The first collection of the DC Universe Presents New 52 anthology series offers a five-part Deadman story by Paul Jenkins and Bernard Chang, and a three-part Challengers of the Unknown story by DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio with art by Jerry Ordway. Of these, Jenkins's is stronger than DiDio's (though DiDio's is somewhat improved from hit-or-miss run on Outsiders).
But even though Jenkins's Deadman story is entertaining, neither story is helped by this anthology format -- the Deadman story would seem to make changes to the character, but puts everything back the way it was before the story ends; the Challengers story would seem to relaunch the team, but cuts off just as that team finds purpose. The result is two stories that ultimately don't matter or accomplish anything, and if this demonstrates the tack of the DC Universe Presents series as a whole, it's not hard to see why the title was ultimately cancelled.
[Review contains spoilers]
Paul Jenkin's Deadman story is a spooky, funny, philosophical tale that works, for the most part. Jenkins tweaks past Deadman lore early on, establishing that rather than possessing people at random or searching for his own killer, Deadman is drawn from body-to-body Quantum Leap-style by the god Rama, to right a certain amount of wrongs before Deadman can move on to the afterlife. Further, some of the people Deadman have possessed have "remained with him" (though what this means is vague in the book), giving Deadman the sense something's amiss. In some nicely subtle scenes, Deadman determines Rama isn't telling him the whole truth, and Jenkins parallels Deadman's quest for answers with his attempt to help a disabled army veteran.
The first chapter is the best, recapping Deadman's many lives, and ends with the shocking step Deadman takes to get Rama's attention. Despite that Deadman sees Rama on an astral plane, however, that first chapter is mostly "realistic," and so it's jarring when the story's second chapter is a prolonged action sequence where Deadman fights vampires and werewolves trying to break into a supernatural bar (not, sadly, the Shadowpact's Oblivion Bar).
From there, the story's momentum is uneven -- it's interesting, for instance, to see Deadman's experience with a prisoner on Death Row, but the thread in which Deadman sets up the veteran to stop a weapons dealer is too unbelievable even for comics. Better are Deadman's prolonged conversations with the devilish Son of Morning and with Rama herself again, though the conclusion -- that Deadman will keep on working for Rama but with a bit more control than before -- puts Deadman back exactly where he was thought to be before the story started. The events of the five issues don't really affect Deadman at all, nor do they reflect in any way Deadman's other struggles in Hawk and Dove and Justice League Dark.
Dan DiDio's Challengers of the Unknown story suffers from some confusion from the start. These Challengers are meant to be low-grade celebrities on a reality show like Celebrity Apprentice, but it's clear from the beginning that some of them are celebrities and some of them are some sort of hosts who've worked together before, as perhaps the original Challengers of the Unknown, though this is never quite addressed.
DiDio's dialogue is fine, in that there's no hackneyed or stereotypical lines as in his Outsiders, but the story simply fails to distinguish itself. The new Challengers end up on a quest to find some mystical talismen, and at each stop -- predictably, by the end -- they fight monsters and one of their number is killed. The Challengers don't do much in the end to defeat their enemy, and (also predictably) they end up with four members left to try to seek out greater answers about what happened to them. It's always good to see artist Jerry Ordway's work, but in the last panel for some reason the characters seem rather blank-eyed and plain, and it stands for the story as a whole -- in the end, the Challengers are continuing on, but the audience won't feel all that compelled to follow them.
DiDio is a team player in that he very mildly tied his OMAC series to the Challengers story, and also gives a shout-out to Ian Edginton's National Comics: Looker, but given that both of those series are also cancelled, there's an overall sense in DC Universe Presents that this is a corner of the New 52 DC Universe that just isn't quite working.
For the Deadman fan who has everything else, Paul Jenkins's story in DC Universe Presents Vol. 1 deserves a place on their shelf. Otherwise, of all the DC Comics New 52 debut, this is one most others could probably set aside.
[Includes original covers, sketchbook pages by Bernard Chang, Jerry Ordway, and cover artist Ryan Sook]
Later in the week, we're reviewing Wonder Woman Vol. 2: Guts. See you then!