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"...


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