Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #8 (Nov 1993)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #8: "The Face" Act Four
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 Sandman has discovered the lair of the killer who has been chopping off the heads of various Chinese in an effort to stir up gang violence in Chinatown.  The Face's hideout is loaded with sets of dentures, wigs, fake noses, foreheads with eyebrows, everything he needs to change his appearance so as to look like virtually anyone.  The Sandman also notices a newspaper with a personal ad from the Face's shadowy employer, so now The Sandman knows how the killer gets in contact with his boss.

Over in Chinatown, paramedics treat Jimmy Shan for the head wound he received when the Face tried to kill him.  Of course, neither fact that Dian Belmont was following Jimmy nor that a woman saved his life are very appealing to Jimmy and his current anger issues.

Jimmy screams at Dian for another two panels, accusing her and her father and every white person of racism, and then sulks in pain and embarrassment.  Dian's grief and humiliation is interrupted by her father's sudden intervention as he drags her back home.

The Face, suffering a gunshot wound from Dian, makes his way back to his lair, coughing and muttering to himself, unaware that The Sandman is lying in wait for him.  But despite his wounds and shaky appearance, the Face betrays unexpected speed and strength.  When The Sandman points his gas gun in the Face's, um, face, the Face wheels around to attack.

So... that could've gone better.

Back at the Belmont household, Larry screams at his daughter for sneaking around Chinatown and getting involved with Jimmy, who's assault only points to his involvement with the Tongs.  He's also none to thrilled that Dian stole his gun, which she used to save Jimmy from the Face.  Larry accuses his daughter of taking the law into her own hands like a "vigilante debutante."

At a dive bar across town, the Face calls a newspaper demanding they run an ad in tonight's edition so he can get in touch with his boss.  An exotic dancer tries to come on to him, but he shows her what he looks like without his makeup and prosthetics.  Terrified of his appearance and his not-so-veiled threats, the woman backs away.

In the hospital, a pair of nurses chat as one of them goes to check on Jimmy Shan.  One of the nurses says horrible things about Asian- and African-Americans.  When they get to Jimmy's room, though, his bed is empty and the window is open.

Elsewhere, the mayor sits at a meeting with local business men and other movers and shakers, including philanthropist Herman Ross and his partner Benson, who are still trying to get a school funded in Chinatown.  Ross and Benson are flipping through the newspaper, which happens to be running an ad from the Face requesting a meeting.

The same ad is read by Wesley Dodds, who knows this is how the Face and his boos make contact.  He puts his creepy doll to bed and suits up for a night in Central Park.

After Dian sneaks out of the house, we find Herman Ross in Central Park waiting for the Face.  The Face, though, seems to be running quite late, so Ross dispatches his driver to look around and find him.

After escaping from the hospital, Jimmy Shan goes to his mother's home to retrieve his father's gun.  He's in a killing mood, and Dian can't stop him even when she arrives begging him to stop.  Jimmy is so embittered by the world of late, that he actually comes across as racist as Dian's father.

Back in the park, Herman's driver attacks him with an axe.  It's the Face, of course, pissed off that he got shot when trying to kill Jimmy.  He blames Herman Ross for setting him up and wants revenge.

But "Herman Ross" may not be what he seems...

The Sandman throws a net over the Face to keep his speed and strength neutralized.  In a rage, the Face lashes out, but loses his footing and stumbles into the pond.

Jimmy goes to see Wu Sung, head of the Huo Yubai clan, who he blames for killing his sister.  But Dian followed him again, refusing to let Jimmy's hatred lead to his self-destruction.  She actually stands between Jimmy and Wu Sung, insisting that if Jimmy wants to kill the man he has to shoot through her.

Her defiance is enough to snap Jimmy out of the moment's insanity.  He drops the gun and Wu Sung tells Dian to get Jimmy out of there.

Lieutenant Burke is heading out to enforce the peace in Chinatown when he finds someone tied up in front of the station.

