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Thursday, September 14, 2017

The 1986 Deadman mini-series (written by Andy Helfer and illustrated by José Luis Garcia-Lopéz)

We're inching our way to Halloween, and what better time to review one of DC's most macabre super heroes? If you haven't read our review of the 1985 Deadman Deluxe Reprint series, I'd recommend you start with that (go ahead... we'll wait), because this mini-series picks up where that reprint series left off.

By the mid-to-late eighties, the 'mini-series' seemed to be DC's launch vehicle of choice for testing reader reaction to any new ongoing series they were thinking of piloting (see: Aquaman, Phantom Stranger, Peacemaker, Hawk & Dove, Shadow War of Hawkman, Red Tornado, etc). That was exactly what this was -- DC trying to determine if there was enough reader interest to merit a Deadman ongoing series. Short answer: no. 

If you're reading this article because you're curious about the life & times of Deadman, I'll give you the run-down of what happens in this mini:

Accompanied by his identical twin brother Cleveland and Batman, Boston Brand/Deadman is still recovering in Nanda Parbat after being poisoned by the Sensei. [Thankfully, later in the first issue, the reader is treated to a quick recap of everything that happened during those 1967/1969 Strange Adventures and Brave and the Bold stories leading up to this.] Rama Kushna wants Deadman to stay and become the defender of Nanda Parbat, but Deadman wants to leave and go back to the real world for a few weeks and tie up some loose ends in his former life.

Panels from Deadman v2 #1 (1986). Art by José Luis Garcia-Lopéz.

He possesses Cleveland's body and heads back to the circus to says his good-byes. Of course, he wants to rehash his glory days as a high-flying trapeze artist... and this is when an unknown assailant assassinates him AGAIN (while he's possessing his twin brother's body). The first issue ends with Deadman bargaining with Rama Kushna for the life of his brother, Cleveland.

Panels from Deadman v2 #1 (1986). Art by José Luis Garcia-Lopéz.
Well, here's your first spoiler: Cleveland doesn't make it. Deadman resolves to hunt down his brother's killer, and manages to do so before the end of the second issue. A new supporting character is introduced: Maxwell Loomis (aka Major Mite) -- an acrobat/clown who is also an agent of Rama Kushna's. The second issue is overflowing with exposition: we discover the origin of Rama Kushna and Nanda Parbat (and how they're connected), we learn about Rama Kushna's relationship to Deadman, and we discover that Boston Brand isn't the first person to be an agent of Rama Kushna's.

It's probably worth noting that the antagonist in this mini-series is, once again, The Sensei of the League of Assassin (but not really, though). Deadman confronts The Sensei, but it goes poorly because the League was expecting him and set a trap. Second spoiler: it is revealed that the Sensei is actually possessed by the spirit who formerly held Deadman's position as Rama Kushna's herald -- a man named Jonah -- who wants to see Rama Kushna and Nana Parbat destroyed. There's a siege and a major battle is fought.

In the fourth issue, everything gets wrapped up: Rama Kushna sacrifices herself to put an end to Jonah, the city of Nanda Parbat destroys itself, the residents of Nanda Parabat are relocated around the world, the Sensei (no longer possessed by Jonah) goes back to being a ruthless gang leader, and Deadman commits to carrying on Rama Kushna's legacy by doing good. The end.


Staring all the way back in 1982, Andy Helfer was best known as an editor at DC comics (Atari Force, Green Lantern, Super Powers, Justice League of America), and the Deadman mini-series was some of his first writing/plotting/scripting for DC.

I can appreciate what Helfer was trying to do here -- part of being a writer and wanting to tell a story sometimes means wiping out everything the previous guy built so you can have a clean slate to work from. To this effect, Helfer effectively wiped out EVERYTHING Neil Adams had engineered (i.e., Rama Kushna, Nana Parbat, twin brother Cleveland, etc) from his run on Deadman back in the late sixties.

