GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

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Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes
is reviewed here


Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Blackhawk and The Return of the Scarlet Ghost 2010 (SC TPB) 224 pgs.

cover Written by Matt Wagner & Steve T. Seagle. Illustrated by Matthew Smith, Guy Davis, with Daniel Torres. Inked by Richard Case, Guy Davis.
Colours: David Hornung. Letters: John Costanza. Editor Karen Berger.

Reprinting: Sandman Mystery Theatre #45-52 (1996-1997), with covers

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for Mature Readers

Reviewed: Aug. 2010

Published by DC Comics/Vertigo

The Sandman Mystery Theatre revived the old gas mask wearing, trench-coated crime fighter (prior to his spandex incarnation), telling period 1930s stories, but with a gritty "mature readers" twist of profanity and violence, and with the newly added power of prophetic dreams. He's a character not to be confused with Neil Gaiman's more high profile Sandman also from DC/Vertigo. For many years, the only Sandman Mystery Theatre TPB was The Tarantula (reviewed below). But long after the series had ended, DC/Vertigo began releasing the entire series in sequential TPB collections. Though why some TPBs feature just a single story arc and some pair two arcs together, I'm not sure.

I had read the Tarantula quite a while back...and hadn't liked it. But with a lingering fondness for the concept, I decided to try the series again. But this two story collection does little to change my opinion.

The first arc is called "The Blackhawk", in which a pilot and would be Polish resistance fighter, Janos Prohaska, is trying to drum up funds for anti-Nazi activities back in Poland. He approaches a collective of New York business leaders, including Wesley Dodds a.k.a. The Sandman. But when a woman with whom Janos had a fling is murdered, and Janos viewed as the chief suspect, the Sandman suspects someone is trying to sabotage Janos' fundraising efforts.

On one hand it's not nearly as sordidly, gratuitously violent as The Tarantula (perhaps atypically so). But I stick by my earlier assessment of Wagner (co-scripting with Steven T. Seagle, who wrote a revived Alpha Flight series I liked), that for all this being an "acclaimed reinvention of the pulp detective genre" (we know that, 'cause it says so on the back, and DC/Vertigo wouldn't lie, right?), Wagner writes very poor mysteries.

There even seems to be some technical problems, as we have an opening murder...but later characters refer to a series of murders, with no explanation (that I recall) for who what or when. Presumably after the pages were drawn and the script handed in, someone suggested the story might make more sense if there was a pattern of killings, so they simply pluralized a few words here and there without bothering to re-do the pages!

A lot depends on what you desire/expect in a mystery. So if you're looking for twists, turns, clues, viable suspects, and logical progression...well, this isn't for you.

The story is full of dubious sequences. Like the Sandman, suspecting someone is deliberately framing Janos, so he stakes out another love tryst of Janos'...then follows Janos when he leaves when, um, surely by his own theory, it's the woman he should be keeping an eye on! Then when a possible killer is caught by Janos and the Sandman, theoretically going a long way to vindicating Janos...the Sandman tells Janos to flee the scene of the altercation -- not surprisingly making Janos seem more guilty, not less. There's a part of me that wonders if the series was intended as part of the whole post-Watchmen deconstruction of the super hero mystique, and that the Sandman is supposed to be the most ineffective crime fighter in comics. Meanwhile, police detective, Lt. Burke, knew the dead woman (whether it's from an earlier story, I dunno) so he begins a blind vendetta against Janos. This is presumably so we don't have to ask if the case against Janos really makes any sense.

There is some action, some trailing people and the occasional fight, but very little that adds to our well of information or allows us to untangle a mystery. A major flaw with these stories is the rigid 4 Act format, which requires taking minor plots that might justify an issue or two and stretching them beyond their value. It's all pretty simple, straightforward stuff. Motives are what you suspected, and the identity of the mastermind is hardly significant...because the suspects never became more than anonymous figures on the page anyway.

