plainly and simply parasitical on the obvious or univocal reading

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Sandman Mystery Theatre #49, Part Two: How Cute, It Thinks It's Better...

One of the things I’ve been coming back to while reading this book again and again is the strange conversation happening between this comic itself and the pulps that serve as a set piece. Now, obviously, plot-wise, pulp magazines figure prominently in this issue. So I think it’s fair to examine a stance that I think this comic takes regarding its relationship to the pulps (which, I think it makes sense to say, were very much the precursor to and inspiration for this series): namely, it thinks it’s better.

In a scene on page 5, Dian and Wesley walk past a newsstand, where Dian looks for a new issue of something called The Black Mask. Wesley’s response is to ask if that’s “one of those silly crime pulps,” prompting Dian to do a defense, of sorts, of the pulp-lit form. Now on the first couple of readings this just struck me as a nod to the history of the Sandman and of the genre, I guess you’d call it “neo-pulp crime fiction” or something, that Sandman Mystery Theatre itself belongs to. After all, Wesley is likely serving in this scene as the smug and snobbish cultured fellow who needs to be educated, and Dian as the intelligent-but-adventurous, open-minded one, showing him the way. Of the pulp mags, she says, “The language is so raw, so vibrant. Some of these stories are brilliant.” Is that all? The language? This was my first clue, really. It just seems like a bone tossed to corny ol’ granpa pulpy. It sends the message, “well, sure they’re dumb, lowest common denominator, unchallenging junk, but the language is great!” And this may or may not be true of the pulps, but it also may or may not be true about this comic (well, part of my problem is that in the comic, the language isn’t that great, and more on that below). Either can certainly be read that way if the reader so chooses.

Where is this raw, vibrant language to be found in the comic itself? Well, there is a bit in printed “excerpts” of the fictional pulp, and it’s played partially for chuckles, I think. Which is a shame, because there’s really something there. For example:

“The Sandman was picking at bones. Chalky white, brittle grinding bones dropped in a trench at the edge of the city. Human bones dyed red with human blood, they bent themselves in wrong directions. Finger bones stretched for the cover that no longer wrapped them in their skintight coffin.”

And this:

“As Stolt continued to struggle, bony fingers tore private pages into kindling. The Ghost forced the tattered remnants up into Stolt’s damp dress shirt, Stolt screaming for any reprieve. Next, cold sloshes of gasoline from a nearby can soaked through Stolt’s clothes in rude splashes.

‘Please! Don’t! I’ll do anything!’

‘You’ll leave me your bloody bones,’ was the whole answer from the Ghost.

But miracles were on tap this evening as a cool cloud of spreading relief, the mystery fog of the masked marvel known only as The Sandman began to spread and fill the Ghost’s secret lair.

‘Fire season is over, Ghost. Now drop the torch, pronto. And not on Mr. Stolt, either, or it’s curtains for you, you cardinal colored ghoul.’”

The language is exaggerated for effect here, but it’s also exaggerated for the purpose of creating a distinction between the pulpiness of old and the neo-pulpiness of the current, or in this issue, real version.

Going back to page 5 for a bit, there’s an exchange between Wes and Dian about—get this—The Sandman pulp magazine. In it, they mock the pulp version of the hero, and all the silly conventions, saying his mask looks like “the grille of a Cadillac,” and when Dian reads an excerpt, Wesley’s reaction is a knowing, “Please! Who makes this stuff up?”

On page 16, when the Sandman visits Hubert Klein, a contact in the morgue, Klein is reading the Sandman pulp. When Klein begins to comment on the difference between how the pulp version makes an appearance and how the real-world version makes an appearance, the Sandman is moved to assert sharply, “That is fiction, I am reality.” Well, as it turns out, there is a murder victim in the morgue who was killed in the same manner as one described in the pulp magazine, so Klein thinks there might be a connection. When Wes later shares that suggestion with Dian, she says, “How silly!” But is it? I mean, even in the real world of this comic, the Sandman deals with strange murders all the time.

And in the end, that’s what strikes me about the issue. While embracing a subject that is not unlike the pulps in any way, its heroes wink and nod and mock them, and the author takes every opportunity to show that this comic, and this version of the character, is not the same thing. It just seems to say, “Look how much better we’re handling it than they did in that old-timey schlock. Our version is all serious and whatnot, our villains are real people with plausible explanations. But, uh…we still think the language in those books is raw and vibrant, even though we eschew its use and make fun of it.” And like I said, the attitude toward the pulp books may or may not be well-founded, but it doesn’t make the comic any more sophisticated than those books. In either case it’s a guy in a suit and mask who is armed with a fog gun, who runs around at night solving grisly murders. It would be nice if the comic could embrace and revel in the elements of its ancestral medium rather than trying to distance itself as though it’s something to be embarrassed about.

I may revisit this relationship again in a future post in terms of the real/hyperreal relationship created by having a character who is, within the story, at once real and fictional, but I believe that part three will deal with Dian and the phenomenon of SGS: Superhero’s Girlfriend Syndrome (which is not always as unhealthy as it sounds…).

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