Christopher Priest has accomplished something great with Deathstroke: he’s balanced the ideas of a road trip, a family drama, and the exploration of a supervillain’s inner psyche to create a genuinely gripping comic series.
Even more surprising? He’s made me care about Slade Wilson.
Deathstroke has always been one of those villains that I’ve appreciated on a surface level, but he never really grabbed hold of me like other characters have. When he shows up in a fight, I think it’s cool, but not much more. When he outsmarts everyone in the room or even bests Batman himself in a battle of wits and strategy, it’s an interesting plot point, but that’s really it: it’s a plot point. I know Slade has a tragic backstory. I know he’s a sort of reverse Bruce Wayne, taking personal tragedy to mold a new persona and mindset, only going the route of mercenary instead of vigilante.
I know all of these things, but it never quite clicked.
Christopher Priest has made it click, and in doing so has made Deathstroke one of the most surprising titles DC has put out this year.
Make no mistake, this is an at time dense, confusing book. The narrative jumps around chronologically with seemingly little to no segue between scenes and events. What makes it work is that Priest’s plotting is airtight. You may not immediately understand why some of the events transpire the way they do, but there’s not a single panel that feels wasted. Everything feels like it has its place and serves a purpose in the long game.
Whether that pays off or not is an entirely different matter altogether, and only time will tell if it does. Right now, though, it works, and for now that’s what matters.
Slade is certainly the main character of his own book, there’s no doubt about that, but he isn’t the narrator. Instead, Priest uses the supporting cast to give the book its voice. Wintergreen, Slade’s faithful right-hand-man and possibly the most interesting character here, goes from exchanging dry banter with the title character to supplying the closest thing the book has to an internal monologue via a mission report. It’s quite illuminating and very well written, giving voice to Slade’s thoughts that he wouldn’t dare say out loud. save for maybe a word or two of begrudging respect for Batman.
Rose, Slade’s daughter and occasional assassin herself, is the other entry point into Slade’s mindset. He’s a man who is wracked with grief, whether he would admit it or not, and he’s trying to earn some sort of redemption with at least one of his children. Where Wintergreen mostly uses words, Rose uses body language, and Joe Bennett draws some genuinely fantastic reactions.
She’s not a silent character, of course, and some of her banter with her father provides some genuinely hilarious comic relief. I was just amazed that such a tough, hard girl could still enjoy something as simple as hugging her daddy. These are still rough, flawed people, but that’s what makes it such a joy to read: they know they’re bad, and even if they aren’t trying to be heroes they’re still trying to stick to some sort of code of honor. They’re bad people, but they’re just that: people.
There’s a scene in the Rebirth one-shot that holds the key to this whole series, I believe: Slade has taken his sons Grant and Joseph on a hunting trip, and Grant becomes upset at his father’s attitude and runs off. The father coddles one son and is distant to the other, yet tragedy befalls both of the boys later in life. Slade may not be outright repentant, but he is remorseful, which leads him to rekindle his relationship with Rose. Where he failed as a father before, he’s attempting to show his affection however he can, the only ways he knows how.
One of those ways, of course, is outsmarting Batman.
When the duo finally arrive in Gotham, they play a gambit that could have easily gone wrong from a narrative standpoint. They’re one step ahead of Batman and Robin the entire time, and there’s never a point where we aren’t aware of that. This could have easily become a rote exercise in telling the audience how much smarter Slade and Rose are than the good guys instead of having enough faith in our intelligence to be able to piece the clues together, and in less capable hands in that may have been the case. On the contrary, it unfolds naturally, with seemingly innocuous frames and strange points of view hiding smaller pieces of the overall picture. As great as Bennett’s facial expressions are, and even better his action scenes, his real talent shines brightest in the quiet moments. This is an action comic that’s allowed to slow down, which in turn makes the action even more thrilling when it arrives.
It’s that slow burn approach that works in this book’s favor, and it will hopefully reward the patient in the end. There’s just enough information given out at one time to satisfy curiosity without bogging down the deliberate pace with unnecessary exposition. That’s a strange approach to take on a book about the world’s greatest assassin, but I applaud Christopher Priest, Joe Bennett, and their team for pulling it off.
- You like Deathstroke.
- You like a tightly plotted narrative that rewards careful reading.
- You like Damian Wayne, but you also don’t mind seeing him in pratfalls.
Overall: A gripping piece of serialized fiction, Deathstroke works well on its own terms without needing to bring in big guns like Batman. True to form, though, his inclusion feels like an organic extension of the story Priest is wanting to tell, never overshadowing the bigger picture. With sharp dialogue, fantastic illustrations, and a gripping story, this is one of the biggest surprises I’ve read this year.