Larry Belmont tells Dian what we already know, that Herman Ross' partner, Benson, hired the Face to start an all-out war in the Chinese community to further their business dealings.  Benson hoped that Wu Sung would be killed because Wu Sung was the only person who knew that Benson was part Chinese.

Larry apologizes to Dian for being racist toward Asians (I think he should've apologized to Asians, but whatever), and Dian tells her father that she isn't seeing Jimmy anymore on account of him losing his mind and pointing a gun at her.  The story ends with her making a date with Wesley Dodds, now the best man in her life.

The final revelation of the power behind the Face was a little underwhelming since he really didn't know that much about Herman Ross or Eldridge Benson.  And despite how dangerous the Face should have been, he was taken down too easily.  He slipped out of The Sandman's grasp once out of luck and desperation, but the second time, he just falls into the water and drowns.  It doesn't have the same level of menace as the Tarantula from the last story arc.

Dian's story throughout these four issues is a little more interesting, but Jimmy's self-destruction swings too far toward the melodramatic.  There really didn't seem to be any racism or insecurity in his first appearance, so to see him fall so far so quickly is a little jarring.  It is interesting that it's not merely the fault of society in how it limits and projects fears on him because of his appearance, that there is something dark and hateful inside him, but it comes out too suddenly.  Dian, of course, shows a new kind of heroism in her compassion and her refusal to give up on the man she once loved very much.

There was a lot of good material in "The Face" but it wasn't as awesome as the initial arc in the series.  Still... "Pretty good" for Sandman Mystery Theatre is still better than almost any other series.

Come back next week for the opening act of "The Brute"...


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #7 (Oct 1993)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #7: "The Face" Act Three
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.

Act Three of "The Face" opens with the Sandman lurking around the city morgue, collecting samples of some kind from the Face's decapitated victims.  A security guard hears the mystery man, but by the time he enters the morgue, the Sandman has vanished.

In Chinatown, Jimmy Shan races to the house of Hsu Chang, head of the Lei Feng family.  Jimmy is still somewhat recovering from his encounter with the Sandman last issue, an encounter that left him gassed and unconscious.

Jimmy recounts his meeting with the Sandman to Hsu Chang, pleading with the man not to go to war against the Huo Yibai because the killings are the work of a third party attempting to pit the Chinese against each other.  Chang dismisses Jimmy's claims as childish and naive, and tells Jimmy that a third victim was found that night.

Hsu Chang shows Jimmy the head of the prostitute killed by the Face last issue.  Jimmy loses his mind to grief, screaming the girls name.  Obviously, she was familiar, someone he cared deeply for.

Back at his mansion, Wesley Dodds conducts some experiments on the samples he stole from the morgue, then does some research in his private library.

Still upset over her father's behavior toward Jimmy the night before, Dian Belmont returns to Jimmy's apartment the following day.  The Jimmy she finds is drunk and angry.  Angry at himself, angry at whites, the Tongs, the whole world.

He asks Dian to leave.  She offers to stay with him but he asks her again to leave him alone.  She leaves, knowing that if she stayed, she would fall into the same abyss of bitterness that has claimed her ex-boyfriend.

After leaving Jimmy's place, Dian heads to Wesley Dodds' manor.  Wesley's butler tells Dian that he has turned in for the evening.

Dian confides in Wesley her suspicions that Jimmy may still be involved in the Tongs' criminal activity.  Wesley advises her to get a night's sleep before sharing her suspicions with her father, the district attorney.  Then, once Dian leaves, Wesley strips off his robe, revealing he's still dressed in his "work clothes".  Humphries hands him his Sandman hat and coat.

Lieutenant Burke leads a detail of uniform police to a medical supply shop.  Burke says the coroner's analysis of the bodies suggests they were killed using a surgical hacksaw but that the murderer wasn't a doctor, so the police want records of all sales of medical equipment to non-doctors.  The light is out in the shopkeeper's office, and Burke knows he's not the first person to come looking for the records.

