Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula

Reviewed: December 10, 2004
By: Matt Wagner / art by Guy Davis
Publisher: Vertigo / DC Comics
111 pages, $15.95

The Sandman of this particular series is not the fellow Neil Gaiman made famous in the 1980s and 1990s as a member of a group of powerful god-like beings known as the Endless. Gaiman's Morpheus was the ruler of the Dreaming. The Sandman in these pages merely sends people to sleep.

That's not fair, of course. The Wesley Dodds incarnation of the Sandman was actually the first comic book version, and Gaiman had to retrofit the backstory when he took over the name. Dodds was one of a number of mystery men or superheroes who were independently wealthy (like Bruce Wayne), had an inventive turn of mind, and decided to use both advantages to fight crime (like Batman).

Dodds was not especially athletic, tending to use stealth, gadgetry, and the contents of a number of special gas guns as his methods of operation. His unique mixture rendered people into a hypnotic state, made them tell him things he wanted to know, and put them to sleep.

His original outfit was a three piece suit and a trenchcoat. Oh, and a WWI vintage gas mask. He had no powers and would have succumbed to his own gas had it hit him. The way Matt Wagner wrote him in this 1993 revival, he was sort of like the Shadow, only his power to cloud men's minds came from chemistry rather than obscure Oriental mysticism.

The four issues that make up this trade paperback graphic novel are from early in Dodds' career. They are set in his original 1930s setting, though they deal with problems that would never have made it into the medium when the magazines were called "funny books" and were "all in colour for a dime".

The Tarantula is a serial killer preying on a certain type of young woman, girls of the social circle frequented by Dian Belmont, who would eventually become the Sandman's silent partner and confidante. In this adventure she is a bystander, a recent college graduate of a finishing school type who has not figured out what to make of herself, and for whom adventure is a night at the seedier clubs. With the abduction of a good friend she begins to grow up.

To Dian, Dodds is an intense, slightly older man who keeps crossing her path, and in whom she has a certain interest that she can't quite explain. She likes him enough to flirt, and is intrigued that he does not respond in kind. This is almost a challenge.

Dodds suffers from insomnia of a sort, and actually doesn't need as much sleep as most people. When he does sleep he dreams bizarre dreams due to his inadvertant link to Morpheus. This is not explained here, but only in Gaiman's Sandman books. Most readers of the day would have been familiar with the background.

Wagner's Sandman Mystery Theatre was not a wildly successful book. There were a mere 12 issues, plus one short graphic novel that managed to combine the two Sandmen in one story. During that year there were three story arcs, each dealing with a different sort of criminal problem, something that had a 1930s flavour with a 90s edge.

I didn't read all of these when they were new. Guy Davis's art didn't appeal to me and I dropped the book before the first arc finished. I have since revised my opinion of his work, which was actually very effective given the mood of Wagner's story, and so I was glad to see this collection come on the market a short time ago.

As before, this is not a comic book for kids. There are scenes here that you wouldn't want your children to look at, and themes that really are adult. That said, it's a good story, well told and drawn.