Today’s Super Comic — Sandman Mystery Theatre #20 (1994)

Comics have a different kind of “will they/won’t they?” – will the hero’s significant other learn his/her secret identity?

In Sandman Mystery Theatre, that scenario is performed by Wesley Dodds (the Sandman) and Dian Belmont. It’s a fitting venue for secret-identity tension, since it is a mystery series and all, but what’s especially great is that it’s two-sided. Wesley is grappling with whether to tell her, but Dian is piecing together clues on her own. Both characters demonstrate independent agency.

Of course, that’s an ongoing subplot that gains momentum in #20. The main plot, naturally, involves a murderer the Sandman must defeat. But the relationship between the two main characters is the series’ true selling point in the issues I’ve read. A masked mystery man isn’t enough—we need to know the man behind the mask. And a love interest isn’t enough either—we need to get to know her as her own person, too.

So apparently, if you take 1930s pulp mystery and inject a strong dosage of characterization, you get something incredibly compelling. What a shocker.

Writers: Matt Wagner and Steven T. Seagle

Artist: Guy Davis

Cover: Gavin Wilson and Richard Bruning

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Sandman Mystery Theatre (Book 4): The Scorpion (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comics — Sandman #41-49 (1992-93)

Ironically, the most linear Sandman story arc is the one that co-stars Delirium. It’s also my favorite.

Among his many strokes of brilliance in Sandman, writer Neil Gaiman not only created a personification of dreams, but he also gave that character a family in grand mythological fashion. The Endless comprises seven siblings: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium (formerly Delight). Each has a distinct, vibrant personality, and the interplay between them is always fascinating.

The family dynamic comes into play in “Brief Lives” in issues #41-49, in which Delirium recruits Dream to search for long-lost Destruction. It’s a classic quest plot starring two totally opposite personalities. But a simpler structure doesn’t mean less depth—each issue remains intelligent, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

If you haven’t read Sandman in its entirety yet…why not? Your only excuse is if you’re under 18. In that case, yeah, wait a bit.

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Penciler: Jill Thompson

Inkers: Vince Locke and Dick Giordano

Cover: Dave McKean

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Sandman vol. 7: Brief Lives (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — Sandman Mystery Theatre #1 (1993)

Correcting another oversight of mine…I had never read Matt Wagner’s Sandman Mystery Theatre, but I just picked up a few of the early issues to sample it. Judging by #1, I might have to pick up a lot more.

This is a Vertigo series from the heyday of the imprint, so keep the kids away. But for adults, the first issue gets us off to a compelling start. Set in 1938 New York City, the book stars the original Sandman, Wesley Dodds, early in his crimefighting career. (No relation whatsoever to the Neil Gaiman version.)

The book predates the advent of DC’s superheroes, so a mystery man with a gas mask and strange sleeping-gas gun rates as highly bizarre and downright creepy in the context of this world. However, we see only a little of the Sandman in action and spend far more time with Wes Dodds as he meets his future wife, Dian Belmont, for the first time at a benefit function. Dian isn’t just a romantic interest, though—Wagner writes her as co-lead.

We get a sense of Wesley as a driven, sober man and Dian as a lively, curious woman. They already display some initial chemistry and stand on their own as distinct characters. Wagner takes his time introducing them, giving them time to breathe while still making sure important developments happen in the issue.

The plot of this initial arc involves a criminal named Tarantula who kidnaps a friend of Dian’s, and this will inevitably put her on a path to meet Wes’s other identity.

I’ll have to read more.

Writer: Matt Wagner

Artist: Guy Davis

Cover: Gavin Wilson

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Sandman Mystery Theatre Book One (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — Starman #21 (1996)

starman_vol_2_21Sandman’s “Sand and Stars” storyline gives us a team-up with thematic weight, as the new Starman meets the original Sandman, Wesley Dodds.

This Sandman has nothing to do with the Neil Gaiman lord of dreams version. Dodds was just a detective with a sleeping-gas gun and gasmask—he’s a character who straddled the line between the masked mystery men of the 1930s and the early superheroes of the 1940s. As a member of the Justice Society of America, he worked with the original Starman, Ted Knight, the father of this series’ Starman.

