Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #4 (July 1993)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #4: "The Tarantula" Act Four
Written by Matt Wagner
Art by Guy Davis
Colors by David Hornung
Letters by John Costanza
Edited by Shelly Roeberg and Karen Berger
Cover by Gavin Wilson

Curtain up.

Chief Ross O'Donald and Lieutenant Burke go to question Albert Goldman about his daughter's kidnapping.  Albert and his wife, Miriam, are completely incapable from hiding their animosity toward each other from the cops.  Their son, Roger, smashes a glass in disgust and walks out of the room.

O'Donald orders Burke to postpone the questioning until the family can settle down.  As he's leaving, Burke tells Albert Goldman that he's going to question an old accountant of Goldman's.  Burke knows Goldman made his fortune bootlegging during prohibition and has plenty of illicit dealings with the mob.

Back in the house, Albert Goldman appears genuinely distraught about the loss of his daughter.  Miriam...less so.

The Sandman, in his custom black coupe, drops its rear fender, which is lined with jagged caltrops.  Burke's patrol car drives over, puncturing the tires and sending the car spinning out of control.  Burke pounds the dashboard, cursing, as the Sandman drives off to interrogate Myron Fields before the police can.

Fields is just getting out of the shower when the Sandman gasses him.  When questioned, the accountant reveals that the Evergood Milk Company used to be owned by Albert, but ownership was passed to Roger, along with several other failing businesses as part of the younger Goldman's inheritance.  Fields reveals that Goldman disdains his son because of his business failures, as well as problems he had in school.  Two different private schools expelled Roger: one because he assaulted a female classmate, and the other because he tortured a dog.  (Suspect!)

Throughout the interrogation, Fields keeps nearly choking on his own saliva or passing out.  The Sandman has to coach him in order to keep him semiconscious.  Fields is obese and the effect of the Sandman's gas is messing with his system.  Later, when the Burke finally does arrive at the scene, one of the uniformed cops says that Fields practically died but they were able to get him to the hospital in time.  The Sandman also left another origami piece at the scene, this one containing a poem about his quest to bring down the Tarantula.

Chief O'Donald goes to the home of District Attorney Belmont to bring him up to speed on the investigation.  The cops are thinking Albert Goldman might be the kidnapper and faked his daughter's kidnapping.  When the other cops leave, the Sandman visits Belmont for the second time.

"To see the wicked brought low and to ensure the sleep of the just," the Sandman replies.  Then he leaves out the window.

Unbeknownst to the vigilante or the D.A., their conversation was overheard by Belmont's daughter, Dian.  She watches the Sandman's black coupe drive off and follows him.

In the Goldman residence, Albert is grieving for his missing daughter.  Roger goes into his room with a gun and tries to work up the courage to shoot his father in the head.  Albert, ignorant of his son's intentions or just ambivalent, continues to admonish Roger for his continued failures and shortcomings.  Roger lowers the gun and leaves.

Across town, Wesley Dodds is coming out of his mansion when Dian drives up.  She took her father's car and followed the mysterious black coupe but lost it somewhere around this neighborhood.  Wesley says he didn't see any car like that, and Dian drives off in a hurry.  Naturally, Wesley opens his garage to reveal the same car Dian was pursuing.

As the police and D.A. Belmont go to question Albert Goldman about his son, Dian goes to the police station looking for her father.

Dian tells Lieutenant Burke that she can find where the Tarantula is holding his victims if she can see get access to the Hall of Records.

Albert doesn't know where his son Roger is at the moment but tells the police his wife probably does.  When he goes to wake Miriam, he finds only pillows in her bed meant to create the illusion that she's sleeping.

In the Tarantula's lair, one of the kidnappers is savagely beating Celia with a chain.

The hooded torturer turns his/her attention on the first kidnapping victim, Catherine Van Der Meer, and is ready to hack her up with an axe when the Sandman arrives.

The Sandman removes the kidnapper's hood only to discover it's Miriam Goldman, not Roger.