(VAGUE SPOILER: Actually, they try to make him the last guy we'd suspect...by the simple conceit of having the Sandman arbitrarily assure us the guy's not a suspect! END SPOILER)

Which is perhaps the further irony. I mean, another way a story like this can be viewed is if the mystery is merely a catalyst for characterization and exploring the human condition. But most of the characters remain ill-defined, and those that do have personalities -- Janos, Burke -- are pretty one note personalities that just get reiterated, as opposed to developed upon. Even Wesley and his lady love Dian are rather bland. The story is given a kind of pretentious sheen by having Dian narrate throughout, ruminating on life -- but her narration actually has no relation to the plot.

And speaking of anonymous characters, part of that can be laid at artist Matthew Smith. I picked up this collection partly to see someone other than the series' semi-regular artist Guy Davis' work on the property. Smith is evocative of Davis, including with a tendency to draw the characters as unglamourous, with Wesley a bit of Shlebb. But it's a less busy, less gritty style. Kind of like Davis married with Michael Lark. So there is some appeal. But he isn't very good at distinguishing the supporting players, which adds to my sense of anonymous suspects.

Despite its "mature readers" aspect, the Sandman is still supposed to function in the DC universe, and Janos is supposed to be the aviation comic book hero, Blackhawk -- before his heroic career began (modelled not after the classic version of the character, but a 1988 Howard Chaykin revamp which, as with all Chaykin characters, recast him as a womanizing hedonist). If you don't recognize Janos, it doesn't hurt the story at all -- indeed, it gives a different tone to the final scene. But if you do (as presumably you were supposed to), it robs a potential for mystery from this ostensible mystery -- which is, we know Janos himself isn't a potential suspect.

The second story arc is "The Return of the Scarlet Ghost" set, perhaps a bit cheekily, in the milieu of 1930 pulp magazine and comic book publishers (hence the pulpy title -- there is no Scarlet Ghost, returning or otherwise, in the story). And though there's more a return to the gratuitous sleaze and violence of the series, there may also be an attempt at humour -- yeah, I say attempt.

And once again, it's a paper thin plot, lacking twists or surprise revelations, which might've been an okay time killer for one issue. The pages are padded out with a trio of Irish thugs killing or otherwise intimidating a publishing house, while the Sandman carries on a half-hearted investigation, with few pieces of info really leading to the next. And because there is so little to the plot, it just exacerbates logic problems that you might forgive in a busier, more convoluted tale. What attracts the Sandman to the case is a murder that seems to mimic a story published in a pulp magazine. But by the end, it's not clear why the crime was modelled after the story, or even if (maybe it was just a coincidence). Or there's another scene where the villains seem to want it to look as though a hospitalized person died from injuries sustained in an explosion...so the assassin rampages through the hospital, killing nurses and the like, hardly making it seem like any resulting death would be blamed on an accident.

The villain's motive turns out to be pretty much the obvious one and where I wasn't really sure who he was or whether he was even on the Sandman's suspect list. Not that the Sandman really seems to have a suspect list.

And, once again (and I know I sound like a broken record), there's very little character development of the "guest star" cast. While the relationship between Wesley (the Sandman) and girlfriend Dian just seems repetitive, as we periodically cut to them flirting with each other, exchanging veiled sexual innuendos, while one or the other acts distracted. In fact, for a series -- by this point -- about four years old, there's been very little embellishment upon the relationships or the cast since issue #1. A sub-plot relating to Dian that's strung out through both story arcs is revealed by the end...many issues after the reader has already guessed it.

In order to give the story a sophisticated sheen, we are treated to a running monologue by Wesley (in a voice indistinguishable from Dian's monologue in the "Blackhawk" story) that seems a little like an attempt to add pretension...like spraying vitamins after the fact on junk food. It might have been better, and more interesting, to have incorporated it into the narrative (Wesley muses on his relationship with his father...but doesn't so much as allude to his father in the story itself). It feels a little like a movie's post production voice over, where the actor is called back to read a narration that wasn't even thought of when shooting the actual scenes.

