A trim, athletic man in blood-red tights and a white cadaverous mask stands on a pedestal high above the crowd. The smell of sawdust and popcorn wafts through the great tent as two thousand eyes stare upward in anticipation. Gripping the trapeze bar firmly in his powerful hands, the man leaps from the board and begins his graceful swing.
Then a shot rings out!
With a strangled cry, the aerialist releases the bar and plunges fifty feet, landing with a sickening thud!
Thus began DC’s newest series of 1967. The blurb on the cover of Strange Adventures # 205 (Oct., 1967) put it more succinctly:
“The man who was just murdered is our hero! His story begins one minute later---“
DC’s executives and editorial staff were feeling very uncomfortable in 1967. Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics had been steadily eating away at DC’s huge share of comics sales, and its bites were getting bigger and bigger. Initially, feeling secure in its dominance of the industry, DC ignored Marvel, figuring the upstart company would die on the vine. Instead, Marvel kept coming. So DC tried imitating its rival, hoping to “out-Marvel” Marvel. That only made DC’s comics look ridiculous.
Maintaining its usual style wasn’t working for DC, either. What had seemed so fresh and vibrant ten years ago was now looking tired and stale, as most of its talent had spent over two decades at their typewriters and drawing tables doing it the way DC had always wanted it done.
Marvel’s early efforts by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had been written off by DC as “bad art”. But now, their comics boasted the likes of John Buscema and Gene Colan and John Severin, and there was no brushing off their abilities, the way they combined dynamic action with realism.
Maybe that’s why it took an artist to figure out what DC needed to do.
Carmine Infantino, the artist who had reïntroduced the Flash to comicdom and solidified the “New Look” Batman, persuaded the Powers That Be that a more realistic approach to both the art and the scripts was needed, but without forsaking the DC “touch”. In other words, none of the melodrama that was part and parcel of Marvel’s series. Vice President Irwin Donenfeld liked the idea and promoted Infantino to art director, tasking him with re-designing DC’s covers and finding the necessary talent to do them.
Infantino knew what new “find” he wanted to use. He immediately assigned Neal Adams, who had been squirreled away doing Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope, to draw covers for upcoming issues of Lois Lane, Superboy, The Brave and the Bold, and Challengers of the Unknown.
Of all of DC’s writers, it was Arnold Drake who knew best what Infantino was after. Drake had written The Doom Patrol since its inception back in ’63. Before the Batmania-inspired camp craze had infected DC’s titles, Drake’s DP stories were pitch-perfect blends of super-hero action and the realistic attitudes of the title’s freakish stars. Just the kind of thing that Infantino wanted---and Jack Miller needed.
Miller, an editor for DC’s humour and romance lines, had recently taken over Strange Adventures, and he needed a workable headliner. His predecessor, Jack Schiff, had tried various characters---Immortal Man, the Enchantress, Animal Man---but none of them had done much to draw readers. The title Strange Adventures was generic enough to fit any kind of a series, and Miller wanted to do something startling, something to shake the readers into noticing.
After a conference with Miller and Drake, Infantino felt they had come up with just what he needed to put forth his new æsthetic for DC comics. When the story “Who Has Been Lying in My Grave?” appeared in Strange Adventures # 205, readers noticed all right.
Ghost heroes were nothing new to comics, not even DC comics, which had characters like the Spectre, the Ghost Patrol, and the Gay Ghost. These ectoplasmic entities tended to be almost omnipotent, too powerful for a villain to pose any real threat. Visually interesting, but about as dramatic as a Cheerios Kid commercial. And then there was the question of realism. Allowing, of course, for the conceit that there was such a thing as ghosts, the Spectre and the others never seemed too distraught over being dead men walking. There were no unpleasantries over leaving the mortal plane. Fred and Pedro and Slim, of the Ghost Patrol, were downright happy about it. A ghost hero in a DC comic was perfectly content being undead.
Miller and Drake’s newest hero, Deadman, would turn all of that on its ear.
Deadman---real name, Boston Brand---wasn’t your traditional hero-type even when he was alive. As the top act of the struggling Hill Circus, Brand was cynical, abrasive, and not above rubbing salt in other people’s wounds. His attitude toward his fellow circus folk bordered on contempt, yet despite more lucrative offers from the well-established outfits, he stayed with Hill out of loyalty. Boston Brand had a vein of nobility---but you had to drill to find it.
