Sandman Mystery Theatre
#2: The Face & the Brute

by Matt Wagner,
John Watkiss, R.G. Taylor
(Vertigo, 2004)

Comic-book crime is often colorful, committed by costumed villains so grand and entertaining it's hard to take them seriously. (A villain who wants to destroy the world, after all, is simply not looking ahead to tomorrow.)

But crime in Sandman Mystery Theatre is ugly, brutal and harsh. In a word, it's real. And the Sandman is the sort of crimefighter needed to stop or punish it.

Unlike his more flambuoyant peers on the crimefighting scene, Sandman doesn't always save the day. But he's dogged in his efforts to do what good he can.

In The Face & the Brute, the second volume from Sandman's modern rebirth (still set in Depression-era New York), there is plenty of ugliness to challenge. And writer Matt Wagner doesn't look away -- nor do he and artists John Watkiss and R.G. Taylor afford readers that luxury -- when the ugliness gets too real. This book deals with violence, but it's not just good guys and bad guys knocking each other around. It's child abuse. It's sexual assault. It's racism. It's gangs and drugs. It's desperation and revenge. It's murder.

Wesley Dodds, the face behind the Sandman's mask, is a wealthy man who has resources at his disposal but, besides the gas-gun he uses to send his opponents to sleep, he has very little in the way of flash and gimmickry. Dian Belmont, his burgeoning love interest, is a strong woman of her time, a socialite who feels the tug of conscience at social injustice, a person who is willing to get involved when she feels something needs doing. (Case in point: not only does she intervene when she sees a child being beaten, she also joins the United Way as a fundraiser when she feels the need to help more.)

The noirish elements of SMT make it an intense and riveting read. But it's the realism that makes this book one I'll keep picking up.

by Tom Knapp
2 December 2006

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