We all make mistakes from time to time. That road not taken, that decision made that you look back on years later and just want to hit yourself over. Personally, I've been delighted as of late that Vertigo has let me finally catch up on an error of my own. Namely, choosing to drop "Sandman Mystery Theatre" during its first year because I was a poor college student.
The thrust of "Sandman Mystery Theatre" is a pretty simple one. It's the late 1930s and Wesley Dodds is haunted by nightmares, ones which inspire him to dress up in a gas mask and fedora and fight crime as the Sandman. Unlike most series that would start with that idea, though, writers Matt Wagner and Steven T. Seagle go for a different tactic, creating a crime noir series where superheroes as we know them don't exist just yet. Instead of super-powered villains, Dodds fights criminals of a more mundane sort, every day sort of crooks and murderers.
"Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Hourman and the Python" is the book's sixth collection, closing out the third year of the series and collecting issues #29-36. The first one is particularly noteworthy in that Wagner and Seagle introduce a scientist named Rex Tyler, who has created a pill that gives him enhanced strength for an hour. Longtime comic book readers will recognize him as the superhero known as Hourman, but it's much to Wagner and Seagle's credit that his appearance doesn't disrupt the tone or mood of the series. Instead they make him fit in perfectly, advertising in the newspaper classifieds as the Man of the Hour who (disguised only with a pair of dark glasses and a hat) offers to help people in need of his services. The contrast between the two heroes and their methods (Tyler offering his help and dealing openly with those in need; Dodds hiding in the shadows and coercing information out of people using truth gas) is the high point of the first story, unfortunately. The actual plot feels a little flimsy and dull, and had Tyler not been in the story there's nothing really left to hold it together. One gets the impression that Wagner and Seagle did this almost deliberately, forcing the focus to be on the first meeting of the Sandman and Hourman, rather than what the two of them were trying to solve.
The writing is thankfully stronger in the second story, as they mix racism, hidden identities, murders, and the eve of World War II all together in what in today's comic book market would almost certainly be referred to as a "season ender." The story of the Python in many ways has it all: a story that demands it's set in the late 1930s, lots of new pieces of information about the book's supporting cast, an interesting (if slightly predictable) case for Dodds to solve, and best of all a huge shift in the relationship of Dodds and his long-time girlfriend Dian Belmont.
It's the treatment of Belmont that is many ways one of the high water marks of "Sandman Mystery Theatre." She's never treated as a helpless sidekick, but a co-protagonist in her own right. She's strong and intelligent, and in some ways more interesting than her titular boyfriend. As "Sandman Mystery Theatre" progresses, so does her and Dodds's relationship. The first year of the series dealt with the two of them getting together, the second year with her slow discovery of what Dodds really did at night and his identity as the Sandman. This, closing out the third year, deals not only with the two of them getting closer together, but Belmont discovering the issues in having a boyfriend who is also a crime-fighter. Watching her struggle with this knowledge and position is fascinating, and to say that the end of this collection has moved their relationship into a new direction is an understatement.
Guy Davis, the regular artist on the series, does a good job drawing "The Hourman." There's an old-time, classic look to his art here; he does a great job drawing the period just so, and under his pen the streets of New York look so real it's as if you'd stepped back in time there yourself. Davis gets the added bonus of drawing Dodds and Tyler briefly in actual "superhero" outfits (thanks to an end-of-year costume ball) that both does a good job of aping their actual outfits, but makes them look wonderfully realistic. There's not an ounce of spandex here, hanging on them in just the right way that makes you really believe that they could have been bought at a costume store, or sewn and assembled at home.
Warren Pleece's art isn't quite up to the standards that Davis sets here, alas. It's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it lacks a lot of the nuances and finer details that Davis put into his art. Characters often feel very stiff and, for lack of a better word, flat. It's a shame because there are good things often going on in the backgrounds, and he clearly did his research on period clothing, but those touches are overshadowed by the broader problems with his art.
"Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Hourman and the Python" is another satisfying collection from this series. The bad news is that the frequency of collections as of late seems to be about once a year. The good news is that if you haven't read much "Sandman Mystery Theatre" (like myself), the series ran 70 issues plus one annual. That means a lot more "Sandman Mystery Theatre" still in our future. And that makes me very happy indeed.