Near Mint Memories: Acrobatics with the Dead

My favorite part of Near Mint Memories is that it gives me the opportunity to write about my favorite characters and comics at great length. I tend to enjoy titles and characters that are a little off to the side of the mainstream. Once again my contribution for Near Mint Memories will give you a look back at a character that’s not exactly a household name. Join with me now as we take a look at one of my favorites, that’s probably not one of yours.


Dropping through the air with great unease…

Deadman was created nearly forty years ago. As a character he’s had a pretty clear narrative for much of that time. While it wavered some in the late ’70s and early ’80s his story has largely been told as originally conceived by the creators. While it has been a great boon for long-time fans of the character, this ongoing narrative could explain why he’s never broken out as a more popular character. Or it could just be the rather limited story possibilities for the Deadman and the difficulty he has interacting with the rest of the DC Universe.

Deadman first appeared in Strange Adventures #205 in 1967. While comic legend Neal Adams is credited with the seminal interpretation of the character, he didn’t join on the bandwagon until Deadman’s second appearance in issue #206 of Strange Adventures. Deadman was created by writer Arnold Drake and his first appearance was handled artistically by another industry legend, Carmine Infantino.

The issue sets down Deadman’s origin and begins the ongoing struggle Deadman will endure for most of the next thirty-five years.

Boston Brand is an acrobat in the Hills Brothers Circus. His one-of-a-kind performance is so death defying that he performs in a zombie-like mask and red leotard as Deadman. His namesake becomes real when a killer, with one hand that’s a hook, kills Boston Brand in the middle of his latest performance.

Instead of passing off the mortal coil a god, Rama Kushna, gives Boston Brand the opportunity to find his killer. The twist, Boston Brand is no longer a corporeal being. He’s able to move around the Earth freely, but the only way he can make physical contact with anyone, or anything, is by possessing their body for a time.
During the course of his hunt for The Hook, Deadman broke up a counterfeiting ring, dope smugglers, blackmailers, and acrobatic burglars. The stories were pretty formulaic at the outset. Deadman often thought he was on to his killer only to break-up the current criminal ring and find out that this wasn’t the person he sought.


Keeping up with The Hook

Strange Adventures #211 brings Boston Brand’s brother Cleveland into the picture. Deadman helps his brother who is running a hotel in Mexico as well as working in an illegal operation to bring Mexican’s across the border into the United States. Cleveland returns the favor by helping Deadman in Strange Adventures #212. By impersonating his brother back at the Hill’s Brothers Circus he brings The Hook out of hiding for a time. As things go, once again, The Hook gets away.

In 1968’s Brave and the Bold #79 Deadman’s long association with Batman begins. Deadman heads to Gotham City to enlist the aid of Batman. While inhabiting Bat’s body, Deadman tells his story to a tape recorder. This allows Bats and Deadman to have their first interaction. Deadman helps Batman take down Max Chill (the brother of Joe Chill, who was the killer of Batman’s parents until a retcon in the ’90s set in motion by the events of Zero Hour). The issue closes out with Deadman once again inhabiting Bats’ body to write a farewell. Batman promises Deadman that he will help him when necessary.

Deadman finally catches up with The Hook in Strange Adventures #215. After tracking the killer to Hong Kong, Deadman comes across the Society of Assassins led by The Sensei. It’s revealed that The Hook was employed to kill Deadman as his initiation into the Society. When Cleveland masqueraded as Boston it appeared that The Hook had failed. Sensei kills The Hook and Deadman is shocked to learn he cannot jump into Sensei’s body. Rama Kushna offers the final salvation that Deadman had passed up to pursue The Hook, but he declines, since his justice has yet to be served.

Strange Adventures #216 proved to be Deadman’s last appearance in the book and the penultimate chapter in Deadman’s original mission for some time. In the issue, Deadman learns of a place in the Himalayas called Nanda Parbat where Rama Kushna has allowed many of the most evil people in the world to come and live in peace. Sensei sends an agent to destroy Nanda Parbat. Deadman prevents the destruction and also gets his first taste real taste of humanity in a long time. It seems, while in Nanda Parbat, Boston Brand is human once again. Deadman again passes up a chance at peace and, instead, redoubles his efforts to stop the Society of Assassins.

In Brave and the Bold #86 Batman is true to his word and teams up with Deadman and Cleveland Brand. During the course of the story we learn that two of Sensei’s agents, Willie Smith and the Lotus, recently shot Deadman with a poison dart as he was body-swapping. The poison in the dart gave them partial control of Deadman. The villains order Deadman to kill Batman, but only end up teaming the pair for the second time. Eventually roads lead to Nanda Parbat, where Batman is able to administer an antidote that frees Deadman from the power of suggestion. The issue ends with The Sensei still waiting to destroy Nanda Parbat and Batman, Cleveland, and Deadman on a cliffhanger of sorts.

Strangely, Deadman’s stories continued just a few months later, but this dangling plotline was dropped. Deadman had stints in Aquaman then Challengers of the Unknown, Justice League of America, and a lengthy run in Phantom Stranger. Yet, all was forgotten about the war with the Society of Assassins. Most of these stories would become moot post-Crisis.