But then Roger does show up in his black Klan-style robes brandishing his gun.  The Sandman theorizes that Mother was the mastermind and Roger merely the weapon used to kill the girls.  But why strike out at his own sister, the Sandman wants to know, unless she was the target all along and the others just practice while Roger got up the nerve to do it.

As the Sandman keeps Roger distracted, Celia regains consciousness.  The electrical wires severed by Miriam's clumsy axe-swing are down at her feet.  She is able to grab the wires with her toes and throw them at Roger.  The wires land in a puddle at Roger's feet, electrocuting him.

This was a clever twist on the old monologuing trope that bedevils so many villains.  This time, the hero keeps talking long enough for providence to strike down the villain.

The cops arrive and Dian is there to comfort her friend Catherine when she regains consciousness.  Burke reads another cryptic poem by the Sandman and fumes that the masked vigilante got away this time.

Sometime later, Dian and her father meet Wesley and Judge Schaffer for dinner at a club.  They share information about the case and connect the dots: classic debriefing and expositional stuff.  Belmont explains how Albert Goldman had an incestuous affair with his daughter, but as she grew up, she used that history to blackmail him into getting all of the family's money if/when he died.  Roger and Miriam found out about this and planned to get rid of her.  They kidnapped and tortured Catherine on the off chance she knew anything about Albert's situation, and then killed more women to create the fiction of the Tarantula and throw suspicion off the family.

Of course, Wesley secretly knew all this, so the exposition was really for the sake of the Judge... and any readers who weren't able to put the pieces together.

As they say goodnight, Dian and Wesley share a moment.

I've read this four act story three times and the quality never wanes.  In fact, each time I find something more to love about it.  This time, for instance, I was struck by how the Sandman's gas gun worked--or didn't--not once but twice in this issue.  When the Sandman gasses the fat, sickly Myron Fields, the old man damn near has a heart attack.  That certainly wasn't Wesley's intention and he has to work a little harder to keep the man alive, even going so far as to prop him up so the blood will keep flowing.

Later, the Sandman is nearly killed when the gas has virtually no effect on Miriam Goldman because of her alcoholism.  Up to this point, the Sandman has seemed Batman-like in his preparation and steps ahead of the police.  In this issue, we see two unexpected pseudo-weaknesses for the man in the mask.  It's a nice touch that humanizes the hero and shows he is not above making mistakes at this early stage of his crime fighting career.

Of course, this being the Sandman's book, he has to take center stage in the climactic battle against the Tarantulas, even if one of the victims gets the credit for killing her captor.  Unfortunately, this means Dian Belmont takes a backseat in this final act.  Up to this point, her development as a dynamic and credible investigator had been one of the best parts of the series.  This time, her gumshoeing is kept off panel from the readers.  As a consolation prize, the characters within the story--from her father to Lt. Burke--all give her credit for tracking down the Tarantula's hideout.  That'll do.

The last moment between Wesley and Dian is nicely understated.  Problem solving is his speciality, he says, while saying she is anything but "needy".  It's true in that Wesley is a secret superhero and Dian has evolved from vapid socialite to fearsome crusader.

This relationship and this series is just getting started.  Come back next Saturday for the first act of "The Face"...


Bonus:  Dave Marsh, a music critic and radio show host, wrote the introduction to the first trade paperback in the Sandman Mystery Theatre series.  He provides historical context for the new series, as well as thoughtful and prosaic commentary on the the bleak, nightmarish themes and desperate characters that made up Matt Wagner's world of the Sandman.

You may need to open the following images in another tab/window and zoom in to read the full text.  Take a look--it's worth the read!

Sleep well!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #3 (June 1993)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #3: "The Tarantula" Act Three
Written by Matt Wagner
Art by Guy Davis
Colors by David Hornung
Letters by John Costanza
Edited by Shelly Roeberg and Karen Berger
Cover by Gavin Wilson

Curtain up.

Late at night, Lieutenant Burke comes to investigate an Evergood Milk Company warehouse, but he's not the only one.  The locks chaining the doors shut have been picked, and when Burke gets to the office, he finds the Sandman going through the safe.

Wesley Dodds returns home at three in the morning, but his butler, Humphries, tells him he has a visitor--Dian Belmont!  Hmm, what could she want at 3:00 AM?

