There are good things, even very good things about Deathstroke. The writing is consistently confident, and the visual aesthetic is pleasing and dynamic. Truly, this is a good looking book, a visual feast even when the narrative is indecipherable.
Yet that right there is the main problem I have: this book can get so convoluted that it’s difficult to find any meaning or purpose in it. The arc is titled “Deathstroke vs. Batman,” yet there isn’t a solid reason as to why the two men are in conflict.
Actually, let me rephrase that: Batman and Deathstroke are always in conflict. The means they use to achieve their individual goals are diametrically opposed to one another, and even if they respect each other’s physical and mental capabilities they are never truly aligned. I would never say that Deathstroke is Batman’s greatest enemy, nor would I say that he’s his exact opposite. They are on opposite pieces of the chessboard, though, and even when there’s overlap they would never be in harmony.
So, they’re always antagonistic. The problem here is there’s not a truly convincing catalyst to set them against each other in a six-part miniseries. Sure, there’s the feint that Damian may be Slade’s son and not Bruce’s. Even with Talia al Ghul herself trying her best to convince Slade that it may be the truth, even with “shocking revelations” arising to throw our perceptions in doubt, there’s not a single point where any of this feels like it will have any impact. If Damian does end up being Slade’s son then I will eat my shoe (this is a big deal because I’m obsessive-compulsive and hate touching my shoes, or anything else that has touched the floor. Real talk). That would be a ballsy twist and I’d certainly give them credit for sticking with it. I wouldn’t buy it at all and it would still seem like a twist and change just for its own sake, but still, credit where it’s due.
But more than likely, it will all end up being for naught. We’ll find out that it was all a trick, some sort of ploy to distract Batman and Deathstroke from the bigger picture. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, as a predictable outcome doesn’t have to detract from a story well-told. Compelling characters, an enjoyable journey, and rich plotting can take even the most formulaic of ideas and transform it into a worthwhile adventure. If the storytellers can get you to care about what transpires then they’re doing their job.
There really isn’t much to care about here, though. Lacking any sort of emotional anchor or through-line, the story could still work if the characters made it a pleasure to read. The fact is, they don’t. Batman comes across like the stodgy campus dean from a million different college-based movies, a stickler for the rules whose personality consists of various degrees of annoyance. Deathstroke, on the other hand, is the cool rebel jock we’re supposed to root for on account of him not being a complete and total lame-o square.
This… actually, that sounds like the kind of story I want to read. The problem is that the actual plot is treated so seriously that such broad characterizations don’t really fit. It’s a weird mish-mash of tones that doesn’t work.
It’s when Priest leans hardest into the absurd and lets the visuals tell the story that the issue is most successful. There’s an extended subplot where Slade and Bruce “team up” to take on a “forgotten” Silver Age hero named the Human Dynamo. It’s as silly as you’d expect, what with flying rocket cars and names like “the Human Dynamo.” A former member of the Justice Experience, the amazingly named Ace Masterson cheated death thanks to the the intervention of a shady “research team.”
Honestly, I’d read this too: Deathstroke and Batman begrudgingly working together to track down rogue metahumans. My misgivings about the story aside, this is all gorgeously illustrated, both by Carlo Pagulayan and Roberto Viacara working off of Larry Hama’s breakdowns. The fight atop the flying car is high-speed and dynamic, and the ensuing fist-fight between Batman and Deathstroke has a brutal, visceral quality to it. Each punch, kick, and jab makes you truly believe that these two men are some of the best brawlers in the world, using brute strength and cunning precision to incapacitate the other.
I especially appreciated the use of color and shading in a brief scene late in the issue. Commissioner Gordon is delivered a court order indicating that all of Bruce Wayne’s assets have been frozen. The lighting of the scene, particularly the use of shadow, evokes the look of so many cop thrillers from the Seventies and Eighties. It’s a tad melodramatic, but helps break up the self-seriousness of the rest of the book. Frankly, I wish he had a bit more of that rather than what we got: hard-boiled dialogue, ridiculous skybound fights, and macho posturing are much more interesting than a mystery that may not lead anywhere.
To the issue’s credit, it does end on a compelling final scene. To this point, we haven’t really seen how this whole ordeal is impacting the character at the very center of it all: Damian. What are his thoughts on his possible relation to the World’s Deadliest Assassin as opposed to the World’s Greatest Detective? How does he feel about being a pawn in a clearly manipulative attempt to undermine both Deathstroke and Batman? Just as the story gets a little more interesting it ends, so here’s hoping next month can deliver and turn this arc back around.
BONUS: A pretty stunning variant cover from Francesco Mattina.
- You already read Deathstroke.
- You like incredibly convoluted plots.
- You’ve wondered if Damian is actually Bruce’s son.
Overall: With a story that fails to engage, Deathstroke #32 relies on some pretty stunning visuals to carry the load. There are momentary flashes of inspiration, particularly when the story is just allowed to get as crazy as possible, but it’s when it tries to sell us a serious narrative that it falls apart. It’s all left in a fairly intriguing place as the arc transitions into its second half, so here’s hoping Priest and crew can turn it around and end strong.