This week we take a spoiler-filled look at this octopus of a thing…
Deadman #1 (of 6)
Writer: Neal Adams
Artist: Neal Adams
Cover: Neal Adams
Neal Adams is a comic book legend, and with good reason. As an artist, he’s one of the greats, both on his own, and as an inspiration to the great artists who have followed in his footsteps. He’s contributed to some of the most well-loved stories of all time, featuring some of the world’s most popular and beloved characters, from Batman to the X-Men.
To my shame, as much as I love the work of Jack Kirby now, as a kid, I was a bit late to the party. It wasn’t until I got a bit older – and wiser – that I came to appreciate his genius, but, in fairness to the younger, dumber version of me, a lot of that had to do with Neal Adams. Early in my comic-reading, I developed a love for his lushly-rendered, heavily-detailed, realistic style that left me with a bit of a closed mind when it came to the idea of appreciating a style like Kirby’s. That phase didn’t last long, fortunately, but my point is that, as an artist, and a mentor, and a contributor to some of the greatest comics of all time, Neal Adams deserves as much praise as you can heap on him.
As a writer, however…well, we’ll get to that.
Deadman marks the third time in the past several years that DC has given Adams free rein to present his own…particular visions of some of their characters. The first was Batman: Odyssey, the deconstruction of which at Comics Alliance is a classic in its own right.
Then came Superman: The Coming of The Supermen, which, like its predecessor, was just…whew.
Those two books took place in their own, non-canon continuity, though it’s unclear whether or not they were completely independent of each other, or took place in the same, batshit insane non-canon continuity.
However, wherever the Superman story may or may not fit, it does seem that Deadman is part of the Odyssey continuity, as we’ll see once we get into the, oh, let’s call it a “story,” just to make things simpler.
But before we do that, let’s get into the background of the titular character, who is not quite so well-known as Superman and Batman.
Circus aerialist Boston “Deadman” Brand performed his trapeze act wearing a macabre costume that made him appear ghostly and/or corpse-like. During one of his performances, an assassin’s bullet made him a dead man in fact as well as in name. As his spirit departed, bound for its final destination, a deity known as Rama Kushna intervened, and offered Boston the opportunity to avenge his own murder in exchange for providing services to her as an agent of balance in the world. Boston accepted, and became the ghostly Deadman, travelling unseen throughout the world, unable to interact with it directly, but able to take possession of living beings to perform whatever task Rama Kushna might require of him, and also to perform whatever good deeds he might feel inclined to perform along the way. So, if one day you see an elderly man heedlessly walking into the street directly in front of an oncoming truck, and then suddenly somersaulting to safety in a way that seems impossible, there’s a good chance that you’ve just had an encounter with Deadman!
As we see in the recap flashbacks, Boston Brand’s killer was a man called Hook, and it turns out that his murder was nothing personal. Hook selected him at random, deciding that it would be an interesting challenge to shoot a trapeze artist in mid-air. The reason Hook made the selection at all was as part of his initiation into the League of Assassins.
Though Deadman had tracked Hook down and learned all of this years ago, and he had believed Hook to be dead, it turns out that Hook is actually still alive, and Deadman has tracked him down again, determined to mete out justice.
His quest for vengeance leads him to a nuclear power plant in Japan, which is being toured by…Ambassador James Gordon? (Note: There may be a lot of times when I make statements that are written like questions? Like this? Because this story has so many elements that make no sense?)
But, see, he’s only a temporary ambassador, as part of this tour of nuclear power sites, because that’s a thing, at least in the mind of Neal Adams?
While the police commissioner-cum-ambassador-cum-nuclear safety inspector is putting his years of training as a police officer to good use inspecting the safety systems of this nuclear power plant – honestly, given that he’s the top cop in Gotham City, I can almost believe that he would have picked up some on-the-job training involving nuclear safety – another Gordon appears, identifying himself as Gordon’s “Guardian Devil,” and informing him that the real danger isn’t from any radioactive leaks, just before the real Gordon passes out.
Also, I have to share this bit of dialogue from (the real) Gordon:
“These seals…excellent…I have never seen seals this thick…and, well, so robust.”
Meanwhile, Deadman is zeroing in on Hook, who is also at the plant, and is leading a group of men who are up to no good, and informing them, while brandishing a gun with his non-hook hand, that the target, James Gordon, is his.