The cops open fire but the Sandman gasses the room, disorienting the uniform officers and sending Burke running and coughing.

Elsewhere, Jimmy Shan meets with Herman Ross and an associate for a business meeting about investing in some property.  But the death of Jimmy's sister and his recent drunken tear has left Jimmy woefully unprepared for the meeting.  Ross and his pal are not happy with Jimmy.

Later, as Larry Belmont listens to Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio, the D.A. gets a call from Burke telling him the Sandman is involved in the Chinatown case.  Dian overhears this.  Elsewhere, the Sandman's investigation takes him from the records room to an empty store front and a mob currier who drops off money at the train station.

That night, the man who has hired the Face to incite war among the Tongs meets his hired assassin in a box seat at the opera.  He gives the Face one final target: Jimmy Shan.  The Face picks up his payment at a locker in the train station, but Wesley Dodds has him staked out.

The Sandman follows the Face into an apartment and a secret room downstairs.  Once there, the Sandman discovers the Face's room full of makeup, wigs, prosthetics and false-faces.  But the killer is not there.

Dian follows Jimmy Shan around Chinatown to confirm or disprove her suspicions.  And while he's distracted from how his life seems to be crumbling, she is alert enough to spot the killer waiting for him in the alley.

The story is ramping up for an exciting conclusion.  The Sandman has the killer in his sites, but when the killer can appear as anyone, will catching the Face be that easy?

We still don't know the power behind the Face's killings, but my money's on Herman Ross.  He has no other reason for being in the story, and if the Chinese go to war against each other leading to violence and sanctions by the police department, it could open lots of real estate or other business opportunities for the philanthropist.

Jimmy Shan appeared to have assimilated completely into the white man's world at the start of this story arc, finding financial success but still lacking the acceptance of men like Larry Belmont.  He has fallen quite far at this point, full of hatred and prejudices of his own and wandering around the Chinatown that seemed foreign for him only a few issues ago.

Dian continues to surprise and impress.  Though she was turning into the worrying girlfriend for a while there, she makes up for it on the last page by actually shooting the killer and saving Jimmy.

What will happen to Jimmy?  What will happen when the Face returns to his hideout to discover the Sandman already there?  And who does Dian really love?

Come back next week for the fourth and final act of "The Face"...


Saturday, February 8, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #6 (Sep 1993)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #6: "The Face" Act Two
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 Sandman skulks around a large house in Chinatown when someone creeps up on him with an axe.  It looks like the same man who killed the standup comedian Ling Hoon, who may in fact be a mercenary capable of changing his facial appearance.  A killer known as "The Face".

Anyway, the Face swings his powerful axe right into the Sandman's back, bringing the vigilante down to his knees.  But luckily, Wesley Dodds wore a plate of metal under his trench coat which functioned as a shield and saved his spine.  He throws the metal at the axeman, creating enough of a distraction to get his gas gun out.

The Sandman grabs his jacket and slips out of the house through the window he came in.  He jumps in his car and drives off.

Meanwhile, in the same house he was sneaking around in, the heads of the Lei Feng have met to discuss their declaration of war against the Huo Yibai for killing two of their people.  The Lei Feng want blood, demanding counterattacks to salvage their pride and honor and maintain the appearance of strength and order.

The only dissenting opinion is Zhang Chai Lao, the lawyer better known as Jimmy Shan to people outside Chinatown.  He cautions the Lei Feng not to strike at the Huo Yibai, that the attacks might be the work of a third force trying to reignite old Tong rivalries and plunge them into war.

Any words of caution that might have gotten through to the group are muted, however, when one of the lord's servants--the axeman who might be the Face--informs them that an intruder was discovered trying to spy on their meeting.  The Lei Feng assume the spy was of the Huo Yibai and their bloodlust returns.

