Review: Deadlands Volume One: Dead Man’s Hand by various (2015)

Deadlands Volume One: Dead Man's Hand

Deadlands Volume One: Dead Man’s Hand
IDW/Visionary Comics, 2015 (containing material published previously)
Writers/Artists: Various

Review by N Emmett.

Based on the Deadlands role-playing game, Deadlands Volume One: Dead Man’s Hand contains several short stories by a range of different creators. The tales are set in an alternate-history version of the American West, where sea monsters, zombies and occult powers are an accepted part of day-to-day life.

It is a setting with a lot of genre-mashing potential. Alas, the assembled writers have struggled to make anything of it…

Let us start with “Death was Silent”, by writer Ron Marz. This story features a mute gunman named Hoyt Cooper who communicates by making words magically appear on a blackboard that he wears around his neck. The concept turns out to be completely redundant: as this is a comic, all of the characters communicate though text, and the story never finds any way for Cooper’s condition to be anything more than a gimmick.

Cooper is accompanied by his sidekick, an undead Indian, who never receives any development as a character. And without wanting to spoil the ending, suffice to say that the villains are lifted directly from a fifties science fiction novel that became a very famous (and oft-imitated) film, with no dedl1real effort put into giving them a new twist. So, the story contains three distinct fantasy concepts – and none of them work.

Matthew Cutter pens “What a Man’s Got to Do”, a slight tale that hinges on an outdated portrayal of Native Americans as mystical, intangible beings. “Vengeful”, written by the game’s creator Shane Lacy Hensley, is even thinner: it relies entirely on the misguided notion that a character coming back from the dead is a sufficient plot twist for a horror story.

We might expect a worthy outing from Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, given their strong work on DC’s All-Star Western, but they are not on their best form here. “Massacre at Red Wing” is an unremarkable rape-revenge yarn in which a scantily-clad Indian woman goes on a hunt for her abusive father.

Only two of the stories pass muster. One is “The Devil’s Six Gun”, a Faustian steampunk tale by David Gallaher in which an inventor resorts to black magic to create a new weapon. The script is dedl3too tightly-packed with events to allow any of the characters to come alive, but compared to the lacklustre stories on offer elsewhere in the book, it is a satisfying piece of work.

The other is Jeff Mariotte’s “Black Water”. The narrative here is pretty straightforward – a ruthless man goes looking for a woman from his past, and encounters various monsters and bizarre hazards along the way – but this is the only one of the stories that really gets its teeth into Deadlands’ weird Western concept. By contrast, most of the other contributions are curiously indifferent towards their supernatural elements.

The artwork is variable. A couple of the stories are blandly illustrated, while others are more striking: Bart Sears brash and gloomy work on “Death was Silent” is particularly atmospheric. However, the artists do not manage to salvage the weak narratives. Steve Ellis’ illustrations for “The Devil’s Six-Gun”, for example, contains a lot of fetching period detail but gives the cast the same ded2exaggerated scowl – thereby missing the opportunity to add some of the characterisation that is missing from the script.

Along with an excerpt from an upcoming Deadlands novel by Jonathan Maberry, the book closes with a set of supplements for the role-playing game, allowing the readers to continue the adventures of the book’s characters in their own narratives. Perhaps this goes some way towards making up for the comic’s weaknesses – Deadlands Volume One: Dead Man’s Hand can be viewed as a sourcebook for roleplaying, rather than a self-contained work of fiction.

But there is no reason why it could not have been both.