Sandman debuted, with a cover appearance, in the New York World’s Fair special, which came out in the spring of 1939. We were told very little about him. Rich Wesley Dodds (sometimes Dodd) had invented a ray gun he was exhibiting at the Fair. When the plans got stolen, Wes put on an orange suit, purple cape and green fedora, as well as a World War I-style gas mask and hunted them down, using a gas gun (which I’m sure he invented as well) to incapacitate the thieves. He leaves behind a sprinkling of sand as a “calling card.”
In the story, it is clear Wes has been operating as the Sandman for a while. He gets recognized by both the villain and the police, one of whom comments that he had “hunted for you often, and failed.”
Sandman was believed to be a criminal. Certainly he looked like one, with the spooky mask. He was featured on alternating covers of Adventure Comics in this period, and on the ones with generic covers he was in a “bullet” in the top centre of the book. These covers are great, very evocative, but would absolutely make you think the man in the picture was not the hero.
And it seems they took a while to know what to do with him. His run in Adventure opens with him tracking down and capturing the Tarantula, a kidnapper who is hidden in the house of his victim, Virginia Dale. This is a very good story, capturing the creepy mood of the main character. It is the only appearance of his butler, Humphries, and of the strange Sandman doll Wes leaves sitting on his bed. Humphries and the Doll would next appear in Matt Wagner’s four-part expansion of this tale, The Tarantula, which began his Sandman Mystery Theatre series.
Issue 44 pits Sandman against a disguise artist, the Face, who would also return in Sandman Mystery Theatre.
But between those two stories the series doesn’t quite seem to know what it is. Wes wears the mask, but not the rest of the costume, in issues 41 and 43. He busts a narcotics den-boat in the earlier story, and swims to get there, so is bare chested, but masked. In the latter, Wes is on holiday flying around the tropics, and literally swoops in to rescue a girl (and strafe the bad guys), and only has the mask. There is no sand sprinkling, and none of the mood of the Tarantula tale.
But the story in issue 42 is even odder. Wes meets up with former members of the squadron he flew with in World War I. There are only three of them left, others have been murdered recently, by a former corrupt soldier they informed on. They take to the air to capture him, and call themselves the “Three Sandmen.” This story has never been touched on by any writer since.
With the Face story in 44, and a very good fake kidnapping scam in issue 45, Sandman returns to the feel it had with its start. Wes now has a butler named Feathers (is that really better than Humphries?), and sprinkles sand again.
There is no hint of the many and varied directions the Sandman serieses would take over the years, except for the unusual mask, and the feeling that something is not quite right with this hero.
Sandman continues in the Early Golden Age
Sandman: New York World’s Fair 1939
Adventure Comics 40 – 45 (July – Dec 39)