Boston Brand was an arrogant and (self-proclaimed) self-centered circus aerialist who worked without a net at the struggling Hills Circus. His “gimmick” was that he performed as “Deadman”, dressed in a red costume and wearing a white full-head mask that suggested a bloodless corpse.
Because of his nightly flirtations with death high above the ring, Brand was the biggest attraction at the circus.
Until the bullet from a high powered rifle sent him plunging to the sawdust far below.
And that’s when Boston Brand’s story really began.
Now a ghost, Boston Brand is granted the power by the spirit Rama Kushna to “walk among men until you have found the one who killed you.”
Later, that mandate would be altered at Brand’s request to his remaining as he is to strike a balance between good and evil.
Deadman soon discovers that he can posses the bodies of the living and he begins the hunt for his killer. His only clue: the man wore a hook in place of one of his hands.
Co-created by Arnold Drake and Carmine Infantino, Deadman was a DC comics character who first appeared in Strange Adventures #205, cover-dated Oct. 1967. His hunt for “the Hook” and those behind him continued through Strange Adventures #216 and was also addressed in The Brave & The Bold #s 79 & 86.
And that latter issue was where the storyline of Boston Brand’s quest for answers ended. According to Andy Helfer, the writer of a 1986 Deadman miniseries, the storyline had been truncated due to the cancellation of the Deadman storyline in Strange Adventures. The story in The Brave & The Bold #86 was thrown together to give readers some kind of conclusion, but more had been planned.
I first encountered Deadman as a back-up feature in Adventure Comics in 1979; but it wasn’t until a 1985 seven issue Deadman miniseries that reprinted those Strange Adventures and Brave & The Bold tales that I learned how Boston Brand’s story began.
The 1986 miniseries picked up from the events of Brave & Bold #86/Deadman #7 (necessarily ignoring some tales published in the interim) and answered some of the lingering questions, such as why Deadman couldn’t possess the body of The Sensei, leader of the Society of Assassins.
In the original storyline, Boston Brand ultimately finds the Hook and learns why he’d been killed:
According to editor Dick Giordano, interviewed in issue #6 of the reprint series, that had always been the intention, because A) Deadman had been conceived as a limited series with Boston Brand finally confronting his killer (“but we liked the character so much we tried to keep him running for as long as we could.”); and B) they realized that after a year of Deadman almost finding “the Hook”, readers would become tired of the device.
As Giordano put it, “even the Fugitive finally caught up with the one-armed man.”
The truncated storyline revolved around Boston Brand’s investigation into the Society of Assassins and the Sensei’s plans to destroy the mystical land of Nanda Parbat. Like I said, that thread wouldn’t be picked up until 1986; but in the interim, Deadman continued to make appearances in various DC titles over the years as he strove to carry on his mission of striking a balance between good and evil.
In at least some of those stories— such as those in Adventures Comics in 1979— his “base of operations” is the circus, where his twin brother, Cleveland, is now a performer.
Why did Mr. and Mrs. Brand name their twin boys after cities thousands of miles apart? Was this a family tradition? Did they have a sister named Piscataway? An uncle named Albuquerque? An explanation was given in issue #5 of a 2002 Deadman series. The boys were conceived while the Brands were en route from one city to the other. As Boston told another ghost, it was their parents’ way of giving them roots.
Boston Brand’s ability to possess (just about) anyone makes him pretty powerful, but he’s not infallible. Sometimes he almost gets the people he’s possessing killed. During his hunt for the Hook, Deadman takes control of a circus hand named Pete to investigate whether a rival aerialist, the Eagle, had been responsible for his murder. In the process, he learns the Eagle was responsible for some robberies, which, in turn, gets the possessed Pete discovered. Deadman-as-Pete climbs to the top of the Ferris Wheel with a murderous Eagle in pursuit. A fight then ensues.
Why didn’t Deadman take control of Eagle’s body before he reached Pete? Probably because he didn’t think of it.
And, from the points of view of writer Jack Miller and artist Neal Adams, it’d have made for a shorter and less visually exciting story.
While he does feel some understandable angst at his situation, Deadman isn’t above having a little fun now and again. In one instance, he takes control of a con artist named Madam Pegeen, who “reports herself” to the police:
An amusing sequence near the end of a 12-issue storyline in Action Comics Weekly in 1988 had Deadman and an entity who claimed he was the Devil face off at a diplomatic function in Washington, D.C. “The Devil” and Deadman took control of, respectively, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan and then Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev.
The 1986 mini series concluded with Deadman having a new raison d’être above and beyond the general “balancing of good and evil” bit. This was addressed in passing in Action Comics Weekly, but was very much the focus of the 2002 series, which, unfortunately, only lasted nine issues.
That series was itself preceded by a five issue 2001 miniseries called Deadman: Dead Again.
Deadman was also the focus of a 1989 two-issue miniseries called Deadman: Love After Death, which concerned his star-crossed romance with another ghost; and a 1992 two-issue mini series called Deadman: Exorcism, in which an insane Boston Brand causes all manner of trouble. Frankly, I could take or leave those two stories.
The character has made various other appearances over the years, including a 2011 “alternate history” miniseries called Flashpoint: Deadman and the Flying Graysons.
Deadman was and is a unique character and his initial adventures have been collected in trade paperback form in Deadman Vols. 1 & 2. If you’re interested in mysteries and/or tales concerning the supernatural, Boston Brand’s story is worth checking out.
Copyright 2015 Patrick Keating