirby stories be "canon" is just awkward. Does this mean the comic artist just happens to accurately predict the existence of Sandy? Let's just ignore it.) The story even ends with them making a none-too-accurate film out of the whole thing. Minus the Sandman!

It's fun, and I also enjoyed the subplot about Dian trying to make it as a writer of pulp fiction. The mystery itself is so-so, but enough about the story is entertaining that that doesn't really bother me. I am really ticked off, though, that this is apparently the last reprint of Sandman Mystery Theatre that DC is doing; not only were there another eighteen issues after this, but this volume ends on a tremendous cliffhanger that I will apparently never read the resolution to!