October 27, 2004

Sandman Mystery Theater

I had read the news last night on Yet Another Comics Blog - there would actually be a volume 2 trade paperback of Sandman Mystery Theater, to follow the initial volume 1 which came out (seemingly) ages ago.

Sandman Mystery Theater came out around the same time as James Robinson's Starman (in fact, the two characters had a crossover), and was soon followed by Matt Wagner's take on Dr. Mid-Nite. Of course, this book took the original character of the Golden Age Sandman and simultaneously tweaked it, adding the Neil Gaiman mythos and stripping it to its pulp roots. In the Sandman's world, there were no other costumed heroes (one of the few benefits of DC's rebooting was that, in the "new" history, Sandman was the one who started it all), and the Sandman moved in a world that seemed written in collaboration between Lewis Carroll and Raymond Chandler - a world where dreams, corruption, and moral decay all intermixed, and where the boundary between dreams and reality often blurred.

Each story arc began with a black-and-white dream sequence (after all, Wesley Dodds has an aspect of the Dreaming inside of him, and actually met his supernatural counterpart), and then went into great, 1930's-era tales, either re-telling stories for the first time (The Tarantula, the Crimson Avenger/World's Fair Encounter), creating new stories, or even great spins on classic Golden Age characters. For example, the "Man of the Hour" arc introduced Hourman, but without the classic hood-and-cape costume; here, he was a pulp-style troubleshooter with Miraclo. In "The Mist", we met Ted Knight (the first Starman) and the Mist for the first time, but without the usual trappings or cliches. It was as if a straight line was drawn between Doc Savage, the Shadow, straight through the Sandman.

This was also one of the first books that provided a sense of history and context to the DC Universe. At a time where teams with long histories can be "reintroduced" for the first time at the whim of editors and creators, this was one of the few books (along with James Robinson's Starman) that showed a genuine respect for the characters and history - that treated continuity not as a restriction on creativity, but as a springboard from which greater, stronger stories could be told. In fact, SMT played with continuity, introducing a pudgy, bespectacled Wesley Dodds in the infamous purple-and-gold suit, had a "comic" version in their annual (within the context of a pulp writer's murder), with a knowing wink that said, "We care about these characters, and we know you do too."

Another refreshing aspect of this series - the characterizations. Wesley Dodds wasn't a handsome man about town, but a pudgy, bespectacled intellectual. His relationship with Dian Belmont grows throughout the series, and it is one of the most honest, adult portrayals of male/female relationships ever presented in comics. We see both of them struggle with their growing attraction to each other, and in atypical comics form, not only does Dian figure out Wes' double life, but she becomes an active partner in his life. Some comic writers dealing with, say, arachnid-based powers could learn a lesson or two from this series.

Unfortunately, the series did end abruptly in the middle of an arc, and is not one of the more "popular" DC series. It should only be right that, instead of 2 volumes, the entire series is republished, much like James Robinson's Starman.

This comic is a near-masterpiece, and deserves greater attention. Please don't deny yourself the chance to experience a true hidden gem...at least, until some comics creator decides that he or she can do better.

1 comment:

Dorian said...

I loved SMT, and plan on pushing these new volumes (they reprinted Vol. 1, which had slipped out of print) as much as I can. I'd buy them myself, but I think I'm only missing the last couple of issues. I'm strongly tempted to go and re-read my copies now.