DC Universe Presents #1
“Twenty Questions, Part 1”
Writer: Paul Jenkins
Artist: Bernard Chang
Letters: Dave Sharpe
Cover artist: Ryan Sook
Editor: Wil Moss
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US
I didn’t expect that.
When DC Comics announced the lineup of titles in its New 52 publishing initiative, there were a few standouts. I knew Batwoman by J.H. Williams III would be gorgeous. I knew Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang would impress with their work on Wonder Woman. And as for DC Universe Presents, well, I knew writer Paul Jenkins and artist Bernard Chang would deliver something good, something entertaining. Little did I know their Deadman would be great, a creative landmark in the property’s long history and perhaps the very best title in the entire New 52 line. Jenkins’ script achieves a wonderful balance between the blue-collar, everyman tone of the hero, and the philosophical and spiritual implications of the divine, mysterious mission with which he’s been tasked in his ghostly afterlife. Chang’s artwork achieves a balance as well, between the bright, colorful traditions of the super-hero genre to which Deadman has been linked for so long, and the haunting and diverse array of humanity that’s such an integral part of this story. It’s possible — given the generic nature of the title of this series, the plan for rotating creative teams and main characters, and Deadman’s status as a C-list character — this title will be overlooked by many. If you’re among them, I urge you to seek out this comic book. You won’t be disappointed.
There was a time when Deadman’s spectral travels through the world, entering the bodies and lives of people in trouble, seemed like an adventure. He found himself in life-and-death situations, making a difference while immersing himself in intrigue and victory. But more and more, the spirit once known as Boston Brand finds himself floating into the mundane, sad lives of regular people, men and women who find themselves as lost as Deadman himself is beginning to feel. As a result, he starts asking questions about the mission he accepted from the divine Rama years ago, about his path to redemption. And he’s decided to get some answers in a surprising way.
Initially, Chang’s artwork boasts a conventional super-hero look, crisp and bright and colorful. But beginning with third page, one starts to see something a little different, something a little special is about to unfold in the artwork. I love the (literal) splash page that connects the thud of Boston Brand’s body on a circus floor with a spiritual immersion and “swim” in a limbo-like landscape; Chang transforms the abrupt cessation of a fall into continued movement, literally demonstrating death isn’t the end of one’s movement through existence. As the issue progresses, Deadman looks less like a super-hero and more like a haunting (and haunted) figure. Chang is also to be commended for a number of realistic sequences featuring living characters. Johnny Foster’s experiences in combat come across incredibly believably, especially the first-person perspective in his flashback sequence, and his still, empty but cluttered apartment feels like a real place. Furthermore, Deadman’s harassment of an old acquaintance from his time among the living has a real sense of movement to it, reminding me of a memorable and inventive sequence from the Denzel Washington movie Fallen (which features a disembodied antagonist able to possess the living as well).
Chang’s efforts to a slightly different take on Deadman is aided a great deal by Blond’s colors. I love the grey and cool blue pall that’s cast over many scenes, reinforcing the introspective and sometimes depressed tones that are vital elements in this engaging story of humanity by way of a supernatural premise. Furthermore, the colors establish a different cue for Deadman’s possessions of the living, but more importantly, the flowing, glowing and ghostly red lines that mark Deadman’s contact with Johnny reinforce the special, magical and life-altering qualities of the connection. It stands out as the most striking visual in the entire comic.
It seems to me the New 52 line of DC titles isn’t quite the cohesive, co-ordinated effort DC has portrayed it to be, as Deadman’s portrayal in this story doesn’t jibe at all with his appearance two weeks ago in Hawk and Dove #1. That comic book incorporated a leftover subplot from the pre-new 52 Brightest Day, something that would’ve interfered with the tone and strength of the storytelling in DC Universe Presents #1. Mind you, that’s not a criticism of this finely crafted comic book, merely an observation about editorial missteps at DC overall.
One of the things I enjoyed about last week’s Resurrection Man #1 was how writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning provided glimpses into the lives of characters whose roles in the story were fleeting at best. Jenkins, through his hero’s narration, does the same here, offering up a barrage of little character profiles that ring true. I also found the contrast between the two most prominent of Deadman’s “targets” in this issue to be interesting. The first — Albert Albertson, a failed stuntman — is something of a joke. Jenkins makes him real and pitiable, but his garish appearance and foolhardy choices cast him in something of a laughable light. And then there’s Johnny, a U.S. soldier who’s returned home with his legs, without his friends and without himself. He struggles to get through each day, and there’s such a profound gravitas to him. He’s a compelling character because he’s a real person (or could be) whose body and life has been through an unreal and devastating transformation.
The contrast between those two players in this weird but soulful drama are another reflection of an overt theme running through the entire issue: balance. Boston Brand is trying to even his life of selfishness out with a selfless afterlife, and Jenkins’ retooling of his origin literally places him on a scale. By the end of the issue, the conflict driving our hero forward is the imbalance in his relationship with Rama, and he’s determined to bring balance to that element as well. The first chapter of “Twenty Questions” is incredibly well written, and if subsequent episodes are half as compelling and interesting as this one, I’ll still be riveted. 10/10
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