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"...



  1. As you say, this is a cerebral book and Wagner does a great job bringing a supernatural atmosphere to these more pulpish stories. There isn't any sorcery in these books but they are haunting and at time horrifying.

    The Sandman character himself is influenced by the Gaiman Sandman. We saw that in the Sandman comic so it felt right to riff off it here. From the snippets of premonition and clues in dreams to his very look (the gas mask looks like Morpheus' helmet) to his weapon (a sleep gun), Wagner brings some of the mystical nature of Gaiman into this street level comic.

    And Guy Davis' art is perfect for the book. It veers to the surreal at time (again perfect for the 'dream' feel) but is gorgeously ugly if I can quote you.

    Lastly, I liked how over time Wagner was able to bring in some aspects of the early DCU into this book. We meet Hourman, Blackhawk, and other along the way.

    Glad you are doing this. Loved this book!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Anj!

    I like how the connections to Gaiman's Sandman are more like little Easter Eggs. There's no Required Reading before you open this book, but if know the story of Morpheus, the connection is all the richer.

    One of my favorite things the series did was keep Davis on retainer as a sort-of Art Director. He draws every other story arc, but the layout and style he establishes in "The Tarantula" is maintained by the fill-ins. It creates great visual continuity throughout the whole run.

    And yes, I was already in love with this book for the first couple years, but when they started introducing the Crimson Avenger, Hourman and others, man, I just went gaga for the book! Glad you enjoyed it, too!

  3. I am so glad you are doing this. This book was right up my alley due to my love of golden age characters. I did, however avoid it because my first I believed it to be one of the comics you mentioned with it's head up it's ass. How wrong I was! By the time I realized my mistake, I could not secure back issues (pre-internet) properly and just hoped to one day run across a good deal on them. The deal never came and I was pulled to other Golden Age-related material. I have never read these so I look forward to your upcoming posts. Thanks again and if you get a chance, take a look at my Mego Sandman in this cover I did:
    warm regards,
    Captain Blog

  4. Thanks for the comment, Cap! Hopefully, my summaries and reviews will be close enough to reading the actual comics to give you the full story, but if you want to read them, I know the first half of the series was collected in trade paperback. If you read comics digitally, I think ComiXology has almost the entire series available so far.

    And I checked your blog, too! It's awesome. I love that Mego-All-Star Cover custom job; that was funny. I also liked the bit with Flash and Green Lantern DCUC figures. I used to do a similar thing on my Black Canary blog.