Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I've been meaning to write this for a few weeks - ever since Deadman made an appearance in the new Brave and the Bold cartoon series.

Deadman was a unique character, even in the Silver Age of comics. He wasn't a superhero at all. He was a ghost who was looking for his killer. Normally invisible and intangible, his only power was that he could possess people.

Despite his name and costume, both of which were suitable for a super-powered ghost, he had both when he was alive. Deadman was really a trapeze artist named Boston Brand with a morbid streak. He figured that the crowd really came to watch him die so he took the name Deadman and wore a death mask as part of his act. One night during his act he was shot by someone with a hook. He materialized as a ghost looking like he did when he died. The spirit Rama Kushna apppeard to him and explained that he had been given a "gift" - the power to walk among men until his killer was brought to justice.

The character was created by Arnold Drake and Carmine Infantino but it was quickly turned over to Jack Miller and a newcomer, Neal Adams.

The comic was much closer to a TV show like the Fugitive with a bit of Quantum Leap thrown in rather than a traditional comic book. Except for another costumed trapeze artist called the eagle, Deadman dealt with regular people and regular problems. Neal Adams's art was a perfect match for this. He had been doing syndicated newspaper comics and had a hyper-realistic style that matched the tone of the comic.

At first Deadman simply thought of people who might want him dead (there was a long list) and checked them out. Some of them were involved in other crimes. Others had problems of their own. Inevitably Deadman would posses someone and use his acrobatic and street-fighting skills to clear things up. Then he would move on to another dead end (pardon the pun).

The comic had a strong supporting cast from the circus but Deadman never revealed himself to them. Presumably he intended to solve his murder and move on to the next world. The exception to this was in an issue of Brave and the Bold. Deadman decided to ask Batman for help with his murder. This turned into another false lead, this time to the brother of the man who had killed Bruce Wayne's parents.

Around half-way through its run, the pace of Deadman stories picked up. It started with Boston seeing what the police were doing about his murder. This led to several near encounters with Hook and a reunion of sorts with his twin brother Cleveland. At one point Cleveland tried to flush Hook out of hiding by pretending that Boston had survived. Hook shot Deadman again, although this time it turned out to be the circus strongman Tiny in Deadman's costume. Tiny survived.

Despairing of ever finding Hook, Deadman chose someone at random and decided to take over that man's life. In an amazing coincidence, he chose an assassin named Willie Smith. In a bigger coincidence, the assassins next job was to capture Hook.

It turned out that Hook was training to enter a society of assassins. He final test was to pick someone at random and kill him. Hook chose Deadman from a circus poster. Cleveland's impersonation of Boston and Tiny's survival convinced the society that Hook has failed his test. He was allowed to fight for his life against the Sensei, an aged, frail oriental who quickly bests Hook. Hook's body is dumped in the ocean leaving Deadman to wonder what next?

In the following issue, Deadman follows Smith and the Sensei on a mission to destroy the city of Nanda Parbat (sort of a Shangri La). Deadman stops them and discovers that, while in Nanda Parbat, he is alive again. Further, this is where Rama Rushna is. He and Rama come to an understanding - Boston will continue to fight evil as he is for an unspecified time.

This was supposed to be the jumping off point for a new direction. Deadman would move from trying to find Hook to fighting Sensei and his assassins. Unfortunately it was Deadman's last issue. What was supposed to be a two-part story was continued in Brave and the Bold with Batman helping Deadman save Nanda Parbat.

The Sensei and his assassins merged with an on-going Batman plotline involving Ras al-Ghul and elements of this were in Batman Begins.

There have been several attempts to revive the character since then. Deadman also had a short run as a backup strip in Aquaman. This was written and drawn by Neil Adams. The only other story worth mentioning was Deadman's third appearance in Brave and the Bold. Batman needed someone to infiltrate a criminal organization. Deadman was perfect for this until he fell for a woman at the top. The artwork was by Jim Aparo who matched Neil Adams' realistic style.

Other attempts were not as successful. Jack Kirby's Forever people had a Deadman guest shot. In this, he merged with an android that looked just like him (including his ghostly costume) and started a new search for the Hook. Kirby had noticed an inconsistency in which hand Boston's assassin had lost. This was mercifully forgotten.

Deadman was revived (so to speak) in 1986 but it never captured the spirit (so to speak) of the original strip. Rama Kushna was demoted from an asexual aspect of God (or something) to a goddess who damaged spirits in order to keep them earthbound. The supporting cast was killed off.

The biggest problem with subsequent attempts to revive Deadman is that they all involve the supernatural, often on a cosmic scale. Deadman doesn't work well in these stories. He is at his best when dealing in small, human stories.

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