On his last night as a living man, Brand insults the local lawman, Constable Ramsey, for trying to shut down the fortune teller’s act; fires Heldrich, the lion-tamer, for drinking on the job; and catches the barker, Leary, stealing from the box office. If he’d had the time, Brand probably would’ve smacked the fire-eater for smoking.
Then he climbed the pole in the centre ring . . . .
After hitting the sawdust, Boston is mystified. There’s no pain. He isn’t hurt, but the fall should have killed him, even if the bullet hadn’t. When Toby the Clown says it’s too late for a doctor and covers him with his cape, he complains that it’s a particularly un-funny joke.
But it's no joke. Toby can’t hear him or see him. Nobody can. He doesn’t know it yet, but Boston Brand is now a dead man in fact, as well as name. Confused, Brand wanders around the circus grounds and discovers that he’s unable to touch anything. His hands pass through whatever he tries to grab. When a voice speaks to him from a baby elephant and a mouse and a tree, he starts to feel like he’s losing his mind.
The voice belongs to the Hindu spirit god Rama Kushna. Rama tells Brand that he has been bestowed with a special fate.
Boston Brand---you shall have the power to walk among men until you have found the one who killed you!
But he’s a ghost, Brand protests. Invisible, inaudible, intangible---how’s he supposed to catch his killer? His only answer is the wind. It is after his funeral that he learns of the special gift that results from his condition. Tiny, the circus strongman, remains behind to pay his tearful respects. When Deadman impulsively lays a hand on his shoulder, he finds himself drawn inside the strongman’s body. Tiny’s mind goes dormant as Brand’s consciousness takes over. Inside Tiny’s body, Deadman breathes---moves---lives!
Now Boston Brand can hunt down his killer and bring him to justice. But where to start? His only clue comes from what several witnesses in the crowd told the police: that the rifleman had a hook for one of his hands. Boston will figure out how that fits in later. Right now, he has a couple of good suspects of his own---Heldrich the lion-tamer and Leary the barker.
He decides to check out Heldrich first, and he discovers that the animal handler and the constable, Ramsey, are working a dope-smuggling operation. With Tiny’s strength, Deadman captures the two, but not before learning that he is able to possess other bodies, as well. We also find out that when Brand leaves a body, that person’s consciousness returns, but he has no memory of what he did while possessed.
At the fade-out, Deadman-as-Tiny explains everything to Lorna Hill, the comely owner of the circus, while mentally, he reaffirms his intention to find his murderer. And the endcap promises to follow Boston Brand on his search.
It was too soon for sales figures on Strange Adventures # 205, or even reader mail, to come in, but there was a good feeling in the DC offices about the Deadman story. Carmine Infantino had delivered his trifecta: a super-hero story with realistic characterisation, none of the soap-opera-melodrama of Marvel, and presented in the DC style. The series would go on, even though reader feedback had yet to be heard.
It would go on without Infantino, though. His new duties as DC’s art director didn’t leave him any time for art assignments. He had already relinquished his spot as artist of the Elongated Man series, and the September issue of The Flash, a title he had drawn for the past eight years, would be his last. Infantino did not leave Deadman in the lurch, however. He selected Neal Adams to take over as the new penciller. It was Adams’ first regular assignment on a non-humour DC series, and Infantino had made a smart choice. Adam’s realistic, often photographic art would enhance the series’ sense of honest human emotion, yet could still depict the super-hero derring-do competently enough.
There was another change in the talent, one not as immediately noticeable, but which had its own marked impact. Arnold Drake went back to his regular work of pushing out scripts for The Doom Patrol, Challengers of the Unknown, and various DC humour magazines. Strange Adventures editor Jack Miller took over the writing for Deadman. That maintained continuity, not only within the fictional conceit of the series, but in the attitude of how the series should be handled. Miller would do a serviceable job, but he could not match Drake’s ear for dialogue. Drake could convey volumes about a character’s personality with simple dialogue---he was DC’s best writer at doing that---and neither Boston Brand, nor any of the other players, had quite the same edge without Drake.
As indicated at the end of the first story, the Deadman feature was going to be a “quest” series, in which the lead character has an overarching goal he seeks to accomplish. It was a concept popular on television, with shows like A Man Called Shenandoah, The Guns of Will Sonnett, Coronet Blue, and, most famously, The Fugitive. Accordingly, Strange Adventures # 206 (Nov., 1967) shows Deadman following the next thread in his hunt, in “An Eye for an Eye”.