Deadman thinks about how easy it would be to take possession of one of the men and shoot Hook. And then he doesn’t do that, choosing instead to have that aforementioned flashback to the first time he tracked Hook down and missed his chance to kill him.
That led him to learn that Hook was working for a wizened man referred to simply as Sensei, the leader of the League of Assassins. Turns out that Hook was in trouble, because the Sensei believed that he had failed to complete his mandatory murder requirement, and as a result, Hook was flunking out of Assassin School.
They believe that he failed to kill Boston, because, it turns out, Boston has a twin brother named Cleveland, who, along with a circus strongman ironically named Tiny, took on the persona of Deadman to continue the popular aerial act.
Of course, in Assassin School, failure means death rather than just having to take the class over again or whatever, so the Sensei is about to kill Hook, which you’d think Boston would be happy about, given that it’s what he wanted, but instead, he’s angry that Hook is about to die for the wrong reason.
As the Sensei, who proves amazingly spry, begins beating Hook to death, Deadman attempts to take possession of the old man, but finds himself repulsed. Instead, he takes possession of Hook, and fails to defend himself, then several of the other assembled assassins in succession, though every body he tries to throw between Hook and Sensei ends up a victim of either the non-possessed assassins or the Sensei, and, ultimately, Sensei delivers a killing blow to Hook.
Aware that there is some unseen presence, Sensei orders the room cleared, and shortly after, to Deadman’s confusion, the floor opens up and, with a splash, dumps Hook’s body into some sort of pit below.
Back in the present, Deadman takes possession of one of Hook’s men, and tries to warn “Gordon” of the danger, and is surprised by the fact that “Gordon” seems to be aware that the man is being possessed by Boston. They don’t have time to discuss that, though, as a series of explosions around them causes the floor to collapse.
I have to say, it seems like a lot of trouble to go through just to kill one man, and I don’t care how “robust” the seals are: setting off explosives in a nuclear power plant is just a bad idea under any circumstances.
Also, the collapsing floor leads to this exchange.
Hook and his men show up, and Boston forgets that he’s a ghost and jumps out of the body he’s inhabiting in an effort to put himself between the bullet Hook fires and its target, even as Adams himself editorializes in the captions:
“No, Boston Brand. Don’t follow your instinct…there, you are useless! There…you are stupid. So very stupid.”
Seemingly unfazed by being shot, Gordon busts out some kind of tasers and chastises Hook for being predictable and going for the chest shot, as he zaps several of Hook’s men. With that accomplished, he says, “Deadman. It’s Hook! He’s yours!”
Unfortunately, as he had been with Sensei years earlier, Deadman is repulsed as he tries to take possession of Hook, and, as he did then, he jumps into one of the other available bodies. Hook, meanwhile, busts out some fancy new cybernetic hand, and while Deadman slices and dices some of the other remaining assassins, “Gordon” starts beating the crap out of Hook, demanding to know who’s paying him for this job. Hook insists that it’s the Sensei, but “Gordon” calls him a liar, and beats him even more mercilessly. We even get an X-ray shot of his face to see the damage that the punishing blows are inflicting.
Boston joins in the fun by slicing off Hook’s cybernetic prosthesis, and then “Gordon” continues to beat him into unconsciousness, calling him a liar for continuing to insist that he’s being paid by the Sensei.
At this point, Deadman has put two and two together and come up with Batman, and he asks Batman why he’s so certain that Hook is lying.
Batman tells him it’s simple: he killed the Sensei.
Deadman doesn’t buy it, as the Batman he knows is no killer, but Batman insists it’s true.
And it is – sort of. This is where things tie in with Odyssey, in which Batman did legit pump “four .45 caliber cartridges into the Sensei’s back” and “blew his chest to oblivion.”
And then, with Deadman calling Batman a jackass for saying that he might lie in response to Deadman saying that Batman doesn’t lie, the scene just ends? Does Deadman kill Hook? Who knows? What we see next is a Japanese man walking down a busy street reading a newspaper article about the attempt on Jim Gordon’s life. The Japanese man is revealed to have been possessed by Boston, who is still trying to wrap his ectoplasm around the idea that either Batman killed someone or straight-up lied to him.
We move to the other side of the world, to stately Wayne Manor, where former temporary ambassador Jim Gordon is visiting his pal Bruce. Their conversation is interrupted by Alfred dumping a pot of coffee on Bruce’s head, and then saying that he’s just been distracted since hearing some news about a friend who had a tragic accident and whose body is now missing from his coffin. Eh? Eh? Wink wink, nudge nudge, know what I mean? Ya feel me, Bruce? I say his body is missing from his –
Yeah, yeah, he gets it, shut up, Boston.
