Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #13 (April 1994)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #13: "The Vamp" Act One
Written by Matt Wagner & Steven T. Seagle
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.

The fourth story arc of Sandman Mystery Theatre, entitled "The Vamp" welcomes Guy Davis back to the book on art duty and brings Steven T. Seagle aboard as Matt Wagner's cowriter.

The story opens with a sex scene.  Or, the moments just before a sex scene, anyway.  A couple enters a bedroom, kissing and fondling each other.  The blonde woman is more than forward but aggressive.  After biting the man's lip, she demands he take his clothes off and invites him to touch her.

She also insists on being on top, but when she gets there, things take a turn for the young man...

The men dressed in black tie him down and gag him.  They tie off his arm, stick a needle in his arm, and begin draining his blood into glass jars.  But that's only the start of the horror for the young man. Before he loses consciousness from blood loss, the blonde pulls out a needle and thread.  What is she sewing?  We'll have to wait a couple pages to find out.

Across town in Harlem, Dian Belmont goes to a swinging jazz club called Voodoo to meet some of her girlfriends from college.  Dian narrates this story, something she did during the second arc, and begins by insinuating there are parts of her life--certain decisions and choices--that she keeps from her father, the district attorney, in order to protect him.  The girls ask about Dian's Chinese-American boyfriend, Jimmy Shan, and she tells them they broke up a while ago.  She tells them she has a new man in her life, but won't tell them anymore, like his name for example.

Dian's friend, Betsy invites the ladies out behind the club to try something "a little daring".

After the ladies have smoked up and gotten high, they return to the club.  Betsy dances the jitterbug, Trudy passes out at the table, and Dian and Carol laugh about ridiculous things and one of Carol's racist comments.

Naturally, after they do drugs, they kiss.  Carol leaves like it's no big deal, but Dian stays there to sober up a little before going home.

When she does get home, her father is on the way out, having been called out to deal with the crime we saw in the issue's opening scene.  He tells her the victim was named Trevor Barnes and he might have been a college classmate of Dian's.  She definitely recognizes the name.

At the police station, Ross and Lieutenant Burke brief the D.A. on the victim, who was drained of 90% of his blood and had his lips, nostrils and urethra sewn shut.  (Yikes... That hurts just thinking about it!)  Also in the office is a janitor... or maybe not!

Dian wakes up late the next day.  On her way out of the house, she meets Wesley Dodds who came to take her to lunch.  They walk the street for a while and she tells him about smoking marijuana the night before.  Wes admits to having tried it in the past.  Despite his insistence that he doesn't like to alter his mental state with drugs or alcohol, he says he has tried it; he just didn't like it.

Running late, Dian takes a raincheck on their lunch date so she can go see her friend Carol.  Dian wanted to discuss a fundraiser for the United Way, but when she arrives at Carol's apartment, her friend isn't alone.  Also there is another college acquaintance of theirs, a Madeline "Maddy" Giles.  Maddy gives off a creepy vibe that has nothing to do with homosexuality and everything to do with obsessive jealousy.  Every time Dian starts to suggest something for the fundraiser, Maddy criticizes the idea, even though she wanted no part in the conversation.

Eventually, much to Dian's relief, Maddy decides to leave.

In a much more affluent part of the city, Lt. Burke visits a private club frequented by Trevor Barnes.  He arrives in time for a careful reader to read the set-up to a punchline delivered ten pages earlier.  The gentlemen at the club Burke talks to are all rich society snobs who looked down at Barnes for being nouveau riche.  They likewise look down at Burke for his Sicilian ancestry and offer little in the way of factual help in the case.

Not used to being treated so dismissively, Burke takes his rage out on someone he can get away with hurting, like the manager of the hotel where Barnes died.  He slaps the guy around until he gives up that Barnes came in every week with a different girl, so he might have been targeted specifically by the killer.

Unbeknownst to Burke, the Sandman is on the building's roof, using a listening device to spy on the interrogation.

The Sandman jumps across the fire escape and enters the room adjacent to where Barnes was killed.  He searches the room and finds a box of matches from a joint called Club Congo.

At the same club, we see the familiar blonde woman from the opening scene sitting alone at the bar.  She's not alone for long, though, as a bold gentleman buys her a drink.  She wastes no time inviting him to go someplace close for sex.