Regular Sandman artist Guy Davis returns for this arc, and I seesaw back and forth on him. There is a definite style to his work, and it evokes the period milieu. But it's deliberately unglamourous, and isn't always that good at distinguishing characters (like with Smith on the Blackhawk tale), which combined with the nebulous characterization, can make some scenes a bit confusing. For the double-sized 50th issue, they incorporate a comic book within a comic book, with a brief tale, drawn by Daniel Torres, showing the comic book publisher's take on the Sandman, dressed in his spandex, super hero costume the character had in the 1940s. It's not much as a story in itself, yet with no relevance to the greater narrative, either. Though it does raise questions about continuity. In the Sandman's Golden Age appearances, he started out a trenchcoat wearing vigilante with a girlfriend, Dian...then, when costumed heroes became the rage, he was reinvented as a tights wearing hero with a boy sidekick, Sandy. So is this supposed to imply that phase never existed for the character, and Sandy was a purely fictional creation (as opposed to a ward he is fated to adopt a few years down the line)?

After spending years with less than favourable impressions of the Sandman Mystery Theatre thanks to The Tarantula, this subsequent go round doesn't do much to alter my initial criticisms. Fans can wax on about its sophistication, its edge...but I just don't see it. "Mysteries" that lack clues and unexpected revelations, a somewhat plodding pacing, and characters that rarely rise to the level of two-dimensional. Yeah, it's got four letter words, and grisly brutality, and a seedy undercurrent...but surely that's not enough to warrant "acclaim"?

Cover price: $__ CDN./$19.99 USA


Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula - cover by Dave McKean

Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula 1995 (SC TPB), 100 pgs.

Written by Matt Wagner. Art by Guy Davis.
Original colours: David Hornung. Letters: John Constanza. Editor: Karen Berger.

Reprinting: Sandman Mystery Theatre #1-4 (1993)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Recommended for Mature Readers

Published by DC Comics/Vertigo

Once again I find myself reconsidering my initial review after reading a book a second time. And, once again, I sort of, kind of, wonder if I was overly harsh in my initial assessment. Sort of. Why only "sort of"? Well, a lot of my initial criticism, frankly, is still very much valid. I just think I may have been a little too vitriolic.

That doesn't mean the first review is any less valid...after all, maybe my second reaction is just because, prepared for a certain mediocrity, I wasn't as affronted by it. As well, I initially read this story in a semi-serialized form, whereas the second time I read it largely in one sitting, so that I was less conscious of a certain thinness to the plotting. (man, I'm just not giving more than a centimetre, am I?)

Under the Comics Code, comics were restricted in the violence they could depict: Dr. Octopus and the like may not have been above murder, but they weren't sadists, and, being equal opportunity bad guys, their crimes lacked the misogynist undertones found in many movies and novels. This forced comic writers to come up with colourful plots and flesh things out with characterization. With the burgeoning field of "mature reader" comics, though, writers aren't so restricted. And thus we have The Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula, a story owing more to "The Silence of the Lambs" than, say, Superman comics. I guess that's supposed to be progress.

Anyway, The Tarantula was the first story arc kicking off a revival series starring the Golden Age Sandman, the trenchcoated, gas mask-wearing, sleeping gas spewing vigilante, as he investigates the kidnapping and brutal murder of society debutantes in the 1930s, their nude and dismembered bodies left for the police to find.

Despite reviving a character first published in the innocent, childish Golden Age of comics, The Sandman Mystery Theatre was done as a gritty "mature readers" comic. And you'd better believe it (in addition to the torture and murder, there's cussing and even incest). And therein lay some of my initial revulsion -- yes, revulsion -- to the story. It was just brutal and unpleasant -- excessively so. However, I think I've just become numb to these kinds of stories and their juvenile "chewed food" mentality (that is, evoking a kid who's trying to elicit a reaction from his parents by opening his mouth while eating). Make no mistake, whatever the series' defenders might say, writer Matt Wagner writes a story like this, not for its sophistication, nor its insight into the human condition, nor for any realism (it has little of any of that) -- he wrote it for the adolescent need to shock. Which is ironic. I disliked it violently the first time because, I suppose, it did shock me; and the second time, once the shock effect is gone, I'm just rather indifferent to it. Paradoxically, then, I liked it more...the less I allowed myself to become involved in it!

