|Sandman Mystery Theatre vol. 5:
Dr. Death and The Night of the Butcher
By Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle,
Guy Davis & Vince Locke
Vertigo Comics – softcover, $19.99
I’ve been devouring these lately. I missed this series when it originally came out in the ‘90s, so it’s been a thrill to discover it in the recent collections. If superheroes are going to make up half of the comics out there, then one of them needs to be a street-level period piece full of realistic violence, frank sexuality, and convincing character relationships, which is exactly what cowriters Matt Wagner and Steven T. Seagle deliver.
Sandman Mystery Theatre follows the original Sandman, Wesley Dodds, who is compelled to fight crime with a gas mask and sleep gas by horrible dreams of human suffering. However, in an inspired move, the series is usually narrated not by Wesley, but by Dian Belmont, the daughter of the district attorney, who is romantically interested in Wesley, but suspects something is weird about him.
The character of Dian is a strong and compelling counterpoint to Wesley’s Sandman. She doesn’t understand what Wesley does, but can hardly complain, as she seems equally unable to hold back from insinuating herself into police investigations. It’s refreshing to see a love interest who is not the typical superhero’s girlfriend in need of constant rescuing and with relatively little agency within the narrative. Giving Dian the bulk of the narration and an active role in each investigation makes Sandman Mystery Theatre just as much her story as it is Wesley’s. Wesley himself is interesting, a meeker Bruce Wayne (rich, double life, etc.) driven by the need to quiet his inexplicable visions rather than a taste for vengeance. When the two are together, Dian is by far the more forceful personality.
Volume five collects eight issues worth of the series, #21-28. It has often seemed arbitrary whether the collections include one four-issue story arc or two, so I was glad that the two arcs in this volume were packaged together, since they really comprise one story. Volume four ended with Dian’s suspicions that Wesley is the Sandman, and the two mysteries in this volume serve as backdrop to her further investigation and the complex interplay of emotions as the two decide how either of them should react. Throughout the series, Dian and Wesley’s drawn-out courtship has actually been the driving narrative, connecting one story to the next, as the mysteries are largely self-contained.
In fact, despite the title, the “mysteries” aren’t usually mysteries at all, a formula that puzzled me for awhile. Generally, one new substantial character is introduced in each story, someone who behaves suspiciously in such a way as to draw connections to the MO of this episode’s killer. While we don’t usually see them kill anybody until the final act, their identity is transparent and Wesley is often on to them from the start. This volume confirms that traditional mysteries, with clues that readers might follow in an attempt to figure everything out faster than the detective, simply aren’t the point. Rather, Sandman Mystery Theatre is a long-form drama, examining why Wesley has to do what he does, what lengths he’ll go to, and whether he needs or can even have a normal life alongside his nightly outings. Tracking down killers is simply exciting window-dressing.
By this volume, the series has abandoned the use of rotating artists and settled on Guy Davis, who also illustrated another detective series, Baker Street. His art is the perfect fit with a pulpy period feel, thin lines and impressionistic shadows that lend a wonderful atmosphere. Vince Locke (A History of Violence) fills in over Davis’ layouts on the first of the two stories, and keeps the look seamlessly consistent (I doubt I’d have noticed without the credit). Unfortunately, the reproduction is all over the place and sometimes just isn’t very good, with a few chapters looking like they were scanned from the printed issues and printed again without any cleanup, leaving paler colors, pixilation, and halos around lines and letters. It’s a shame with the beautiful artwork and is occasionally distracting, but not enough to entirely break the mood.
Overall, I fear that I’ve simply gushed about the series more than given effective analysis, but I really enjoy Sandman Mystery Theatre. It has a unique tone and maturity among superhero comics, a genre that more and more frequently aims at adults but usually misses the mark. The mysteries, though not terribly mysterious, are twisted enough to entertain and unsettle, and the ongoing soap opera keeps me coming back for more. Bring on volume six.