Dateline: New York City, 1938. America has seen off the worst of The Great Depression, but all is not well in the big city. In the midst of the towering skyscrapers, rowdy jazz clubs & high society glamour, crime, poverty & prejudice run rampant in the streets. One man follows his dark dreams, to take up arms against this sea of troubles.
By day, he is Wesley Dodds, reclusive industrial heir. By night, he becomes...
Sandman Mystery Theatre is a comicbook written primarily by Matt Wagner and Steven Seagle from DC's noted Vertigo imprint, a Revival of the Golden Age Super Hero and founding member of the Justice Society of America, Sandman, a Badass Normal in the Batman tradition, who debuted around the same time, who fought crime using a gun that fired sleeping gas.
Dream of The Endless' runaway success inspired a new series, focusing on the original character to bear the Sandman moniker, but heavily reworked to remove the original's less realistic elements (the yellow and purple costume, custom-made yellow and blue gasmask, Kid Sidekick, etc.). Wagner's Sandman goes back to the original Golden Age roots of the character. We have Wesley Dodds calling himself the Sandman, and fighting crime in a gasmask, with a gas gun.
Instead of Super Hero comics of the period, Wagner's work draws more heavily from detective stories and Two-Fisted Tales-style pulp fiction. It has a strong Noir vibe, brought to life by the various artists' dark visuals and period setpieces. The main character has also been heavily altered. Rather than the classic Rich Idiot with No Day Job persona affected by the likes of Bruce Wayne or Lamont Cranston, Dodds comes off as a bit of a short, podgy-faced, bespectacled geek, more in the style of Dan Dreiberg than anything. Were it not for occasional prophetic dreams he receives unconsciously through an ill-defined connection with the other Sandman, Morpheus, he would be the quintessential Badass Normal, just a guy in an army surplus gasmask with a fancy gun.
Much time is also given to the relationship between Dodds and his Love Interest, Dian Belmont, the daughter of the local DA and eventually his Margo Lane-esque sidekick. Many of the stories are told from her perspective and it could even be argued she's the real main character, not to mention the real Badass Normal.
Sandman Mystery Theatre is a wonderful read for anybody who loves classic pulp fiction, Film Noir, or costumed hero stories that stay towards the more realistic end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism. The series lasted for 70 issues, from April, 1993 to January, 1999.
- A Man Is Nota Virgin: Averted. It's strongly implied Wesley has never been with a woman before Dian (whereas she clearly isn't and makes no apologies for it.)
- Accidental Murder: After gassing a hostage-taker/assassin, Wes is horrified when the man has a fatal allergic reaction and subsequently modifies his gas to be even more hypoallergenic than before.
- Adult Fear: Poor Rocket Ramsey is an honest boxer trying to make a good living. His little girl, Emily, has a bronchial infection, forcing him to try to get her medicine so she can live. And then he comes back to find a seemingly kindly old tramp he trusted to watch out for Emily raped her when he was away at work.
- An Aesop: Most of the stories are themed around some social ill or other, for example racism, sexism, child abuse, etc. Usually handled subtly enough.
- Arch-Enemy: Kind of a weird case with the Face, who is one of Wesley's only recurring foes...however, Wesley is rarely even aware of him, due to the Face's Master of Disguise nature, barely knows who the guy is and despite the series seemingly building to some deep rivalry with the two, it never quite pans out until decades later in James Robinson's Starman when they have one final match.
- Asshole Victim: Quite a few.
- Bastard Boyfriend: Ray Kessler is the boyfriend of Dian's cousin, and a despicable human being who neglects her, mistreats her in bed, cheats on her and finally rapes her when she stands up to him.
- The Bear: One of the Phantom of the Fair's victims is this.
- Beneath the Mask: The Sandman is something like this for Wesley, bordering on a Split Personality.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Linda from The Crone, who passive aggressively drops information to get Patricia Honeywell fired so she can replace her.