How’d the brothers get those names?

This didn’t really fit anywhere else, so here’s a quick aside:

Ever wonder why the brothers Brand were name Boston and Cleveland?

It seems Boston and Cleveland’s parents enjoyed travelling the United States. The brothers each got their name from the city that they were conceived in.

Now back to your regularly scheduled column.


Deadman, Batman, and Andy Helfer

In 1986, writer Andy Helfer teamed with the inimitable Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez for a four-issue Deadman limited series. Deadman, long-mired with a complex backstory dating back some two decades at this point, was about to get some closure. With the advent of the Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, DC was taking great pains to fix the continuity of their characters. Unlike many stories from DC at the time, the miniseries was not a reboot. Instead, Helfer continued the unfinished story of Deadman that ended on a cliffhanger in Brave and the Bold #86. Continuity was addressed during text pieces at the end of the issues, and many of the stories between Brave and the Bold #86 and this miniseries were essentially lost to the Anti-Monitor.

The series adds a great deal to the Deadman mythos and addresses many of the nagging questions. During the course of the four issues, Cleveland Brand is killed, Deadman saves Nanda Parbat, and seemingly defeats The Sensei for good.

With the Society of Assassins seemingly finished, Deadman took a rather odd turn for the rest of ’80s and into the ’90s.


A departure for Deadman by way of Mike Baron

Deadman was brought back to his mystery-solving roots with a lengthy run in Action Comics Weekly written by Mike Baron. The stories took Deadman away from his more recent superhero adventures and leaned heavily towards horror. The “spirit” of Deadman, as originally conceived, was quite evident in the work. This was a rousing return to the early days for Deadman.

Sadly, two prestige format two-issue miniseries, also written by Baron and illustrated by Kelley Jones, took Deadman in an odd and unsuccessful direction. Deadman: Love After Death and Exorcism were a huge departure for the character. After the loss of a ghostly love, Deadman is placed into a horror setting and cast in a villainous light. Thankfully this take was quickly forgotten.


Dead Again!

In 2001, Andy Helfer steered Deadman in the proper direction once again. Not as writer, that task would fall to Steve Vance, but as editor.

While I had read intermittent appearances by Deadman over the years, my interest in Deadman spawned when the Deadman: Dead Again miniseries hit comic stores shelves in 2001. I had recently returned from a lengthy “break” from reading comics regularly. I was looking to get back into superhero books, but scared by the years of continuity that I missed. Dead Again #1 appealed to me simply because it the first issue of a miniseries and it featured Deadman interacting with an old favorite, Barry Allen (The Silver Age Flash).

This miniseries served as a perfect introduction to the character of Deadman’s origins as well as a fun romp through the DC Universe’s most famous deaths. Over the course of the five issues Deadman travelled through time in hopes of preventing the demon Neron from stealing the souls of Barry Allen, Jason Todd (the second Robin), Superman, and Hal Jordan from the times of their famous deaths.

Written by Steve Vance and drawn by M.D. Bright the book was my first real exposure to Deadman. It’s a fun story that created a lasting love for the character. By giving me my first exposure to Hal Jordan as the Spectre it fanned the flames for me to try out a lot of books and buy a ton of back issues to catch up on what I missed.

Deadman: Dead Again may not have been the most successful miniseries ever, but it was the onus that rekindled my love for the DC Universe.


So short that it barely qualifies as an ongoing…

Unfortunately, Dead Again did not meet with huge accolades and the ongoing Deadman series that launched on its heels in December of 2001 stumbled out of the gates. Vance (probably because of Helfer’s influence) steeped the series deeply to the roots of the previous Deadman stories. The book’s crux was a team-up with a former circus friend named Max as they track a host of villains that recently escaped Nanda Parbat (this is a continuation from the Andy Helfer-penned mini).

The series suffered from a deep basing in continuity. While it was great for me, as I had picked up most of Deadman’s appearances in the ensuing months, it was a bad plan as a whole.

The series didn’t pick up steam until issues #5-6 when Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez stopped in as guest penciler. In this two-parter Steve Vance got everything right about the character and told a heart-wrenching story of love lost. He took us to the core of the anguish that Boston Brand felt being Deadman and told a cool noir-thriller. This is one of my favorite stories of the new millennium and if the Deadman ongoing began with this two-parter, I firmly believe the title would have lasted longer.

Sales eroded at a feverish pace and the title was cancelled after only nine issues. For a Deadman purist like me, the final three issues were a real treat. Steve Vance closed out Deadman’s battles with The Sensei and essentially brought the story of Deadman to a satisfying conclusion.


2005 = Bruce Jones and a new Deadman?

Deadman appears poised for a new series a lot sooner than I would have ever expected. This past July, at the San Diego Comicon, during the Vertigo panel, it was announced that Bruce Jones, newly signed as a DC-exclusive, was working on a new Deadman series for DC’s mature readers imprint, Vertigo.

Few details have been made public as yet, but the new book, will feature a new Deadman. While Boston Brand is one of my favorite characters, I’m happy with the countless adventures he’s had in nearly forty years of publishing history and wouldn’t mind seeing him reach his eternal reward at long last. For this fan, seeing a reinvention of the concept is rather exciting.