Burke goes to interview a woman who Barnes used to sleep with regularly at the hotel.  At the mere suggestion of her involvement in his death, the woman throws her drink, missing Burke by a foot.  He instantly rules her out as a suspect, given how drunk and uncoordinated she is.

Back at Club Congo, Wesley Dodds treats Dian to a dinner at a place she never would have expected to see him.

Dian is charmed by his deflection, but before she can pry any deeper into his life, they're interrupted by the sudden appearance of Maddy Giles, the woman from Carol's apartment.

First thoughts right off the bat: damn, it's good to have Guy Davis back on this series.  Neither of the previous two artists were bad, but neither were they Davis.  Neither of them captured the beautiful-ugliness that he does so well.  His facial expressions are a hundred times more expressive than most artists working at the time or today.  His lines and shadows, along with Hornung's colors create a truly horrific opening scene where the sex scene becomes a torturous murder.

The "vamp" in the title would suggest a provocative woman, or part of a jazz song, but given the prominence of blood and stealing it away by the killers also suggests a vampire connection, whether literal or figurative.  I'm looking forward to seeing where that goes.

Finally, Matt Wagner is joined by Steven T. Seagle who would contribute to the storytelling for the rest of the series.  I have no idea how these guys worked together or what the division of writing labor may have been.  All I know is Wagner worked on the first sixty of the book's seventy issues, and Seagle worked with him and then wrote the last ten by himself.  In any event, they worked wonders together and made an already amazing comic unbeatable.

Come back next week for the second act of "The Vamp"...


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #12 (March 1994)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #12: "The Brute" Act Four
Written by Matt Wagner
Art by R.G. Taylor
Colors by David Hornung
Letters by John Costanza
Edited by Shelly Roeberg and Karen Berger
Cover by Gavin Wilson

Curtain up.

The final act of "The Brute" opens after an unspeakable evil occurred.  Not only did Eddie Ramsey have his hand smashed to a bloody pulp by the titular Brute, but he returned to his hideaway to find that his young daughter Emily was raped by the old tramp who had been staying with them.

Mr. Schenck is garbage diving for food scraps under the bridge.  As if we didn't know that Schenck is a monster for molesting a child, he drops the N-bomb so we can really hate him.  And that's when Ramsey catches him.  Schenck vehemently denies whatever Emily said he did to her, but he makes the classic liar's mistake of denying it before he's been accused of it.  Ramsey never said anything about Emily, so the denial is actual confirmation.  And he does a Jason Todd Special on the wicked Mr. Schenck.

Back at the Riesling Estate, the hoods who enforce Arthur Riesling's illicit deeds coax the brutish thing back to the boathouse where it dwells.  The goons treat "her" like a mindless animal, but Riesling's eldest son, Dennis, defends the Brute and sends the men away.

Wesley Dodds, who had snuck away from the illegal fights in Riesling's mansion, sneaks over to the boathouse and spies on Dennis and the she-thing.  He witnesses Dennis feed the woman, give her a doll to comfort her, and generally treat her like a child.  After that, Wesley returns to the mansion and finds Arthur Riesling.  He apologizes for missing the rest of the fights but insinuates he will strongly consider investing in Riesling's business venture.

As Wes leaves the house, however, Dian Belmont arrives.  She has come to solicit a donation for the United Way charity.  By now, all of Riesling's guests have left, as well as most of his servants.  He leads her to his private study... and locks the door behind them.  She's immediately uncomfortable, but tries to be diplomatic and kind, staying focused on business and talking about the charity.  Riesling isn't interested in that, and makes it pretty obvious that he wants something else.

He feels up her legs and takes her resistance as playfulness.

Dian slaps him.  But Arthur Riesling is not a man accustomed to being denied.  He explodes and begins to choke her, calling her names and threatening to rape her.  But ever-resourceful Dian knees him in the groin and then brains him with an ashtray on the table.  Dian leaves the house as Riesling curses her, wallowing in pain.

The scene is witnessed by Riesling's young twin sons, and from the sounds of their dialogue, this isn't the first time they've spied on their father taking advantage of some woman.

Meanwhile, Wesley's nights are filled with dark dreams.