- Break the Cutie: Happens to quite a few of Dian's friends. Also, poor, poor Emily...
- Broad Strokes: Although the Vertigo imprint has a peculiar relationship with mainstream DC comics, the events of Mystery Theatre seem to have been made more-or-less canon.
- BrotherSister Incest: Implied to be the origin of The Butcher.
- Bury Your Gays: The Phantom of the Fair, which involves a serial killer who specializes solely in gay men. Including Wesley's friend Robert.
- Calling Card: The Sandman usually leaves clues in the form of poems written on bits of origami on the crooks he's gassed for the police to find.
- Chew Toy: The Sandman gets the drop on Burke enough for it to become a running gag.
- Character Development: Lieutenant Burke softens up a bit. A little bit.
- Church of Happyology: In some ways The Order of Ancient Mysteries comes off as a sort of pre-WWII version of this in Midnight Theatre, which is a bit odd considering Gaiman's upbringing...
- Coat, Hat, Mask: Dodds' Sandman costume consists of a big, brown trenchcoat, his dad's old World War I gasmask, a fedora & whatever else he happens to be wearing.
- The Commissioner Gordon: Both DA Belmont and ME Klein.
- Creepy Child: The Goblin.
- Crossover: Sandman Midnight Theatre, written by Neil Gaiman, featuring a brief meeting between the two Sandmen. Also features a few with other JSA super people, despite not being in the same continuity as the main DCU. Maybe.
- For instance, Wes is the one who first confronts the scientist who would become the Mist, one of Starman's bitterest rivals, and meets with Ted Knight in the same arc. This is confirmed as Canon in the Starman storyline "Sand and Stars".
- There's also an entire four-issue story arc where he teams up with Rex Tyler, the Hourman.
- Daddy's Girl: Dian at times. Then there's Cassandra from The Scorpion, who realizes who the killer is and sends an anonymous tip to the police before confronting the killer herself.
- Deadpan Snarker: Lt. Burke.
Barry Smithers: Lt. Burke? I've been thinking.
- While he's questioning club members being targeted by a killer:
Lt. Burke: Did it hurt?
Lt. Burke: Fire escape.
- And in a later arc while they're following a possible suspect:
Shephard: You want me to climb it?
Lt. Burke: No, I want you to fuck it. Of course I want you to climb it.
- Drama Queen: Patricia Honeywell from The Crone, though it seems rather justified when she has to deal with an abortion and lowering herself to giving oral sex to her boss in order to keep her job. She later seems to become a Defrosting Ice Queen when she is legitimately touched by Frank Bowman's concern for her, and comes to Farley Wells' defense when he's fired.
- Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: In Return of the Scarlet Ghost, Colm and Peter Petty, while both are utter sociopaths, threatened their cousin Sean when they learned that he got Peter's mother (Colm and Sean's aunt) badly frazzled for no reason. Colm states "that woman's been a fucking saint to us".
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Albert Reisling neglected his illegitimate children, uses his mentally handicapped daughter as an assassin, runs violent underground fight rings and will happily murder those who cross him, but when his daughter is shot, he screams "my little girl" in genuine grief.
- Family-Unfriendly Death: The cover for #58 has been dubbed by Dial B for Blog as the sickest comic book cover for depicting a mob hit.
- Fat Bastard: Most of The Python's victims, though his actual motive wasn't the bastard part so much, as he was driven criminally insane when his obese mother molested him. And even then, one of his victims was his black foster mother, and she did nothing to him. Burke, a moderate racist, calls him an animal because of it.
- Funetik Aksent: Most of the "Cherman" characters who appear sound like they learned English from The Katzenjammer Kids.
- Gas Mask, Longcoat: Guess.
- Gentleman Thief: The Cannon.