And reading it a second time, I realize that the gory/violence/torture scenes are, to be fair, few and far between compared to the page count. But the reason the violence and brutality seemed so paramount...is because there's not too much else to fill up the pages inbetween. Wagner really hasn't concocted a particularly interesting story, nor does he unfold it well.

The only way he can stretch it out over four issues is by having the hero do nothing for the first two "Acts". Worse, we can guess who the bad guys are by "Act II", ditto the why (even though Wagner holds back the specifics till "Act IV"). This leaves the only real question to hold our interest being "what" -- what are the baddies trying to learn? Well, guess what? Even by the end you don't know! It's a "mystery" where the only real question is basically shrugged off as irrelevant by the end.

The story plods along with static scenes of people talking (Matt Wagner obviously believing quantity of verbiage will make up for quality), but the characterization is fairly slight, as is the drama and plot development.

Even his grasp of the genre is shaky: it's a mystery, a shoddy one, but much of the action the Sandman doesn't witness, so the reader is many jumps ahead of him. It's also a "super hero" story, but a vigilante hero only works if he supplements the police, following leads the police don't have. Instead, the Sandman gets most of his leads eavesdropping on the police, then beating them to their destination, sometimes stealing clues the cops need, interfering with, rather than helping, the investigation. He bungles along, threatens to murder people's pets (ironically, mirroring the actions of the killers, though I'm not sure Matt Wagner intended the parallel) and accomplishes very little until the climax. Stemming from the post-Watchmen world, perhaps Wagner intends it as a deconstruction/critic of super heroes. It's perhaps the first comic I've read where you kind of think the case would be solved quicker if the Sandman stayed home and let the professionals do their job!

After a second reading, all that stuff, frankly, holds true. Nonetheless, I liked it slightly more.

Guy Davis' art, too, I was extremely harsh on, partly in reaction to its contrast to the snazzy, painted cover. Davis' style is a little cartoony, where all the characters are drawn as dumpy, portly sad sacks -- even the Sandman's alter ego of Wesley Dodds, and Dian Belmont, the supposedly pretty society debutante with whom he strikes up a relationship (and who is as much a central character as he is, and their relationship was emphasized throughout the series). As with Wagner's script, perhaps the choice of Davis was also meant to play into a heroic deconstruction. Still, I didn't dislike it so much this time through, as Davis can reasonably present a scene.

Ultimately, this review is less about my taking a book I hated and announcing that I love it now, so much as announcing that I have a certain ambivalence to it. It's still not great, or even particularly good. It ain't smart or sophisticated. But I appreciated the atmosphere a little more, and I applaud the "talking heads" approach to the story, emphasizing it as a drama more than an action-adventure. But it's just not that interesting or intelligent a drama. The series was hyped as a throwback to Raymond Chandler...which is just downright embarrassing (if I were catty, I'd suggest whoever said that had probably never read Chandler). In Chandler's day, writers tended to rely on plot twists and character development to tell a story, rather than the lazy "let's fill up time with a serial killer killing broads so we don't have to come up with a complex plot" idea so common today.

A decade and some after this TPB was first released, and a number of years after the comic itself has been cancelled, DC comics has begun released other TPB collections and, on the off chance that The Tarantula was basically a shake down effort and Wagner might have improved as he went along, I decided to try a later collection...reviewed above.

(This is a review of the version originally serialized in Sandman Mystery Theatre comics)

Cover price: $20.95 CDN./$14.95 USA




 

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