Sandman Mystery Theatre #2 & #3

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Or – “Then The Door Was Opened And The Wind Appeared…”

SMT12.jpgreviewbubble.jpgI really meant to pick up this series from issue #1, but I chose not to go in on Wednesday the week that #1 shipped. By the time I arrived for the Friday night closing shift, Mystery Theatre #1 was waaay gone, like a Ginger Baker drum solo in a dusty basement full of beatniks and hipsters. Most interestingly of all, nobody within a thirty minute radius had it either, which means that there’s a lotta love out there for Wesley Dodds. This pleases me, as kids today have no respect for history, and also because the gas-mask-and-wool-suit costume of the Sandman is one of the most awesomely intimidating superhero suits in history. But, as your ever intrepid recapper, I’m ready to roll on Sandman Mystery Theatre’s second and third acts, and we’ll fill the blanks as best we can. Are you sitting comfortably? Right!

SMT1.jpgOne of the things that vaguely troubles me about these recaps is the question of how to choose what I’m going to cover. Being an old-school superhero guy, I feel that my failing (if personal preference can be called a failing) will come in terms of finding diversity. I’ve tried to cover books that I wouldn’t normally read (as well as some things that I wonder if ANYBODY is going to enjoy) but certain stories and genres aren’t my cup of soup. I don’t feel qualified to cover most of the titles from Virgin Comics, f’rinstance, as when I sit down with them, I know I’m not the target audience. What is entertaining to their fans feels like work for me to read, and that’s not going to make for a good (or even a fair) review process.

Likewise, as someone who read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #1 back in the day and didn’t pick up another issue for five years, (in my defense, issue one IS the weakest of the bunch, and the real sense of wonder didn’t kick in until “24 Hours’ in Sandman #6), as well as someone who couldn’t get past the Guy Davis art in the original Mystery Theatre series (too impressionistically scratchy), it is with some trepidation that I work over these two issues. But, they say that fortune favors the bold, so we step in to the world of Kieran Marshall… Who’s Kieran Marshall, you ask?

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That covers it mighty succinctly, actually, a refreshing change of pace for issue #2 of a 5 issue series. These days they mostly throw you to the wolves unless you’ve read panel 1 of issue 1, so there’s a checkmark in their favor. Kieran is currently somewhere in the middle east, having been driven by his nightmares to somehow find the gas gun that Wesley Dodds used years ago as The original Sandman. He’s found lying in the sand, currently on fire (having been hit by a flamethrower last issue) but still unable to escape the dreams that plague him… dreams of Wes Dodds’ last case.

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Seeing through Wes’ eyes, Kieran dreams of Wes lying beaten in the dirt. Someone has snatched away his lifelong love, Dian, and left him behind. Dian is dying (a terminal cancer, I think), and Mr. Dodds is able to throw aside his age, his lack of fitness, the years of peaceful existence… “If his nightmares are still his to call upon, after the long years of peace that Dian had given him…”

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Proving he’s still got it, Sandman fights his way to the truth, taking out several gunmen before terrifying the location protection racketeer. Mistaking his countenance for a djinn, the man panics, but Wesley tells him, “The hearts of the jinn are made of fire. Mine is made of something worse.” Damn, that’s good dialogue. Flashforward to Afghanistan, yesterday, as Kieran’s friend Jake Devon searches for the lost journalist. They kick through a destroyed village, but one of the dead men starts to rise. Oooh, zombie? No, better… a man with a flame-thrower, under the influence of a strange sedative, the Sandman’s sleep-gas.

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I like the coloring here, with the modern scenes in a washed out deserty sepia, Kieran burning in a deep orange, and Wesley’s flashbacks in a more olive greeny tint. The art is working for me, aside from some strangeness like the last panel in that sequence. But it is a man whose mind is somewhat addled, and it conveys that madness in very visceral fashion. The firebug awakens, and when questioned about Kieran, chooses to immolate himself rather than return to the hell of the gas gun’s dreams. So, they’re not just sleeping, they’re sleeping, having NIGHTMARES from which they can’t wake up. No wonder everyone wants the gas. So much so, that Jake gets an entire team of specialists to return the gas gun to the army.

