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So begins the tale of The Scorpion – a black and white nightmare about a world of greys, the dark dream of The Sandman.
It’s a story of high societies and low pursuits, hate and passion, the weight of commerce. A story of vigilantes, costumed crazies, the girls who love ’em and the cops who have to deal with a world slowly going mad – a world on the verge of a tilt into the age of heroes.
Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 4: The Scorpion is where all that character building in the previous three volumes starts to pay off. Before I go any further into the review, I must stress this.
This book is good. It’s really really good. Books like this are why I read comics, why it’s such a joy. Entertaining and subtle, deep enough to keep wandering through your thoughts, but light enough that it can be read in a single sitting.
Good enough that it begs an immediate re-reading if you can hold yourself from moving onto the next book in the series (or aren’t lucky enough to own it.)
Why is it so good?
Does it try to bring the medium to new heights, commenting on the institution of superheroes? Does it explore subjects never before seen on the comic page? Does it show a new kind of hero or contain extremely surprising plots?
No. Not really. In many ways, it’s a bit of classic superhero sensibility. It’s just really really well done.
The creative team – Matt Wagner and Steven T. Seagle writing, Guy Davis supplying the art, David Hornung coloring and John Costanza lettering – are all on top of their game. They’ve been on the title a bit, found their footing, and have begun to run.
Perhaps “running” isn’t the right word choice. There isn’t a sense of rapid energy in the art or writing. Rather, there’s an appreciation for slower consideration and careful building. Much of the book follows a group of businessmen as they try to put together an international oil deal.
This business world isn’t sensationalized – it’s plain and tedious – or would be in the hands of lesser writers. As it is, Wagner and Seagle make even these dreary meetings (or so Wesley Dodds, secretly our hero, thinks of them) interesting. They make each character fully fleshed with some particular way of talking and thinking.
In the first few pages, I found myself giddily hanging on the dialogue as conversational niceties were batted back and forth between the mayor, an advertising executive, and other wealthy hangers-on. The Sandman was nowhere in sight and I was still having fun!
Of course, part of that is because the supporting cast has enjoyed prominence in previous titles – making Dian Belmont one of my favorite female characters in comics. I’m also growing rather fond of Lieutenant Tony Burke, generally the owner of the few profanities evident in these stories. While I admit to sometimes having trouble distinguishing between some of the rich white men, until they open their mouths, I don’t feel this is the fault of the artist – I have this problem in real life as well.
The story is a murder mystery, as all of the Sandman stories thus far have been. The kind where the killer is still on the loose with a confrontation bound to happen. Like the Silence of the Lambs movies, the thrill isn’t in some ending reveal – we as readers know who the killer is, though I admit I was guessing a little longer than normal in this one.
The excitement comes from seeing our heroes figure it out, watching these complex characters come ever closer to each other with the tension building as each page turns.
And those final confrontations come off masterfully. Everything slams together in a deliciously tangled jumble of good and bad intentions. Doors open at the right moment, plans fall into the wrong ones, in sequences that found me literally laughing out loud as I turned the page.
I also fell into that old habit of almost skipping the action, in such a rush I was to see what happened next – my naughty eyes skipping across the fold to view the opposing panels before scolding themselves and heading back to read the dialogue. To clarify: this isn’t a fault of the writers or a problem with panel layouts. I was just so excited! The layouts are excellent and the book is a pleasure to read.
On top of this lovely little thriller is the most satisfying secret identity/new lover relationship I’ve read in a long time. While the plot idea is not a new one, seeing Wesley and Dian go through the motions of enjoying each other while Wesley attempts to hide his costumed pastime and Dian slowly figures it out… well, it’s a real treat. Wesley’s butler gets a little more panel-time here as he has to make more and more excuses for his unpredictable employer.
I could go on and on about this book’s intricacies. It’s amazing this is just four issues. Do I have room to write on the amusing pulp fiction references? The further explorations on the themes of race and class warfare? The faithful representation of an intriguing era in our nation’s history? No, not really.
I don’t have room because I must devote some space to further praise for Guy Davis. At first, it feels hard to say much that we haven’t covered in reviews of the previous volumes he worked on, The Tarantula and The Vamp. I’ve mentioned the dreamlike quality of his pencils, the strength of his expressions, and the personality lent to the characters.
That last point deserves even more praise here – Wesley Dodds’ calm demeanor when at ease during his experiments, Burke’s snide mouth twitching beneath his mustache, Dian’s inquisitive and knowing glances. It’s all just perfect.
Also, a simple statement, but I can’t avoid mentioning it again: I just love love love this golden age Sandman’s little pudge. It does so much for his character.
The dream sequences also deserve some focus. Here Davis takes the slightly risky move of doing them in black and white, but they’re just beautiful. Intensely weird, scratchy like old television – which, of course, hadn’t been invented yet.
My only complaints with this collection have to do with some of the post and reproduction work. Unfortunately those digital blur/smoke/sheen effects are back, but that’s not really a big deal as they are quite sparse. I only noticed two of them throughout the entire trade, messing with maybe a couple millimeters of the line work.
The real problem is the actual printing, at least in my version. The paper is lightweight matte, which I don’t really have a problem with, but there isn’t a single true black in the book. If that was it, that would be fine – the lighter reproduction works with the pastel colors and is easy on the eyes. But the whole book seems to be reproduced from slightly pixelated files. The text and panel borders suffer from it the most, but there’s even some pages where you can see the sharp outline of the files, a slight gray onto the pages natural white – since no one bothered to correct the white points before sending to printing.
Such was the quality of the writing and artwork that I didn’t often notice this issue, but it still upset me – especially because it made getting nice looking scans to show you impossible. I actually had to turn to the original floppies to get images. I don’t know if this was just an issue with one print run or what, but you may want to double check your book before bringing it home. To those of you who order online like myself – cross your fingers.
I won’t let the reproduction issue drag down my review. While a quality title like this certainly deserves careful collection and reprinting, I’ll settle for it any way I can get it.
I’m amazed that Sandman Mystery Theatre isn’t more heavily represented online or in fan discussions – it’s an excellent series. I assume that it must simply be in the shadow of its bigger brother series at Vertigo, which seems to always get the limelight.
Maybe you’ll have to rely on your cultural elitism – seek out something lesser known and of a strange vintage – but whatever you do, find your way to reading this title.
5 out of 5.
An excellent book, one of the best I’ve read in some time. Fully rounded characters, visceral action, witty pacing, and the perfect art to carry it.
Highly recommended. Just don’t forget to read the previous books in your rush to get to this title.
Ok, not really for the rest of the DCU, but if you skip this one you will be missing out on some of the best that setting has to offer.
The next book is Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 5: Dr. Death and The Night of the Butcher. I’m very excited.
We’ll be looking into it soon as we review our way through the DC Universe!
I have to make a brief note that DC hasn’t fully collected this series, which is absolutely criminal considering how long it’s been since the ongoing ended. We should be looking at a secondary release as a set of deluxe hardcovers or absolute editions at this point, not hanging on the edge of our seat for the next trade. GET ON IT!