- Gender Reveal: The Brute is actually a woman, the daughter of the storyarcs main villain. Her monstrous size and stunted mind is the result of horrific child abuse she suffered at the hands of her insane mother during the years her father had abandoned the family
- Good Bad Girl: Dian doesn't have a cruel bone in her body, but loves partying and enjoys being sexually active, often the more aggressive in bed between her and Wesley. While it's implied Wesley is a virgin before being with Dian, she absolutely isn't.
- Good Girls Avoid Abortion: A notable subplot that emerged in the later half of the series involved Dian getting pregnant. The pregnancy was dealt with in The Crone, where Dian decided that it wouldn't be right to bring a child into the world during a time of war and with parents who aren't ready for the responsibility, so by the end of the arc Dian (with Wesley's extremely reluctant agreement) decides to have the pregnancy aborted. The aftereffects of this decision are felt up to the end of the series. In The Cannon, Wesley dreams of their child growing into an adult and telling Wesley that, while he forgives his parents, God may not be so forgiving. In The Goblin, a head injury is the catalyst which causes Wesley to undergo a breakdown/willing Split-Personality Takeover which is implied to be his way of escaping his guilt and anger over the issue (he comes out of it sobbing and saying he misses their child). Dian's father also has a heart attack when he learns of the abortion.
- Heroic Build: Averted. Wes is actually a bit pudgy as depicted by most artists, although some make him more conventionally buff-looking, resembling the character design from the Golden Age comics.
- I Never Said It Was Poison: When Ramsey in The Brute catches up with Schenk, who raped his young daughter, Schenk immediately says that 'the girl was lying,' prompting Ramsey to coldly ask "who said this was about Emily" and makes Schenk realizes he's incriminated himself from the get go.
- Idiot Ball: Played with regarding Cassandra in The Scorpion. She realizes who the killer is and tips off the police that her father may be in danger, though the "idiot" part comes into play when she confronts the killer by herself. Of course, Cassandra didn't have enough tangible proof to show the police who the killer was, confronted him with a gun, and only let her guard down because she's been falling in love with him and he took her by surprise.
- Inspector Javert: Burke, at first, though after he find out the Sandman had his office bugged he decides he'd rather just kill him than arrest him.
- Instant Sedation: Averted. In most cases, The Sandman's gas causes this within seconds, but some people are more resistant than others, and people who are allergic or who have breathing/cardiac problems are at risk of dying from exposure.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mr. Ricketts from The Goblin.
- Karma Houdini: The Face always escapes, albeit his pride is rarely intact.
- Kill 'Em All: Some of the bleaker story arcs end with nearly all the main characters introduced dead by the end. The Brute is a particularly good example.
- Knockout Gas: One of the Sandman's signature weapons.
- Lady Looks Like a Dude: The Brute.
- Leatherman: The Phantom of the Fair, a homosexual man in denial (though possibly suffering from either schizophrenia or a Split Personality) who captures, tortures, and kills other homosexuals and dumps their bodies at the World's Fair.
- Laser-Guided Karma: The tramp Wilbur Schenk is a scumbag who rapes a little girl. Hard to blame her father when he tracks him down and beats his brains out (literally) with a pipe.
- Let's You and Him Fight: (The Face's murders are an attempt to incite this among the Chinatown gangs.)
- Love Makes You Evil: The Crone.
- Mad Scientist: The Mist.
- Madness Mantra: "No more medicine, daddy." From poor little Emily Ramsey after her rape by Wilbur Schenk, who told her it was 'medicine.'
- Master of Disguise: The Face. He needs it too, he's The Grotesque without makeup.
- Mercy Kill: 'Doctor Death' thinks he's doing this, murdering people before they get too old.
- Mistaken for Gay: Wesley in The Phantom Of The Fair.
- My Beloved Smother: The villain of The Crone was trying to frame his mother, a literary professor and avid hater of the radio by dressing up like an old woman and leaving behind books which he had taken from her personal library. He did so because she never supported his desire to become a radio star, however, he was also doing it in order to rise up in the show's cast and to win the affection of the female lead. His mother claims, however, that she never directly disapproved of his aspirations because he wasn't even as good as his father.