As the story relates, Deadman is preparing to leave the Hill Circus, in search of new clues to his killer, when he decides to take one last look at Lorna Hill. When he does, he finds that Lorna’s ne’er-do-well kid brother, Jeff, has returned. To both the ghostly Brand’s and Lorna’s surprise, Jeff reveals that he had tricked Lorna into signing a $250,000 life insurance policy on the circus’ star act, Deadman---and now, conveniently, the act is dead. Jeff, it develops, needs money badly.
It’s enough of a motive for Brand to suspect Jeff as being behind his murder. In order to get the proof he needs, he inhabits Jeff’s body and inserts himself into the man’s life. Deadman-as-Jeff stumbles across some evidence which turns out not to be evidence, and ultimately, Lorna’s kid brother is shown to be completely uninvolved with Boston Brand’s death. He has problems of his own, however---or did have, until Deadman put them aright.
Being a quest-based series, of course it wouldn’t be this easy, or over that quick. But “An Eye for an Eye” did set the pattern for the next several stories: Deadman follows a lead to the killer which, ultimately, doesn’t pan out, but not before he helps someone in trouble. This was precisely how most of the episodes of The Fugitive and the other quest-type television shows played out.
Along the way, details of Boston Brand’s life emerge, such as the existence of his morally ambivalent twin brother, Cleveland, and an old rivalry with the sinister Eagle for top aerialist of the Hill Circus.
Commentary was coming in on the series, and all of it---at least, all of the letters that were published---was overwhelmingly positive:
Unfortunately, while Deadman may have been a critical success, it was not proving to be a financial one. With Strange Adventures # 212 (May-Jun., 1968), the title dropped to bi-monthly publication---a sure sign of sales troubles.
Accordingly, DC made some personnel shifts, in hopes of finding a team that would revitalise the series. Editor Jack Miller was out and replaced by Dick Giordano. Giordano had been recently hired away from Charlton, at Carmine Infantino’s insistence that comics, a visual medium, were better served by editors with artistic backgrounds.
Adams’ chief contribution as writer was to bring Boston Brand’s quest to a conclusion. He kicked it off by bringing together all of the recurring characters into his first story---Lorna Hill, the Hill Circus, Tiny the strongman, Vashnu the fortune teller, Cleveland Brand, and Boston’s killer, “the Hook”. What follows is a virtual game of “seven up”, as both Cleveland and Tiny disguise themselves as Deadman to smoke out the Hook. It winds up with Tiny being shot and the Hook escaping.
While the next issue focuses on Boston Brand’s intervention to keep Tiny from dying, Deadman’s other appearance that month was more popular. The Brave and the Bold # 79 (Aug.-Sep., 1968) presented the team-up of Deadman with the Batman!
The Batman’s team-ups in that title often seemed forced, but the reason for pairing the Caped Crusader with Deadman in “The Track of the Hook” was quite reasonable. Boston Brand arrives in Gotham City to request the help of the World’s Greatest Detective in finding his killer.
Clearly, it was an attempt to drum up interest in Deadman among non-Strange Adventures fans, but the story didn’t suffer for that. For once, the notoriously continuity-unconscious Bob Haney didn’t violate any of the established details of either hero. The story had been written before the events currently taking place in Strange Adventures, but nothing in the B&B tale was so jarring that it would bother a Deadman fan. The fact that Neal Adams drew it didn’t hurt, either.
Perhaps most notably, “The Track of the Hook” introduced Max Chill, brother to Joe Chill, the man who killed the Batman’s parents. While brother Max didn’t survive the issue, he became a permanent footnote in the Batman mythos.
He wasn’t Deadman’s killer, though.
The quest for the Hook resumes in Strange Adventures # 214 (Sep.-Oct., 1968). The story, “To Haunt a Killer”, is a fill-in by Robert Kanigher, but it leaves threads for Neal Adams to pick up in the next issue.
In Strange Adventures # 215 (Nov.-Dec., 1968), Deadman shadows Willie Smith, a hitman who got away at the end of Kanigher's story. The trail leads to Hong Kong, where, to Deadman’s surprise, Smith’s next target is---the Hook! After a brief pursuit, Smith captures the Hook and brings him to an ancient temple situated high in the mountains. Unknown to either man, an invisible, intangible ghost is following their every move.
The temple conceals the operations of a training school for assassins, and the Hook is one of its students. He’s in trouble with the teacher, and it’s not for copying off another student’s paper. He’s being hauled to task for the murder of Boston Brand.
Deadman listens---and learns that his murder was the Hook’s graduation exercise. “I saw his name on a . . . circus poster,” the Hook explains to the Sensei. “Thought he’d be a perfect test of . . . marksmanship . . . nerve . . . surrounded by a big crowd.” Grim irony follows as the Hook is told that he has failed his final exam because his intended victim is still alive.
