Sunday, July 26, 2009

Insomnia's Finest

Short and sweet today. My first exposure to Matt Wagner, so far as I can recall, was Sandman Mystery Theatre. No doubt acquired due to my abiding fondness for The Sandman, Vertigo started this, quite possibly the best noir comic ever, in 1993. It had little connection to The Sandman, actually, other than some of our hero's impetus being that he couldn't sleep without premonitionary nightmares, which were related to Morpheus's 70 years of captivity that started in 1916.

The Sandman Mystery Theatre was set in 1938. It's opening arc was, considering how things go today, the soul of brevity. Four issues was all it took to bring us The Tarantula, and set up the series run of 70 issues. With The Sandman having a run of similar length, I'm starting to think 6 years is just about right for a good, long concept story. But that's a topic for another day.

Out titular hero is the Golden Age Sandman, one Wesley Dodds. Wesley has inherited his father's myriad business interests, and accompanying wealth. Though he had little interest in business, he now runs the corporation(s). He's plagued by nightmares whenever he tries to sleep, so he doesn't sleep much. These nightmares tie into crimes plaguing NYC is some manner, so he uses a specially developed gas that works like a truth serum to investigate the crimes. To prevent being effected by the gas himself he wears a mask that appears to be surplus from WWI. The gas is delivered by a modified pistol.

One of the more interesting things about the setting of the story is that, despite the country being in the throes of the Great Depression, there was still great wealth about. Dodds is a member of high society. Parties are still thrown. Judges and district attorneys and high politicians are still working the rooms. All wealth did not disappear in the Great Depression, any more than it has now. (I'll refrain from naming our current economic condition, as I make no pretense of knowing whether it's akin to the early '80s or the '30s, or neither.) People were not suffering from unremitting mysery. Hell, as the stories show, Harlem's jazz clubs were at their peak at this time.

So, our cast, other than our hero. We have Dian Belmont and her father, the DA. She's a college graduate and jazz club afficionado. No job. No boyfriend. Lives at home with dad. We have the coarse and racist, but intelligent in solving crime, Detective Burke. There's retired judge Thomas Schaffer, unrepentant liberal and friend of Wesley Dodds. These four would remain important elements throughout the series.

In this particular story Dian's friend, Catherine van der Meer, a fellow party girl, is secretly dating the married Albert Goldman, a mobster of many years. Catherine is kidnapped. A succession of unknown, lower and middle class other girls are kidnapped and killed by a person who, in ransom notes, adopts the nom du crime of The Tarantula. Though Catherine is the first kidnapped, she's never killed like the others.

As it turns out, the Goldman family is particularly sordid. Prior to carrying on with Catherine, for many years Albert had been sleeping with his own daughter. She's now used her sexual prowess to gain hold over him so that he alters his will to make her the sole beneficiary. Learning of their removal as beneficiaries, Albert's alcoholic wife and son are, collectively, The Tarantula. The kidnapping is but a ruse to get Catherine to disclose anything she might have learned from Albert during their affair.

There are, of course, many other details to the story. And the art of Guy Davis, along with the coloring of David Hornung, is a co-equal to Wagner's writing in this story. The art can only be described as appropriate for its setting and story, and meant as the highest of praise. There are no glamour shots here. There are no sticks with tits or steroidal gorillas. These characters are drawn like real men and women. There's meat on the bones and weakness of the flesh. I presume that Davis did the inking, as there's no separate credit for it, and that too is wonderful.

Among the elements setting the stage for future tales is the attraction of the bookish, origami creating Dodds to the partying Dian Belmont, as well as her attraction to him. Cleverly, this mutual attraction is sparked by the disdain each has for the hero worship of Lou Gherig at a party. You gotta love the little things in a story that seem like they can be thrown away, but actually reflect how real relationships develop.

If you haven't read this, find it. Buy it in singles or trade. Doesn't matter. If you have any affection for the noir movies of the '30s, '40s and '50s, be they Bogart's and Cagney's gangster works or a later classic like Double Indemnity, you don't want to miss this. Even if you're not a fan of noir, if you enjoy good stories well told, then this should be near the top of your list. I'll run through a few more story arcs down the line, too.

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