- Mythology Gag: During the Hourman arc, Wes attends a costume party in a ridiculous looking getup resembling a costume he wore for a while in the original comics.
- Next Tier Powerup: Over the course of the series, Wesley switches to a less cumbersome mask which is easier to see out of, appears to contain some means of enhancing his hearing (lessening the need for bugs) and upon which he can attach a rebreather, fashions a less unwieldy rig and smaller canisters for his gas gun, (permitting him to reload more often and more quickly), and creates a hypoallergenic (and apparently more effective) version of his gas. (Although the former two vary somewhat Depending on the Artist). After he encounters Dream himself face-to-face, Wes's prophetic dreams get somewhat less obscure, as well.
- Nice Girl: Dian may be a party girl, but she is dedicated, kind, nonjudgmental, and a very, very moral woman.
- Noble Bigot with a Badge: Detective Burke, most notably. Gets a taste of his own medicine in The Vamp when questioning suspects at an exclusive club who look down on his Sicilian heritage.
- No Peripheral Vision: Wes, at least in the first story, has a very bad habit of not noticing people sneaking up on him. He eventually creates a device to alert him to this. Justified since part of his costume is a large, unwieldy gas mask.
- Only a Flesh Wound: Handled just a touch more realistically than most. Though Wesley is often visibly pained by the various injuries he suffers on the job, they ultimately don't impact his performance too much. The man somehow manages to get shot in the gut with a revolver, fend the attacker off with his gas gun, cauterize the wound with a red hot poker & he's up and about the next day with only some minor first aid.
- Papa Wolf: In The Brute, Ramsey beats to death the homeless man who molested his young daughter.
- Parental Incest: Drives the plot of the first story.
- Also featured in The Python, where the villain was traumatized from being molested by his obese mother as a child.
- Parental Neglect: Wesley's father wasn't a very loving man, and he's often reflecting on how his life may have turned out had his father been different. This is also a plot point in The Brute and featured in Doctor Death.
- Pet the Dog: Ray Kessler is a true scumbag who abuses, cheats on and rapes his young girlfriend, treats his son like dirt and murders people to 'euthanize' them but he hates racism and is disgusted when a waitress tries to ignore his black friend, demanding she serve him "or answer to me!"
- Politically Correct History: Mainly averted. The series does a decent job of showing the casual racism of the times, though the protagonists' attitudes are still somewhat anachronistic. May be justified by their characterization, though, as Wesley traveled a lot in his youth & got to know people from many different backgrounds, while Dian is noted to be a very progressive sort of person.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: Averted, or perhaps subverted. Ray Kessler is insane and kills people out of a seriously misplaced drive for euthanasia. He is also a terrible father and ends up raping his younger girlfriend, who he tends to treat like shit. He is also implied to go through a string of younger women. He is, however, always perfecting polite and kind to blacks and is good friends with a black doctor whom he sticks up for.
- Precision F-Strike: Wesley is generally very calm and collected in both his civilian and Sandman identities. His learning of Arthur Reisling's attempted rape of Dian is the first time we see him not only angry, but furious:Wesley: Why, that...that SONUVABITCH!!!
- Psycho Lesbian: The title character of The Vamp is a textbook example (with something of an excuse), but they at least try to balance it out with some more positive lesbian characters, namely Carol, who manages to be sympathetic despite being rather promiscuous & flighty, as well as her girlfriend, who, though something of a Love Martyr, is an even more realistic character (and thus not interesting enough to feature for very long...).
- Of course being a lesbian has nothing to do with why she's insane.
- Psychopathic Manchild: The Brute, though it's actually more of a Psychopathic Womanchild.
- Rape as Drama:
- Poor little Emily Ramsey is raped by a seemingly kindly old tramp when her father is away.
