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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Deadman: re-exploring the 1985 Deluxe Reprint editions

In 1985, DC reprinted the first seventeen Deadman stories in a seven-issue Deadman Deluxe Reprint series. When first published in 1968, the Deadman stories (mostly illustrated by Neal Adams) appearing in Strange Adventures v1 had become an instant fan-favorite and won numerous awards and recognition for both Adams and DC.

A new Deadman mini-series was published in 1986, and it's been hinted that the decision to launch a new Deadman mini was directly inspired by the success of this reprint series. 

DC house ad. 

The 1985 Deadman Deluxe Reprint edition reprinted material from 1967/1968's Strange Adventures #205 - 213, 1968's Brave and the Bold #79, 1968/1969's Strange Adventures #214 - 216, and finally 1969's Brave and the Bold #86. Phew. It also contained a few Neal Adam back-ups from various DC anthology mags (i.e., House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Witching Hour) that I quickly skimmed through. With the exception of the very first Deadman story being penciled by Carmine Infantino and inked by George Roussos, every other story in this collection was illustrated by Neal Adams

I've always had a healthy curiosity about the origin of Deadman. I didn't really know much about the character except that 1) he was dead, 2) he's dressed like an acrobat, 3) he could possess any living body, and 4) he's always hanging around DC's other mystical heroes. I was curious to see how this character came to be and which other heroes he fraternized with (if any).

Strange Adventures #205 (1967). cover by Arnold Drake.

At the time of Deadman's introduction, Strange Adventures was a sort of supernatural/fantasy anthology series for DC. It started in 1950 as a science-fiction title and would introduce new sci-fi characters like Captain Comet, Star Hawkins and the Atomic Knights over time, but the title slowly evolved to an 'anything goes as long as we can sell it' anthology format -- hence came Animal Man, Enchantress and lesser-know heroes like Cliff Battles (aka The Split Man). 

opening page from Strange Adventures #205 (1967)

Deadman's feature was originally presented as a supernatural whodunit; Boston Brand is murdered, gets the power to return from the dead as a ghost, and needs to figure out who his killer is from a list of suspects. The reader is led to believe that the killer is one of the suspects shown on the first page. Note the scripter? Arnold Drake. Drake also co-created The Doom Patrol, Stanley and his Monster, and Polaris (for Marvel's X-Men). Chris Sheehan and Reggie Reggie of the Cosmic Treadmill really go into depth about the life of Arnold Drake, and it's really worth checking out.

Within the first few pages, we discover that Boston Brand is a tough-guy acrobat with a heart of gold -- he even owns a 20% stake in the travelling circus that he performs in -- and it is revealed that quite a few people that want to see him dead. Obviously this doesn't get resolved in one issue.

This shouldn't be a spoiler by this point, but Boston Brand is assassinated in this first story (while in his acrobat outfit) by an unseen gunman. For reasons unknown, the deity Rama Kushna gives Boston Brand the power to walk among men (as a ghost) until he has found his killer. Enter: Deadman.

Strange Adventures #205 (1968). Death of Boston Brand.
Art by Carmine Infantino and George Roussos.

In an interview with Nicola Cuti, it is revealed by Drake that he was "influenced by the state of mind of the sixties when he came up with Deadman." Cuti explains that the late sixties were "noted for a dynamic rise in interest in the occult and especially Eastern Mysticism. During the fifties, the attitude of the people had been 'Aw c'mon! You know there ain't no such thing as ghosts.' but the coming of the Hippies brought about a rejection of the pragmatic way of life and a return to what was natural." And, by association, this included the supernatural. Cuti adds "Most of the young people of the era were into Astrology... and the most popular singing group of the period, the Beatles, was deep into Eastern spiritual teachings. Such teachings included the transmigration of the soul, astral projection and reincarnation."

The next five issues of Strange Adventures have Boston Brand/Deadman chasing down false leads (and indirectly helping people or solving crimes along the way) until he gets his first big break and discovers his killer has a hook for a hand. The quest begins anew, as he's now looking for a killer named 'The Hook' (or, in some cases, just 'Hook'). In issue #211 the reader discovers that Boston Brand has an identical, still-alive twin brother named 'Cleveland'. What a twist! (Neal Adams takes credit for the creation of Cleveland.)

panel from Strange Adventures #211 (1968). Identical twin brother inexplicably pops up. Neal Adams art.

