WTF is Happening in Deadman 1?

by Patrick Ehlers

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

While the concept of a ghost investigating its own murder is pretty straightforward, there’s something of an incongruous cognitive leap we need to make to buy into it. Specifically, if there’s a consciousness around to investigate its own murder, is that person really dead? It’s a circular logic question, and one that ultimately isn’t super fruitful — either we buy in to the premise of the story or we don’t. But that tension still hangs over the proceedings in Deadman 1, and creator Neal Adams leans into that emotional confusion hard, breaking down every page and every story beat into a whirling WTF mess of plot twists and body swaps.

All of which is to say that this issue more or less leaves me confused. Between Boston Brand highjacking other character’s bodies and Batman disguising himself as Jim Gordon for the majority of the issue, no one is ever really who they claim to be. To add further confusion, Adams will frequently obliterate his own panel dividers to disorient the reader. So when Batman does arrive to take Gordon’s place during the tour of the nuclear site, it’s hard to parse out what’s actually happening.

No one stays in their panel! As an isolated image, can you tell me how many characters there are that look like Jim Gordon in this scene? Two? Four? One? Adam’s halting dialogue doesn’t help matters, and characters seldom finish whatever the fuck they were trying to say.

Actually, that’s a big thorn in the issue for me. Adams has Deadman communicating with the reader in three different ways — sometimes through a kind of third person narration that expresses Boston’s thoughts omnisciently, sometimes through thought balloons, and occasionally by Boston straight up speaking. Here’s an example of all three within two panels.

I don’t really like to rag on what are obviously stylistic choices, but the density of Adam’s pages, combined with his insistence on demolishing clarity kind of kills this thing for me. There are a couple pages where Adams recaps Deadman’s origin story, but between elements of it that are new to me (a twin brother named Cleveland? Tiny the Circus Strongman?) and this persistent collage / mosaic scene presentation, I can’t make heads or tails of this thing. Even when I feel like I’m ahead of the issue’s deceptions, I can’t work out character’s motivations. There’s a point where Batman, disguised as Jim Gordon brutally beats Hook, clumsily asking “WHO EMPLOYS YOU?” The reveal that this is Batman explains a little, but it’s still behavior that doesn’t totally track for Batman, especially when Boston spends the rest of the issue berating Bruce for NOT BEING BRUTAL ENOUGH.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

11 comments on “WTF is Happening in Deadman 1?

  1. Patrick, is this your first experience with a modern-day Neal Adams book? If so, WELCOME TO THE INSANITY.

    His mini-series from a few years ago, “Batman: Odyssey,” is a must-read in the same way “The Room” is a must-see: it’s so staggeringly incomprehensible that it demands be experienced. It’s like reading a six-issue long fever dream, with ten pages in the middle for Adams to soapbox via Batman about his very real belief that the Earth is hollow. It’s…beyond description TBH.

    Please, please, please read Comicalliance’s attempts to recap it. It’s some of my favorite writing anywhere on the internet:

    • You got me – it totally is my intro to modern Neal Adams. I assumed I’d see the patience and clarity of a veteran of the industry, and was not expecting the visual ravings of a mad man!

    • The fact that DC publishes Neal Adams recent work just confuses me. This isn’t even a Rebirth complaint, because they did this even when they were competent. Just why?

      I’d probably be much more accepting of this if it wasn’t by DC. A big part of the reason things like the Room works is that it is legitimate outsider art. This is released by a major publisher.

      Adam’s recent work has got to be the most baffling thing in comics since Marville

      • I mean, it’s only baffling if it doesn’t sell, right? Neal Adams is a legend by anyone’s definition, so I think there are some sales guaranteed regardless of the quality. At the end of the day, any publisher is more beholden to their bottom line than they are to any kind of artistic standards. I don’t know anything about the sales on Batman: Odyssey, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned enough of a profit for someone at DC to greenlight another project.