Humphries the butler wakes Wes to let him know that Dian is downstairs.  Wes comes down, apologizing for being late and inattentive, when he sees Dian crying.  She tells him that Riesling tried to force himself on her, but she fought him off.  Wes, normally so guarded and controlled, gives voice to his outrage!

Dian settles him down and Wes comforts her.  They kiss passionately, but Wes breaks it off, not wanting to take advantage of Dian's moment of vulnerability.  She doesn't seem all that vulnerable, though, as she pushes in to kiss him again.  Wes invites her to stay over, but she declines.  She doesn't want to spoil what would be their night of bliss by associating it with the despicable event that sent her to Wes' house and into his arms.

Meanwhile, Eddie Ramsey and his daughter go to a diner to meet a man named Tully.  An associate of Ramsey's, Tully doesn't believe the lies Riesling spread about Ramsey and agrees to help by giving him a gun.  The gun, however, is old, rusted, broken, and looks like it would have trouble firing at all.  Tully asks why Ramsey needs the gun.  Ramsey says for protection.

Back at the Riesling Estate, the Sandman visits the boathouse and fires his sleeping gas gun at the Brute, which he describes as having the mind of a child and the structure of a monster.  Then Dennis Riesling enters with a tray of food for the Brute to discover her tied up unconscious.  The Sandman confronts him, and Dennis reveals that the Brute is a woman named Maria.  She's his sister.

Dennis tells the Sandman that Maria was born very beautiful but that she was an illegitimate child, much like himself, and describes them both as the products of his father's unquenchable lust for women.  His mother was not capable of raising the children adequately.

Another example of the horrors men and women inflict on innocent children.

At the townhouse of the district attorney, Larry Belmont is enjoying a quiet night at home with his daughter, Dian, when he gets a call from the police chief.  The Sandman phoned in a tip drawing the cops to the Riesling Estate.  In no mood to sit around waiting to hear the story recounted later, Dian hails a taxi and follows her father to the scene.

Arthur Riesling hosts gangster Francesco Gamboni for a major drug purchase at his home.  But when one of the mob goons brings the heroin into the room, he is gunned down--by Eddie Ramsey, who has broken into Riesling's home with his daughter.  Ramsey shoots Riesling's servant and then holds his hated enemy and the mob boss at gunpoint.

Then the Sandman appears trying to protect Ramsey from self-destruction.

Ramsey fires two more shots, one that hits Dennis Ramsey in the face, killing him, and one that causes the shoddy weapon to misfire and explode, destroying Ramsey's one good hand.  Unable to defend himself, the wounded Maria grabs Eddie Ramsey and breaks his neck.

Then Maria is shot and killed by Gamboni.

Then Arthur Riesling shoots Gamboni for killing his daughter.

Then the Sandman shoots Riesling... but only with his gas gun.

By the time Dial Belmont arrives in her taxi, the police have swarmed the house.  Riesling is in custody, and just about everyone else is dead.  Except for the Sandman and young Emily Ramsey.  Sandman tells Dian not to go into the house; she'll find only death there.  He puts Emily in Dian's arms and asks her to make sure the child gets the treatment and help she needs.  Then the masked man disappears into the night.

The next day, Wesley Dodds and Dian enjoy a carriage ride in Central Park and she recounts the events of the night to her boyfriend.  She tells him that Riesling was buying heroin from the mob to sell to college campuses on the West Coast.  But when the police arrived, the Sandman had tossed the satchel of drugs into the fireplace and disappeared with the money.

Wes asks if she thinks the Sandman kept all that money and Dian reveals that an "anonymous benefactor" set up a trust fund for Emily Ramsey with the money from the drug deal.

Out of the horror and tragedy that befalls many innocent lives in this story, some goodness shines through and bright.  Despite her violation and the loss of her father, Emily will be well taken care of financially.  And from Dian's near sexual assault, her infatuation with Wesley and flourished into a full on romance.  They almost sleep together in this issue, and seem perfectly happy and flirtatious with each other.

In spite of the darkness of this tale, I really enjoyed "The Brute" storyline.  I think if Guy Davis had drawn this story arc, it might be my favorite of the three arcs so far.  Taylor's art is great, but Davis' art is better.

Come back next week for the first act of a new tale called "The Vamp"...


