Today we’re continuing to talk about the founding members of comic’s first superhero team: The Justice Society of America
Today we’re going to talk about the one superhero with the oldest and most definite roots of the entire genre: The Sandman.
Out of all the superheroes we’ve talked about The Sandman shares the most similarities with what came before comics: the pulp heroes. The pulps were cheap, disposable adventure novels that usually dealt with lurid subject matter and had colorful characters like Doc Savage
and my personal favorite: Zorro.
These stories were action packed, violent, and awesome. The funny thing is that if you look at a typical set up for a pulp novel: a seemingly normal yet insanely talented and tortured protagonist, lots of action, and a very set good vs. evil viewpoint they share quite a bit with the Sandman, arguably making his character older than Superman’s.
Origin and career
The Sandman was originally born as Wesley Dodds: a wealthy Jewish-Catholic boy who spent a lot of time traveling throughout China learning martial arts, herbology, and origami. Despite his upbringing he had a relatively normal appearance even looking a little bit pudgy in comparison to his god like co workers.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck the Dodds household. Wesley’s father died during the First World War and his mother died soon after (because of course) leaving him in charge of a large estate and business.
Around 1938 Wesley started having vivid nightmares about criminals and the horrible crimes they would commit. Realizing that inaction on his part would eventually drive him insane, Wesley decided to try to overcome the nightmares by becoming a costumed vigilante (it should be noted that his lack of moral compass, he wants to stop crime in order to solve his own problems rather than fulfill some greater good, makes him rather interesting in my book) and he used his fortune to develop and build a series of knockout gases that would force criminals to confess to what they’d done.
After developing the gas and chemicals Dodds was given plans for a special gun by his good friend the Crimson Avenger and after that the legend was born.
During his career as a solo hero the Sandman stuck a lot closer to his pulp roots than his contemporaries. A lot of his villains were pretty sadistic and brutal, even by today’s standards. His first villain was a serial killer called the Tarantula
and later on he would deal with other dark villains such as Dr. Death, the Butcher, and the Scorpion. It is interesting to note that The Sandman would often suffer serious injury from gunshot wounds and, unlike many of his god like compatriots, had to regularly deal with the pain and trouble of being shot.
Early on in his crime fighting career Wesley met a girl named Diane Belmont, the daughter of the district attorney.
The two would eventually become lovers although they never married, and later on Wesley would reveal his identity to her as well. Amazingly, the Sandman would buck a lot of established comic book tradition and have Dian be more of an asset to his fight against evil rather than a damsel in distress.
In 1941 the Sandman was selected by Dr. Fate to join the Justice Society where he helped prevent a villain named Ian Karkull
from assassinating President Roosevelt and taking over the United States. Sadly, during his tenure with the JSA, Dian was almost killed while attempting to subdue several Nazi spies before Wesley could reach her. With his lover taken away from him Wesley resolved to look after Dian’s nephew Sandy Hawkins and decided to change his suit at the end of 1941.
The Sandman had a sidekick and a new costume (I don’t like it in case you were wondering) but by 1945 the lifestyle was taking its toll. Wesley’s all to human body began suffering from heart problems and he decided to lay off full time Justice Society work. The final nail in the coffin wold come in 1951 when Wesley accidentally transformed Sandy into a monster and resolved to never be a costumed hero again.
So what happened?
Wesley retired in 1951 and the strain of being a hero, coupled with his guilt over Sandy, led him to try to suppress the idea that he ever was Sandman.
Wesley would later come out of retirement with his old suit, fedora, and gas mask costume (hooray) and a desire to help his former sidekick overcome his transformation. He wold eventually accomplish that by defeating an evil scientist known as the Shatterer who was using Sandy to create earthquakes and hurt his former rivals.
Over the next couple of decades Wesley would continue to play a small but important role in several stories. As one of the oldest members of the JSA he would still help them but after several key battles he suffered a crippling stroke and began to wind down his superhero work again. He and Dian had been reunited for a while and they decided to travel the world, but she succumbed to cancer and died in his arms.
Wesley would later die after jumping off a cliff in Tibet in order to stop a villain called the Dark Lord.
It should be noted that Wesley Dodd’s Sandman identity shared a name with the more recently popular Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series.
There are several differences, Dodds was simply a man while Gaiman’s Sandman was Morpheus the Lord of Dreams but Gaiman must have been aware of this as well and mentioned in the comics that Dodds’ original ability to dream of crimes before they happened was a direct result of Morpheus being absent from his kingdom for a period of time.
While the Sandman continues to live on under various retcons and in different identities it is important to pay homage to original: a tortured man who bravely fought against monsters and criminals and who was able to straddle the two worlds of pulp hero and comic book.