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Includes Issues: Sandman Mystery Theatre 1-4
Issue Dates: April – July 1993
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This review is spoiler free! Skip To The Verdict? »

Of the original roster of the world’s first superteam, only Justice Society of America member Wesley Dodds has held a contemporary ongoing of real length.

The Golden Age Sandman’s re-told adventures ran for 70 issues from 1993-1999.

This book, Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 1: The Tarantula, collects the first four issues of that series, written by Matt Wagner and drawn by Guy Davis.

It’s quite possible that the Sandman was selected to receive a Vertigo series primarily because of his shared nomenclature with Neil Gaiman’s successful Modern Age  reinterpretation of the concept.

But I like to think that the gas masked crime-fighter has enough of his own appeal to sustain a story.

I’ve always been interested in him from his various DCU appearances.

He possesses a unique look, a mix of regular clothes and strange but functional headgear, which stands out among the cowl and cape crowd.

Since my love affair with the heavyweights of the Vertigo imprint is well known, it’s perhaps surprising that I’ve never read any Sandman Mystery Theatre until now. I’m not sure why, honestly.

In any case, I approached this volume with more than my average amount of excitement.

Upon first read through, I was disappointed. The art was jarring, the plot moved slowly. This was the start to the series I’ve heard so much about? It seemed alright, satisfying my basic cravings, but not amazing.

Often my initial impressions are correct, verified and reaffirmed through careful examination.

But I also felt a sense that I had gotten more than I thought from the book, that something was subtly working on me.
I slept on it. I read it again.

This Sandman volume is really something. Subtle is indeed the word.

My initial problem was a transition directly from the bombastic world of pre-crisis and mid-90s superhero comics and the done-in-one in your face storytelling contained in the recent Jonah Hex titles.

Sandman Mystery Theatre, at least in this volume, has a very different approach to comics.

The book is a slow burn, a building of tensions. Characters are introduced, fleshed out slowly and brought to a climax that is more about their individual evolution than action packed confrontation.

The mystery here is a twisted affair that plays across all four issues, but the real focus is the reintroduction of Dian Belmont and Wesley Dodds.

Dodds has been taken from the standard superhero frame to a moderately pudgy intellectual, someone who looks like he really could have invented a gun that fires various gasses  from canisters (the most famous being sleep inducing, obviously.)

The experimental gas itself seems to carry more danger than I remember from Golden Age comics, Wesley treating it with some reverence and surprised at possibly traumatic side effects.

His costume, while iconic to us modern readers, seems to be a fairly realistic 30’s affair – nice clothing of the time, gloves to avoid fingerprints and an obviously functional gas mask.

While this new/old Sandman is quite striking, he actually only makes sparse appearances in the persona.

Also, while the story is narrated by Wesley, the real focus of this first book is Dian.

The district attorney’s daughter, she comes out as the most astute observer of the bunch, putting things together without the benefit of as much insider information as her father or the resources of the Sandman.

She makes for an enticing driving force in the story, the kind of character we don’t see enough of in mainstream comics – a relatively normal person who is much more than just window dressing “supporting cast” for the title character.

That being said, the supporting cast contains a fair amount of interesting characters as well.

Little moments, interactions between various characters – the book is filled with chatter.

It was this which threw me off at first, since not everything seems to serve the story directly.

But what Wagner is doing is some wonderful world building.

These late 30s stuck with me, finely elaborate from the first couple pages.

While I’ve been introduced to Matt Wagner‘s writing and art through his Grendel and Batman trades, he didn’t draw this book – it’s done by Guy Davis, who has a very different style.

I’ve actually seen his work before on B.P.R.D., some of which you can see at Davis’s website. But his more recent drawings look very different from the Sandman work.

You can see the resemblance in the faces, but the linework is much thinner here with more hatching instead of bold shadows (the shadows possibly being a Mignola influence for that Hellboy universe art.)

While the world of this Sandman seems very much a real world – little science fiction or magic, at least yet – it still is dreamlike simply because of the art.

The faces are constantly shifting, the backgrounds contain no straight solid lines. Shadows have hatch patterns that sometimes spill into the surrounding areas, popping out dots of ink around the panel. Everything wavers just a little bit.

It’s art that I may not have expected in a book under a DC imprint, though it does remind me of some Gaiman Sandman issues.

Because I was pulling this from a shelf full of superhero books, it took some getting used to. For example, I might normally critique an artist for having some faces that are “off,” pulling the reader out of the story. Here, every face is off – or at least shifted to emphasize expression much more than likeness.

This isn’t to say characters are unrecognizable.

Though I did have trouble distinguishing between two different wide-faced older gentlemen or permed brunettes – which was particularly annoying when a kidnapping victim seemed to be a main character -  most of the characters have distinct traits.

