Review: DC Universe Presents Volume 1: Deadman & Challengers of the Unknown

By David Rondinelli

Writers: Paul Jenkins and Dan Didio
Artists: Bernard Chang and Jerry Ordway
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: December 2012

dc-universe-presents-deadman-challengers-of-unknown-volume1-dccomics-new52-jenkins-didio-chang-ordway-sook[1]If ever there was proof of comic books taking a more adult-oriented turn with the storytelling, look no further than DC Universe Presents Volume 1: Deadman & Challengers of the Unknown.

Comics fans nostalgic for the metaphysical stories that first gained momentum in the late ’80s (think Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Mike Carey’s Lucifer) will enjoy the re-introduction of this ghostly character, part of the New 52.

The book starts with a brief recap of the murder of Boston Brand, an arrogant circus trapeze star who goes by the stage name Deadman. The story then quickly turns into a supernatural mind-warp. Summoned by a goddess known as Rama Kushna, Boston Brand is sent back into the world of the living as a ghost. As an act of penitence toward the higher powers, he’s charged with bringing balance back into the lives of the hopeless.

Deadman first caught my eye in Justice League Dark. I was so enthralled that it practically possessed me to seek out DC Universe Presents at my local comic shop. The first thing that struck me was the lack of conventional super hero action. On top of that, most of the story arc sees Deadman inhabiting the body an army veteran who’s lost his legs, which in theory doesn’t make for the most compelling action set-up.

Still, what it may lack in kicks and punches, it more than makes up for in substance. If readers enjoy exploring metaphysical questions on matters of God, salvation, and the afterlife, Deadman would sit nicely between works like Goethe’s Faust and Thomas Aquinas’ Summa.

The blend of urban fantasy and mystery also contribute to what makes this a compelling read. While sharing the body of a paraplegic, Deadman crosses paths with some very memorable characters and places. Whether taking a tour through Gotham City’s supernatural nightclubs or quite literally taking a ride with the devil on a rollercoaster, we are treated to writer Paul Jenkins’ views on questions plaguing humanity.

imagesCA07088ESome of the biggies include why bad things happen to good people (the answer being because they deserve it), and what human beings are to God (a failed experiment). The devil’s answers, straightforward and glib as they are, make the reader ponder if such cosmic forces can really be that simple. Either way, the devil, laid-back as always, doesn’t seem to be too concerned with the intellectual plight of humanity as much as he is in shedding light on the ulterior motives of goddess Rama. Most pressing of all, what is the meaning of life, especially through the eyes of someone who is already dead? The writers seemed to aim for the point that there are more questions than answers.

Reading Deadman as an exploration of these questions is really enjoyable. The fantasy elements used to tell the story are an unconventional break from your usual academic voice. Some butt-kicking scenes and horror elements, although not extreme, are also fun additions. For those who relish wondering about the meaning of life, it’s a fun way to explore this kind of soul-searching while combining it with superheroes.

The turns in the story took me down unexpected paths, allowing me to do some pondering of my own about where storytelling may be heading next in comics. Indeed, Deadman’s tale in DC Universe Presents aims at some new horizons. The fact that the devil is not out to get the lead character provides a bit of fresh ground in comic book storytelling.

As for the visuals, with his cohesive panels and tight angles, penciler Bernard Chang’s art is just as complex as the storytelling. Accolades are in order for the colorist (credited as “Blond”) as well, who weaves a gothic tapestry of Deadman’s signature white and red color scheme.

Where praise is in order for Deadman, however, it’s the opposite for the second feature in this book, Challengers of the Unknown.

STK462255.jpg.size-285_maxheight-285_square-true[1]The story follows a group of contestants on a new reality series (called Challengers of the Unknown) after their plane crashes. Writer Dan Didio takes a David Lynch-like approach to the story, hopping from setting to setting while straddling multiple realities.

Unfortunately, even Didio’s signature playful style can’t save this cliché-ridden mess. For starters, the characters are little more than shallow tropes: You have the nerdy genius, the trampy bombshell, cocky guy with too much testosterone, and the token minority character. There’s also a blonde girl named June Robbins who leads everyone into danger but, maddeningly, they continue to follow regardless.

Throw in a group of unexplained talismans, a possessed naked guy with a chewed-up face who likes to kill people with sharp objects, and you get a half-slaughtered cast of unmemorable characters. This team is an example of how some things can’t always be translated into a modern setting. The original team roster, created by the legendary Jack Kirby, was a non-super hero book that the publisher used to introduce or re-introduce new characters and then disperse them into other projects. It was also noted as an early influence for the Fantastic Four. Aside from footnote backstory and some nice covers, the comic’s only other interesting touch is the reality show/Lord of the Flies gimmick, but even that is better done in Marvel’s current title, Avengers Arena.

The jumbled plot, characters with no super powers, and predicable deaths makes this a B story that only feels at home in an anthology. Perhaps that was the intention, but with a final sentence that reads, “The End…for now,” one can’t help but think they should have stopped at half that thought.

All in all, Deadman anchors the volume and provides a real gift to readers, making this book worth picking up. Challengers of the Unknown, on the other hand, is about as high quality as the reality shows that provided its inspiration.

Recommended? Highly, if only for the Deadman story.

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