The children who found Kieran lying in the desert try to carry him away, but he awakens, and the girl tells of how she dreamed that she would find a man with the gas gun, wearing a gasmask, lying in the valley. He freaks out (just a bit) at this duplication of his dreams, and the girl’s brother clocks him with a rock, knocking him back into his dreamstate. He dreams of being a burn patient, he dreams of being a soldier, and in his soldier nightmare, most of the people he loves are lined up, at gunpoint, by a man named Hasad. I’m not sure if Hasad is actually IN the dream (I think he IS) but he ends up killing all of the assembled innocents. “You’ll never dream of them again, Mister Marshall. And in the waking world, perhaps you’ll forget their faces…” That settles it, then. We’re in Morpheus dream reality, and Hasad IS there. Kieran awakes to find that the settlement he’s in is being raided… by Jake and his specialist team, who’ve left a trail of carnage behind them in search of Wesley’s weapon. Marshall then gasses them all, and beats one of them savagely out of rage and frustration…

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She’s right, though. Wesley would NOT approve. Neither would Morpheus or Garrett Sanford, for that matter. Issue #2 ends there, and #3 picks up an indeterminate amount of time later, as Devon and the children (Alia and Omar are their names) watch over Kieran, doped to the gills on painkillers. He’s awfully mobile for a guy who was french fried a few hours ago, I might say. I’m afraid the worst of his injuries are still ahead of him. Burns are horrific enough without strenuous exercise to exacerbate the wounds. Kieran’s mind, as usual, is somewhere else in his dreams, standing at the battlements of a castle, facing thousands of bowmen and their mysterious lord. The leader threatens him, blaming Kieran for his “lord’s” nightmares, and threatening to hack him to bits… Kieran is unimpressed.

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Kieran’s dream-self is pretty much a new Sandman, isn’t it? He shrugs off the archers’ attacks and intimidates the heck out of the lord of the manor. “You know the name of my enemy. Tell me where he is, and tell me why.” I think that mask must have more than just a toxin filter in it, because it makes people seriously scary. But Kieran now has a name, and more… he knows who all is involved, including his best friends superior officer. The conspiracy to grab Dodd’s chemical weapon is far-reaching, indeed.

Back in ’96, Wesley has more than his share of scary going for him, finally tracking Dian’s kidnappers to their lair, and finding Ms Belmont herself. The sight of her blood and chained hands sends him into action, pretty impressed for a man pushing 80, and he is inches from killing her kidnapper with his bare hands.

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Meanwhile, in the present, Masad is taping one of his “Come To Allah” sessions, in the hopes of whipping a greater religious fervor into a conflict filled with thousand-year-old grudges. Worst of all, is the man conspiring with him… Major Thorsen.

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Thorsen tells Masad that not only is Devon travelling with our erstwhile Sandman, he has two refugee kids with him, and that they’re liabilities. This implied threat sends Masad into a rage, remembering his own wartorn childhood, and he whips out his knife slicing the Major’s throat. He reads the man’s memories, savoring a particular childhood lesson: the first time he rode his bicycle without training wheels. “You learned that the world would catch you if you fell. But these children know, as I know: You were wrong.” Masad is creepy as heck, and suddenly I realize, his blade is nothing but a memory, a dream of the knife he used to kill his first man, if I’m reading the flashback right.

Kieran is finally awake, and has been reading the journals he found in the trunk with the gas gun and mask, realizing that these are the words of the man he’s been dreaming about for years, the man he knows and admires, the man called The Sandman…

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Kieran goes looking for Masad, and you know that mask feels like hell on burnt flesh. He climbs a tower (and I’m not clear if this is real or a dream) but instead of finding his quarry, only finds a man with a bomb strapped to his chest. Returning to their temporary squatting ground, he tries to tell Jake what he’s learned, but finds a bit of a shock…

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Wow… that’s a little bit of overkill, isn’t it? Masad is willing to go to great lengths here, but having captured the gas, why does he want Kieran? Is it because of his dreams, or is it because of something else? The nature of their powers and the connection is unclear (though it may be part of the first issue… If so, I’ll check it out in the trade.), and sometimes the line between dream and reality is impossible to find, though that may be the point.

Even starting in media res, the story is pretty easy to pick up. I’m still not 100% sold on the art yet, but Nguyen does good work. The inconsistency may actually be intentional, certainly some of the sketchiness that I would normally complain about is obviously intentional, done for effect. His use of blacks is deliberate, and creates some awesome contrast effects, as seen in the last panel. The coloring, while muted, is interesting, and the usual full color effects wouldn’t work at all, for the art itself or the tone of the book. One of my initial reservations about the book, the use of the real war (and all it’s real emotional baggage) as part of the story is handled delicately. The search for a viable chemical weapon is an interesting story hook, though it’s obvious that the Vertigo version of Wes Dodds and the regular DCU versions have to exist separately. That’s actually cool by me, as it helps to ground the characters, and makes Wes’s heroic efforts seem even more unusual and noble. Mystery Theatre doesn’t just retread the old series, but it also doesn’t suffer the “we must be mysterious and symbolic” problems that sometimes occur when somebody tries too hard to “do Vertigo.” It’s a good effort, with occasionally inconsistent art, and some minor storytelling issues that keep it at a respectable 3 stars.

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