Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 7: The Mist and the Phantom of the Fair

Written by Matt Wagner and Steven T. Seagle
Art by Guy Davis
200 pages, color
Published by Vertigo/DC Comics

The past few years, Vertigo’s released a new volume of Sandman Mystery Theatre just in time for spring. While I’ll admit that I’m a relatively recent convert to the series, it hasn’t stopped me from really appreciating what Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle, and Guy Davis all brought to the series. With the release of Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 7: The Mist and the Phantom of the Fair, though, this is a book that might have some special to Starman fans—especially with the Starman Omnibus series now hitting shelves.

As the 1930s are about to end, it’s getting harder by the day for the United States to ignore what’s happening in Europe. As the country’s armed forces quietly prepare for the worst, two inventors traveling to New York to pitch their devices are of particular note. There’s Ted Knight from Opal City, who is trying to harness cosmic rays and use their numerous powers. And then there’s Johnathan Smythe, whose strange device can not only cut through steel, but vaporize living beings into nothing more than a mist. All the while, the 1939 World’s Fair looms on the horizon, but amidst the festivities, a killer lurks…

While Sandman Mystery Theatre had already used one previous Justice Society of America character, Hourman, in the previous volume, the series rather boldly took an additional step forward with the first story of "The Mist." Serving as a partial origin story about Ted Knight (aka Starman)’s nemesis the Mist, Wagner and Seagle have the task of not only making fans of both the Ted Knight and Jack Knight Starman comics have an interesting hook to pull them in with "The Mist," but at the same time still have the story stand on its own well enough that those who didn’t read Starman would still find the story entertaining. Thankfully, they succeed at both of these; by setting this before the actual debut of Ted Knight as a superhero, Sandman Mystery Theatre is able to stay well rooted in its pulp mystery and noir corner. It never feels like a superhero comic, but rather one with what was at the time a logical and slightly terrifying prediction about what science would bring. With the atomic bomb just years away, of course, it makes Smythe’s own invention not really that far-fetched when you think about it.

"The Phantom of the Fair" is a darker, creepier story than "The Mist," not that it’s a bad thing. Like so many other Sandman Mystery Theatre, its villain is rooted in bigotry, but Wagner and Seagle never make drawing from that well feel tired or old. "The Phantom of the Fair" is a little heavy-handed in places, with Wesley’s wrestling over the idea that one of his friends is gay, but never offensively or too annoyingly. For a story set in 1939, Wagner and Seagle do a good job of both being true to the time period even while maintaining a slightly modern take on the entire story. Dian steals the show in this story, her sharp wit and ingenuity becoming an integral part of the action. "The Phantom of the Fair" is the weaker of the two stories here, but don’t get me wrong—they’re both quite good.

As good as both of these stories are, though, the best part of Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 7 for me was the continued evolution of Wesley Dodds’s and Dian Belmont’s relationship. I think it’s safe to say at this point that Wagner and Seagle really created one of the all-time great relationships in comics with the two of them. With each year of the series, Wesley and Dian’s relationship continued to evolve and change. After the break-up from the previous year, the two of them back together (as chronicled in the Sandman Midnight Theatre one-shot, which is collected in Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days) is such a wonderful breath of fresh air. The two have finally cleared the air between them, and having them working together and without secrets is just fun. From Dian’s new job where she can feed information to Wesley, to their playful and sexually-charged banter, it’s hard to imagine the book without both of them present. Having Dian as Wesley’s partner (both public and private) really opens up so many possibilities for Wagner and Seagle that it makes me wonder just how long the two were itching to get to this point in the series.

Davis’s art looks as handsome as ever in this latest volume of Sandman Mystery Theatre. I don’t know if it’s the printing process, the paper stock, or Davis’s art itself, but it (along with David Hornung’s colors) seems unusually crisp and sharp here. Characters fairly pop off the page, Davis being more than able to bring creepy and terrifying characters to life with them being dressed in nothing more menacing than a suit. What I especially love is how Davis is able to bring all the different places in New York to life and making them all feel like we’re in 1939 New York, from the grimy alleyways of bad neighborhoods to the gleaming grounds of the World’s Fair. It almost saddens me at times that we really don’t get comics that look like this any more from the big companies, and that’s definitely our loss.

Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 7: The Mist and the Phantom of the Fair is easily one of my favorite volumes of the series to date. Both of the stories are sharp and interesting, and the strong working relationships between Wesley and Dian just pops off the page so well that it makes me sad that (by my count) we’ve only got three more collections to go. If you’ve heard about how much people loved Sandman Mystery Theatre (it’s reportedly Vertigo senior editor Karen Berger’s favorite series from the imprint) but haven’t ever given it a chance, this is the perfect place to jump on board and find out for yourself.

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