Dian confesses to becoming obsessed with the Tarantula case.  She feels guilty that her dreams are uninterrupted while her friend, Catherine Van Der Meer, must be enduring agonizing torture at the hands of her kidnapper.  She wants desperately to get involved in the case and help out, and she tells Wesley she just needed to say it out loud to someone.

So she didn't come over for sex.  Disappointing.  We do see a bit of her observational skills, though, as she mocks Wesley for being too tired to take his hat off while they're talking.  Once she leaves, however, we see that Wesley kept the hat on because his head was bleeding after his struggle with Burke at the warehouse.

Elsewhere, the third victim of the Tarantula has been beaten to death and lies rotting at Catherine's feet.  Upstairs, her kidnappers bicker and argue like, well, like family members.

Hmm... One of them refers to Catherine as a "shiksa".  That's a yiddish word, ain't it?

Meanwhile, Albert Goldman is in his den closing a business deal that will put ownership of something in his daughter Celia's name.  After that, he calls his driver and asks him to pick up his girlfriend, Miss Van Der Meer, and then remembers she was kidnapped, duh-doy!  So he tells the driver to pick up another girl.  Any girl.  He stokes the fire with an iron, an iron that looks remarkably similar to the weapon the Tarantula beat Catherine and her fellow victims with.

The next day, Dian Belmont visits her father, District Attorney Larry Belmont, at his office and asks for a job working close to the case.  He dismisses her and shoos her out of the office.  On her way home, she passes a saloon called Sammy's Bar.

Inside Sammy's we find Lieutenant Burke and Captain Ross McDonald drinking and talking about the case.  Burke is pretty sour about being sprayed by knockout gas twice.  He tells Ross that the paper trail from the Evergood warehouse leads to a lawyer named Fenton Devere.

The Sandman followed the same trail.  In Devere's penthouse, the guard dog attacks.

The Sandman threatens to kill the dog with poison gas if Devere doesn't answer his questions.  Devere gives some information on the owner of Evergood, but when he starts lying, Sandman gasses him (with knockout gas, not poison).  Shortly thereafter, Lt. Burke arrives.

Wesley Dodds goes to visit his friend Judge Schaffer to ask circuitously how one would obtain a company's bankruptcy records.  The judge tells him to visit the bankruptcy court.  At the same time, Dian Belmont confronts her father about wanting to help him catch the Tarantula, but he dismisses her again and tells her to stay in the house.

While Dian was sneaking through her father's records, the Sandman broke into the records room of the bankruptcy court.  After that, Wesley returns home.

Wesley and Dian share notes about Albert Goldman, how he made his money bootlegging and whether or not he could still be involved in crime.  Dian reveals that on the day Catherine was kidnapped, she mentioned being involved with a gangster.

At the Goldman Estate, Albert Goldman goes to his daughter's bedroom to tell her he has set up a trust in her name at the First Bank of Hollywood.  She'll get boatloads of money if and when he dies. The news is so pleasing to her that she begins to kiss him.  We get confirmation that they have been carrying on an incestuous affair.

But as Celia seduces her father, their tryst is observed through a keyhole by her brother, Roger.

At the police station, Lt. Burke interrogates Fenton Devere.  When the lawyer won't give the desired answers, Burke beats him.  Eventually Devere reveals that Albert Goldman was the owner of Evergood Milk, and used the company as a front for his booze smuggling during Prohibition.

That night, Wesley dreams of greed and lust, of corruption of the soul.

He wakes to find that he has a visitor.  This time, it's not Dian but Judge Schaffer, who tells him the Tarantula has struck again.  This time, the kidnapping victim is Celia Goldman.

The story is ramping up as we near its climactic finale.  Matt Wagner continues to add layers not only to the mystery, but to the characters.  We learn a few more hints about Wesley's complicated history with his father.  We get a sense of what kind of man and investigator Lt. Burke is--the kind willing to use violence to get his way.  However, of all the characters, Dian Belmont continues to be the most fun to watch.  Her journey from fun-loving party girl lacking ambition to driven detective raging against stereotypes makes her the breakout character of the arc.  It's also great to see how her relationship with Wesley develops slowly.