- Madeleine in The Vamp was gang-raped by the members of a fraternity during a hazing incident that got out of hand.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: In The Goblin, Dian starts joining Humphrey's daughter Etta in doing some charity work at an orphanage. However, the two are sent to run an errand at another orphanage called Standard House, and it looks more like an asylum. The manager of the building, Mr. Ricketts, calls the two out on their "desire to help children" by showing them the children who get sent to Standard House: malformed, ill, developmentally disabled, simply too old or not white. Basically, children that aren't able to get adopted because they aren't "pretty" enough. Dian decides to devote more time at Standard House because she realizes these children are the ones who need help.
- Rich Idiot with No Day Job: Averted. Wesley is too essentially serious to play a fribble role at all, and instead is assumed by most people to be a dull, puritanical workaholic too boring to be a vigilante.
- Rogues Gallery: The Sandman has a few recurring nemeses, most notably The Face.
- Samaritan Syndrome: Wesley describes the compulsion to solve the crimes in his dreams as a droning voice, demanding he pay it heed.
- Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Dr. Estelle Beauvedere from The Crone lacks patience when dealing with people she considers to be idiots, which usually consists of anyone who disagrees with her. Though her responses sometimes are limited to a simple Death Glare.
- Secret Keeper: Dian Belmont and Wesley's butler Humphries, both of whom occasionally help him out.
- Secret Secret-Keeper: The last issue reveals that Lieutenant Burke either knows or strongly suspects that The Sandman is Wesley Dodds. How or when he figured this out is never explained.
- Shur Fine Guns: The rusty old pistol Rocket Ramsey uses to take revenge on the gangsters who ruined his life blows up in his hand after a few shots.
- Start of Darkness: The ending of The Mist. This is a subversion though, as he never actually appears in the book after this arc.
- Story Within a Story: Return of the Scarlet Ghost features snippets of a pulp magazine and comic book renditions of the Sandman's fictional exploits against the Scarlet Ghost. The comic is credited towards Joe Simon as the writer.
- Super Serum: Hourman's Miracle Pills.
- The Brute: The title character of the third story arc.
- The Mafia: Italian gangsters make a few appearances, though they're usually not the main focus. Many other organized crime outfits feature more prominently. For example, the gangsters in the Tarantula arc were Jewish.
- The Sandman: Created originally based on the original folklore, in this series is retconned to be based on the 80s series by Neil Gaiman.
- The Summation: Wesley, Dian & sometimes her father & others usually sum up the plot at the end of each arc, in case you missed anything.
- The Vamp: The title character of another story arc.
- Third-Person Person: Lenny from the Hourman crossover.
- Tragic Monster: The Brute of the titular storyline is a mentally damaged woman named Maria who was locked in a closet by her insane mother for three years after she and her brother were abandoned by her father. Now she's an insane beast of a human being who serves as her father's attack dog and has no possible conception of a normal life.
- Truth Serum: One of the side effects of the gas.
- Two-Person Love Triangle: Averted. Dian likes Wesley. The Sandman scares the hell out of her, at least at first.
- Unwanted Assistance: Hourman was originally hired by a woman to talk some sense into her husband, who was spending all his hanging out with low-level mafia goombas. Each one of Hourman's attempts at trying to talk some sense into the guy and providing a way out of the criminal life end disastrously (for his wife, at least, who is on the receiving end of her husband's anger) because the guy is too stupid and too proud to actually listen.
- Whip It Good: The Scorpion uses a bullwhip tipped with a poison that kills in seconds.
- Would Hurt a Child: The Brute revolves around the prevalence of this trope and how most people simply accepted horrible child abuse as the most common form of child-rearing. And the disastrous consequences it can have.
- Yellow Peril: Invoked, but mostly subverted in The Face. The Tongs are real, but the main villain is a white businessman trying to cover up the fact that he has an asian ancestor by getting a crimelord who knows the truth killed.
- You Killed My Father: The killer in The Scorpion blames the oil executives for the death of his father. Not that they cheated him out of pairing a fair price for his lands, but that they shunned him once he became rich.