        • Don’t know enough about miniseries sales to judge Odyssey’s sales, though considering the talent behind it and the ongoing it had similar sales to, I would expect better. You would expect a legendary creator on a miniseries to get better numbers than some lf the things it is next to.

          And there is the simple fact that quality has some degree of correlation with sales, generally. You would think there is better uses of DC’s resources than a baffling mess with sales comparable to Hawk and Dove, Captain Atom and other high New 52 failures.

          Also, would still be baffling even if it sold a million copies. Quite simply, you wouldn’t expect Warner Brothers or a major studio to release the Room. There is usually systems in place to avoid this exact thing from happening.

        • For DC, sales numbers almost always relate to how much Batman is in a book’s title. So Batman Odyssey makes sense, even as an Adams’ fever dream. But Deadman? DEADMAN?

        • I mean, Deadman was Adams’s baby, and he never got to finish the story he set out to tell. It’s one of the great “what ifs” in comics history. The best analogy I can come up with in modern comics is if Williams and Blackman got to finish their run on Batwoman. It wouldn’t be a blockbuster by any means, but there would be fans (myself included) clamoring to see how that story ends.

        • There are lots of factors that can go into the success of a book, and while quality is one of them, it’s far from essential. I’ve had a editor tell me that they’re looking for any two of the 3 Cs: Creator, Character, and Concept. That, a popular creator with a good story can make an unpopular character sell, or a popular character with a good story can sell in spite of an unknown or unpopular creator. I’d say that Adams definitely has the reputation to sell books, especially on a character that he created, enough to trump concerns about quality. Again, so long as they think they can turn a profit on it, they’re better off saying yes than they are saying no.

          I think that would be true of a film studio and the Room — if an exec thought they could turn a profit by producing/distributing/marketing the movie, they definitely would. Audiences tend not to like terrible movies, so terrible movies aren’t generally seen as profitable, but there are obvious exceptions. Some of the most profitable movies are objectively bad. Maybe the better comparison is Batman v. Superman? Obviously, this isn’t as bombastic, but I’m sure there are people who value Adams’ auteurist vision (however messy it is) in the same way there are people who value Snyders’ (again, in spite of its messiness). The characters and creators will make this thing sell in spite of it being an absolute mess.

        • Creator, Character and Concept are all important, but so is quality (if we want another C, how about Critical Acclaim?). Word of Mouth counts. They are all factors that matter. I’ve actually conducted my own statistical investigation into revenue (though with film), and quality does matter. That’s not to say that you would say no to Adams, but that when you see what is actually being made, I would think you would want to intervene to make sure. All other factors being the same, you’d rather release a quality comic than a bad one.

          I think Batman v Superman is a good example of a counterpoint to Batman Odyssey. Is it legendarily awful? Yes. But it is awful in ways that are very explainable. It is the sort of disaster you’d expect Warner Brothers to release, unlike the Room. The need to differentiate itself from Marvel, the lingering effects of misunderstanding the Nolan movies, the shared universe aspects being forced in, attempts at modernisation not panning out properly, the need to have iconic parts of the comics present when they don’t fit in… I can understand many of the individual motivations,of how a corporation would let that through. The Room would have a very different journey through Warner Brothers than Batman v Superman did.

          And that is why, regardless of what the sales actually are (I have no idea how to judge miniseries sales, but the sales I saw were at the same level as the first cancelled comics of the New 52), it is baffling

        • Hey, don’t slam the New 52 Captain Atom. It was solid and I liked it enough to read the whole series (and I think I gave it to students who liked it). Hawk and Dove, Mister Miracle, on the other hand…

        • Not slamming it. New 52 happened right in the middle of my brief break from comics, and therefore I have very little idea about books like that.

          Saleswise, unfortunately, it didn’t go well. Regardless of how good it was, it got cancelled as fast as possible. That’s the context that I’m calling it a failure.

          Though I’ll keep my open for Captain Atom. Pick it up at some point.

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