So if you read my Top 10 New 52 Comics list last week (which, really, you should have, because if you don't you're hurting my feelings) then you might recall me saying that I found the first five issues of DC Universe Presents, a story about C-list superhero Deadman, to be my favorite story in all of the New 52. And I meant it. It's really better than any of the other items on that list, including the works of Peter J. Tomasi, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Of course, as Deadman isn't the sole focus of the book, nor does it consistently keep the same writer, I couldn't put DC Universe Presents at number one, but I still think that the book deserves some recognition.
Anyway, what is it about this story that's so good? What makes it better than Wonder Woman, Green Lantern Corps, Batman and Robin, and Batman, which I've used the words "epic" (in the literal sense, not the bullshit Internet sense) and "perfect" to describe? What makes it so amazing? Let me tell you.
"In life you chose a path of egotism and greed. In death you must choose a path of love and consideration. You must do not for self but for others."
Boston Brand was the star attraction of the circus, a high-flying acrobat performing under the stage name "Deadman". He was selfish and arrogant, always looking out for number one and shoving others aside until the day he was murdered during his act. The goddess Rama Kushna collected his soul, and put him on a quest for redemption. As the ghost hero Deadman, Boston cannot be seen or heard by the living, nor interact with the physical world at all, unless he possesses a living being. Rama has assigned him to possess those facing great turmoil, and help them sort out their lives. But lately, Boston feels like this quest has no end, and has grown suspicious of Rama.
Paul Jenkins' writing here is amazing. Really incredible stuff. You would think that Deadman, being an untouchable ghost, would be boring to follow, because he can't be hurt. But there's tons of danger in this story. Not only does Deadman have to deal with powerful cosmic beings, but the lives of normal human beings depend on his success. He has to sort out the lives of secret agents, military officers, convicts on death row, and gamblers in debt. At the same time, he has to help strippers, scientists, priests, and artists. The conflict doesn't always come down to fighting somebody, but fixing people's life drama. And while the instance we follow, a soldier who was the sole survivor of an attack that costs him his legs, is one of the more exciting ones, it all makes you think.
Twenty Questions is all about, well, questions. It explores the human condition. It deals with metaphysics, the abstract, and spirituality. It's philosophical and intelligent. And it does it all while being accessible and fun. This isn't a story made for the intellectual elite. You don't have to have an academic mindset to follow along with the plot or the questions asked. This is a story that anybody can understand. It's about dealing with the crap life throws at us, and it does it in a fun, imaginative way. We get to see angels, gods, and monsters. There's action, adventure, spectacle, and most of all, humor. This is a story about people. And while I don't want to give away any spoilers, it deals with a problem that anybody can relate to.
Bernard Chang's art is good. It pretty much meets this abstract standard I always mention but never really describe. Good anatomy, good facial expressions, good environments and objects. Crisp, clean lines, and absolutely wonderful coloring by a fellow who is simply known as "Blond"; bright, bold colors that match the story's tone and events perfectly, but aren't too glossy.
Really, I'm sad to say it, but there is something about the art that disappoints me, and that's the realms of the non-human characters. Deadman enters several places that are clearly not on Earth, including the realm of Rama Kushna and a roller coaster belonging to a fallen angel. And neither of these scenes are terribly imaginative. These places are supposed to be the wild realms of powerful cosmic beings, places normal humans can't comprehend. Rama Kushna even gives a big speech to Deadman about how his limited human understanding can't really process Rama's world. But they're not terribly interesting to look at. The fallen angel's roller coaster is just a ride around some celestial objects, like a wormhole and a sun, and Rama's realm is just some platforms floating in a pinkish void with stars and dust visible in the distance. It's not bad looking, but it's really unimaginative and generic, and that's a bit of a disappointment.
There's nothing wrong with the story's art, but it's definitely not a story you read for the pictures.
Without a doubt, the story would not work so well if Deadman were not the main character. And I really need to elaborate on this guy. I've talked about Deadman's history in the past on my blog, but my love for the character is simple: Deadman is the most interesting and relatable character in the DC Universe.
This isn't a guy who chose to be a superhero. He's not like Superman, who was born with incredible powers and chose to use them for good, or Batman, who decided to go on a crusade against crime. Deadman is an ordinary guy forced into an extraordinary situation by greater powers than himself. He wasn't given powers and then got to pick how he wanted to use them. And it's not like the Green Lanterns, who are recruited, but have plenty of ways to quit the Green Lantern Corps if they choose to. He was forced into a tough situation, and has to get out with his own ingenuity. He's not perfect. He makes mistakes. He doesn't always succeed, and when he fails, people get hurt. And sometimes, that haunts him. But he'll always pick himself up, brush himself off, and keep moving forward.
Deadman is a normal guy, dealing with issues that are anything but. He didn't choose his lot in life, he was given it, and he's accepted it and keeps moving on. He's not the smartest guy, or the strongest. But he doesn't give up, and he genuinely tries to do the right thing. This is why I love the character, and this is what makes the story work so well. It's a story about humanity, and DC's most human character is the focus of it.
I really don't have much else to say. I've given all the information I can without getting into spoiler territory. Twenty Questions is just a great story. It's got a great plot, great themes, great action, great comedic moments, and a great main character. It's just great all around.
Deadman: Twenty Questions takes place in DC Universe Presents Issues #1-#5. The issues are all collected in DC Universe Presents Vol. 1, out this December, which also includes a 3-issue story about The Challengers of the Unknown, which I have not read and cannot vouch for (Edit: As of two months after I first published this review, I have read it. It's pretty good). The volume will be $16.99 in American Dollars, although you can find it for less online. The individual issues are available digitally for a total of $8.95 on Comixology, and for varying prices at any comic book store that carries them. This is an excellent story that I recommend for absolutely everybody, and I fully and honestly feel that you're doing yourself a great disservice if you don't read it.