After being blown off by Jimmy Shan and then Wesley Dodds, Dian Belmont finally finds a friend to spend the evening with.  She and a girlfriend go to the Palais Royale club, where they watch a group of teenagers dancing to the Jitterbug.  In her narration, Dian comments about witnessing this kind of music and dancing in Harlem and it seeming so free and natural, but in this part of town with these kids, it seems "desperate."  Is this Matt Wagner commenting on how mainstream (white) culture tries to emulate and/ore steal the styles of black culture?

Dian confides that she is still attracted to Jimmy, but is it something specific about him that appeals to her?  Something he represents or something he gives her?

Across town, Wesley Dodds gets home, strips off his Sandman garb and examines the metal body armor that saved his life.

The next day, the Mayor calls Chief Ross O'Donald and DA Larry Belmont into his office.  He's worried that the murders in Chinatown will erupt into full-scale war amongst the Tongs and wants some unruly Chinese arrested as a show of law and order.  Belmont's prejudices against the Asian community make themselves well known, the but Mayor quashes his attitude in the office.  (Say, the Mayor looks a little bit like the rich guy who met the Face in a limousine back in issue #5.  He's even smoking a cigar, too...)

Later, Dian makes a date with Jimmy, which just pisses her father off all the more.  He warns Dian that Jimmy might be involved in some of the beheading crimes, then leaves in a huff, knowing that if Jimmy is dangerous, that would probably just excite Dian.  Despite her anger with her father, the idea is not so ridiculous to Dian.  She thinks she saw the head of Ling Hoon delivered in a package to Jimmy's door.  She's making plans with him because she wants to know how deeply involved in these bloody events.

During her dinner with Jimmy, she is prevented from directly confronting him about his involvement, first by Herman Ross, the philanthropist, and then by Wesley Dodds, who makes up some excuse to be there even though he's clearly spying on Jimmy or Dian.

Outside the Cotton Club, a young paperboy is accosted by a homeless dreg wanting a paper.  A bouncer outside the club makes the paperboy give the homeless what he wants and then kicks him back into an alley.  As the seemingly drunken homeless man shuffles off, he opens the paper to a page with a personal message for The Face demanding another kill.

Donning another appearance, the Face returns to the prostitute he brutalized last issue.  She tells him she won't service him, but that's not what he has in mind.

Jimmy brings Dian home, but their goodnight kiss is interrupted by DA Belmont.

Belmont is rushing out of the house because the Tong have killed a prostitute, he says.  He asks Dian to call off her date and go back inside.  Jimmy says goodnight and walks back to his car.

But inside, he is greeted by the Sandman who calls him Zhang Chai Lao.

The Sandman gasses Jimmy and leaves him unconscious in the car.

This chapter ends with the Face returning to his apartment.  We see that he has a whole array of false teeth, false noses, false mustaches, beards, wigs, eyebrows, as well as scalpels and other tools.  He begins to shed his current disguise, which distorts his speech as he has no real teeth.  His actual face is obscured by shadow, but it must look dreadful.

Of the six issues of Sandman Mystery Theatre up to this point, this issue might be the weakest.  It's not a bad issue by any means, but it's the first chapter that doesn't really advance the story.  We know that someone is paying the Face to incite a war between two Chinese factions, but we don't have any better clue as to who is paying the Face or who he is.

Seeing Wesley meditating after his fight with the Face was a nice touch.  It cements his time spent in Easter Asia and serves as a simple pain-management technique for a vigilante in a physical job.  On the other hand, this story arc is getting rough for Larry Belmont.  His concern for his daughter is kind of negated by his racism which makes it impossible to find sympathy for him.

Methinks Dian Belmont is an adrenaline junkie.  After coming so close to danger in "The Tarantula" story arc, she is actively seeking it out, using her previous fling with Jimmy as an excuse to get inside a Chinese gang war.

This was a solid issue, and I actually liked John Watkiss' art better this time than last issue, but the characters and story seem to be treading water.  Maybe it's because Wagner put so much information into last issue, that now we must let the story simmer before it really starts to boil.

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


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"...