THIS WEEK: With limited new comics for the foreseeable future, the DC Round-Up crew is writing about classic DC stories, and this week we’ve putting on our masks and revisiting Sandman Mystery Theatre.
Main Writer: Matt Wagner
Other Writers: Steven T. Seagle
Main Artist: Guy Davis
Other Artists: John Watkiss, R.G. Taylor, Vince Locke, David Lloyd, John Bolton, Stefano Gaudiano, George Pratt, Alex Ross, Peter Snejbjerg, Dean Ormston
Main Colorist: David Hornung
Other Colorists: David Lloyd, Mike Danza
Main Letterer: John Costanza
Other Letterers: Clem Robins, Gaspar Saladino
Original Cover Art: Gavin Wilson, Richard Bruning
For this week’s no-new-comics DC Round-Up, I’ve gone back and read Sandman Mystery Theatre, the classic Vertigo Comics noir series. This book, which spans 70 issues and an annual, is primarily the work of writer Matt Wagner and artist Guy Davis, with a host of talented collaborators (listed above) who came in and out with contributions. The series ran from 1993 to 1999, and these days it is perhaps lost a bit, at least compared with some other Vertigo offerings of the same period.
This is due in part to sharing some of its name and a modicum of its subject matter with Vertigo’s other Sandman comic, the Neil Gaiman-penned classic that has transcended the graphic sequential medium to become capital L Literature. This is due in another part to Vertigo itself shifting during this comic’s run, moving from being an imprint for smarter comics that generally still had ties to DC superheroes, to the imprint in all of comics for mature and ambitious original concepts. Between the time Sandman Mystery Theatre began and the time it ended, the imprint The Invisibles, Preacher, 100 Bullets, and Transmetropolitan.
One thing that struck me upon reading this month, however, was how the themes in our story are exceedingly relevant to our times, more so than any of those aforementioned stories, really…and not just because our hero Wesley Dobbs wears a gas mask (although, that doesn’t hurt and has certainly caused the book to be on my mind while grocery shopping with people dressed just like him). Sandman Mystery Theatre feels most relevant to 2020 because of the heavy onus its protagonist feels to stop crimes stemming from grave societal failings, many of which have to do with oppression of the marginalized or exploitation of the vulnerable.
For those unfamiliar, the story is actually set in the 1930s. It is a revisiting of The Sandman from DC’s Golden Age, who was last seen early in Gaiman’s Sandman, being sort of dismissed as a temporary placeholder during the Dream Lord’s imprisonment. The Sandman here is a gas-masked vigilante without superpowers. His real identity is one Wesley Dodds, who is wealthy and known in New York socialite circles, mostly thought of as a harmless eccentric, at least as the ultra-wealthy go. He fights crime exclusively at night, clad in his gas mask, green suit, duster, and fedora, and he does so with a gun that emits sleeping gas, which he usually follows with a poetic flourish about purging evil to abate the peaceful rest of the innocent.
Dodds is heavily principled, sort of eschewing the trappings and approval of the wealthy circles he finds himself within. In one especially timely story arc, he refuses a can’t-miss investment opportunity that would have made him money exploiting the suffering and war taking shape in Europe. Not to spoil a story that’s more than 20 years old, but the arc has to do with a rags-to-riches man who has been corrupted by the same wealthy circles Dobbs eschews, wanting to make money at any cost. To do so, he’s begun to eliminate those in his way by killing them with a poisoned whip, the poison essentially serving as a metaphor for greed that can cloud judgement.
And most of the storylines in this comic are rich with similar metaphors. Timeliness aside, what also makes this book a rich read for the quarantined is how literary its dialogue and caption writing feels. Particularly in the first arc, Wagner seems to go full in on scripting that could almost stand on its own apart from the imagery as a 1930s prose poem. The writing he does here is just gorgeous, and it really sets a tone that remains through the entire run.
The real star of the run, however, is artist Guy Davis, the main series artist who is colored by David Hornung. Davis style here is a bit looser than it would later come to be in his long-run on the Hellboy Universe comic, B.P.R.D., but that’s certainly not a detraction by any means. Davis’ work in this comic is a little more fluid, giving some of the book an almost-dreamlike aesthetic that fits right in with its larger themes. In addition, this book has some of the most compelling and real action sequences I’ve ever encountered in a superhero comic.
This owes in part to the protagonist’s powers being limited to a gun that shoots sleeping gas, his wits, and a keen set of morals. There’s going to be no Batman-esque bouts of kung-fu fighting or impossible gadgetry, and no Superman-style juggling of suns, or something. These action sequences are all grounded, and as such, there’s no feeling of plot invincibility, not even for Dobbs as protagonist, although it was hard to imagine too many awful things happening to him in the early arcs, given that this is such a long run.
For many of the action sequences, Wagner entirely drops captioning or speech, allowing Davis to depict the story’s hero moving silently through the night toward whatever investigation or waiting calamity lay before him. These issues are certainly not light on text. There are many that pack in rapid discussions heavy with 1930s concerns and terminology, most of which are organic yet still informative, before quickly segueing to The Sandman in full garb silent in the night. It creates a powerful contrast that really accentuates the tension of the action segments of the book.
Another major quality of this comic that I really appreciated was the character of Dian Belmont, who is arguably the most compelling figure in this comic. Dian is a great lens to view many of the societal dynamics through, because she is at once both privileged (being white and wealthy) and marginalized (being a woman). She is the romantic interest of the hero, to be sure, but the story takes a patient approach to this. She’s not instantly in love with Wesley nor is she quickly drawn into his world be being the main subject of the dangers he seeks to fight. Instead, she is another fringe member of the New York socialite circles Dobbs himself occupies, and their interests begin to align this way.
By the time they do get together and she ultimately does become involved with his crimefighting pursuits, it all feels earned and organic. The story has bided its time and let things unfold naturally, rather than rushing it and pushing the reader to make assumptions about things that happen off page. This stands in stark contrast to today’s frequently-abbreviated comic storytelling trajectories, especially within stories of crimefighting and superheroism. Dian is also given just as much if not more agency than Dobbs via her own strong sense of what is right or wrong. She’s not drawn to him because he’s so tough and powerful, but rather because the two find that they share a different way of viewing the world than many of those around them…and there’s real romance in that.
I could go on writing about this comic. So many of the supporting characters in this story are rich and well-realized. In summation, I found this to be a wonderful quarantine read. The creative team has gone hard with an intense focus on attention to detail that makes all of these stories feel real, even those that get dark and grotesque (which are most of them). At the same time, the moral concerns of the main characters — both Welsey and Dian — are thoroughly in line with those of many of us in 2020, making this story a rewarding one to ponder as we don our own masks to move about a dangerous and unpredictable world.
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