Saturday, February 1, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #5 (Aug 1993)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #5: "The Face" Act One
Written by Matt Wagner
Art by John Watkiss
Colors by David Hornung
Letters by John Costanza
Edited by Shelly Roeberg and Karen Berger
Cover by Gavin Wilson

Curtain up.

The second Sandman story arc opens in Chinatown on February 26, 1938.  Dian Belmont, the beautiful and forceful daughter of District Attorney Larry Belmont, narrates this story through what might be considered diary or journal entries.

Dian has taken four of her socialite friends to a Chinese Restaurant so she can unwind and forget about the horror that befell her friend Catherine in the previous story.  She seems much more at home, or at least more familiar in Chinatown than her friends, to whom the city and its people are still exotic and mysterious.  Through Dian's narration, she explains that her father was far less supportive of her jaunts to this part of town.

After excusing herself somewhat awkwardly and embarrassedly, Dian talks to Jimmy.  It's obvious they have a romantic history--obvious, especially, to Dian's friends who girl her about it when she returns to the table.  They can't believe she slept with a Chinese, to which Dian corrects them that Jimmy is Cantonese.  When they press her for more details, she describes him as "very passionate".

The more Dian thinks about Jimmy, the more she realizes she misses him.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Shan goes upstairs to meet Wu Sung, head of the Huo Yibai family.  Wu Sung tells him that a standup comedian from the Lei Feng family has been making a lot of jokes at the expense of the Huo Yibai.  As a representative of the Lei Feng, Jimmy--or Zhang Chai Lao as he is called--promises Wu Sung that the comedian will be reprimanded and that peace between the families is of the highest priority.  Considering the families they're talking about are ancient crime dynasties, the meeting is remarkably amiable.  There seems to be no real tension or underlying threat between Wu Sung and Jimmy Shan.

The meeting is observed by the Sandman, who hangs outside the window from a rope harness.

The police swarm on Chinatown to investigate the dead discovered by Dian's friends.  When Larry Belmont arrives to pick up his daughter, she asks why so many cops have shown up for one dead body.  Larry suggests the reemergence of the Tong factions, those same Lei Feng and Huo Yibai families seen earlier.  Beneath the severed head was a note claiming the murder was a message to the Huo Yibai from the Lei Feng.

Through her narration, Dian criticizes her father of prejudice against Asians.  She outright calls him a bigot.  But on March 1st, Larry brings his daughter to a charity benefit for a school in Chinatown.  At the party, Dian meets the host, Herman Ross, who seems to have a reputation for fundraising...or at least for getting people's money.

Dian also sees Wesley Dodds, who is introduced to Herman Ross.  At that moment, though, Jimmy Shan crashes their reunion, warning them--playfully perhaps--that business with Ross is never cheap. Herman explains that Jimmy was responsible for finding the school they want to fund.  When Herman tries to introduce him to the rest of the party, Jimmy snubs them in favor of Dian.  He knows she found the body the other night and asks her to call him.

He leaves without speaking to Wesley Dodds, though Wes seems intent on pursuing him until Dian stops him.

Wes and Dian search unsuccessfully for a non-alcoholic drink while reminiscing about Catherine's recuperation.  Dian thinks of Wes as a "very serious sort, but also relaxed and confident in his own way."

That night in Chinatown, we see the comedian Ling Hoon performing his act, ripping on the Huo Yibai to much applause and laughter from the crowd.  After his set, he returns to his dressing room.  Another Chinese, claiming to be picking up or dropping off laundry, enters the room.

Is this the work of the Huo Yibai killing the comedian for insulting them?  Or is this retaliation for the severed head left on their turf?  The fact that this killer wields an axe suggests he might have killed both.  And what does he mean about "appearances"?  Hmm...

The Sandman goes to an illegal gambling den in Chinatown.

The Sandman drops a gas capsule from a hidden compartment in his shoe.  The gas covers his escape as he asks one last question, the ultimate question in a murder mystery: who benefits?  Certainly not the Tongs, Master Bei insists, and suggests the killer might be someone outside of Chinatown.

Dian goes to see Jimmy Shan, deciding that she needs some closure on their summer tryst, or else she wants to start it up again.  Jimmy informs her that he is working for the Lei Feng, but dismisses their characterization as a Tong; more of a mutual aid society or union, he says.  He is interrupted when a package is delivered.  Whatever is inside disturbs him, because after getting a quick look at its contents, he quickly ushers Dian out of his apartment.

Elsewhere, a drunken bum wanders up to a very nice looking car...

A shape-changer!  A man who can rearrange his physical appearance so that he enters a limousine looking like an old white vagabond, and emerges from the same car looking Chinese!!!  Who is he meeting with and what was he paid for?  Is he the murderer of Ling Hoon?  Was Master Bei right that an outside force is conspiring to reignite old rivalries and set the Tong against each other?  For what purpose?

Well, the man in the car told the shape-changer to have fun.  The first thing he does is visit a prostitute, introducing himself as Lian, meaning face.  "The Face", get it?  He messes up the prostitute to the point where she says her appearance is so ugly she won't be able to charge more than ten cents.  So the Face is not only a killer and master of disguise, but a sadistic torturer of women.

Dian goes to see her father, but he's busy with police business in light of a symbolic declaration of war by the Lei Feng.  Outside Dian bumps into Wesley, but he has to take a raincheck when she asks him to dinner.  Dian is drawn to both Wesley and Jimmy, but a large part of the attraction is also what kept her and Jimmy apart: they are both obsessive men, driven by their passions and likely to prioritize their goals above her.

The Sandman skulks around Chinatown, looking for something, when someone finds him.

My first thought on this issue was I instantly missed Guy Davis' artwork.  I am immeasurably happy that Davis comes back, drawing every other story arc, but it leaves the art in-between a little inconsistent.  That said, there is nothing wrong with John Watkiss' work in this issue.  It's terrific.  He maintains a lot of the same aesthetics as Guy Davis while employing his own style.  His Dian Belmont is still beautiful, and his Wesley Dodds is even more lean and naturally heroic looking.  I'm not sure I like that; I kind of prefer the doughy version Davis drew as it seemed so unexpected.

What I really, really enjoy about Watkiss' pencils in this issue is the way he draws the Sandman's gas mask.  There is a pinched quality to the rebreather and sinister angling of the eyes that make it look like a beetle or mosquito.  Looks awesome!

After making such an indelible mark in "The Tarantula" I worried that Dian would fall back to generic love interest and supporting character.  Once again, though, Matt Wagner puts her front and center.  She not only narrates the story, but she is personally involved with the man intimately linked in a potential gang war.  That she was open-minded enough for the time to have dated an Asian-American is just one more example of how multi-faceted her character is.

As for the story itself, Wagner isn't repeating himself.  We have no Jack the Ripper cypher for our villain, but an intelligent and fiendish mercenary who can change his facial appearance.  And who uses this skill not just to kidnap and kill women, but to enflame a centuries old rivalry between Chinese factions.  The geo-political backdrop kicks this story up from whodunnit to true mystery classic!

Come back next week for Act Two of "The Face"...


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