Guy Davis "beautifully ugly" style looks better than ever in this issue.  The dog that attacks the Sandman out of the dark is monstrously savage.  The grotesqueness of the Tarantula's violence is brutal, while the smoldering passion of Celia's illicit coupling with her father plays out in Sandman's stormy vision.

If I haven't mentioned it previously, David Hornung's colors are amazing.  In the first scene, the Sandman wears a violet trench coat over an olive suit, a lovely play on the color scheme of the Golden Age, when Sandman wore a purple opera cape over a green suit.

Come back next Saturday for the Final Act of "The Tarantula"...


Saturday, January 11, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #2 (May 1993)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #2: "The Tarantula" Act Two
Written by Matt Wagner
Art by Guy Davis
Colors by David Hornung
Letters by John Costanza
Edited by Shelly Roeberg and Karen Berger
Cover by Gavin Wilson

Curtain up.

In police headquarters, District Attorney Lawrence Belmont is meeting with Commissioner Davis and two of the senior detectives, Captain Ross O'Donald and Lieutenant Burke.  The subject of their meeting: the newly discovered body of a badly mutilated woman, kidnapped by a murderer calling himself the Tarantula.

In the women's bathroom next door, the DA's daughter, Dian Belmont, happens upon the mysterious Sandman spying on the cops' meeting.

Click to enlarge.
Dian stumbles out of the ladies' room and goes to her father, who is briefing some uniformed cops and Judge Schaffer.  When Dian hears that a woman's body has been found--possibly her friend Catherine--she swoons in the hallway.

She wakes up in an office with her father and the judge hovering over her.

When we first met Dian last issue, she was carefree and little rudderless.  In a short time, however, the tragedy of her friend's kidnapping has brought a change in her.  She pressures her father into letting her identify the woman in the morgue, and after failing to spot distinguishing birthmarks on the body, she realizes that it's not her friend's body.

Then where is Catherine Van Der Meer?  Well, she's alive, but not in great shape.  She's chained up in some dark basement cell, being tortured by a man in what looks like a black Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.

The Tarantula is torturing Catherine for information about a man in her life.  Is this the boyfriend she told Dian about shortly before her kidnapping?  It's a little vague, but the Tarantula believes someone told Catherine something he wants to know, and he doesn't believe her pleas of ignorance.

What's this?  The Tarantula has accomplices--at least two; what appears to be a woman in a patterned shawl and someone else making a drink.  The setting looks lavish and fancy.  Is Catherine being held in the basement of a mansion?  And why would these people allow these savage beatings and murder to happen in their household?

We jump back to police headquarters where Judge Schaffer has been tasked with taking Dian home.  Outside, they bump into the judge's young friend, Wesley Dodds, who offers them each a ride in his car.  Dodds drops Schaffer off first.  When he's alone in the car with Dian, he acts emotionally distraught over the kidnapping and murder.  He apologizes for acting so vulnerable--not manly--in front of her.

The next day, at the Goldberg estate, the socialite daughter Celia gently kicks one of her boy toy's out of the house.  Her father, one of the richest men in the state, chastises her for bringing her playthings to the house, but she challenges him on his meeting with gangsters a few nights earlier.

The hint of incest isn't all that's messed up with this family.  At dinner, Goldberg reprimands his son, Roger, newly moved back to the house, for his lack of drive, while the mother lies passed out at the table, a drink in her hand.

Yeah, this family has issues.

Dian receives a letter penned by Wesley Dodds full of apologies and encouragements.  She seems quite taken with him, and maybe he is with her, as well.

In the city, Lt. Burke goes to question the cab driver who dropped off Catherine just before she was grabbed.  But Burke isn't the first person on the scene.

After knocking Burke unconscious, the Sandman switches gas cartridges and sprays the cab driver with what acts like a tranquilizer and truth serum.  By the time Burke comes to, the Sandman has asked his questions and disappeared.

The next day, Dian meets Wesley for a meal or coffee where he shares some insight into his love of writing and why he came back to New York.

