In the early 1990s DC Comics was seen to have moved so far beyond their normal tried and true comic book publishing that a new publishing imprint geared towards outside-the-mainstream ideas and directed at more mature readers was required.
Swamp Thing, John Constantine: Hellblazer, The Sandman, Shade The Changing Man, Doom Patrol and Animal Man, already well-established titles with a well-established fan base, moved to the new Vertigo Comics imprint as foundational offerings into what would become a game-changing publishing decision. Within months, other notable titles like Death: The High Cost of Living and Enigma followed suit, broadening the offerings under the mature label.
These weren’t just darker or weirder stories for a more alternative audience. These were titles that also pushed the established comic book boundaries of genre and setting. In the spring of 1993 and drawing upon the success of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning The Sandman comic book series, the 1930s set noir-crime series, Sandman Mystery Theatre hit store shelves and anxious readers looking for something different with serious aplomb.
Initially written by comic book luminary, Matt Wagner (Mage, Grendel, The Demon, Madame Xanadu, Batman and the Mad Monk) who was later joined by Steven T. Seagal (House of Secrets, It’s a Bird…, American Virgin, Soul Kiss, Alpha Flight) and illustrated by fan favourite Guy Davis (B.P.R.D., The Marquis, Brave Old World) who himself would also be joined by numerous illustrators over the length of the series, Sandman Mystery Theatre drew upon an old, somewhat forgotten DC character in Wesley Dodds, the first to use the name Sandman, who had originally appeared in New York World’s Fair Comics in all the way back in 1939.
Set in the aftermath of the great depression, specifically in late 1930s New York City, amidst a backdrop of racism, antisemitism, the rise of feminism and the coming war in Europe, multi-millionaire Wesley Dodds is haunted by dreams (a loose tie-in to the other Sandman series) and dons a trench coat, fedora and a gasmask at night in order to fight crime and ease his own inner hauntings. Dodds is joined by his adventurous girlfriend Dian Belmont, the daughter of New York’s District Attorney, as they cross paths with all sorts of evil men and the evil that men are capable of.
Over the course of seventy monthly issues, one annual and a special, The Sandman Mystery Theatre served up atmospheric noir thrills regularly, focusing on three-dimensional characters and scenarios that could be pulled from real life. Dodds himself was a somewhat awkward, although rich, recluse who was round in the face and slightly overweight – a far cry from the muscle-bound alpha-males of superhero comics. Belmont herself was a beautiful, heavier set woman of her times, anxious to show everyone that a female was just as capable, if not more so, than men in male-dominated mid-twentieth century society.
The Sandman Mystery Theatre took much inspiration and research from its setting both in stories and characters. Real life historical figures would often show up in storylines. Baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and famous gangster Bugsy Siegal make featured cameos in the first issue! Main storylines of the title would generally last four-issues in length and every installment was handsomely presented with wonderfully distinctive and moody photographic collage covers by artists Gavin Wilson and Richard Bruning, something that further differentiated the series from all others being published at the time.
Beloved during the ’90s when it was first published, original readers still think very highly of The Sandman Mystery Theatre title today, a high-water mark of the Vertigo Comics era.
Although it might not be in a fan-preferred hardcover format, The Sandman Mystery Theatre Compendium 1 softcover compilation collects the first 36 issues of the series along with the first annual, running at 981-pages of juicy noir excitement.
Make the run to your local comic book shop and pick up the absolutely wonderful and ground-breaking The Sandman Mystery Theatre Compendium 1 today!