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Pulp comics: ‘Sandman Mystery Theatre’

Posted by at 10:00 am Friday, January 26, 2018 in Comics, Review
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Pulp comics: ‘Sandman Mystery Theatre’

'Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula'I have previously noted that many early comicbook characters were inspired by pulp characters. Many of these early characters wore suits (even if somewhat colorful), and later we got characters in more color spandex-like outfits. And in a few cases, some of the early comicbook characters changed their looks, dropping the suits for more superhero-like outfits (such as the Crimson Avenger, Blue Beetle, etc). A modern term used retroactively for such characters is “mystery men” rather than “superheroes,” as they don’t have any superpowers.

An early example of this is DC Comic‘s Sandman. Originally more pulp-inspired, he wore a suit, a hat, and a gasmask, and used a gas gun against bad guys. Now, his suit was a bit garish, in orange and green, with a purple cape or cloak. Later he was given a purple-and-yellow spandex outfit, a kid sidekick (in red and yellow) and dropped the gas gun for a “wirepoon” gun.

In the 1990s as part of DC’s Vertigo line of comics for a mature audience, they retold and pretty much retconned the 1930s adventures of the Sandman in Sandman Mystery Theatre. Now a more film noir/pulp series, it was also a bit more realistic.

Wesley Dodd, the Sandman, was now shown to be a shorter, slightly fat scholarly man with glasses (instead of a tall, square-jawed action hero), haunted by his experiences in the war. While still wearing a suit, a hat, and a gas mask, the colors are more muted and realistic. His partner, in more ways than one, is Dian Belmont (who happens to be the only child of the police commissioner). At first the two worked on cases separately, until Dodd revealed his identity to her. There is no kid sidekick, although Wesley has a loyal butler who knows his secret identity and a secret headquarters (and car) at his home.

These are much more detective/mystery stories, where the reader usually doesn’t know who the bad guy is or the reasons behind the mystery until the Sandman (and/or Dian) are able to figure it out.

Stories are organized into, usually, four-issue storylines, with the Sandman going up against an array of more realistically sinister foes like serial killers, hardened criminals, and the like. While many almost get to the level of “super villains,” there are no comicbook villains. The few comicbook heroes that do show up are usually shown in more civilian ways. These include The Crimson Avenger, Blackhawk, Dr. Midnight, The Starman, and a couple more. We do meet The Starman’s foe The Mist as he is becoming The Mist.

Around the time of this series coming out, Caleb Carr‘s The Alienist and its sequel came out, which while set in an earlier time period, deal with a group investigating and stopping a serial killer. To me, it seemed to segue way into what was being done in SMT.

Pulp fans may find “The Return of the Scarlet Ghost” storyline from #49-52 particularly interesting, as part of the story deals with pulp magazine publishers, their connections to organized crime, comics, and more. It even explains the purple/yellow Sandman outfit as a product of a movie serial.

Sandman Mystery Theatre ran 70 issues (plus an annual), but not all of it has been collected into trade paperbacks from the run in 2005-10:

  • The Tarantula (#1–4)
  • The Face and The Brute (#5–12)
  • The Vamp (#13–16)
  • The Scorpion (#17–20)
  • Dr. Death and The Night of the Butcher (#21–28)
  • The Hourman and The Python (#29–36)
  • The Mist and The Phantom of the Fair (#37–44)
  • The Blackhawk and The Return of the Scarlet Ghost (#45–52)

More recently in 2016, DC came out with a new collection, Sandman Mystery Theatre Book One that covered #1-12, with a second in 2017 that covers #13-24 and the annual. I hope this continues, and we get the full run. I did find the intro in the first book a bit humorous. The writer says that The Sandman “broke the mold” of superheroes as he had no power. Sigh. No, he was totally “in the mold” but of pulp heroes and mystery men, of which there were many who pre-date those with superpowers.

If you haven’t read this series, check it out. I find it interesting that this year we are finally seeing a TV series based on Carr’s The Alienist from all those years ago. If you liked the book, you might like this series.

One Comment

  1. Michael Brown,
    your insights are truly interesting and notable.

What do you think?