This was a surprise.

Not to slight the concept, but when a “Deathstroke vs. Batman” series was announced I thought it was going to be much more straightforward than the end product here.  Even with Christopher Priest at the helm, a man who has effectively made a career out of subverting expectations in how stories can be told, I wasn’t expecting an “X vs. Y” story to be this engaging.  For as great as Priest has proven himself to be at writing Deathstroke, his stabs at Batman… frequently leave a lot to be desired.

But alas, despite a few quibbles, I found the first installment of “Deathstroke vs. Batman” to be remarkably compelling.

It all comes down to the concept and the presentation.  This isn’t a simple beat-’em-up story where two men brawl to prove who’s stronger.  It’s not a contest of strength, but of will.

And what is it that would set these two men against each other?  I mean, besides being fundamental and moral opposites in almost every way, with Slade’s means and even lifestyle going against pretty much everything Bruce believes in?  It’s something less obvious and much more personal.

Somehow, Bruce’s parentage of Damian is thrown into doubt.  On its own, this would be enough to throw the Dark Knight into despair.  Finding out that your own flesh and blood, the child you love and have been raising… might not be yours?  That’s tragic in and of itself.  Finding out the true father of your child might actually be the world’s greatest assassin?  It’s understandable why Batman would be set off.

And, yes, Batman is the aggressor here, but it’s not taken to the extremes that I feared.  Sure, he’s a bit unhinged and angry, but it’s perfectly understandable.  He doesn’t necessarily believe that Slade is the true father of his son, nor should he; it’s clearly a message from someone trying to get Batman’s attention.  Still, an attack like this is too personal, too close to home.  Even the World’s Greatest Detective is allowed to let his emotions get the better of him from time to time.

Now, Priest is an excellent writer.  No argument there.  However, his take on Batman has proven… uneven at times.  It was ok, if a little spotty, when he first showed up way back in the early days of this title, but the current run on Justice League has uneven characterization at best.  Here, though, with sound reasoning and motivation behind his actions?  I’m digging what Priest is doing.  Especially as a father myself, I can certainly sympathize with the fear that comes with attacks on your child.  While having your blood relation thrown into doubt is a pretty extreme case that most people won’t experience, there’s always a part of you that wants to protect your children from any trouble.  Attacks against you and your person can be brushed aside, but targeting a child?  Even one as stubborn independent and capable as Damian?  That’s going too far.

Oddly enough, it’s Slade who has a few iffy moments here.  He doesn’t for one second believe that he could be Damian’s father, but does admit to having slept with Talia at one point.  Slade’s had multiple sexual partners, even in this series, so that’s not the surprising part.  Talia, though?  I don’t know if I buy that, particularly from her.  Then again, I could be wrong, and it could just be a feint to throw Bruce off.  Given how uninterested he is in the whole affair, though, I’m not sure where Slade is going with it.

As weird as it sounds, though, that’s what I find most engaging about this story: Bruce is completely driven to get answers, and Slade just isn’t having any of it.  He’s completely nonplussed by the whole thing.  Rather than the expected face-off against two titanic figures, it’s almost a one-sided conflict.  That’s not at all what I expected to find in a story called “Deathstroke vs. Batman,” so I’m glad the story’s subverting my expectations.

Something else I appreciate?  Two fine British gentlemen trading witty banter.

Yes, Alfred and Wintergreen have a few interactions with each other, and it is delightful.

The whole issue is gorgeously illustrated as well, with some brilliant visual storytelling Carlo Pagulayan, Jeromy Cox, and Jason Paz.  Deathstroke can be hit or miss with its interiors, as some pencilers that have been brought on board don’t quite gel with Priest’s storytelling style.  Pagulayan is one of the best of the bunch, though, with an almost cinematic quality that works well with Priest’s script.  Cox is a personal favorite, so it’s no surprise that he turns in some great work, and Paz’s inks clearly define the characters against the detailed backgrounds.  There are several tasteful splash pages, like the airborne battle between Batman and Deathstroke above.  The dynamic poses, the vertiginous use of depth, everything works together to create a breathtaking visual.

There’s a pretty great car chase, too, with the Batmobile battling some crooks with… lasers, for some reason.  Victory is in the preparation, I suppose.

One thing I have grown weary of in this title are the title cards interspersed throughout each scene.  At first, they were an interesting stylistic choice, evoking a Seventies political thriller.  Now they’re almost pretentious, not really adding anything to the narrative.  To make up for that, Willie Schubert makes some really interesting lettering choices that I appreciated.  There’s one scene in particular where a character speaks a foreign language.  Typically, this text would either be written out phonetically or as English within brackets.  Instead, Schubert writes it out in that foreign language’s written text, and it’s further translated as an editor’s note.  It’s an interesting choice, and one that I found to be quite inspired.

As a mystery, this story is more intriguing when you ask “who is doing this?” rather than “is Slade really Damian’s father?”  I don’t believe for a second that he is, and I’m not convinced that we’re supposed to.  The tagline of the story is, after all, “the lie that changes everything.”  If this story focuses less on Batman and Deathstroke punching each other and is more a battle of wits and wills, I’ll count that as a win.

Though, let’s be real: we all want to see Batman punch Deathstroke in his face at least twice.  Maybe thrice.  That’s all.

Recommended if:

  • You like Deathstroke.
  • You enjoy pithy banter between two English gentlemen.
  • A less physical, more emotional battle between two figures like Batman and Deathstroke appeals to you.
  • And that Lee Weeks cover? ::swoon::

Overall: As opening chapters go, this is a really strong start: there’s enough of a mystery here to keep you intrigued without being either maddeningly oblique or frustratingly expository.  Instead, Priest walks a fine line between the two, proposing a genuinely interesting mystery that would believably cause Batman and Deathstroke to cross paths.  Despite a few iffy moments, the strong dialogue and breathtaking visuals make this well worth a read.

SCORE: 8/10