The Sandman Mystery Theatre Book One by Matt Wagner
The Sandman Mystery Theatre is a near-perfect noir comic book series written in the 1990s by Matt Wagner, though the stories are set in the late 1930s. In some ways, Wagner is making a return to the older, original Sandman character created in 1939 (who also went by the name of Wesley Dodds), but the Sandman has had various incarnations since then, including Kirby’s in the 1970s. And of course, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is the most famous of them all, but he simply took the name and completely reinvented the character as an immortal entity, also known as Morpheus and Dream. Wagner takes us back to the physical world, grounds us in reality, and writes the most subdued, somber, and plain Sandman ever to appear in comic books, and this approach is the genius behind The Sandman Mystery Theatre.
Wagner is no stranger to pulp stories: His most famous creation Grendel is an evil criminal mastermind based on pulp models, and some of the writer’s best work is his telling origin stories of The Shadow, The Spirit, Green Hornet, and the Lone Ranger, not to mention stories set in the early years of Batman’s crime-fighting days. All of these are well liked by readers and critics, and The Sandman Mystery Theatre is of equally high quality.
Like Bruce Wayne and The Shadow (on whom Batman is partly/primarily based), the Sandman is a rich young man who lives in the city, fights crime at night, and has no superpowers. However, unlike Bruce Wayne, Wesley Dodds does not pretend to be a playboy or a drinker. He is a serious businessman who wears glasses and frequently socializes with the powerful in the city, most of whom are not corrupt. He is also slightly out of shape, and he is not strong enough to beat all of his opponents in a physical battle. Instead, he uses misdirection, darkness, and a gas-gun that seems to have two different settings: one setting releases a gas that puts people to sleep immediately, and the other setting seems to release a gas that leads people to tell the truth before falling asleep. For protection from his own weapon, the Sandman wears his best known visual gear: A gas mask.
Wesley Dodds, though somber and plain, is still interesting and complex: He is an intelligent man so haunted by nightmares he cannot sleep. Neither his daytime clothing nor his nighttime attire show a tendency toward flare and color. He does not seem to be a man who laughs much or is extravagant or playful, though he is not one to scowl and get angry like Bruce Wayne. In fact, his door is always open to his friends, who frequently come to him for advice, and Dodds is a kind man to all those around him while is out on the town. The Sandman is meditative, frequently leaving poems behind for the police detective, Burke, of whom he is always one step ahead. Dodds, like Batman and the Shadow, spent much time in the East, but instead of learning special fighting techniques (Batman) and mystical powers of the mind (The Shadow), his primary skill picked up during this time is origami, and he leaves his notes as origami figures, which seems to frustrate the police detective even more.
What sets this comic book on an even higher level is Dian Belmont, a much better “sidekick” than we usually get, because she is not a sidekick at all. She is an intelligent, mature woman who is just as able to solve crimes as is Dodds, though she is new to this game. She also doesn’t need constant rescuing and is as likely to save Dodds as he is to save her. She fights openly against her father’s attempts to treat her like a little child who needs watching and protection, and she reacts vocally to the racism, sexism, and homophobia of those around her.
This story is as much hers as it is the Sandman’s, and we see her change in this first collection: At the beginning of this book, she is always drinking late at night and sleeping late into the day. Her sleeping is at odds with Dodd’s tortuous insomnia. But as we get into the series, she slowly “wakes up” and becomes more serious, and her path crosses that of Wesley’s with more and more frequency. These twelve issues lead up to her discovery of his identity and their deciding to work together. The rest of the series is the story of this teamwork, and they are one of the best couple crime-fighters since Hammett’s Thin Man.
The style of writing and the themes are of the highest of quality. Wagner often allows us to simply listen to the Sandman’s melancholy meditations, but they never slow down the plot too much. And thematically, his meditations connect with the focus of each of the three story arcs in this twelve-issue collection.* “Tarantuala” deals with murder, rape, incest, alcoholism, and inheritance. “The Face” deals in a complex way with racism, and part of that complexity includes Dian’s dating a Chinese-American man, which shocks her friends and horrifies her father, who is the District Attorney. The final story arc in this collection, “The Brute,” deals with the sufferings of children at the hands of society and their parents.
I am a little worried that my review might make you not want to read this book, since I’ve mentioned that it is about a serious man who deals with the darkest sides of humanity. And it’s true that if you want to avoid reading about these topics, you shouldn’t read this series; however, if you are a reader of noir, you will be on familiar ground, and Wagner deals with these concerns with such nuance that I can recommend him with the best crime writers you have ever read or of whom you have ever heard: Simply put, Matt Wagner is one of the greatest living crime writers, and along with other contemporary noir comic book writers such as Brubaker, Rucka, Azzarello, and Lapham, he should be placed alongside Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald, Block, and Parker. In terms of themes, perhaps he fits best with darker noir greats: Cain, Goodis, and Thompson.
I think these comparisons are about the highest praise I can give to a crime comic book, though I will take half a star off for two reasons: First, the series gets even better after the initial twelve issues, and second, these first three story arcs feature three different artists. This contrast detracts a slight bit in my opinion. If you are a fan of noir, The Sandman Mystery Theatre is a must-read. I’ve never encountered any other crime novel, crime comic book, or crime movie quite like it. It is in a class of its own.
*This review is of the 2016 Vertigo Book One collection of issues 1-12. There have been earlier collections that include usually anywhere from four to six issues only.