Ever wanted to read a comic but didn't know where to start? Interested in superheroes, manga, romance, webcomics and more? Look no further! We have all the recommendations you'll ever need.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula

written by Matt Wagner
art by Guy Davis
colours by David Hornung
Publisher: Vertigo

What's It About?
In the decadent world of New York's post-Depression high society a sinister figure stalks the night glad in a trench coat and a gas mask. He is Wesley Dodds whose haunting prophetic dreams have led him to become the vigilante known as the Sandman. The Sandman is about to find himself on he trail of a murderer called the Tarantula, a trail that will lead him into the path of one Dian Belmont, a meeting that will change both their lives forever...

What's Good About It?
Most superhero comics take place in an ever-changing “now”. Spider-Man was first introduced as a sixteen year old in the early 1960s, nearly five decades later the character has aged perhaps ten or twelve years. Sandman Mystery Theatre by contrast is a historically set superhero series. Wesley Dodds fights crime in New York in the years before America joined the Second World War and the period atmosphere is palpable. Wagner and Davis present a marvellously evocative world of jazz clubs, organised crime and art deco furnishings.

One of the reasons Vertigo chose the Wesley Dodds Sandman for revival was his sidekick. In 1941 Dian Belmont was an anomaly: a girlfriend character who was treated as the hero's equal and what's more knew Wesley's secret identity. Sadly, in the original comics she did not last long. In Mystery Theatre, however, Wagner gives her even more agency using her as the point of view character for much of this first volume. We not only see the introduction of the Sandman through her eyes but its by her experiences that we are introduced to the world of post-Depression Manhattan. Throughout the series Dian is an equal partner in the narrative but in this first volume her point of view she is dominant. Coincidentally, this series is not a rewrite but rather a reboot of the 1940s Sandman, these are all-new stories written entirely by the modern creators.

The Sandman is also rather atypical for a superhero in that he has no real superpowers. Whilst he does suffer from painful prophetic dreams his crime-fighting persona's “power” to render people unconscious is based entirely on a supply of knockout gas. He isn't even immune to the gas, he has to wear a gas mask so as not to fall asleep himself. He isn't strictly speaking a superhero at all, he's a pulp adventure hero which was what most superheroes were in the 1940s before science-fiction came to dominate the genre.

The story is also genuinely well-written although I would like to make it clear that it is not, strictly speaking, detective fiction. The book doesn't use the join-the-dots-if-you-can method but rather follows the rules of adventure fiction, more in the nature of Arthur Conan Doyle than Agatha Christie.

What's Bad About It?
The book contains varying degrees of historical racism and it isn't necessarily used, as one might expect, to signpost a bad or morally corrupt character. One character notes that he “Had a sister once. But she married a n*gger.” (censorship mine, you get the full word in the book) whilst others show more subconscious racism, but each approach is consistent with the period setting. It is utterly distasteful but it must be said that it would be stranger not to see it included, especially with the other unwholesome aspects of society that are already on show in the book.

Published by Vertigo, the mature readers' imprint of DC Comics, Sandman Mystery Theatre wasn't subject to any of the censorship guidelines that governed what could be published in comics form at the time. As such be prepared for the fact that when a character in this series is evil they can be utterly evil. Bodies are found not merely killed but mutilated, there are aspects of psychological horror to the series and one gangster has a particularly unwholesome relationship with his (thankfully fully-grown) daughter. Whilst Guy Davis' art style robs the art of much of the visceral horror it might otherwise carry it remains a story set in a horrific world.

What's the Art Like?
Guy Davis draws in a most unusual style, more impressionistic than is usually seen in American superhero comics. His lines are wobbly, at times it seems more like reading a series of concept sketches than finished artwork. It can sometimes be a bugger on likenesses and there's more than one pair of disturbingly uneven eyes but the characters are so strongly written that genuine confusion about a person's identity is quite rare.

What Davis' style is absolutely brilliant for, however, is atmosphere. As you can see from the example above Davis likes to sketch in tiny details: the shadow under a chin, the lines in faces, the folds in Dian's dress and little patches and cross-lines that differentiate books on the shelves. That is a well-lit and crowded room, where Davis really brings the power of his art to bear is when the story ventures out into the shadows:

This scan also acts as something of a warning to prospective readers. This is a pretty typical example of the level of physical horror used throughout the book. Davis and his colourist David Hornung work together to create a dark, close atmosphere in the alleyway. Notice that the only brightly coloured elements on this entire page are the woman's hair, her blood and the green that makes the letters of the scream jump into the reader's attention.

Other Information
It should be noted that whilst it comes from the same company ,Sandman Mystery Theatre is not part of or a sequel to Neil Gaiman's more famous series The Sandman. The two characters are tangentially related but knowledge of one is not necessary to understand the stories of the other.

Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula (ISBN 1-56389-195-6) retails at £9.99 and is available from Amazon [here]. It is the first of an eight volume series, each volume collecting one or two story arcs. The reader order is as follows:

The Tarantula
The Face and the Brute
The Vamp
The Scorpion
Dr. Death and the Night of the Butcher
The Hourman and the Python
The Mist and the Phantom of the Fair
The Blackhawk and the Return of the Scarlet Ghost

A ninth volume unrelated to the ongoing story of Wesley and Dian, Sleep Of Reason, was an attempt to move the series into a more modern setting with a new character taking on the Sandman role. It has not since been followed up on.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I'm so glad I found this article and blog. I just started reading comics again and while I'm still delving into the beautiful and the beloved world of Batman, I wanted to look for something different, unique, but nothing to flashy, cheesy, and still keeping with the dark vigilante/detective theme that I admire so much with Batman. After I read Batman and the Monster Men, I wanted to learn more about Matt Wagner, and I discovered this and I was in awe of this protagonist with an awesome and distinct look. So, I began reading this series from the beginning and I am truly impressed so far. I have not finished this arc, as I have one issue to go, but I am pleasantly surprised with this series I have never even heard about. I recommend to all others.

    Great post.