If you like an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery but want some decidedly modern sensibilities (sex, violence) thrown in, Sandman Mystery Theatre is about to become your new favorite book. This first volume, "The Tarantula", introduces us to a slightly peculiar but very friendly and wealthy young man called Wesley Dodds. He's captured the curiosity of plucky socialite Dian Belmont, daughter of the District Attorney, and what she doesn't know about Wesley just makes her all the more interested. For reasons both dark and terrible, Wesley's sleep is haunted by dreams of cruelty and injustice, compelling him to step out into the crime-ridden streets of 1930s New York City and right horrifying wrongs as the mysterious Sandman. Armed only with a gasmask, gas-gun and a cunning intellect, The Sandman investigates brutal crimes comparable to those of Jack the Ripper or the Black Dahlia murders. Meanwhile, the clever and beautiful Miss Belmont inches ever closer to discovering Wesley's dangerous secret.
Sandman Mystery Theatre is available in inexpensive numbered volumes that reveal a larger narrative when read in sequence, but each can be read on its own as a brilliant, self-contained tale of murder and suspense. If you're like me, you will become instantly hooked on The Sandman's dark dreams and writer Matt Wagner's (Grendel: Devil by the Deed) beautiful words:
"What is it that sucks at my soul so acutely? What emptiness drives me out into the night time and again to fight forces I cannot hope to defeat?"
"You will answer my questions, or you will face a lifetime of Hell nights in your dreams."
"What is the price of vengeance for those whom it consumes?"
"No one can escape The Sandman's dark dreams."
Those who prefer the down and dirty to the airy and fantastic may also prefer Sandman Mystery Theatre, which features the comics' original Sandman, millionaire Wesley Dodds, who, clad in trench coat and gas mask and armed with sleep-inducing gas, fought criminals in the 1940s. Wagner backtracks Dodds to pre-World War II New York City and models Dodds' adventures less on superhero comics than on 1930s pulp magazines. He and cowriter Steven T. Seagle create twisted crime stories that Guy Davis illustrates by expertly evoking the period looks of the pulps. SMT story lines are far franker than their 1930s inspirations. This one depicts, besides the killings, a circle of lesbian lovers, and the dialogue is R-rated. Although it hasn't matched the popularity of Gaiman's creation, SMT is one of the most successful revivals of a vintage costumed crime fighter.