Sandman Mystery Theatre, #1:
The Tarantula

by Matt Wagner, Guy Davis
(Vertigo, 1995)

When DC Comics asked writer Neil Gaiman to update the Sandman for modern readers, they were expecting something similar to the character's 1930s and '40s incarnation: trenchcoat, fedora, gas mask and gas gun. (As his name implies, the gas put his targets to sleep.) But Gaiman had a different vision, and his Sandman became Dream, one of the Endless, in a series that made the world look at comics in an entirely new way.

But there was still this masked and trenchcoated figure lurking in the shadows at the DC office, and in 1993 he was reborn in Sandman Mystery Theatre. Writer Matt Wagner, with the help of artist Guy Davis, took the Sandman back to his Golden Age roots, mercifully forgetting the campy, yellow-garbed version he became in the 1950s. The new series, like Gaiman's Sandman, was shifted from DC's mainstream line into its Vertigo imprint, allowing the creative team a little more leeway in dealing with adult issues and imagery.

Wesley Dodds is the Sandman, a mystery man in America, circa the mid-1930s. He lives in a mansion with tons of inherited wealth and a helpful butler sidekick, but he's no Bruce Wayne. He lacks the gimmicks and the grim obsession that define the Batman, nor is he quite so confident or athletic in his pursuit of justice. But here, in a world before Batman, he's an effective deterrent for criminals who cross his path.

This first story arc, The Tarantula, is a grim introduction. While the mob might seem a serious enough foundation for Sandman's investigation into several missing girls, Wagner turns the tension up several notches by introducing sadistic torture, abuse, maiming and incest into the plot. It is also here that Dodds meets girl-about-town Dian Belmont, who becomes both his sidekick and girlfriend.

The Tarantula is not for readers of a gentle disposition, and it may haunt the imagination for a while after reading it. But for readers who enjoy a dark, gritty tale in the pre-spandex noir tradition, Sandman Mystery Theatre is off to a gripping start.

by Tom Knapp
29 April 2006

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