Small mutterings aside, on the second readthrough I decided I quite liked the style. It’s different. Along with the pastel colorings by David Hornung, the book had its own unique feel separate from the rest of the DC Universe – part flashback to an earlier era in history and part allusion to the dream-related nature of the hero.

I particularly enjoyed the presentation of the Sandman himself. I mentioned the costume before, but it’s worth noting that Davis’ style – playing hatches and curved lines off each other – allows Dodds’ gas mask and goggles to be surprisingly expressive.

Some of this is accomplished by allowing us to see his almost frightened eyes through the glass, but often it’s simply angle and shadow portraying mood.

Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula runs for just 9.95 cover price – often less than half that used. That’s a bit over 100 pages of very interesting comics for around the price of one brand new issue.

The introduction, by pop culture historian Dave Marsh, is a bit more gushing than I feel this first collection warrants (and he gets some things wrong about The Endless in Gaiman’s Sandman – that’s me being a geek and caring), but the book really is worth checking out.

Wagner and Davis have done a fantastic job introducing the era and characters and I feel like the stage is set for some every exciting storytelling. While this particular plot only seemed to skim the surface, I’ve retained a healthy amount of excitement for the oncoming volumes in the series.

4 out of 5. A well developed introduction to very intriguing people living and operating in an uncommon setting. It moves at its own pace and Davis’ art may not be for everyone, but the low price point makes it well worth the risk.

The 1930s haunt you after reading this book and while the actual mystery in this volume isn’t as exciting as the building relationships between characters, Sandman Mystery Theatre is unlike any other superhero book on the shelves. (Calling a superhero book is up for debate, but this is a retelling/reinvention of stories about a JSA member, so I feel the expectation is fair.)

Essential Continuity:
Yes, for the Wesley Dodds SandmanJSA Member and player in many DCU events. He shows up in a lot of places.

While not as popular as say, the Jay Garrick Flash, I still consider him to be important to have some passing knowledge of for DCU buffs.

Read first:
This book takes place relatively early in the DC Chronology, after the DC Westerns and Enemy Ace, but before the Golden Age of heroes (and the revealing of Batman and Superman to the world.) So you can jump right into this particular volume without doing any catch up reading.

You may want to read the Golden Age Sandman stories collected in The Golden Age Sandman Archives Vol. 1, but by event date half of that book takes place after this series. Some of the stories are retellings, though, but you can read either set first. For modern readers unused to Golden Age comics, SMT may be more interesting.

Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman series was also technically written before this one, but neither is directly linked enough to require reading in any particular order.

Read next:
The next book is Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 2: The Face and the Brute. We’ll be looking into it soon as we review our way through the DC Universe!

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12 Comments Post New »

  1. Ryard wrote on at December 20, 2010 7:46 pm:

    Love this title. I truly like the re-imagining of Wesley as kind of nerdy and pudgy, and I like how he did the “Batman voice” before Batman did. One thing that bugged the back of my head, though, was that they felt the need to go a little bit too far with contemporizing Dian. But good times.


    Ian replied on December 20th, 2010 at 7:53 pm:

    Yeah, I think about Batman a lot while reading this book. One of my main differences, and most important to me, I think, is that Dodds seems to be himself in the Dodds personality as well. Quiet, reserved, maybe a little less prone to direct action without his mask – but no playboy.

    How do you mean about contemporizing Dian? I’ve enjoyed her character a lot so far.


    Ryard replied on December 20th, 2010 at 11:01 pm:

    Well, mostly that it seemed to me that the overcompensated in trying to modernize Dian…obviously, they didn’t want to go with the meek girlfriend in distress trope, so they went a little too far making her an aggresive proto-Lois Lane, and I don’t want to spoil what her ultimate role becomes, in case you haven’t read the others, but I think it was a change for change’s sake instead of an organic growth. And although I adore Starman, the revelation that Dian became an avant-garde author put it way into Mary Sue territory.


    Ian replied on December 20th, 2010 at 11:07 pm:

    I haven’t read the Starman moment yet (I’m only toe into that series, though what I read was exciting enough for me to grab all the omnibi as they came out.)

    But I do know the spoiler you’re talking about. Let’s not discuss it here, in case others don’t, but I could understand the case you’re making there. Of course, I’ll have to make my final decision once I actually read that part.

    I do like her aggressive nature and how she really is the main character – at least for the first two books I’ve read. I’m not as worried about changes if they make for enjoyable story – superman has certainly had his story changed often enough, why not the sandman?

    I’m pretty familiar with Lois, but I feel that the dichotomy here is quite different – as Dave Marsh mentioned in the introduction to this volume, Dodds isn’t invulnerable. While he’s better off, him and Dian are pretty much on equal footing. And that makes their foreshadowed collaboration more interesting.


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