In the first issue's letter column, Helfer confirmed that he was a bonafide Deadman fan, and has vivid memories of picking up those Neal Adams' illustrated Strange Adventures stories right off of the spinner rack. He was heartbroken when the Deadman run came to an end, and added "seemed to me at the time, though, that it never actually did end -- that we left poor Boston right in the MIDDLE of his biggest adventure yet -- an adventure that saw print, oddly enough, as a Batman team-up in BRAVE AND THE BOLD." Sure enough, it was revealed to Helfer by Dick Giordano that the ending was rushed and condensed to fit into a twenty-page format because "it would be Dick's LAST opportunity to do a full-length Deadman story." Helfer even mentions that while he was Special Projects Editor under Joe Orlando, he'd longed to ask Neal Adams about that ending, but never got the chance. According to Helfer, it was Dick Giordano's idea to finish the original Deadman story after seeing the sales for the Deluxe Reprint Format series. Giordano's only request was that the new mini-series picks up where the original reprints left off.

Helfer did a few things in this mini that answered a few unsolved mysteries the original Strange Adventures issues had set up but never resolved -- namely, why Deadman couldn't possess the Sensei (because he was already being possessed by Jonah), who occupies the hidden city of Nana Pandut (the world's most evil beings), and what Rama Kushna's whole deal was (a misguided deity who was doing more harm than good). The mini-series concludes with all of the former Nana Pandut residents being scattered across the globe, and Deadman needing to re-collect them -- hence creating a plot device for an ongoing series.

Panel from Deadman v2 #3 (1986). Art by José Luis Garcia-Lopéz.

I suppose the biggest concern here -- for continuity cops, anyways -- was that resolving a 1968 Deadman story nearly 20 years later kind of messes up the continuity of everything that's happened between now and then. Helfer acknowledges this in the letter column of the first issue, and promises to provide readers with a list of all the Deadman stories that get retconned out of existence in the last issue, and then -- probably due to deadlines -- decides that readers should do their homework and submit which stories they think should be retconned instead (and hey... Crisis on Infinite Earths was still fresh in everyone's minds, so Helfer could probably get away with it). This was all preceded by Helfer gently reminding fans to write to DC if they'd like to see an ongoing Deadman series.

I was delightfully surprised to discover that Garcia-Lopez had illustrated this mini-series. Either I already knew this and forgot, or just never knew.

Page from Deadman v2 #1 (1986). Art by José Luis Garcia-Lopéz.

I mainly know of Garcia-Lopez' work from the 1982 DC Style Guide and from any promotional art associated with the Super Powers Collection action figures. I had no clue he could draw this fiercely. I'm understanding why he's considered to be a living legend.

splash page from Deadman v2 #3 (1986).  Art by José Luis Garcia-Lopéz.

panels from Deadman v2 #1 (1986). Art by José Luis Garcia-Lopéz.

Page from Deadman v2 #1 (1986). Art by José Luis Garcia-Lopéz.

Xeroxed copies of the first issue were sent out in advanced to selected readers so they'd have something to print in the third issue's letter column. A few readers who wrote in said they were kinda lost as to what was going on in the mini-series since they were a little unfamiliar with the intricate details of Deadman, and some pointed out things that didn't make logical sense. Even Mike Baron chimed in:

In 1986, Mike Baron would've been working on Nexus for First Comics.
Baron would end up writing a Deadman one-shot in 1989 for DC comics.

I was really expecting Deadman to be searching for his brother's killer throughout the entire mini-series, but that quickly got resolved by the second issue. I'm glad that Helfer introduced an even BIGGER threat to Deadman -- a villain who is also incorporeal and can play in the same league as Deadman. Deadman's a ghost, so it's a little difficult to have an opponent who can physically harm him. In later Deadman stories, his biggest opponents will be falling in love and loneliness.

One of the reasons I don't think this mini-series 'picked up' with fans is because Deadman doesn't play well as a solo character. (Batman appearing for the first seven pages for the first issue was kind of a tease, because he doesn't appear again in this mini.) Deadman NEEDS other 'established' DC characters to star alongside him. He's not interesting enough to support a book by his lonesome. I would, however, love to see this reprinted -- with nice crisp colors -- just so we can enjoy that Garcia-Lopez artwork again. As you can probably imagine, my copy is pretty worn.

To me, the 1986 Deadman mini-series will always be infamous for having a house ad that terrified me as a child. I literally could not even look at this page too long (I was a pretty squeamish kid). The look of anguish on Boston Brand's face(s) was just so horrific that it frightened me very much.


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