Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula, and The Face and The Brute

Written by Matt Wagner
Drawn by Guy Davis, John Watkiss, and R. G. Taylor
Coloured by David Hornung

If for no other reason* I will always be glad I took lindy hop class for the CD of swing music my teacher gave me one class. Its been the perfect background music to reading Sandman Mystery Theatre.

Maybe you think the music you're listening to when you're reading something doesn't matter that much, but I sat down to read The Tarantula, and got about three pages in before getting up and changing the hip hop or electronica or whatever it was I was listening to to something else, as it was completely pulling me out of the story.

And a CD full of unidentified songs from the 1930s (maybe? At least some of it is from then I'm sure) was what pulled me back in. I just talked about how I found a comic about music (Klezmer) didn't really work for me because it was silent. Yet, here I am championing listening to a certain type of music to increase enjoyment of a comic.

Heaven up in Harlem.

I found the music increased my enjoyment as many scenes in SMT happen in night clubs and um, whatever the word for parties that rich people go to is. Soirees? Galas? I clearly do not move in those circles. But Dian Belmont, daughter of the DA, and Wesley Dodds, the Sandman, do. In fact, for Dian, who despite the name of the book really seems to be the main _character_ in these early issues (with Wesley/The Sandman being far more of an enigma), going to night clubs and parties seems to be the only thing she does at all. And Wesley isn't a slouch himself either; sure he claims to be running his father's business, but we only seem to see him when he's either running into Dian at parties or restaurants (oh! That's another place they go, though there are still bands playing) or when he's gassing people.

In fact, I can't really believe the similarities between Wesley/The Sandman and Bruce Wayne/Batman. Sure, I guess pretty much every m/billionaire playboy who is secretely a costumed crime fighter probably ends up doing the same thing, even if only to protect their identity. "Oh Bruce Wayne is such a lush/manwhore, he can't be Batman. Did you know he's covered in spelunking scars? So careless!" "Oh, Wesley Dodds is too quiet/serious/taking care of his father's business to be the Sandman. Did you know he spent several years in the Orient** allowing him mysterious knowledge of all the skills he needs to fight crime all secret."

Actually, that's putting the series in a bad light. It's really good. I haven't read much of writer Matt Wagner's stuff, but what I have read (random issues of Mage and Grendel, the first issue of Madame Xanadu) didn't lead me to think he could do something like this. In fact, I more closely associated later writer Stephen T. Seagle with this series than I did Wagner.

But yes, it's a crime comic set in the 1930s. Corrupt aristocrats, Chinese gangs, cops, misogyny: it's all there. Things happen, the cops investigate, the Sandman investigates illegally, probably almost gets caught (by either the cops or the bad guys), uses his gas gun, Dian will overhear her father saying something to someone, do some investigation of her own, go and have a talk with Wesley because, hey, why not? They are becoming such good friends (despite almost every one of their meetings seemingly only lasting five minutes). And then everything gets solved. But it's really good.

Well, the first two stories are. I don't know what happened with the third, The Brute, but it's not very good at all. Pretty much everything that happens is a cliche, the brutality is seemingly just there to be brutal, and not to move the plot along. And by plot I mean "plot" as things just kind of happen regardless of what the characters motivations or actions are.

Also "Gasp!" "Gasp!" "Gasp!" (from one character, in three speech baloons, in one panel) is some of the worst dialogue I have ever read.

But on to more positives: the art in the first story arc, by Guy Davis who later became the book's main artist, is the most "Sandman" of them all, which I feel must surely have been a calculated move on Vertigo's part. The opening page could have just as easily been a page from a Sandman comic, it is a dream afterall. But his art is quite good and works well with the story.

The art in the other two arcs is pretty good too, though John Watkiss appears to draw what certainly seems to be a one legged hooker, and R. G. Taylor cannot draw children at all. Both artists seem to be far better at drawing talking heads than whole bodies, but in a series such as this that's actually a benefit.

The colouring holds together the vartious art styles. I want to say it's an art deco style, but can't seem to find anything to back up my claim. But the specific colour palette used, and the flat way in which it is used, reminds me of art deco things. I am so specific!

I'm going to check out the next volume on the strength of the first two stories, and hope the next arc will improve over The Brute. As the series continued for quite some time after that I assume it will.

* And there are _lots_ of other reasons why I'm glad I take lindy hop. It is very fun.

** Still an acceptable term at the time!

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