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #11 (Feb 1994)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #11: "The Brute" Act Three
Written by Matt Wagner
Art by R.G. Taylor
Colors by David Hornung
Letters by John Costanza
Edited by Shelly Roeberg and Karen Berger
Cover by Gavin Wilson

Curtain up.

The third act of "The Brute" begins with Dian Belmont following Wesley Dodds' advice to meet with Judge Thomas Schaffer in order to learn more about children's charities.

For all of Dian's progressive thinking and open-mindedness toward other cultures and people, she comes off sounding naive regarding child abuse and neglect.  Then again, she's a young socialite and all of her friends are young, rich, and childless, so perhaps this is a part of society's dark half of which Dian truly has no knowledge.

And in that bleak, harsh realm of society where children starve we find former prize fighter Eddie Ramsey returning to the junkyard shack where he and his daughter have holed up with an old tramp named Mr. Schenck.  Ramsey's daughter is sick with a persistent bronchial condition and needs expensive medicine to treat it.  Ramsey encourages her to finish the medicine, telling her he got a new job and will be able to afford more.

Ramsey admits to Schenck that he lied about getting a job; he's in a pretty desperate situation now, unable to afford food and medicine while also hiding out from mob goons who want to kill him.

Is it classist or prejudicial of me that hearing little Emily say the old, dirty man plays "silly games" with her while Ramsey's away?  That line set off my weird/creepy sensor.

In a much more affluent part of the city, Wesley Dodds goes to the office of Arthur Riesling who has asked Dodds to invest in a research expedition to Antarctica.  Wesley suspects Riesling of illegal activities, including--among other things--underground fights.  He thanks Riesling for giving his friend Judge Schaffer tickets to a boxing match a few days earlier, and tries to entice Riesling into revealing his connection with less lawful sport.

As Wesley leaves Riesling's office, the older man is visited by his son, Dennis.  The younger Riesling says they have a problem with "Maria" that is getting harder to control.  The last time we saw Dennis Riesling, he was summoning the giant, ugly "Brute" into a car with a whistle.  Is this hulking brute-thing Maria?  And from the sounds of Dennis' cryptic dialogue, the brute might be Arthur Riesling's daughter, or his responsibility in some other fashion.  Riesling is outraged that his son brought this business to his office.  He slaps his son and tells him to leave.  All of this is witnessed by Wesley lurking outside the office.

Across town, Eddie Ramsey has found work as a laborer unloading freight.  But when he goes to collect his pay, he's dismayed to only receive $1.20 for ten hours of hard physical work.  The paymaster is unsympathetic and tells him to take it or find another job.

Arthur Riesling drives to Harlem to meet with a known gangster named Francesco Gamboni.  They make some racist comments and then get to business.  It seems that Riesling approached the Gamboni family about buying a large shipment of heroin, but he's having trouble raising the money to pay for it at the moment.  That's why Riesling wanted to get money from Wesley.  Riesling assures the gangster that he will have the money raised within the week.

Neither of them realize that the Sandman is spying on this meeting, using a listening device dangling down the building's chimney.

Desperate for money, Ramsey goes back to his old gym to ask his trainer, Mel, if he can get him back in the ring.  Mel is disgusted and wants nothing to do with Ramsey.  Someone has been spreading the word to all the local gyms that Ramsey worked for the mob selling drugs to blacks in Harlem.  No trainer or fight organizer will every work with Ramsey now.

Devastated, he starts to leave when he overhears Arthur Riesling talking to another fighter.  Riesling invites the fighter to one of his underground, bare-knuckle fights.  After that, Ramsey returns to the shack to see Emily and Mr. Schenck.  He spent the money he earned working on food and the three of them eat heartily.

Francesco Gamboni tells his father about the deal he made with Riesling, and then catches a taxi to take him out of Harlem.  This taxi driver, however, wears a gas mask.

Dian Belmont invites Wesley Dodds to her home and tells him that she's taken up work for The United Way collecting donations for their charity.  Without hesitation, Wesley writes her a check for three-hundred dollars and encourages her to reach out to her wealthy friends for more donations.  After Wesley leaves, Dian calls the richest man she knows, Arthur Riesling, who she met a few days earlier at his St. Patricks's Day party.

Riesling says he'll be happy to donate if she comes over to his house next week.  Assuming the Sandman hasn't stopped him before then, that could be bad for Dian.