That night, the Tarantula strikes again, grabbing another woman.  And Wesley's dreams continue to haunt him with nightmarish symbolic images.

Catherine wakes up and her kidnapper promises to torture and kill her new cellmate unless she tells him what he wants to know.

This issue keeps up the phenomenal character work established in the first issue.  We learn more about our protagonist.  Wesley is a literary man who might have become a writer if his father hadn't died and his dreams hadn't turned to pictographs of ever-increasing depravity as society grows darker and more violent in the years leading up to war.

Wagner also gives us one of the greatest character descriptions for Dian when Wesley describes her as "a high-powered motor in neutral".  That tells you everything you know about her.  She's brilliant, she's resourceful, she's brave and she's bold; all she has needed is an inciting incident to unleash her potential.  And the Tarantula--or rather, the Sandman--is exactly what she needed.

The tension of the mystery may be lessened a bit by the revelations in this issue.  Seeing Catherine's captivity illustrates her pain, but also tells us that her kidnapper has an agenda beyond pure psychotic infliction of pain on women.  There's more calculation to her torture, and that could be seen as more or less terrifying depending on your perspective.

The Goldberg's, so far, have served no purpose in the plot of this story, so obviously they're involved in the Tarantula.  But who is the man under the hood?  Is it Roger, the disturbed son who needed to move back in with the family for some reason?  Or the father, who's involved with gangsters and may have an illicit relationship with his own daughter?  What if it is Celia under the hood?  And what of the constantly inebriated mother?  We saw two possible accomplices discussing the Tarantula's treatment of Catherine, so perhaps the more relevant question is: which one of the Goldberg's is not involved?

Come back next Saturday for Act Three of "The Tarantula"...


Saturday, January 4, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #1 (April 1993)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #1: "The Tarantula" Act One
Written by Matt Wagner
Art by Guy Davis
Colors by David Hornung
Letters by John Costanza
Edited by Shelly Roeberg and Karen Berger

Curtain up.

We open on a dream sequence, a nightmare or a premonition.  Where this particular protagonist is concerned, is there any difference?  The inclusion of a dreams as a theme and a narrative device creates a bridge between Sandman Mystery Theatre and the popular Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, as does the cameo appearance of the helm of the Dream King in the fourth panel.  The uniform, almost windowpane panel construction and the fluid transition of images evokes Dave Gibbons' work on Watchmen.  The immediate first impression is that this series will be very cerebral, conceptual and symbolic.  Unfortunately, so many of the comics that attempted such a tone in the wake of Watchmen failed to tell a quality story because their heads were stuck up their own asses.

Can SMT avoid the same fate?

New York, late 1930s.  Dian Belmont wants little more than to go out drinking and dancing with her friends.  Her father, the district attorney, wants her to go to school.

Dian seems to live for the present while Belmont wants her to think about the future.  He sees her lack of direction and passion but cannot keep her home at night.  He can only watch her ride off in a taxi toward whatever decadence her generation gets up to at night.

Back in his study, Belmont finds an intruder breaking into the wall safe.  Dressed in a fedora and gas mask, this masked man of mystery is the Sandman...

Artist Guy Davis retooled the classic Sandman look, swapping the purple opera cape for a trench coat that looks grayish purple.  Gone, too, is the stylized mask, replaced by a relic of the Great War.  The effect is so effortlessly simple that it's instantly iconic.  The gas mask is alien, insectoid, but recognizable and functional.  For a "superhero", the look is as striking as the Punisher's skull shirt, and maybe even more haunting and memorable (maybe).

The Sandman fires his gas gun at Belmont, causing the man to fall harmlessly to sleep in the chair in his study.

When the mysterious Sandman slips away, we cut to Dian Belmont joining her friends for a night of music and merriment post-Prohibition-style.  Pages 6 and 7 are some of my favorite pages in this comic, despite them not showing the Sandman or any crazy dream images or any of the horror of the as-yet-unseen villain.

