I was always a Marvel fan as a kid until one day, while hanging out at a baseball card convention where my dad was selling cards, I noticed a box of old comics sticking out from under a dealer’s booth. I bought all the issues I could afford, and ended up getting a handful of The Brave & The Bold comics from the late 1970s featuring Batman team-up lead stories padded with classic DC reprints featuring all kinds of obscure characters. Sure, Batman was cool, but I immediately fell in love with characters like the Manhunter and the Metal Men. These stories showed me the potential of some of DC’s “lesser” characters, and gave me my first real sense of the “DC Universe” beyond the Super-Friends and the Justice League (which kinda sucked in the 80s). I was immediately hooked.
Somewhere along the way, anthology titles disappeared from the DC offerings. When I saw DC Universe Presents on the list of the New 52, I hoped that it would be an anthology title like those old The Brave & The Bolds. My hopes didn’t quite pan out. With only one feature story, DC Universe Presents isn’t an anthology title at all. It’s actually more like the old “Showcase” title, which rotated through minor characters in an attempt to spawn new hits or try out quirky concepts that couldn’t hold down their own monthly series. With the first feature being Deadman, a perfect example of the kind of lower-tier character that filled those anthology titles, I had high hopes that this comic would provide something different.
What we get is a new presentation of Deadman’s origin, followed by an interesting new development for the character’s present. While not quite as different thematically as I might have hoped, Jenkins deserves credit for writing a Deadman story that is both a standard origin recap and new spin at the same time.
The issue opens with Deadman recounting a doomed motorcycle stunt attempted by a daredevil named Albert “Albatross” Albertson whom Deadman has inhabited like a ghost. The stuntman has a deathwish because of his stupid name, and as he almost dies as a result of a failed stunt, Deadman recounts his own origin. He was once circus trapeze artist Boston Brand. The star of the show, Brand was full of himself, paranoid of others, and a dick to his fellow circus performers. One day an assassin shot him from the crowd. As he fell to the ground, his spirit left his body and appeared at the edge of a giant rock balanced on a tiny fulcrum, in the presence of the Hindu goddess Rama.
Rama points to a shadowy figure at the far edge of the rock, saying that he is the man Boston Brand must become. To do so he will live the lives of many others in need, like stepping stones on the path to enlightenment. With each life, he takes a step toward the fulcrum, as does the distant figure. When the two embrace at the center, Brand will have found enlightenment, and can pass on to the next stage of existence. If he fails, he will roam the world forever as a ghost.
While I can’t say I’m a huge fan of artist Bernard Change’s actual drawing style, he has a very strong sense of composition that makes the giant fulcrum scene work well. His depiction of Rama is graceful and powerful at the same time, and the opening splash page, depicting Brand’s dead body slamming into the ground under the Big Top, his soul splashing through the ether like water to emerge on some distant shore at the feet of Rama, is wonderfully done.
Brand then takes us to the present, to the next man he will be forced to become. This is Johnny, a legless veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan who is the guilt-ridden sole survivor of his defeated unit. Johnny hasn’t coped well with his return to civilian life, and still wears his uniform and hates himself for not dying, too.
Deadman looks down on the sleeping Johnny, promising that he will return once he has finished an important mission. This takes him to a carnival and a psychic named Rose, a former colleage from Boston Brand’s old circus. Having possessed the form of a little girl, Boston confronts Rose and attempts to ask her for assistance, but the psychic freaks out and runs away. This leads to a fun scene were Boston jumps from person to person along her path as he attempts to convince her that it is really him. Once convinced, Rose refuses to help, because as a mortal Boston was a jerk.
Then Deadman, saying he has no feelings anymore (but clearly feeling sorry for himself) recounts some of his past jobs, and why it isn’t as fun as it used to be. This starts with stories of inhabiting superspies and criminals, gamblers, geniuses, and stuntmen. Then he tells of much less glamorous lives, like a priest questioning his faith, an ER doctor whose surgeries decide who lives and dies, a dying old man too proud to call his only son, and so on.
Finally, Deadman inhabits Johnny. Tired of his ordeal and frustrated that the distant Rama always summons him and never the other way around, Deadman makes Johnny put a gun to his head with the intention of suicide. This summons Rama to his side.
“You’re probably wondering why I asked you here,” he says to the goddess with a gun to his head. We’re wondering, too, but we won’t get to find out until the next issue.
Jenkins and Chang succeed in the primary mission of the New 52 by creating a compelling origin story with a story about the present day with a new twist on Deadman—that of him questioning his patron, his missions, and his effectiveness, while at the same time taking matters into his own hands by attempting to turn the tables on Rama.
There’s obviously a lot of story potential with a character like Deadman, and my main question at this point is why they didn’t just give the character his own series for real, and delve the DC coffers for even more obscure fodder. That would be something to see.