Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 8: The Blackhawk and the Return of the Scarlet Ghost

Written by Matt Wagner and Steven T. Seagle
Penciled by Guy Davis and Matthew Smith, with Daniel Torres
Inked by Guy Davis and Richard Case, with Daniel Torres
224 pages, color
Published by Vertigo/DC Comics

Reading a new collection of Sandman Mystery Theatre is a guilty pleasure, but not in the way one normally uses the phrase. Having stopped buying the series during its first year due to finances, there’s a certain amount of guilt now that shows up alongside Sandman Mystery Theatre, that nagging thought that once I had a little more money I really should’ve started reading the series again. Still, when all is said and done, it’s not a bad thing to read it now via collections. If anything, I think some of the slight flaws in the book are better mitigated when read in a large chunk.

Collecting eight issues of the title, the first storyline is "The Blackhawk," with guest artists Matthew Smith and Richard Case. By this point in the series, Matt Wagner and Steven T. Seagle had started sneaking in some other DC Comics characters, like Hourman and the Mist. Here, Wagner and Seagle bring Blackhawk on board, which makes perfect sense. Even though within the Sandman Mystery Theatre internal chronology the United States hadn’t entered World War II, it’s already raging across Europe and it was just a matter of time for this fighter pilot to make an appearance. "The Blackhawk" is easily the stronger of the two stories, and in some ways it’s one of the darker ones from the series. While many other stories in Sandman Mystery Theatre dealt with much more grim material, "The Blackhawk" is a story with a dark final message, that sometimes not everything is going to work out. Even Wesley Dodds himself makes a huge mistake or two in this story, and in many ways the underlying feeling of this arc is the failure of the heroes. Not all of the "good" characters get happy endings in a lot of Sandman Mystery Theatre, but for some reason "The Blackhawk" struck me as slightly darker than most.

Smith’s pencils in "The Blackhawk" are a great choice for this story arc. While I love Guy Davis’s art (which we’ll get to later), Smith manages to much better visually convey the idea of the strong-jawed, dashing airman that is needed for "The Blackhawk." Janos is supposed to be in consideration for movie roles, and you can absolutely see it here; Smith and Case provide crisp lines and uncluttered faces in this arc, and their panel-to-panel transitions are strong. A lot of Davis’s visual tricks (circular panel close-ups on faces, the wide two-page top panel that opens each chapter) are at play here, too, and it provides a good visual continuity.

"The Return of the Scarlet Ghost" is next, set among the early comics industry and its slow shift from the pulp genre to superheroes. It’s a a peculiar story in that while the main action felt a little too straight forward and uninteresting, it’s the character beats throughout the issues that kept my interest. I think that’s actually one of Sandman Mystery Theatre‘s strengths; by this point in the series, you care so much about Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont that the pair of them can easily carry the book no matter what else happens. Dian’s interest in writing for the pulps is probably my favorite part of "The Return of the Scarlet Ghost," and while I found myself unable to care what happened to the actual publishers and bad guys, her journey through this story is one of her stronger moments in the series.

Davis returns as the artist for "The Return of the Scarlet Ghost," and his detailed lines and rich backgrounds are always welcome. Davis’s art always feels much more intricate, with its lined bookshelves, bustling streets, and tiled bathrooms. Davis immerses the reader in a world not quite like anyone else out there, and while his art is a little more staid than most, it’s a rare example of an artist being the perfect choice for an ongoing series. Looking at the extended dream sequence towards the conclusion of "The Return of the Scarlet Ghost," it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing that strong a job at making it thoroughly creepy. Daniel Torres draws the comic-within-a-comic for Sandman Mystery Theatre #50, and his clean and vigorous art was a nice surprise. His drawing the original Sandman and Sandy duo is a funny in-joke to comics readers, and a cute way to celebrate the anniversary issue.

My one big complaint has a bit more to do with DC’s collections department than anything else. At this point in the series, Sandman Mystery Theatre is more heavily referencing the events of Sandman Midnight Theatre, a one-shot by Wagner, Neil Gaiman, and Teddy Kristiansen that took place between issues #36 and 37. So of course, it was never collected within the Sandman Mystery Theatre volumes. Sure, readers can head over to Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days to find it, but what seemed like a strange omission at first is now becoming glaringly obvious. Likewise, at this point I’m assuming we’ll also never see the Sandman Mystery Theatre Annual collected, which was published several years earlier. (I suppose it could be slipped in at the end, although it would be slightly out of place in terms of the internal chronology.) It’s a shame these two stories might end up left out of this series of collections.

Still, when it’s all said and done, Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 8: The Blackhawk and the Return of the Scarlet Ghost is a keeper. If you haven’t been reading the collections, don’t let those strange missing stories scare you away. It’s been an absolute pleasure to pick up the new collection each year, and this one is no exception. It’s easy to see why so many people were upset when the series finally ended; Sandman Mystery Theatre is a jewel in Vertigo’s publishing history crown.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

1 comment to Sandman Mystery Theatre Vol. 8: The Blackhawk and the Return of the Scarlet Ghost

  • Brock

    I don’t want to complain too much because I never thought this series would garner a collected edition. However, I would have liked to have seen a foreword by Seagle or Wagner (or both) giving some insight into the creation of the series and the research that they must have done to get the period details right. Still, it’s a real pleasure to be re-reading these stories again, and to see that they hold up as well as they did in the monthly editions.