Oh man, where to start with this one?
I know: let’s rewind the clock to around 1970. The Batman television series, which revitalized public interest in the character, has been off the air for a few years, and “Batmania” has cooled. The show was successful enough that, along with the editorial gaze of Julius Schwartz, Batman was literally saved from death and became a top-tier character once again. Still, he needed a new direction, a fresh aesthetic.
Enter Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams.
The duo would go on to become one of the most widely acclaimed comics creative teams of all time, spearheading a more mature storytelling style that was decades ahead of its time. They created Ra’s and Talia al Ghul, made the Joker a genuine threat in the brilliant “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge,” and touched on narcotics use in Green Lantern/Green Arrow. You know Roy “Speedy” Harper’s opiate addiction? That was O’Neil and Adams.
And everybody knows this image of Batman:
Batman running across the beach. That billowing cape and those clean lines made that one of the most indelible images of the Dark Knight ever illustrated.
They also collaborated on Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, which isn’t quite as insane as you want it to be but it’s still pretty crazy.
After their historic run on Batman comics, O’Neil would eventually become the group editor for the Batman titles, and Adams would continue drawing and even writing comics for both DC and Marvel.
Point being: Neal Adams is a legend. His early body of work stands among the greatest in all of comics.
I really want to know what happened here.
Though created by Carmine Infantino and Arnold Drake, Deadman has been pretty closely associated with Adams over the years. He helped craft the character beyond his initial origin, diving deeper into Boston Brand’s pursuit of his killer the Hook. That background features pretty heavily in this issue, so you’d think that this would be a perfect match, but… no. It’s not. I approached this series with cautious optimism, thinking that maybe Adams’ style would be more conducive to a character like Boston Brand. The concept is crazy and allows for a little more kookiness with the otherworldly, supernatural nature of the character. Sadly, this first issue of Deadman falls prey to the same issues that have plagued Adams’ work in recent years.
The most recent high-profile story Adams has been involved in is Superman: The Coming of the Supermen. It was truly bizarre, and I could not even begin to tell you what it was actually about. Written and illustrated by Adams, it was not great, but at least it was only six issues and had Mister Miracle.
Before that, Adams wrote the thirteen-issue maxiseries Batman: Odyssey, which is the worst Batman story I’ve ever read. As long as it is impenetrable, Odyssey is a convoluted jumble of who knows what that isn’t really about anything. Even with clearly defined framing devices there isn’t a clear structure, as there are flashbacks within flashbacks, story threads that don’t go anywhere, and a plot that technically doesn’t even begin until the halfway point. And look, guys: this is a story that has jive-talking magicians, machine gun-wielding hippo-men, and Batman riding a dinosaur. It should be my favorite story ever, and yet it falls drastically short.
Even Adams’ art was a disappointment. The dude can still draw and knows how to use every inch of the page, but his colors are flat and everybody has the same weird face. Considering this is the guy that drew the awesome desert sword fight between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul, that’s pretty upsetting.
Deadman here seems to take its cues from Odyssey, kicking off what should be a pretty simple story (“Deadman tries to find the man who killed him”) and telling it in the most confusing way possible.
Really, I had such a hard time following the sequence of events. There are parts that might work on their own, but there’s no consistency or flow to each scene. We’ll go from Deadman spying on his assailant the Hook, to a scene with James Gordon inspecting some sort of nuclear payload at a Japanese facility (I don’t believe this is ever made clear, specifically why Gotham’s commissioner of police is an ambassador to Japan, or why he’s inspecting nuclear equipment), then it will jump to a flashback of Deadman’s origin, then forward to a scene with Sensei (a carryover from Odyssey, last seen as a baby), and then back to the Hook. Each scene weaves in and out from one to the other, lacking any sort of clear transition or break to indicate the story has shifted. Some parts are easy enough to figure out, but others make it feel like pages are missing. It’s so abrupt and confusing that, even though I know what this issue is supposed to be “about,” I couldn’t really describe the sequence of events.
Adams’ writing style doesn’t do it many favors either, particularly with how he writes dialogue. There are countless… phrases that… are structured like THIS! It’s hard to read on its own, and when everybody is seemingly both breathless and yelling at everyone else it’s hard to gauge what the tone is supposed to be. In a way, his dialogue reminds me of a lot of Silver Age comics, particularly how you would have characters who would give bombastic explanations for ludicrous plans. It lacks the charm of those old comics, though, which at least had a sort of internal logic and consistency. Instead, most of the dialogue reads like a strange collection of loosely connected words, more an exercise in stream of consciousness than an actual attempt to make the characters sound like people. Conversations start and stop with no acknowledgement of the surrounding events, and any attempts to contextualize the action or dive into backstory just create further confusion. As I respectfully as I can say it, this just is not good storytelling in any way.
I’ll give Adams credit for one of his plot twists. As I mentioned, Jim Gordon is inspecting some nuclear equipment, when he’s suddenly come upon by a double. At first, this was just another incredibly confusing sequence that left me scratching my head. When it’s revealed who the double actually is (hint: he’s on the cover), I didn’t buy it, primarily because of the intervening shift to relay Deadman’s backstory. When I went back over the issue, though, it actually makes sense in context. It may not be a great twist, and it still doesn’t make sense as to why Gordon is even in this situation, but nothing else here makes sense either so at least it’s consistent.
There are some other highlights, too. Adams draws a great Deadman, there’s no doubt about that, and the last few pages almost settle into a fairly linear rhythm. It’s too little too late, but maybe he’s found a groove for the story going forward. There’s a fairly funny scene between Bruce and Alfred where they try to speak in code in front of Gordon, all while Deadman hops back and forth between the three characters to try and explain his story. Deadman gets a genuinely great line in there, too: “I didn’t die!!! I was killed…” Still, the few bright spots can’t make up for poor storytelling, and that’s what Deadman is.
And despite all that, I might actually give it another issue. The solicitations promise Zatanna, Doctor Fate, and Phantom Stranger, so hopefully those strange, supernatural characters will prove to be more in line with what Adams wants to do. I won’t be expecting much, based on this issue here, but I don’t know. It might get enjoyably weird.
- You’re a Deadman completist?
- Or maybe a Neal Adams completist, I guess?
Overall: Both over-written and under-plotted, this is a huge missed opportunity. Almost every aspect of this issue fails, from the convoluted story to the awful dialogue to the disappointing artwork. Adams has a well-earned pedigree and legacy, but that just makes the outcome of a book like this that much more disappointing. Had there been a solid writer even just assisting with the script, this might have turned out pretty well. Instead, it has the trappings of a vanity project that evokes other, equally disappointing series. On #DayOfTheDeadman, he deserves so much better.