A few nights later, Wesley Dodds goes to Riesling's house to attend a bare-knuckle fight.  Ramsey goes there as well, although he isn't invited to sit ringside with the other rich guests.  Ramsey skulks around outside and spies on the scene from inside.

After a round or two, the fight steps up a level as the fighters put on gloves covered in spikes and blades.  Wesley pulls a Clark Kent and makes an excuse about indigestion to leave the room.

Outside, Ramsey is ambushed by Riesling's goons working security at the house.  One of them blows the whistle that summons the Brute.

The giant steps on Ramsey's hand.  Again and again.  Crushing every bone in his hand and fingers.

Wesley steps outside to get some fresh air.  He hears the goons jokingly talking about Ramsey running away "like a bat with only one wing".  He also recognizes the Brute as they push lead it away.

In agonizing pain with his hand completely wrapped up, Ramsey stumbles back to the shack to see his daughter.  What he sees when he arrives, though, nearly stops his heart.  Emily has blood at the bottom of her dress.  His first thought is she has gotten her first period, but he thinks she's too young for that.

Then it gets worse.


Holy $#@%...

Matt Wagner brought sex and violence into this series in the very first issue, but this is the most brutal issue so far.  Seeing Ramsey's hand crushed would have been harsh enough to close out this chapter, but he ratchets it up even further by having a little girl raped by the man who offered her and her father shelter.

Dian Belmont's quest to help abused children seems quaint, almost insulting from her place of privileged distance when put in the context of the violence done to a child in this story.  Likewise, the case that the Sandman is pursuing seems almost trivial in comparison.  Who cares if Riesling is entangled in a drug deal with the mob or if he's hosting illegal boxing matches?  Who cares about the so-called Brute, even after she crushes Ramsey's hand, which will ensure he can never fight or work as a laborer again.  None of these "villains" seem remotely as evil or menacing as Mr. Schenck now in the light of his assault on Emily.

This issue hits you like a haymaker from a heavyweight fighter.  The last two pages are more savage and troubling than anything since the first story arc, and we still have one more issue before the story concludes.

Come back next week for the Act Four of "The Brute"...


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #10 (Jan 1994)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #10: "The Brute" Act Two
Written by Matt Wagner
Art by R.G. Taylor
Colors by David Hornung
Letters by John Costanza
Edited by Shelly Roeberg and Karen Berger
Cover by Gavin Wilson

Curtain up.

The second part of "The Brute" opens with Dian Belmont and a friend leaving the movie theater having seen the Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant classic, Bringing up Baby.  After showing her open-mindedness on homosexuality, Dian has a profound encounter in the street with a woman abusing her son.

When a police officer further intervenes, the woman walks away.  Dian tries to comfort the child who has clearly been beaten for most of his life, but the boy lashes out and bites Dian.  That night, we see the first signs of her eventual change into werewolf.  Dian's friend, Carol, scoffs at her attempts to help the filthy dregs of society.

Elsewhere, the Sandman has come to rescue prizefighter Eddie Ramsey from mob enforcers working for Arthur Riesling.  One of the hoods called in "backup", a brutish giant who easily disarms the Sandman and nearly takes his head off with one punch.  Ramsey defends the masked hero, but even the boxer proves to be little use against the Brute.  Luckily, the Sandman gets a second chance before the Brute kicks Ramsey's head in.

After gassing the giant, Sandman and Ramsey speed away in the Sandman's car.  Sandman drops Ramsey off at his home and tells him to find a new place to live so Riesling's men cannot find him.  Ramsey notices that the Sandman took a bad blow to the ribs during their fight.

Eddie Ramsey runs to his apartment where his sickly daughter, Emily, waits for him.  He apologizes but they need to flee.  They hurriedly pack everything they can take, including what's left of her medicine and bolt in the night.

Later, Dian Belmont goes to the mansion estate of her unofficial boyfriend, Wesley Dodds.  Wesley's butler, Humphries, tells her he's not home, but in fact he is just arriving.  Wes welcomes Dian into his sitting room for a late night chat, all the while trying to hide the fact that he probably broke a few ribs in his fight with the Brute and Riesling's men.

Dian tells him about her encounter outside the theater and how she stood up and stopped the woman from beating her child.  Wesley is proud of her and commends her for her bravery and righteousness. She thanks him and apologizes for wasting his time and then leaves.