Gordon, who is the police, tells Alfred that he should call the police, and as he produces a card with the number of someone in the missing persons department, Deadman leaps over from Alfred to Gordon, and starts demanding answers about the whole, “Yo, I killed the Sensei” mic drop.
Batman admits that he didn’t tell the whole truth, which leads to this:
The “as good as dead” that Batman provides isn’t enough for Deadman who angrily asks if that means that Batman “tucked him in for a nappy.” When Batman laughs at that, because it’s actually fairly close to the truth, Deadman delivers some sweet chin music to Bats, who concedes that, perhaps, he deserved that – though you just know that as he says it, he’s developing a plan to build a proton pack and ghost trap – and hands Deadman a piece of paper with an address in Hong Kong on it, telling him, in the snarkiest way possible, to memorize it while he’s still in Gordon’s body, and then go there.
After revealing that he did not, in fact, kill Hook back in Japan when he had the chance, despite all his bitching about how Batman sucks for not killing people, he does, leaving behind a very confused Jim Gordon, who is already troubled by the fact that he has no recollection of what happened to him in Japan after he checked out those robust seals.
We end with Deadman in Hong Kong, where, like Obi Wan, he has a bad feeling about this.
You and me both, Boston. You and me both.
Yeah, so this is about as nutty as I expected it to be, though in fairness(?), as with his other recent works, the nuttiness isn’t so much the plot, which is honestly relatively straightforward, it’s…well, everything else.
It’s mostly the dialogue, in which we find people saying things that are completely out of character, or just plain weird things that no one would say, the non-sequiturs, and the way that a lot of times people don’t have conversations so much as they’re just saying random things in each other’s presence.
These late-period Neal Adams comics all have an appeal that’s very much like the appeal of so-bad-they’re-good movies, but unlike their cinematic counterparts, which are often bad because of a lack of concern with craft, the comics are well-crafted.
Neal Adams has been drawing comics since before I was born, and he is a master of the form, who, even after all these decades, shows no sign of losing his artistic chops. So the comics look great – although they do have a sort of retro look, in many respects, one that’s amplified by the inclusion of the somewhat archaic editorial commentary captions, which contain text that is just as odd as the actual dialogue – but once you get into the actual narrative, things kind of fall apart.
It’s kind of like what you might get if you changed nothing else about the script, but brought in a skilled director and competent actors and recreated The Room.
I can’t really complain, as I knew what I was getting into when I picked this up off the rack on Wednesday. I mean, the batshit insanity of it all is why I’m reading it in the first place. And while the art might look a bit old-fashioned, for me, it’s sort of reassuringly old-fashioned, and it’s not exactly a hardship to look at something drawn by Neal Adams. My only real complaint is that sometimes – here, it was with Jim Gordon – he makes some dodgy choices for the hairstyles of some characters, though nothing will ever be as bad as Aquaman’s Jheri curl mullet in Odyssey.
As for where this story is headed, well, Deadman will likely learn the fate that befell the Sensei at the hands of Batman – and you can learn that by seeing Recommended Reading below – and I’m sure that we’ll find that the immunity to being possessed by Deadman, as well as Hook’s return, is related to an immersion in the Lazarus Pit (hence the “splash” in the flashback), but that’s for another day, and another Spotlight Sunday, either as the main Spotlight entry, or the Bonus (of which there is none this week).
BATMAN: ODYSSEY – I mean, duh. I mentioned it often enough. This has to be experienced to be believed. And even then you probably still won’t believe it.
SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMAD ALI – Sure, this classic tale from writer Denny O’Neil and artist (thankfully, he’s just the artist on this) Neal Adams is silly, but it’s a very different kind of goofy fun, with a whole lot less WTAF involved.
ABSOLUTE GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW – There are a lot of whiny man-babies online who complain endlessly about modern comics being ruined by SJWs (Social Justice Warriors), as if the idea of super-heroes promoting social justice is somehow unusual, or something new. (Hint: It’s not.) The legendary team of O’Neil and Adams bring us the socially-relevant adventures of the hard-travelling heroes as they make their way across a divided nation.
That’s it for this Spotlight Sunday. Thanks to everyone who voted, and be sure to come back for the next Weigh In Wednesday.