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!


  1. Thanks for reviewing this!

    The thing that always sticks out for me in this story is the unbelievable dysfunction of the Goldman family. Father has incestuous relationship with daughter. Daughter turns the psychological tables on him later in life, controlling him like a pawn. Mother hates daughter so much she sets up a scheme to kill her with other women just collateral damage. Son hates father so much he is willing to kill for his mother. Not exactly the Brady Bunch! It all was so slimy.

    As you say, one thing that I love is that Wesley isn't this super polished super-hero. His gas is imprecise, endangering some. Wes is a decent fighter but not some devastating martial artist like Batman. It makes the suspense in the action scenes ratchet higher. He isn't invulnerable.

    But this opening arc also showed us just how great Dian is a character. She really was the co-star of this book, not a supporting character.

    This was a perfect opening arc, showing us the main players and really setting the gritty tone of the book.

  2. Thanks, Anj! I agree that as more layers of the Goldman family are peeled, more dark, despicable secrets are uncovered, the more fascinating the story becomes.

    You're right that Sandman doesn't have Batman's physical strength or ability, which does make the few real action sequences more dramatic and suspenseful!

    And of course, Dian Belmont steals the show in this first arc. I'm soooo glad Wagner focused on her instead of Sandy the sidekick.