At his own lavish mansion, Arthur Riesling hears the news that Ramsey snitched on him to the district attorney and then escaped the gang.  Arthur tells his son, Dennis, to make sure that Ramsey is killed along with any family members the fighter may have, which is bad news for Emily.  After the elder Ramsey leaves, the drunken Dennis is left alone with the two youngest boys.  Dennis instigates a fight between them for what appears to be his own amusement.

Is this the first time Dennis Riesling has manipulated people and events so he can laugh about it?

Later that night, Wesley Dodds dreams dreams of children of abuse and poverty.

The next night, Riesling's hoods break into the former home of Eddie Ramsey only to find the place hastily deserted.  Unfortunatley, while Ramsey and Emily may be alive, they haven't found a new place to live yet.

The two are befriended by an old tramp named Wilbur Schenk who offers them a place to stay in his shack.  Ramsey's not wild about squatting with the man, but thinking about his sick little girl makes him desperate enough to accept the invitation.

On a boat on the Hudson River, Arthur Riesling meets with a gangster to negotiate the sale and distribution of a large supply of heroin.  Riesling says he has found an untapped market for the drug.  Their conference is overheard by the Sandman.

Later, the Sandman goes directly to the home of District Attorney Belmont to warn him of Arthur Riesling's activities.

Dian spies on her father's conversation with the masked man and then watches the Sandman leave.

In a different, poorer part of town, a couple of kids are playing kick the can when their revery is joined by the Brute.  The Brute's handler losses him temporarily, but the monstrous giant is called back by a whistle.

And the handler driving the car, appears to be Dennis Riesling.

This is another great issue.  There's some really exciting action in the beginning with both the Sandman and Ramsey trying to fight off the Brute.  For all the Sandman's skills and all of Ramsey's fighting talent, they are both nearly killed by the giant.  It's quick thinking and good luck when Sandman throws a trashcan over the Brute's head and fires his gas gun inside to douse the freak with his knockout drug.  I can't wait to see the next obligatory fight between our hero and the monster.  Should be a thrilling bout for the ages!

There isn't any real doubt that Arthur Riesling is a bad guy, but the nature of his son Dennis is a little unclear.  Is he merely his father's henchman, or is he something more?  The scene where he provokes a fight between the boys had a bit of a sinister tone to it.  And what's with those boys?  Something's up in that department.  Based on Wesley's dreams and the scenes in the beginning and end of this chapter, I'm thinking this story is supposed to be about child neglect, poverty and abuse... but we're not quite getting there yet.

Also, Dian continues to be a strong character, but is she becoming too good?  It's nice that she wants to champion child advocacy and protective rights, but her line about homosexuality not being a disease in the first scene felt more like the Matt Wagner's voice intruding on the scene.  We already saw Dian championing racial sensitivity in the previous story arc, and she's fighting against systematic domestic violence now.  Do we need her to stand up for every popular cause all the time in order to know she's a good person?

Anyway, she's still awesome and I can't wait to see what she does next.

Come back next week for the Act Three of "The Brute"...


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #9 (Dec 1993)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #9: "The Brute" Act One
Written by Matt Wagner
Art by R.G. Taylor
Colors by David Hornung
Letters by John Costanza
Edited by Shelly Roeberg and Karen Berger
Cover by Gavin Wilson

Curtain up.

We open with something we haven't seen since the first story arc: a dream.  A dream about a lost child and a horrible monster that devours the child, both depicted as skeletons.  Wesley Dodds narrates the dream--and this story--in his typical poetic flourish.

We then find Wesley having dinner with Dian Belmont.  They briefly touch upon the violence in Chinatown that erupted during the previous story.  Wesley asks about her former lover, Jimmy Shan; after acknowledging that Jimmy's no longer in her life, she wants to change the subject.

Cut to the harbor where an amorous couple--and by "couple" I mean a drunken English sailor and an equally soused Irish woman that he probably picked up in a bar on street corner--start to have sex beneath a light post.  Their consummation is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a monstrous giant--a "brute"!

The Brute beats the sailor to death with his fists and his feet, spraying the woman with her would-be lover's blood.  She curls up on the ground, begging to be left alone, but the killer makes no move against her.