In Strange Adventures #212, an important supporting character gets killed, but the next issue reveals that he makes a miraculous recovery -- so he doesn't die. Strange Adventures #213 is followed by The Brave and the Bold #79 (also drawn by Neal Adams) and stars Batman. It's revealed that 'The Hook' is identified to be the brother of Joe Chill (the thug who originally killed Batman's parents). This leads to an impromptu team-up between Batman and Deadman. As the story progresses, we discover that it's NOT the SAME guy who killed Boston Brand -- so Batman and Deadman part ways, and Deadman continues searching for his killer...

...and we're back to Strange Adventures #214. Deadman decides to abandon his quest on finding his killer and, if he can possess other people's bodies, why not possess the body of someone who already has a great life? (Which, honestly, is what I would've done six issues ago) Somehow, inevitably, the Hook gets mixed into this, and Deadman's back on the hunt for him.

Strange Adventures #215 is a turning point in this whole saga as Deadman finally catches up with the Hook. Coincidentally, Neal Adams is writing the book again. Up until the previous issue, Deadman had only been busting up small-time extortionists, gangsters, con men, muggers and street thugs. Things are starting to get a bit more 'heavy' as Deadman stumbles upon a society of assassins, and we are introduced to... The Sensei.

panel from Strange Adventures #215 (1968). Neal Adams art.

So, for any astute readers who are familiar with the Batman mythos -- yes, this is the same Sensei who is second-in-command of the League of Assassins. This is the FIRST appearance of The Sensei and the League of Assassins. This is actually an interesting junction in the plot as I had completely forgotten that Neil Adams was an architect of some of Batman's more prominent rogues (i.e., League of Assassins, the Sensei, Ra's Al Ghul, Man-Bat, the revival of Two-Face and the Joker in the early 70s, etc...), so let's give credit where credit's due.

As the story progresses, it's revealed that the League of Assassins are disappointed with the Hook's performance as an assassin, and execute him. Now that Boston Brand's murderer has been brought to 'justice', Deadman's quest is over, right?
panel from Strange Adventures #215 (1968). Neal Adams art.
We discover in Strange Adventure #216 that Deadman's quest will continue anyways. Through a series of circumstances, he finds himself in Nanda Parbat where he gets to meet Rama Kushna and asks her permission to keep existing as Deadman now that his mission is over. Rama grants him this request. We're not really sure what Deadman's new mission is -- I guess just to 'be'? Nanda Parbat is also revealed to be an enchanted land -- much like Shangri-La -- that allows Deadman to be alive again.

The last story in this reprint series is from The Brave and the Bold #86 (1969). Written by Bob Haney and illustrated by Adams, this issue has Batman, Deadman and Deadman's twin brother, Cleveland, teaming up to thwart a plot by the League of Assassins to destroy Nanda Parbat. Somehow, throughout all of this, it is revealed that Deadman was poisoned by an assassin while he was in solid form.

page from Strange Adventures #211. Neal Adams art.

Arnold Drake wrote the first 2 stories in the ongoing saga of Deadman, followed by Jack Miller who wrote the next 5 stories (Miller was also editor of Strange Adventures around this time). Neal Adams started writing AND illustrating the Deadman feature in Strange Adventures #212. This lasted for two issues, and then Robert Kanigher took a stab at writing a story, and Adams would continue to write until Adam Strange reprints started headlining the book. Both Brave and the Bold Batman stories were written by Bob Haney, and while the first one read like a "one-off" that didn't really add to the overall saga of Deadman, the second BatB story led directly into the 1986 Deadman mini-series written by Andy Helfer.

Giordano reveals that Brave and the Bold #86 was the 'cannibalized' version of a Deadman story called 'Balance of Power' that Adams wrote as the last chapter in the Deadman saga -- BatB #86 was published nearly ONE YEAR after Strange Adventures #216. So, why did Deadman's story finish at Strange Adventures #216? Giordano explained to Cuti, in issue #6 of the reprint series, that "popularity, surprisingly enough, has very little to do with a book's demise." In essence, it suffered from poor marketing and poor distribution, so not very many fans got the chance to read it. Giordano went on to explain that, back then, distributors ordered copies of a book based on last month's sales. Despite fan enthusiasm, Strange Adventures was not a high-selling book (around 125,000 a month), so they were forced to cancel the Deadman feature and replace it with something more appealing to readers. If Deadman had his own self-titled series at the time, things may have been different.


