Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Hi again, hope all's well.

I finally cracked open We Told You So: Comics As Art, the oral history of Fantagraphics. Fifty pages in, it already gets huge thumbs up. Yes, it's well established that I'm a complete Fanta dork, but as not just a publishing history but also a history of the medium itself it's a roaring success. There's Jim Steranko anecdotes, admitting to breaking into an office several nights a week to typeset magazines, an ill-fated attempt to raise cash, an encounter with Hunter S. Thompson -- this thing is already full of surprises. As Robert Crumb says in his intro about my most favourite of comics publishers, "They are not 'businessmen,' they are connoisseurs who want to put out good books...that they think ought to exist in the world. And that's a good thing, however they manage to do it."
 Can't argue with that.


By Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle, Guy Davis, David Hornung, Vince Locke & Friends
Published By Vertigo

The inherent danger in returning to comics you once loved after a decade or so is that oftentimes...they just aren't very good. Not so the case with Sandman Mystery Theatre, finally being properly and entirely collected in books collating a year's worth of issues. It not only holds up brilliantly but is also somehow perhaps one of the most politically and socially relevant comic books currently being (re)published. Xenophobia, homophobia, classism, misogyny, capitalism run amok -- Sandman Mystery Theatre commits itself to shedding its pulpy light on all these things, highlighting the nightmarish corners otherwise hidden by the garish brightness of "The American Dream."For a book set in the late 1930s and originally published in the early 1990s it's remarkable, unfortunately so, that its thematic relevance is so absolutely modern.

Published to capitalise on the burgeoning popularity of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic, Sandman Mystery Theatre first appeared in 1993 as one of the first ongoing comics launched under the new Vertigo imprint. Featuring DC Comics' very own Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds, who was a crime-fighter dressed in the typical PI attire of trenchcoat, fedora and suit. However, this Sandman obscured his identity by wearing an old gas mask over his face that also doubled as one of the oddest, most surreal "superhero" costume adornments of the period. There is something very strange about Sandman's appearance - the gas mask giving him the look of some sort of bug or mosquito-man, ripped from the pages of Kafka, or perhaps Burroughs' Naked Lunch. The Sandman blasts foes with a sleeping gas from a jury-rigged gas gun and as victims fall into a druggy haze, the vision of this human/insect mash-up looming over them demanding information proves utterly terrifying to those experiencing it.

Written originally by a solo Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle joined as co-writer in the title's second year. The book was originally slated to have a rotating core of artists, similar to Gaiman's Sandman, and for the title's first year, the incredible Guy Davis, the vastly under-appreciated John Watkiss and R.G. Taylor worked on the template four-issue story lines, with Davis eventually settling in to the role of regular artist. Davis was a fine choice, the perfect artist to bring the decadence of the late '30s to detailed, scratchy life. The only real major change to this creative line up and format was Wagner's eventual departure, leaving Seagle to write solo, and the Sandman Mystery Theatre Annual #1 (collected in Book 2) which saw a single story broken down into multiple chapters and points of view and each drawn by a different artist. Alex Ross was one of the artists involved with the annual and turns in, for my money, the work of his career. Painting in black and white, Ross' usual tendency to photo reference lends his work an annoyingly static feeling - his figures seem glued into his panels. Here, however, his pages look as though they are filled with frames clipped from some long lost film noir, utterly perfect for the series suited to photo-realism. 

While Ross utilised black and white for his brief chapter, the rest of the series was luridly coloured by David Hornung. Sandman Mystery Theatre, at least initially, was a riot of odd, vivid colour choices, almost as striking as an Argento Giallo film. Sandman's trenchcoat in the title's second arc, "The Face,"is a purple clashing against lime green backgrounds and while things eventually tone down a notch in the title's second year, Hornung's striking use of colour clearly attempts to recreate the limited colours available in the Golden Age of comics printing.

