Though I was among those who read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in my high school and college days, I came to Sandman Mystery Theatre a little later. Vertigo knowingly produced the Mystery title in hopes of not only capitalizing on the fame of Sandman, but also telling new stories about a preexisting property. The Golden Age Sandman was a very ordinary man named Wesley Dodds, who inherited a fortune from his father and was also plagued by nightmares the way his father and forebears were. Dodds had no superpowers, and his only real offensive weapon came in the form of a gas he’d use to render opponents incapaciatated. The gas also acted as a truth serum of sorts, prompting confessions and admittances from crooks. But other than the gas mask and gas gun, there was never much that separated Dodds from, say, The Crimson Avenger, The Green Hornet, The Shadow, or any similarly-clad avengers of the night.
Sandman Mystery Theatre was largely produced by co-writers Matt Wagner and Steven Seagle, with art from Guy Davis. These are essentially a more hard boiled variety of comics. While the book consisted of some formulaic plots (crooked businessmen, politicians and assorted ne’er-do-wells), the creators succeeded in making the book stand apart from comics being produced at the time. The series is set in the thirties, and doesn’t pull any punches in terms of maintaining the mature readers imprint. There’s plenty of sex, drugs and hot jazz, and they don’t sugarcoat that society simply because it’s thought to be comparitively more innocent than our modernized one.
The real achievement of the title is how the creators portray Dodds’ girlfriend, Dian Belmont. The creators are well aware of how females were relegated during the thirties, but with Belmont they created a strong character who is very much equal to both Dodds and his Sandman alter ego. Readers see that she not only aids the Sandman in his crimefighting, but offers balance to Dodds, becoming a key figure in helping him keep his demons at bay. Belmont has a distinct personality, and her importance to this book can’t be overstated. For those who wish there were more comics with developed, intelligent female characters, there are a full seventy issues of Sandman Mystery Theatre that deserve your attention.
Finally, while the creators often kept Sandman Mystery Theatre self contained, there are plenty of Easter eggs for those who are curious about the character’s involvement in the larger DC Universe. There’s a memorable storyline with Hourman, another fellow Justice Society member, and mentions of other JSA characters throughout. Gaiman’s Dream (Morpheus) also floats around in some of Dodds’ dream sequences, and you might see his mask in the background here and there. To their credit, though, Wagner, Seagle and Davis keep these as background effects. Sandman Mystery Theatre is rooted firmly in thirties era New York, the societal dilemmas and the looming threat of war. Over a decade after its completion, the book still stands as a well-crafted crime book, a study of early costumed vigilantism, and most significantly, a very adult story featuring the complex relationship between a flawed hero and the woman who both grounds him and makes his heroism possible.