Happy Comics Release Day!
We’re later than usual because the Labor Day holiday pushed comics distribution back a day, at least in the states.
With the school year finally in full swing, I wanted to focus this week on a book completely for adults: Sandman Mystery Theatre. Published from 1993-1999, SMT was a Vertigo book that took the adult label seriously, dealing with sex and violence in a sometimes graphic, but never sensational or cheap, manner.
The series is loosely connected with Neil Gaiman’s landmark Sandman stories but it owes more to the pulp and noir roots of comics than it does to Gaiman’s series.
Wesley Dodds is a rich but lonely man haunted by dreams. He lives in 1930s New York City, a community full of the best and worst of the human condition. His dreams curse him with the ability to see future events. Unable to let injustice take place when he can stop it, Wesley invents a gun that fires sleeping gas, dons a gas mask, and investigates crimes as the Sandman. Call it superhero noir.
Dian Belmont is the daughter of New York’s District Attorney who refuses to be pigeon-holed in any traditional female roles. She’s restless and seeking a cause for her life. Through her contact with Wesley, her father, and his police officers, she becomes drawn into their world, eventually becoming Wesley’s partner and lover.
The plot arcs alternate the reader’s point of view between Wesley and Dian, giving us both perspectives on New York . Their rocky relationship, as each struggle to be their own person amid society’s rules and the crimes which neither can ignore, anchors the series. I hesitate to call the book romantic, given it’s sometimes bleak tone, but their relationship is one of the most realistic and well-written in all of comics.
What Kids Will Like About It:
Don’t give this to kids. It’s mature in every sense of the word. If this series were a movies, it would rate at least as an R, probably closer to an X and not because it’s about sex and violence but because it deals explicitly and graphically with both.
What Parents Will Like About It:
Like series such as Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and Rome, SMT is an adult exploration of both the good and the depraved of humankind. Unlike those series, our two leads are heroes. Wesley struggles not to lose his sense of honor among horrific choices and Dian struggles with realizing that the world she’s been presented with since a child is not really the world that exists out there.
Wesley fights serial killers and child abusers, not always as successfully as he wishes. Ominously hovering over their city is the threat of world war, as Hitler begins his conquest of Europe. Yet the future also promises change for the better that Wesley can see in his dreams.
Unlike most artwork in superhero comics, the artists on SMT adopt a very realistic style. I’ve even heard people call Guy Davis’ artwork ugly. That’s not the case, it’s very detailed and skilled and perfect for noir but there are no idealized bodies in this book. Wesley is drawn as shorter and more rotund and Dian, while lovely, has a normal-looking body and face. It did take me some time to stop expecting art similar to Neal Adams or George Perez, but once I made the adjustment, I can’t picture the characters any other way. It perfectly fits the tone of the series.
Wesley proposes to Dian in the final issue but it’s not marriage that he’s asking for, it’s full partnership.
About the Creators:
Matt Wagner has had a long and successful career in comics and his probably best-known for his independent creation, Grendel. He’s also the writer of one of my favorite Batman stories, Batman & the Monster Men and Batman & the Mad Monk. Steven T. Seagle, who wrote some of the later SMT stories, works with the studio that created the popular Ben 10 cartoon. Guy Davis broke into comics writing Baker Street, featuring an alternate history Sherlock Holmes.
At least half of the series is collected in trade, up to issue #52. Hopefully, DC will soon have the entire series available, as the final issue, #70, shouldn’t be missed.
Dream and Wesley Dodds both appear in Sandman Midnight Theatre, a one-shot co-written by Wagner and Gaiman.
Wesley and Dian guest-star in one of my favorite Starman trades, A Wicked Inclination. They’re much older but still the same in many ways. I picked up this trade just for my Sandman fix and also became hooked on Starman as a result.