What Guy Davis does in this page is create a visual through-line for the entire series.  The title card falls on one horizontal panel that stretches across both pages.  The rest of the panels on page 6 read vertically before page 7.  But that first panel--so cinematic, so perfectly evocative of the story's setting.  Every time I get to this page, I hear a trumpet playing and I smell cigarettes.

Dian's partying rages until dawn when she shares a cab with her friend, Catherine.  In the taxi, Cath spills that despite her socialization and flirting with so many men, she has a boyfriend that she keeps secret.  Cath gets out of the taxi, but before she can make it safely to her apartment, a shadowy figure grabs her.

After sleeping late, Dian meets her father that night at a gala event hosted by the mayor.  She's bored and a little rude while her father schmoozes with the retired Judge Schaffer.  Then the former judge introduces Dian and her father to his young friend, Wesley Dodds.

Wesley Dodds doesn't look like the millionaire playboy type, but he is.  He has returned from somewhere far off to inherit the family business in the wake of his father's death.  Davis again plays against the convention of the Golden Age; this Dodds isn't a handsome lantern-jawed adonis with an athlete's physique like Bruce Wayne or Alan Scott.  Wesley Dodds has glasses, what looks to be a receding hairline, and almost seems a bit doughy.

Dodds doesn't look like the superhero type, either, but that he is again, too.  This is the Sandman, we gather from his narration and description of the characters.  He doesn't think much of Dian, at first, mistaking her for a vacuous socialite, but he does recognize the effect her beauty and forwardness has on others.

Dian, of course, feels an instant interest in Wesley because of his apparent lack of interest in her (and the Yankees).  His estimation of her is called into question before he leaves, when he realizes she's smarter than she lets on.

District Attorney Belmont is called away from the gala when Cath's kidnapping is reported.  Wesley offers Judge Schaffer a ride home, allowing the older man time to reveal some inside information, like the kidnapper goes by the name of The Tarantula.

Wesley returns to his mansion, but does not go to sleep.  A kind of voodoo doll-looking avatar occupies his bed while Wesley slips off to the basement.

Back at the Belmont house, the D.A. tells Dian that her friend was kidnapped off the street before she got home.  Dian is terrified, confused, and angry.

The Sandman goes to spy on the residence of Albert Goldman, a man of wealth and power hosting some gangsters from out of town.  We see Goldman's daughter, Celia, vamp for the bosses before going out to party in town.  Then we see Goldman's son, Roger, another source of consternation for his father.  Roger seems like an odd sort; recently home from elsewhere, preferring to drink alone in the dark.  (My gut tells me keep an eye on this kid.)  We see Goldman's inebriated wife make a scene; though drunk, she clearly knows the kind of men her husband is courting and makes her disapproval obvious.  Boy, everyone in this guy's family seems like trouble!

Back in the city, Dian is insistent on going out to drink and fraternize again regardless of the danger that fell upon her friend.  When Wesley Dodds shows up to speak to her father, however, the urgency to leave deserts Dian.

Wesley seems to be there to pump the D.A. for information on Goldman, but when Belmont gets a phone call, Wesley and Dian share a moment.  We learn that he doesn't drink, he spent time in the orient, and he's practiced in origami paper folding.

When Wes goes home, Judge Schaffer tells him the kidnapper has struck again and invites him to the police station to hear some more gossip.  Wes feigns sleepiness and the judge leaves.

Dian is waiting for her father at the police station when Schaffer arrives.  He notices that all of the cops seem particularly interested in Dian, not that any of them are helping her or making her feel more comfortable.  One uniformed cop clumsily--and probably deliberately--spills coffee on her jacket and blouse.

She goes to the ladies room to clean up, but the lightbulb is out.  Luckily, she has a flashlight in her purse.  When she turns it on, she spots the Sandman crouching in the corner listening to something at the wall.

Matt Wagner's script is tight.  The dialogue feels natural and period appropriate at the same time.  There are layers upon layers of the mystery, not the least of which being the identity and bizarre motivations of the Sandman himself.  Davis' art is gorgeously ugly in the right places, really bringing the pulp out of this old fashioned crime fiction.

Come back next Saturday for Act Two of "The Tarantula"...