Davis and Seagle flesh Wesley Dodds out beautifully. A rich white man who inherited his wealth, Dodds has spent many years overseas becoming cultured, refined and sensitive. Despite clearly being a member of the 1%, America to Dodds is grotesque, drowning in booze and a good time even as war looms and its downtrodden are swept under the carpet. Haunted by nightmares he can't quite understand, Wesley is driven to fight crime, to stop the monsters he sees in his sleep. Wesley Dodds' Sandman is in many ways the anti-Batman. Of the many takes on Batman, my favourite is that Batman is the face, Bruce Wayne the mask. This is starkly contrasted by Wesley Dodds. Bumbling, chubby, frequently caught unawares and/or overmatched physically by opposing combatants, the reader constantly feels as though Dodds has no business sticking his nose into these horrible crimes. Weirdly, Dodds is as close to a "real world" Batman as you're likely to find in comics.

Dodds' love interest comes in the form of Dian Belmont. Dian's father is a D.A. and a kind of Commissioner Gordon to Dodds' Batman, if you will. Dian is a character vital to the series, not just as Wesley's anchor to the "real world" and a rich emotional life, but as a window into the gender politics of the time and a potent reminder that, despite the sexism inherent in the period, that many women were fiery, independent individuals. Dian is a liberated, modern, and experimental woman, smoking marijuana with friends (which Dodds finds amusing, having been a bit of a pothead in his international travels), frequenting jazz clubs in Harlem, maintaining friendships with queer women and having a previous relationship with a Chinese man. 

Murder mysteries have a tendency to peter out towards their end, sputtering to a conclusion as killers are revealed. Sandman Mystery Theatre skirts the often anti-climactic reveal of the criminal by basically telegraphing up front who the killer actually is. The murderers that propel Sandman Mystery Theatre’s plots forward really are not all that important, they are colourful, pulpy figures designed solely to allow the creators to focus on the socio-economic themes that form the spine of the series and allow greater exploration of Wesley and Dian's complex relationship and the uniquely particular time in which they live. The title never, ever forgets to be thrillingly lurid despite this and remains a beautifully illustrated, cleverly constructed comic throughout one that, as mentioned at the top of this review, really should not feel as fresh and relevant as it does. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Sandman Mystery Theatre is a wonderful way to be reminded of this very sad but true cliché.


By Steve Ditko

Back once again to The Bristol Board site, which just last week unearthed this 1960 gem by none other than the astounding Steve Ditko. A bitter, penniless "mask maker" reduced to making "creations for Halloween" hits his old Grimoires for creative inspiration. In an old dusty tome, he finds mention of an old magician named Drothor. Any who try to capture Drothor's image are doomed to meet a "tragic fate," so of course, our mask maker decide to give it a shot. What could possibly go wrong?

If this isn't a showcase of utterly prime Ditko, it has to be very, very close. It's gorgeous and lively work, lushly inked. Ditko may be the artist the most closely linked to the sleek acrobatics of Spider-Man and the psychedelic, physics-shattering realms of Doctor Strange, but he was equally gifted at drawing shadowy Gothic horrors as this little piece from Tales To Astonish #11 so clearly demonstrates. If you're left with a hankering for yet more classic Ditko after reading this, I highly recommend the ongoing reprint series showcasing his pre-Marvel genre work published by Fantagraphics and edited by Blake Bell.


Returning not only to print mid-year (in hardback!) but also coming to our television screens for a series is Charles Forsman's TEOTFW (The End of the Fucking World). Teenage misfit love turns increasingly and eventually criminally violent in TEOTFW, Forsman's harrowing breakthrough work, a series which he originally serialised in minicomics sold for $1 before Fantagraphics first collected the entire series a few year years back. Here's a little promo piece for the comic, showcasing Forsman's punk rock twist on the classic American cartooning of, say, Charles Schultz. It's clearly a big year for the artist as he wraps up his current Revenger & The Fog series and readies the debut of something called Slasher, forthcoming from Floating World Comics. Bring on the TV show, however, debuting on Netflix sometime later this year. Congrats, Charles.

See you next week. Love your comics.

Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you'll likely never read. He's the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.


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