For all intents and purposes, this feels like a Silver Age story; there's a whodunnit meant to engage the reader, there's lots of red herrings and false leads that keep the reader coming back, a mysterious identical twin is revealed during the course of the story, a supporting character is killed (but actually 'pulls through' in the next issue), and the women are somewhat powerless and need men to save them. It seems like this story was written with the intention of the reader being able to solve the mystery along with the protagonist, but -- as you can see -- the story just evolves into something convoluted.

Panels from Strange Adventures #208 (1968). Deadman's never-ending quest to uncover his mystery assassin is.the driving force behind this feature Neal Adams art.

I feel like the story drags on seven more chapters than it needed to -- but of course, they were probably trying to stretch it for everything it was worth since it was the head-lining feature in Strange AdventuresDick Giordano more or less confirms this in his interview with Nicola Cuti in issue #6 of the reprint series: "DEADMAN was not conceived as an ongoing series. It was supposed to be a limited series with Boston Brand finally confronting his killer, but we liked the character so much we tried to keep him running for as long as we could. After a year, however, of him nearly finding the Hook or following false leads, we knew that our readers were going to become tired of the device... after all, even The Fugitive finally caught up with the one-armed man." 

It's never made clear why Boston Brand was chosen by Rama Kushna to come back as a ghost to hunt down his killer. The best the reader can guess is because Boston stuck up for the fortune teller in the first issue? Was there a grand plan here, or did the deity just feel sorry for Boston? This left a huge opening for future story potential. (FUN FACT: 'Rama Kushna' is based on 'Ramakrishna' and plays an important role in Hinduism. Look it up.)

panel from Strange Adventures #205. Carmine Infantino and George Roussos art.

Nicholas Cuti (best known as writer for Charlton Comic's E-Man from the seventies) managed to interview Arnold DrakeCarmine InfantinoDick Giordano and Neal Adams about their involvement in the creation of Deadman, and snippets of these interviews are scattered across this seven-issue reprint collection. This is all pretty cool,...

...however, the BEST reason to pick up this reprint series is for the Neal Adams art. Adams, as I'm sure you are already aware, is in a league of his own. He's one of those artist's whose work you can spot at and make no mistake that Adams' work. He's often imitated, but never successfully replicated.

Neal Adams art from Strange Adventures #208 (1968). Extreme facial close-ups.

When I think of Neil Adams' art, I think of an artistic style that exudes realism. I think of facial close-ups filled with expressive emotion. I think of dynamism and vibrancy (his characters rarely look stiff), and advanced coloring that relies on gradients (rather than solid colors) to give his figures an almost 3D perspective. Adams' art doesn't have very many sharp edges or corners, and his shading is almost always cross-hatching. He uses panel layouts that encourage the reader's eye to follow the action or, in some cases, dramatic splash pages that can really draw a reader into a story. Adams, prior to working for DC comics, had spent the first three and a half years of his career illustrating the Ben Casey comic strip -- a medical 'soap opera'-style syndicated comic strip that appeared in newspapers across the country -- which would have given him plenty of experience on dramatic pacing and facial close-ups.

Strange Adventures #212 (1968). Dramatic splash page.

My favorite issue of this reprint series is issue #7 or, more specifically, the reprint of Strange Adventures #216. As the series progresses, it would seem as if Adams gets a bit more experimental with his panel layouts and designs -- maybe it had to do with the fact that he was now plotting, writing and illustrating everything on his own (aka: complete creative control)? Regardless, Adams pushes the boundaries of what we've seen so far and includes a lot of visual effects that are just plain clever and fun to spot. I'm a sucker for optical illusions, so this issue really went a long way for me:

Neil Adams includes a 'Jim Sternako Effect' in Strange Adventures #216. Literally. Can you see that he literally spelled out 'A Jim Sternako Effect' with the pink smoke?

I just love it when an artist can take several seemingly unrelated panels,...

panel from Strange Adventures #216. art by Neil Adams.

panel from Strange Adventures #216. art by Neil Adams.

panel from Strange Adventures #216. art by Neil Adams.

...and combine them to create a 'big picture':

All this to say; between the high-quality Baxter Stock paper and vivid coloring, the Nicola Cuti interviews and the wrap-around covers, this entire reprint series was a great score for Neal Adams and/or Deadman fans. It might be pretty difficult to find these issues now -- thankfully DC has reprinted Neal Adams' Deadman material (and other early Deadman stories) in softcover TPBs -- like four volume's worth. I'm not sure if the Nicola Cuti interviews are included in these new TPB reprints -- DC has a tendency to surprise fans, so you never know -- but these would be the cheaper alternative to tracking down and collecting these 1985 Deluxe Reprint issues.


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