Review: Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Face and The Brute trade paperback (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Before Y: The Last Man or Fables, but naturally after Sandman, one Vertigo series that really caught my attention was Sandman Mystery Theatre. I have to use the phrase "really caught my attention" loosely because, in truth, for a long time I'd only read Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula and the Sandman/Mystery Theatre crossover Sandman Midnight Theatre. The wonder of trade paperbacks, however, has recently brought us a number of new Sandman Mystery Theatre collections, and so I've picked up the series again with The Face and The Brute.

Unfortunately, I'll say right off that I didn't like The Face and The Brute near as much as The Tarantula. The difficulty is quite specifically in the art; whereas in Tarantula Guy Davis's drew clean, distict, moody lines that perfectly set the 1930s tone of the series, in Face and the Brute, artists John Watkiss and R. G. Taylor each bring more abstract, shadowy scenes to the work. While these styles work for the scare-factor, they render the minor characters nearly indistinguishable from one another. Sandman Mystery Theatre is a blast as a whodunit, but this joy is lost when one can neither tell one member of the Tong Society from the other in the first story, nor Arthur Reisling from his henchmen in the second.

Still, in and of itself, Sandman Mystery Theatre remains something of a wonder among mature superhero comics. It is indeed a superhero comic -- a man in a costume patrols the city and saves lives -- and is even perhaps more a superhero comic than what you'd traditionally find from Vertigo. It's additionally a mystery superhero comic, and I'm hard-pressed to think of another DC Comics that's so specifically ground in both mystery and superheroics, outside the occasional Batman comic. It's a revisionist comic of the type we see more and more now (Identity Crisis, Batman RIP) where old DC Comics stories are reintegrated into continuity, something seen far less when the original Sandman Mystery Theatre isssues first came out. And we can't underestimate the place Sandman Mystery Theatre had in connection to Starman, JSA, and indeed the modern Justice Society and Golden Age revival.

I was struck at the end of Face and The Brute by how little we still know about the protagonist, the Sandman Wesley Dodds. Perhaps because the tropes here are so familiar (mysterious billionare becomes superhero by night), writer Matt Wagner wastes little time delving into the hows and wherefores of Wesley's transformation to the Sandman; indeed the Sandman is nearly a specter in these stories, appearing from the shadows simply to knock the story in this or that direction, his plans intuited mainly by reading between the lines of Wesley's dialogue.

Wesley Dodds himself also remains mostly vague, likely by Wagner's intention. The dim sense we get of Wesley's predilections -- for hand-to-hand combat, for example -- hold only small grains of truth in favor of Wesley's quest to stop the villain du jour. Wesley vertiably (it must be said) sleeps through much of this collection, despite that he appears as the Sandman, only coming to life when he realizes that his slowness to action nearly had dire consequences for his burgeoning love interest/partner Dian Belmont (it is Dian's eyes, in truth, through whom we really see most of the story). It's only at this point that Wesley reveals his feelings for Dian and steps more fully into the story; I imagine it's in the next trade where Wesley Dodds finally more fully comes in to the light.

Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Face and The Brute is in my estimation not the high point of the series; it is, however, a relatively enjoyable next chapter of Sandman Mystery Theatre, enough to make it fairly likely I'll pick up the next volume before too long.

[Contains full covers.]

On now to finish out the all-new Atom, and we'll see where we go from there.
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4 comments:

  1. You're right, CE, to point out the way in which Wagner glosses over Wesley Dodds, even as he reinvents the character. Throughout the first-half of the series I've read, it's almost an admission that Sandman is much like many other "mystery-men" type heroes, and accordingly more time is devoted to the settings and the "secondary" characters. A great series.

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  2. You can reassure yourself somewhat in that Guy Davis takes over the art (or is that just pencilling) chores regularly later in the series.

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  3. Guy Davis returning is good to know. Is the next volume of Sandman Mystery Theatre worth the read?

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  4. The Vamp is the next arc and it is one of my favorites. Guy Davis resumes the art chores and stays with the series up till at least the seventh book coming out this year (it has a story with the Mist).

    Cheers,
    Bob

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