Rebirth has had a great go of it in the public eye. It’s given us a gonzo run of All-Star Batman, reignited the Superman, Green Lantern, and Teen Titans books. There is however one book that up till now has quietly been building up an impressive mythology: that book as you can guess is Christopher Priest’s Deathstroke. Which is a strange case because at this time last year: Deathstroke was on its second volume in the midst of the latest of a truly unimpressive array of runs that served no purpose other than to establish how beefy Deathstroke is with that sword of his.
What makes the latest volume both so different and simple is that it ditches the trappings of the New 52 Deathstroke and attempts to recapture the character Marv Wolfman and George Perez created, but also does something dramatically different in certain respects. The basic premise is that Deathstroke aka Slade Wilson is a man who kills people for money. He’s not an anti-hero, and he’s not sympathetic. If anything: his relationships with other people only highlight how emotionally frozen the man is and what a monster he is.
The Rebirth issue of Deathstroke sets this all up very nicely with an introduction to both Slade Wilson the father, and Deathstroke the killer-for-hire. Those introductions tell you everything you need to know, that there is no difference to Deathstroke and Slade Wilson, that Slade is both protective and abusive of his children, and that as an assassin Deathstroke lacks anything resembling remorse with the reveal of his helping cover a genocide for the Red Lion. Everything that comes to pass is as a result of his mistakes and actions, even the recent issue covering gun violence in Chicago in sort of a meta way: ends up cheekily referring to the role of media violence pushing people to idolize guns, and Deathstroke the character and the comic both play their role in that particular gravity well.
Priest has stated before his own distaste for violence, and that informs his approach towards Deathstroke. Slade Wilson’s violence isn’t glorified to make him look cool. Not in the sense that it isn’t meant to be interesting to watch in the way a superhero comic is designed to, but there’s a gravity and consequences to his violence, and that’s made especially clear in the Chicago issue, as well as early on when Slade’s path of destruction strikes at him through his son Joey’s kidnapping. All of that paints a portrait of a man who brings nothing but misery and regret to the people around him: his daughter who was left without a mother, his son who died in his father’s footsteps, and his other son who was mutilated through no fault of his own, or his ex-wife who wants to destroy everything he cares about. It’s a grisly distinction to make in the traditionally right-wing fantasy come to life of vigilante superheroes, especially when the inversion is made through an assassin who continually escapes justice. That isn’t necessarily true, given that Slade is besieged on all sides. That takes an interesting turn given that Slade’s major enemies are people who he knows: his ex-wife who wants to ruin him for destroying their family, the son of his ex-girlfriend who blames him for his mother’s paraplegic state, or his son who simply wants to see his father behind bars. Slade spent a lifetime hurting people, and that resentment comes back to do double the harm upon him.
The other thing that makes Deathstroke such a fascinating comic is the inclusion of politics. While politics and Priest have never been shy of one another, or in comics in general, this comic in particular takes great pains to infuse a real-world sensibility that tends to generally lack beyond blatant attempts to curry favor with an increasingly diverse audience. Which isn’t bad by any means to change the range of your audience, but it can lack sophistication, and also doesn’t help when comic writers can have a problem of their work existing in the vacuum of comics and less so with the world outside like the best literature. Given the current political climate, pretty much anything is elevated, but the directness of the idea that the US won’t intervene in genocide simply because the victims are black is horrifying, or the deconstruction of the white man birthing a biracial child story where in the case of Rose: she has no identity beyond being Deathstroke’s daughter and rediscovering her Hmong heritage, the very politically incorrect idea of Slade killing a man for being romantically involved with his son. The book allows for as much ugliness as it does broadness with its politics.
Where this book works is while it works within the tradition and range of DC’s universe, it broadens the scope of where Deathstroke lives and works. The first issue kicks off with an ethnic cleansing, and Slade does more than simply get beaten up by the Teen Titans in that context, it also heightens the danger of his work if he’s entangled himself with a government desperate to corral him, instead of making other characters look bad in order to make Slade look good. While Priest did something similar with his run on Black Panther kicking off with a coup attempt backed by the U.S. government and the devil (it’s a long story and involves the devil’s pants), the way Deathstroke assembles its plot is like a Jenga construction waiting for a piece to be pulled and collapsed. Especially when one factors in the Chicago story, it highlights the world where Slade exists: it’s like ours. One that’s all gray, full of people who have ideas, are all complicit in the poisons of the world, but no solutions for problems that actually plague us. Slade Wilson himself is simply another pawn struggling to break free of his place in things.
The treatment is in some ways borderline parody by Priest himself, which is only heightened by the presence of the Red Lion who’s literally Black Panther in a red costume, and with a base attitude to counter Slade’s more reserved persona. It’s also an attempt to show how Slade is not like that other famous Priest-written character by showing what he’s not. He has the super-intelligence, manipulative tendencies, and physical strength. But he lacks any of the scruples, integrity, and regrets that made the Black Panther what he is, it also shows just how much worse he is of a man. Where the Black Panther manipulated for the best outcome for everyone, Slade manipulates people out of the need to control everything around him. Whether that’s country’s, family, or his enemies, control allows them to be predictable and pliable for Slade. The very logic of comics which requires “relatable” protagonists in order to sell is simply upended, while it’s not the first comic of its kind, even the previous Deathstroke series required Slade to be an anti-hero, it’s certainly atypical of a DC series with a movie-bound character.
There’s no such thing as mercy or empathy in Slade’s world, at least not without reason. That control is absolute, right down to the terror his surviving children feel in his continuing grasp over their lives, or even the real idea that he’d kill them for stepping over his emotional landmines, which makes it all the easier to treat him like a monster as opposed to a Walter White. All of that being said, it makes for a very fascinating and sophisticated comic book, something that can feel lacking in a world where everyone wants to make a mark. Simple tip: just watch Priest, he’s always going to get a slam dunk.