Back in the city, Wesley takes Dian home but resists her invitation to come inside for a drink.  He has an early meeting--earlier in the morning than he's used to waking--scheduled with a man named Arthur Riesling.  He invites his friend, retired Judge Thomas Schaffer, to the meeting.

Riesling is a boxing promoter with other philanthropic proclivities.  He wants to enlist Wesley in a scientific expedition to Antarctica.

Riesling arranges another meeting with Wesley and invites him to his house for St. Patrick's Day.

That night, Schaffer and Dian's father, the district attorney, attend the fights.  In one of the matches, a boxer named Eddie Ramsey loses an embarrassingly bad fight.  After the fight, Ramsey's trainer, Mel, rips into him for not fighting harder, for not winning and getting them more money.

After the trainer leaves, Ramsey is approached by Arthur Riesling.

Outside, the Sandman watches Riesling drive off and then Ramsey walk home.  Did something that morning set off Wesley's suspicions about Riesling?  Or is the Sandman following this lowlife boxer?

Eddie Ramsey goes home to his sick daughter, Emily.  She loves her father and takes pride in his boxing career, but she can tell that he lost tonight's match.

So Ramsey is desperate for money to pay for his sick little girl's medicine.  Is he going to call Arthur Riesling to take him up on his offer to fight illegally?

When Larry Belmont gets home, Dian hides the case files she was studying in his office while he was out.  Larry tells her about the fights with great enthusiasm until he's interrupted by a phone call.  Dian listens to her father arrange a meeting with someone regarding Arthur Riesling.  Was it Ramsey on the phone?

After Dian overhears her father talk about Riesling, she couldn't be happier to join Wesley on his trip to Riesling's St. Patrick's Day party.  She admits to getting a thrill out of spying on her father's cases.

Inside Riesling's enormous mansion, Wesley and Dian meet Riesling's youngest sons, who look no older than ten years old while Riesling himself looks like he's closer to 70.  Then they meet Dennis Riesling, another one of Arthur's sons who looks much more like his father.

And drinks quite heavily, it appears.

That night, D.A. Belmont meets with Eddie Ramsey.

As Ramsey walks home, a young boy calls out of help.  When Ramsey stops, he's sapped over the head and surrounded by Riesling's thugs.  Somehow, they knew about his meeting with the district attorney and they're going to kill him for trying to implicate Riesling.

The Sandman drops down on one of the thugs and leaps away into the shadows of the alley.  He hurls trashcan lids like so many poor versions of Captain America's shield but it's enough to disarm or distract the remaining thugs.  He uses his gas gun on another one, and ends up in a standoff with the final thug.

But as their boss staggers to his feet, he pulls a whistle out of his pocket and blows.  Is he summoning the police?  A dog?  Or something else...?

This is another solid chapter in this always stellar series, but as an opening act, I'm less sure of the ground we're on than before.  "The Tarantula" had a very personal stake with Dian's friend being abducted, and "The Face" established its racial-political overtones right away.  This story, however, seems to lack any real personal investment for either Wesley or Dian.  I'm not even entirely sure what makes Wesley so suspicious about Arthur Riesling from their first encounter that he would spy on him.  He claims to have dreams that trigger some skepticism, but his dream on the first page seems to have more to do with our hulking monstrous murderer.

The one personal connection that is made wonderfully clear is Eddie Ramsey's love for his daughter, Emily.  In just a few pages, Matt Wagner creates a sentimental father-daughter scene that doesn't feel sappy but tragic.  And the best part is Ramsey doesn't pull a Jack Murdock and sell his soul to the mob.  Even though he and his daughter are suffering, he does the right thing and tips the cops to Riesling's illegal activity.  And he might pay the price for his goodness.

We get yet another artist for this new story arc.  R.G. Taylor's style looks like it fits exactly halfway between Guy Davis' work on "The Tarantula" and John Watkiss' on "The Face".  Had this story come between the first two arcs, you could almost see the progression of art styles getting more exaggerated, but for now it feels like we're treading back to the classic form established in the first four issues.  That's a good thing.  Taylor's work is pretty good; background details are sometimes little more than squiggles, but he nails the details of character, and the Brute himself is horrifying to behold.

Come back next week for the Act Two of "The Brute"...