AUGUST MURDERS –
SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATER
Welcome to The Mustache and The Beard’s AUGUST MURDERS. Now you may ask, what exactly is AUGUST MURDERS? It’s all right, go ahead and ask, I’ll wait.
I’m glad you asked. AUGUST MURDERS is where your two favorite gray geeks are going to spend a month looking at and enjoying murder mysteries. Ooooooooo!!! All is fair game – TV shows, movies, comic books, books, we’re going to take a look at them all starting right now. So grab your Inverness cape, put on your deerstalker hat, check your Webley revolver, and don’t forget your Calabash pipe because starting right now the game is afoot!
To kick off our AUGUST MURDERS I’m going to start with a comic book series near and dear to me. SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE is an American comic book series published by DC Comics under their mature-readers imprint known as Vertigo. Between 1993 and 1999 it ran for 70 issues and one annual. Writers were Matt Wagner and Steven T. Seagle. Artwork was by Guy Davis, John Watkiss, R.G. Taylor, Vince Locke, and Warren Pleece.
Being both pulp-hero and film-noir the comic book is set in 1938 and retells the adventures of The Sandman (Wesley Dodds). Like Batman, he is a super-hero who relies on his detective skills and inventions the greatest of which is his gas gun that he uses to put people to sleep – hence his action name The Sandman.
However, unlike Batman, The Sandman does have a super-power of sorts. When he sleeps he has dreams about whatever case he is working on. The dreams are highly symbolic, often grotesque, and nightmarish but they do provide subtle clues to what is going on – if Wesley can refrain from having a heartache while dreaming. The irony is that The Sandman who puts others to sleep can’t stand sleeping himself.
The supporting cast includes Dian Belmont – the daughter of the District Attorney – and Dodd’s butler Humphries – who in this first story arc is the only one who knows he is The Sandman. Later Dian finds out and then she and Wesley become the Nick and Nora Charles of the comic book set.
The stories told within SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATER are done in multiple issue story arcs. Usually in four acts. That was certainly the case in the first four issues entitled THE TARANTULA!
SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATER – THE TARANTULA – ACT 1
“. . . he withdrew a strange and deadly weapon and fired straight at me . . .”
Nights in a big city are often strange but now they have gotten even stranger. For one thing there is a guy wearing a gas mask and carrying a gas gun putting people to sleep including the district attorney. And if that is not enough there is another guy called the Tarantula who is going around kidnaping young society girls and holding them for ransom. When these two opposing forces meet it ain’t going to be pretty.
SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATER – THE TARANTULA – ACT 2
“. . . his terrible wet eyes stared out of the mask, reflecting the spatters of blood . . .”
The Tarantula strikes again! After he abducted Catherine Van De Meer and held her a prisoner he kidnaps another girl. But what he does is torture this girl in front of Catherine to scare her into talking. The Tarantula, and the veiled women pulling his strings, knows Catherine has a gangster boyfriend and they want to know what he revealed during pillow talk. Not good for Catherine because her boyfriend didn’t say anything.
SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATER – THE TARANTULA – ACT 3
“. . . murmuring cold, heartless flirtations, she wet her lips . . . daring him to ever say no.”
The deeper The Sandman digs into the mystery the more entangled he becomes. It doesn’t help that Dian Belmont is also digging and Wesley Dodds’ growing feelings for her only makes things worse. Gangster Albert Goodman – and his family- is somehow tied up in all this and then his daughter Cecilia is kidnaped by the Tarantula.
SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATER – THE TARANTULA – ACT 4
“Behind the keening laughter, her eyes stank with the years of hatred and shame . . .”
I am not giving anything away by saying at the end of the story all mysteries are solved, the bad guys pay for their crimes, and The Sandman has made America safe for mom and apple pie.
Please don’t let my being flip fool you. I love these four issues and during this comic’s run in the 1990s it was my favorite comic book. However, as much as I love it this story is not perfect. So let’s take a look at what’s wrong with it before talking about what’s right.