The Reading Rack

The Deadman Collection: This hardcover collection includes all of the appearances in Strange Adventures, the early Brave and the Bold team-ups with Batman, as well as appearances in Aquaman and Challengers of the Unknown. Included is the seminal take of Deadman by industry legend, Neal Adams. At $75 U.S. the price is hefty, but well worth it.

Deadman: Baxter reprint series from 1985: This seven-issue series reprints the seminal Strange Adventures stories and can be found rather cheaply.


Miscellaneous Memories:

Next week, I’m beginning my final step to become a certified elementary school teacher. The five-day a week Professional Field Experience will be an intensive process that’s going to preclude me from doing regular reviews. Never fear, I’ll still be doing occasional reviews until Christmas, but I’ll endeavor to get my bi-weekly turn at Near Mint Memories out on time. So I don’t lose touch with the new, each column, I’m going to use Miscellaneous Memories to review, or highlight, one or more books that may be slipping under the radar.

This first time through I want to talk about a new Image Comics title, Small Gods. Set in a world where 1% of the population illustrates some form of psychic abilities, Small Gods takes a rather novel approach to a cop-story. The catch is that all persons illustrating psychic powers must register (a la the Mutant Registration Act) or suffer a severe prison term. Going one step further, and what brings the title its coolest spin, is that individuals working in law enforcement are not allowed to have any type of psychic powers except for precognition (the ability to see the future).

The series lead Owen Young, is a precog working for Denver’s police department. Owen’s powers of precognition come in flashes and at varying times before a crime will be committed. While they give him the opportunity to experience a crime beforehand, the question becomes: will he have enough time or information to actually nab the killer.

This serves only as the starting point. Owen’s life goes downhill quickly in the course of the first two issues.

Written by Jason Rand and penciled by Juan E. Ferreyra this title is hitting a beautiful stride after only two issues. As hard as it may be to believe, Rand has infused Small Gods with a great sense of believability. A difficult tightrope when you consider the premise. As a whole the creators haven’t rested on the novelty of the premise as the only hook; the first two issues have gone a step beyond and thrown some really sweet curves at the reader. In the end we’re delivered with a neat little twist that will keep the series fresh for a long time.

Check it out!


This is Your Column-within-a-Column:

As you know we’re still looking for a name for this regular feature. We’ve had a few suggestions so far, but we’ve decided to extend the contest by a few more days to end-of-day Tuesday September 7th. If you have any ideas for names send them in ASAP.

As John promised last week, the tpb prize choices are revealed this week… as in now! The winner of our contest will be able to choose between the (DC) Flash: Blitz tpb, the (Marvel) X:Men: Days of Future Past tpb, or the (CGE) first Ruse tpb. So keep those column-with-a-column names coming! You have until Tuesday September 7th to send suggestions!

Now, onto this week’s actual reader question.

Want a chance to promote one of your favorites? Well here you go.

This week’s question is:

What’s the most overlooked comic on the market today and why should readers give it a shot?

Send your responses to Chris at acegecko@comcast.net .

Last week’s question was:

Should the comics industry just dump the Comics Code Authority, adopt a more universal and flexible rating system like Marvel’s, or something else?

Some folks have preferred to address this question in our Near Mint Memories (official thread) at our forum. John will have some of the e-mail feedback for you next week, but here’s a sampling of the forum chatter.

Starvenger:

Good column. Researched well, I think.

WRT [With regards to..] the CCA, it needs to be dropped. The CCA is still a good idea in theory, but in this age the “approved/not approved” designation is a little too black and white. Also, I think that the name is damaged goods in the comics industry, so you’d need to dump it even if you changed how it works.

I’m not suggesting a simple name change though (Preston Manning and Stockwell “Doris” Day can tell you how well that actually worked). The industry heavies (Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image and Diamond) should probably come up with a ratings system that is analagous to the MPAA or video games rating systems. Obviously some of the smaller publishers (and indy creators) need to get involved as well, but I’m not exactly sure how.

Parallax2814:

Another good column, very well done.

[On the subject of ratings…] I honestly don’t know. The two biggest things in my mind are the sales on a book and the number of people that buy it but they go hand-in-hand. Might be a good idea for a next column though.

Here are my thoughts:

The Comics Code Authority is a relic of the Cold War (had to steal that line from Goldeneye) with no teeth that should be forgotten. The major publishers would be best served by coming up with their own universal grading system. This seems to have worked well for the film and more recently video game industries. Comics can police themselves far better than some antiquated authority that hasn’t had any teeth in decades.


Odds & Ends

Join us at our forums where the issues of comics ratings and standards as well as DC’s Identity Crisis are the subject of a few threads, such as:

ID Crisis #3 Spoilers

First actual discussion topic

Near Mint Memories (official thread)

Also don’t forget to check out Matt Morrison’s Looking to the Stars column this week where he looks at Dr. Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent – the book that in many ways brought us the Comic Book Code Authority.


That’s all for this week, folks. John will be back next week, and I’ll see you in two with a look at Marvel Comics’ martial artist supreme, Shang-Chi the Master of Kung Fu.

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