The League of Assassins doesn’t know that the Deadman currently performing for the Hill Circus is Cleveland Brand, posing as his brother---which is bad news for the Hook, because as customary in secret criminal organisations, the penalty for failure is death. The Sensei faces the Hook in hand-to-hand combat. Deadman tries to possess the head of the assassins, but finds he is unable to do so. Seconds later, the Hook lies dead.
Cheated out of his vengeance, the ghost of Boston Brand rages in frustration that justice has not been done.
Fans were probably taken off guard that Deadman’s search for his killer, the central theme to the series, was over. Only four issues after Neal Adams had assumed the scripting chores (three, actually, since Kanigher had written issue # 214). There had been little build-up to the end, no real sense of things coming to a head until this issue.
I’ve never come across any direct information on it, but my guess is that the end of the Hook was ordered by editor Dick Giordano.. The title was losing sales, and that translated into a loss of interest in the Deadman series. Giordano either suspected, or had been told, that Deadman was going to be cancelled. So he figured he had nothing to lose by taking the series in a whole new direction. (He was taking the same approach with another doomed series he had inherited, Blackhawk, by suddenly ending the Black Knights’ super-hero phase and going back to basics for the last two issues.)
Strange Adventures # 216 (Jan.-Feb., 1969) sees Deadman leaving the assassins’ lair and discovering the existence of a Shangra-La-type paradise called Nanda Parbat. He also overhears the Sensei order Willie Smith to destroy the hidden land.
In a high-altitude aircraft, Smith intends to burn the remote refuge to cinders with a mounted laser. Using the pilot’s body, Deadman thwarts Smith, who manages to escape by parachute. Deadman resumes his ghostly form and floats downward. To his amazement, when he touches the ground of Nanda Parbat, he becomes corporeal again, human and alive!
Boston Brand meets some of the inhabitants and learns that his return to humanity is only one of the peaceful land’s enchantments---provided by Rama Kushna! Brand confronts Rama and accuses him of doing a lousy job of keeping evil in check. Return him to the outside world as a ghost, Deadman insists, and he’ll restore the balance between right and wrong in the world. Rama agrees.
As Deadman leaves Nanda Parbat, the threat of Willie Smith resurfaces.
From a personal quest to find his killer to a metaphysical battle of good versus evil. It was a giant step away from the realistic world in which Carmine Infantino had wanted Deadman to operate. But it was a concept that Dick Giordano liked; he would introduce a similar theme one month later in The Spectre, when the Ghostly Guardian would become the adjudicator of the lives of men whose names are found in God’s “Journal of Judgment”. That format lasted for a mere two issues before the title was cancelled. The new direction for Deadman didn’t even make it that far; his series ended right then and there. The next issue kicked off a run of Adam Strange reprints.
A conclusion, of sorts, to the business started in Strange Adventures # 216 appeared in The Brave and the Bold # 86 (Oct.-Nov., 1969). Bob Haney crafted a story based on the loose end of Willie Smith in which Deadman and the Batman prevent the League of Assassins from destroying Nanda Parbat.
As a wandering spirit, with no ties to any on-going plotline, Deadman made for a handy guest star. He could plausibly appear in any series, and did so, in the early ‘70’s, in such titles as Aquaman and Challengers of the Unknown and Justice League of America. Jack Kirby even put him into a couple of issues of Forever People. From that standpoint, Deadman certainly did better than the other out-of-the-box heroes that DC introduced toward the end of the Silver Age.
But something was lost in the transition. Much of the critical acclaim for Deadman’s Strange Adventures run stemmed from Infantino’s insistence on realism. Outside of the mystical nature of Boston Brand’s ghost-hood, the series took place in the real world. That sharply defined Deadman’s condition as an unseen, unheard phantom, able to experience life only vicariously. Readers understood his anger, his frustration, and the tragedy of his situation. Tracking down his killer would mean piecing together clues, following leads, and running into dead-ends. There wouldn’t be any time-scanners or magic spheres to help things along.
The one time during that period when he crossed into the regular DC universe, his B&B team-up with the Batman, worked because the Masked Manhunter was the one costumed character who moved easily between the fantasy of super-heroes and the reality of regular life.
Inserting Deadman into the science fiction of alien invasions, Mother Boxes, and the Justice League erased his real-world gravitas. At that point, Deadman came across as just another super-hero.
Which was what Carmine Infantino, back in 1967, had wanted to avoid.