The elderly Sandman is an excellent choice for a team-up with Jack Knight, who also doesn’t fit the mold of a typical superhero. (One point of common ground: They both eschew the standard cape-and-tights look.) By this point, Jack’s affinity for old things is well established, and here’s one of the very first superheroes—though Jack is more excited to meet Dodds’s wife, acclaimed author Dian Belmont. Nevertheless, Dodds serves as someone from Ted Knight’s past that Jack can genuinely admire and connect with.

The entire four-part storyline is excellent, and the inclusion of an airship is an appropriately retro touch. But the second part, in issue #21, highlights an interesting character element—Jack’s fear of growing old, a reminder of which is staring him in the face when he’s with the octogenarian Dodds. Jack’s father should already be that old, though comic book mechanics have delayed that…but it’s coming. And later, if he survives all the criminals, super-villains, and death rays, old age will eventually come for Jack, too:

“…I must one day face the old man who will look out from the mirror. And I hope, at least, that old man has a young heart.”

It’s a mature fear for a superhero, and one anyone over 30 can relate to.

Writer: James Robinson

Artist: Tony Harris

Inker: Wade Von Grawbadger

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Starman Omnibus vol. 2 (HC)

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Death: The High Cost of Living #1-3 (1993)

death_the_high_cost_of_living_vol_1_1Neil Gaiman does Death Takes a Holiday in his distinctive Neil Gaimany way.

Death, or Didi, is an off-kilter teenaged girl who gets to be mortal one day a century. She befriends a depressed young guy with the unfortunate name of Sexton. A very old madwoman seeks Death’s help in finding her heart. And a blind, creepy guy wants Death’s sigil.

And by the end, it’s all remarkably uplifting.

“It always ends. That’s what gives it value.”

Though this is a Sandman spinoff, Death: The High Cost of Living stands entirely on its own. I can’t say for certain, but it might even be more effective without prior knowledge. There’s almost nothing in these three issues that’s blatantly supernatural. The fantasy elements exist entirely on the periphery, which you hardly even realize until after the fact because everything feels so magical. If you read just this story, you might almost believe that Didi is merely a troubled girl who has retreated into the delusion that she’s Death.

An excellent read from the early days of DC’s Vertigo imprint.

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Artists: Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham

Cover: Dave McKean

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; Death: The High Cost of Living (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — The Sandman #8 (1989)

sandman-8There are lots of ways for a character to make a great first impression on me. One foolproof way is by referencing Mary Poppins.

And that’s how we meet The Sandman’s personification of death. In Neil Gaiman’s world, Death appears as a lively teenaged girl, and she’s the older sister of the series’ protagonist, Dream. No Grim Reaper clichés here.

Death debuts in #8, which is when the series truly started becoming amazing. Dream has just completed a quest that defined the series’ opening arc, and now he’s feeling adrift and purposeless. So his sister comes along to check on him, and he tags along as she goes about her routine of guiding the newly deceased into the afterlife, reminding Dream of his own responsibilities. Gaimain makes the right call in not showing us Death’s realm; instead, we just see her kindness and tact as she greets diverse people who are all about to embark on the same journey.

It’s an excellent issue that stands on its own while also promising the greatness to come throughout the rest of the series…and the also-excellent Death spinoff miniseries.

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Artist: Mike Dringenberg

Inker: Malcolm Jones III

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in The Sandman vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — The Sandman #31 (1991)

Sandman 31Neil Gaiman’s Sandman featured many excellent short stories throughout its run, and those single-issue stories tended to be even more interesting when they featured historical characters…such as the Emperor of the United States in #31.

Yes, a San Francisco man, Joshua Norton, actually did proclaim himself the first U.S. emperor in the 19th century, and people humored him and played along without letting him have any real authority. He’s the perfect subject for a Sandman guest star. Gaiman chose well indeed, and he uses Norton’s story to show how dreams can defeat despair—even dreams that are completely bonkers.

And of course, with this being Sandman, dreams and despair are Dream and Despair, two of the Endless. Their siblings, Delirium and Desire, also try to claim Norton, but Dream’s inspiration gives the troubled man a way to get through life without hurting himself or anyone else. Rather, Norton becomes an eccentric public figure who, however inadvertently, delights the residents and visitors of San Francisco. He may not be contributing to society in quite the way he intends—not even close, really—but he contributes. And the right dream allows him to do that.

An utterly fascinating story that will make you want to do a Google search immediately afterward.

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Penciler: Shawn McManus

Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in The Sandman vol. 6: Fables & Reflections (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY