Whether they’re being Rebirthed or Young Animaled, DC’s various superhero series may be getting all the attention; but they’re not all the publisher is putting out these days. Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love isn’t really a relaunch, and — somewhat refreshingly — it’s not a hip new take on a couple of decades-old concepts. Instead, writer Sarah Vaughn, artist Lan Medina, and colorist José Villarrubia have given a good old-fashioned ghost story a few tweaks and a superhero component, and produced one of the most entertaining first issues I’ve read in a while.
Although the characters sound and feel very modern, D:DMOFL has some charmingly-retro aspects, starting with the book itself. The miniseries is three issues of 48 pages each in the Prestige Format, which goes all the way back to 1985’s The Dark Knight Returns and became all the rage for several years after that. Like the name implied, if you wanted to go classy, you went with the Prestige Format.
Of course, the format was also used for a lot of Elseworlds and other alternate takes on DC characters, so I was a little afraid that Vaughn and company would feel the need to reinvent Deadman as well. However, it wasn’t long into his appearance before I realized this was the same old Deadman who teamed up with Batman and just spent most of the past five years hanging out with Justice League Dark. I am all for evaluating every story on its own merits, but it did my old nerd heart good to realize this could fit very easily into DC’s shared superhero universe. Besides, Deadman is one of the simplest superhero concepts out there: an acrobat is killed by a mysterious assassin, he gains the power to possess the living, and he wanders the world trying to solve his own murder.
What’s more, Deadman isn’t the only supernaturally-gifted character in this story. The protagonist, Berenice, can see and talk to ghosts; but otherwise she’s a regular person. Specifically, she likes to go antiquing with her friend Sam because she’s got a lot of time on her hands thanks to her boyfriend Nathan’s fluctuating job circumstances. This also means she has time to putter around the spooky old mansion Nathan inherited, where her particular talents get a workout.
As you might have guessed, the Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love subtitle refers to a very obscure DC gothic-romance title from the early 1970s. (In fact, it was obscure enough to be referenced in James Robinson’s Starman some twenty years later.) The title evokes the sort of soft-focus, occult-tinged morality plays of forty-plus years ago. Today they’d probably be lumped in with Lifetime-style woman-in-danger movies, but that’s certainly not the case here. Although Berenice is plagued by the mansion’s mysterious ghost and has to deal with blacking out whenever Deadman possesses her, she’s no damsel in distress. Instead, she’s a compelling character who’s instantly relatable.
Much of that has to do with Medina’s and Villarrubia’s work. Medina is a veteran superhero artist who worked on a number of X-books before drawing, of all things, Aquaman and the Others. Here, Medina’s style is more lush and expansive than I’ve seen it, and it’s very reminiscent of those gothic ’70s comics. It’s fairly detailed but uses a fuzzy, finished-pencil sort of line which the faded color palette complements perfectly. In this respect, Villarrubia’s subtle shadings and textures do a lot of heavy lifting.
Not surprisingly, Deadman’s stark red-and-white figure is the most striking, and he stands out against the more ethereal backgrounds. For her part, Berenice sports an old-school wardrobe which fits in with her hobby and reinforces the book’s throwback mood. While Sam, Nathan and the occasional anonymous crowds wear more modern clothes, the focus on Berenice and the mansion is so persistent that the reader has to remind himself the story takes place in the present.
As befits a double-sized first issue, there’s a lot of introduction. I suspect this was originally a six-issue miniseries which has been repackaged and given a format upgrade, and that accounts for the slightly-slow start. Nevertheless, pacing isn’t an issue, mostly because we’re being introduced to Berenice, seeing her get accustomed to Deadman, and watching how they deal with the mansion’s ectoplasmic inhabitants. Right now there’s not much plot, but as the miniseries unfolds I suspect that will change.
I went into Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love not knowing quite what to expect. I really would not have been surprised if it had been an outright parody, using Deadman to comment on the excesses of gothic romance. While there’s a little bit of winking at the genre, what I found instead was a really good Deadman story told from the point of view of an engaging new character. It’s got a good script and it looks great. At $5.99 an issue, the miniseries may be more economical in a few months when it’s collected, but I’m glad I started my Halloween season with it.