The NATIONAL LAMPOON is one of the great publishing success stories of the 1970s. It was effectively spun out of the long-running Harvard Lampoon published by that institution of higher learning by a number of graduates, and it successfully plugged into the zeitgeist of its era, expanding at its height beyond simply a monthly magazine into radio shows, stage productions, film, books and merchandise. It was a nasty, hard-edged satire magazine that was at once very smart and very juvenile. So it’s maybe no wonder that it caught on so well. This particular issue, released for January 1973, may well be its best remembered one thanks to this iconic cover image, one that was knocked off repeatedly over the years. But it isn’t the whole of the magazine that we’re concerned with in this instance, but rather one particular feature therein.
Every issue of the NATIONAL LAMPOON was organized around a particular topic, and the topic at hand this month was death. The editors of the LAMPOON were plugged into the larger culture, and so they had done a number of comic book parodies over the years, featuring characters such as Son O’ God and Zimmerman (based on Bob Dylan.) So I suppose the notion of a costumed crime-fighter who is himself dead was too low-hanging a gag to pass up. Thus, Henry Beard, one of the magazine’s founders, came up with the Adventures of Deadman. It was, to put things simply, Weekend at Bernie’s as a super hero strip.
To illustrate the feature, Beard turned to Continuity Studios, the advertising and graphics firm started by Neal Adams. Adams had drawn comic book stories for the LAMPOON before, in particular the aforementioned Son O’ God. And so he did the artwork on this story, backed up by his Continuity partner Dick Giordano.
Adams, of course, had some history with a character called Deadman. In the late 1960s, he’d taken over first drawing and eventually writing a feature by that name in the pages of STRANGE ADVENTURES, and it became the thing he was best known for–at least until he started drawing Batman adventures. Which makes the gag here all the more delicious.
But what’s especially interesting, at least to me, is the fact that Beard was unaware of any of this when he contacted Adams and Continuity. According to Neal, the more well-read Beard had no great awareness of the comic book field, and had no knowledge that there’d ever been a prior character called Deadman, let alone who had drawn it.
I know this situation confused me greatly when I came across a copy of this issue that my father had purchased and then stuck in a bedside drawer. I didn’t get most of the gags, and I couldn’t quite reconcile how this story was done given that I was aware of the DC Deadman–let alone by the same artist. But it fascinated me as a result. So it’s a unique little artifact of the Bronze Age of Comics.