A gas mask and a business suit. This is the costume that the Golden Age Sandman wore to fight crime. A gas mask and a business suit. Sounds absurd, right?
So why is the character so memorable and interesting?
The Sandman was a second-rate character for most of his existence. First appearing in New York World’s Fair Comics in 1939 in a story by Gardner Fox and Bert Christman, Wesley Dodds was a millionaire inventor who invented a gas gun that would force those exposed to the gas to tell the truth. Donning his gas mask and business suit, essentially street clothes, the Sandman faced and defeated mainly ordinary criminals in this phase of his career, albeit unusually sadistic and cruel criminals.
One of the first costumed characters to emerge from DC Comics after the success of Superman, the Sandman seems as much a pulp magazine character as a super-hero as we think of them. Seen in this light, the idea of wearing a gas mask and a business suit to fight crime makes sense. He’s a transitional character between pulp heroes like Doc Savage, the Shadow and the Spider, and costumed crime-fighters such as Batman and Captain America. After the World’s Fair one-shot, Sandman began appearing in Adventure Comics beginning in issue 40 from that same year.
The Sandman briefly was popular when comics were new, appearing as a charter member of the Justice Society in 1940 and appearing in the following 29 issues of Adventure Comics in his unusual costume. However, as new and more colorful characters continued to appear, the Sandman seemed more and more like a relic of times past. It was decided that the character should be revamped, and in Adventure Comics #69, 1941, at the hands of artist Chad Grothkopf, he donned a rather garish yellow and purple costume, was given a teen sidekick, called Sandy, and even gave up his gas gun.
In late 1941, the team supreme of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were assigned to the strip, and its transition from its pulp roots was complete. Instead of dark and mysterious crime fiction, “Sandman” became a classic Simon and Kirby all-action strip. This transition helped the comic to survive the World War II era by embracing many of the fashions of the day.
By 1946, however, as the comics industry evolved away from super-heroes, Sandman disappeared from sight. He left the Justice Society in 1945, and appeared his last in Adventure Comics, one year later with issue #102.
The Sandman appeared again over twenty years later, with the rest of his pals from the Justice Society, in Justice League of America #46, 1966. That story found the Sandman back in his original outfit of a gas mask and business suit. He was an intriguing character because of his unique look, but always seemed to keep pretty much to the background. In JLA #113, he did step to the forefront as the fate of his partner Sandy was resolved, but despite his unique look, the Golden Age Sandman was always a secondary player in the JLA/JSA team-ups.
When the JSA stepped into their own series with All-Star Comics #57 in 1976, the Sandman wasn’t one of the featured players. The writing was on the wall and Wesley Dodds looked to be headed to the limbo of forgotten comics characters.
Forgotten, that is, until a new, or rather very old, character called the Sandman began appearing in his own series beginning in 1988. You may have heard of this series – written by Neil Gaiman, Sandman was one of the most critically-acclaimed and popular comics of the 1990s. One of the key points of the series was that Morpheus, Dream of legend, had been imprisoned for 70 years in a crystal by an Aleister Crowley analogue who actually was trying to trap Dream’s sister Death. In Dream’s absence, the horrors of the 20th century were unleashed. World War I, the Holocaust, Vietnam – these horrific events occurred because dreams were out of control since they had lost their master.
One other side effect was that some dreams leaked out to minds that were sensitive to the vibrations of the Dreaming. One of those men was millionaire Wesley Dodds, who in the 1930s dreamed of horrific crimes and was compelled to fight them. Donning a gas mask, an analogue to Morpheus’s battle mask, and carrying a gas that forces those who breathe it to tell the truth, Dodds was compelled to fight evil acts that occur in and around New York City. Emerging in 1939 to fight the serial murderer The Tarantula, Dodds was a crimefighter driven by his own nightmares to end the nightmares of others. He simply had no choice but to fight crime. It was either that, or go crazy.
When the Vertigo line began in 1993, it was decided that a spin-off series of Sandman would appear featuring the adventures of Wesley Dodds. In the hands of writers Matt Wagner and Steve Seagle, as well as artist Guy Davis, who drew most of the issues, Sandman Mystery Theatre presented gritty crime stories set in the 1930s. Each story was created as a four-issue arc, which was both a nod to the pulp style of the 1930s and also served to allow each story room to breathe.
Wesley Dodds was never exactly the model of a modern crime fighter. Pudgy and wearing glasses, he hardly had the body of a Greek god. Further, though he did fight crime to stop evil-doers, he did so as much out of a compulsion to end his emotional torture as a compulsion to end evil. And finally, he was never either a friend of an enemy of the police. Instead both sides seemed to size each other up warily, as if never quite trusting each other.
To top it off, the police commissioner was the father of Wesley’s paramour Dian Belmont. After a short time dating, Dian learns of Wesley’s secret identity and secretly supports his wearing of the mask while simultaneously trying to love and respect her father.
Dian is perhaps the most interesting character in the series. One could certainly make the argument that she’s the most intelligent character in the series, and the one who grows the most as the series progresses. Dian allows circumstances to shape her opinions and forms conclusions about events only when evidence points her in a certain direction. Later in life she would become a famous writer – in fact, when Jack Knight, the Starman, meets Wesley and Dian in the pages of his 1990s series, he is more excited to meet the famous writer than he is in meeting the former member of the Justice Society.
And there lies the secret of both why Sandman Mystery Theatre was such a fine series, and why Wesley Dodds is so forgettable. Wagner and Seagle created wonderful, unique characters in Wesley and Dian, and their relationship was one of the most intelligent in comics – they were adults who loved each other as adults. Dodds was a great crimefighter, but that was all he was. Dian, on the other hand, was by the end of SMT’s run both a great crimefighter and great author in training. Her experiences made great art; Dodds’ experiences made great pulp comics. He was forced to fight crime due to his horrific dreams; Dian fought crime because she was intelligent and good at it.
I realize it seems I’m putting down Dodds as I describe this comic. He’s a multifaceted and interesting character. But the real hero of Sandman Mystery Theatre, the one who really grows, is his loving companion.
Seagle and Davis were given the opportunity to wrap up the series with issue 70, and it’s there that Dodds manages to show his real heroism. After he receives a telegram from his brother, who is caught in the Warsaw Ghetto at the dawn of the Second World War, Dodds decides he must fly to Europe and try to help his brother and other people who are having horrific experiences at the hands of the Nazis. He gives up his comfortable life to do something truly good in his life. It’s a transcendent way to end a remarkable series. Sandman Mystery Theatre may be a long-gone continuity implant from the early days of Vertigo. But it is an intelligent, thoughtful series well worth searching out.