Guy Davis’ completely different style of artwork is difficult to take – especially in the beginning. I can see a lot of comic book fans not appreciating what he achieved. Characters do not look heroic. In fact, they don’t look very attractive either. Supposedly beautiful women do not look beautiful. Handsome men are not handsome. Everything seems strange – I don’t know any other way to put it. It isn’t that Guy Davis doesn’t know what he is doing he did this on purpose and it does give the book its own unique look. It just left me unsettled and I never got completely used to it.
The coloring is off in some issues. This is a problem that occurs throughout the run of this comic book. When we first see Mrs. Goodman I thought she was an albino. Then the next issue her normal colored husband Albert has become an albino as well. I didn’t know it was contagious. Already having trouble with the art adding this mismatched coloring distracted from the story telling and thru off the pacing. Not good at all.
This first story arc for SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATER was in four acts. Subsequent stories in the series are told in four or five issue story arcs. While I personally don’t have a problem with this some folks found it difficult to understand what is happening if they came on in the second or third act after the story has started. Unlike other comics with continued stories no effort is made in this series to bring the reader up to date in case he or she missed the last issue. While it works in terms of pacing I can’t see this being good for sales. Maybe that is why this comic was eventually canceled.
Now let’s take a look at what is right about these four issues. I love the setting – 1938. I am a sucker for stories set in the 1930s. Indiana Jones, The Shadow, Doc Savage, I cannot get enough. I love the cars, I love the clothing, and I love the snappy patter. This story delivers all that in spades.
I love the more mature story themes. Yeah, The Sandman is supposed to be a super-hero – but he ain’t your grandpa’s super-hero and neither is this story. In the four issues of this comic we have graphic torture, dismemberment, sex, violence, and incest. Now I personally enjoyed the more mature themes but a funny thing happened. I tried to imagine Batman in this story and I couldn’t. He and his costume would have made it seem childish. That’s a heck of a thing to say about Batman.
I love Dian Belmont’s totally liberated character and how she puts it together at the end. Let’s face it, the story is set in 1938 and you expect her to be eye candy and a damsel in distress. That is not what we get. Instead we’re given an exceptional young lady who gets caught up in an extraordinary situation and rises to the occasion. Now it is obvious that Dian Belmont is to The Sandman as Lois Lane is to Superman. But while Lois Lane is annoying Dian is not and we find ourselves rooting for her as she and Wesley Dodds seem to get closer and closer.
I like that Wesley Dodds does not look the traditional pulp hero. Let me explain. The Sandman is every inch a pulp hero and looks it. However, Wesley Dodds is not your traditional leading man. He is not a handsome rich playboy like Bruce Wayne. Don’t get me wrong he is rich but he wears glasses and looks like your nerdy cousin who can’t get a date. While other heroes act like a nerd Wesley really is a nerd. He gives me hope.
I love the preference of story over action. Again let me explain. There is plenty of action. There are car chases, and fistfights, and attacking guard dogs galore. But the emphasis is more on story and less on flash bang. We’ve got the mystery – who is the killer known as the Tarantula? We’ve got a wide assortment of possibilities and supporting characters. We’ve got dropped hints and clues. And in the middle of it all we have characters being presented as real three-dimensional people whom we slowly get to know and like. The action is there but the story comes first.
A recurring theme in this story is about fathers. We’re shown in detail Dian Belmont’s relationship with her father the district attorney and it isn’t always nice. Wesley Dodds talks about his dead father all the time and how he affected his life. And of course the kidnaped girl Cecilia has an incestuous relationship with her father while it appears her brother would like to kill him. It makes me wonder if writer Matt Wagner wasn’t making a statement about fatherhood by calling this story “The Tarantula.”
I like this initial four-issue run entitled “The Tarantula.” I like the SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATER comic book series as a whole. And I really like The Sandman and Dian Belmont. I recommend you check this out you will not be disappointed. On our rating scale I give these four issues three and a half gray geeks.
That is it for now. I thank you for allowing me to take up so much of your time. I wish all of you to be safe and in these trying times put on your mask, wear your gloves, and be the super-hero you have always known your are!