A curious thing happened as I was reading Deathstroke #33: I had a really good time.  That may seem like a backhanded compliment, but considering I’ve found most of this arc to be both incomprehensible and nonsensical, I’ll take it.

The entertainment factor is thanks in no small part to Damian and his verbal sparring with Slade.  The two are merciless with each other and take every chance they can to hurl insults.  They have a contempt for one another that they don’t even attempt to mask, and it makes for a pretty entertaining read.

It makes sense, too: while I wasn’t totally on board with the entire arc, Damian’s appearance in early issues of Deathstroke was one of the highlights of the run.  Priest writes him well, and his irreverence complements Slade’s similar personality nicely.

I still don’t buy for a second that Damian is Slade’s son, of course, no matter how many times the kid says it.  Given how this issue ends, it’s practically guaranteed that the whole thing is a ruse, and Damian may very well have been pressing the point simply to agitate Slade.  That’s totally something he would do.

So even if it isn’t meant to last, even if this whole charade ends up being a bunch of nothing, I do appreciate the way Priest writes Damian and Slade together.  There’s a great scene where Slade is getting ready to get some sleep, but Robin decides to stay awake and stake out a mark.  He’s perched on a table, decked out in his full costume, monitoring some men from his motel room window.  Slade asks why he’s in his costume when there isn’t anybody around.  “A warrior must always be vigilant, father,” Damian retorts.  Wryly, Slade says “a warrior can also be comfortable,” to which Damian replies “I am comfortable” without breaking his gaze.  The look Slade gets on his face after that comment is almost one of pity, like he feels sorry for Damian.  The kid’s had a rough life, after all, what with being raised by assassins and having his parentage thrown into doubt and being shorter than his friends and what have you.  It’s a nice little bit of empathy that we don’t often see from Slade.

Still, that doesn’t make the story any more clear or intelligible.  It’s all still a morass of flashbacks and seemingly unrelated tangents, and depending on how you’re counting it there’s either one McGuffin or, like, seven.  It’s all very confusing, and hard to get truly invested.  I’ve said it before, but the whole “is Robin Slade’s son?” is a total non-issue.  It won’t amount to anything, and even the characters in the story dismiss it as a falsehood.  And I don’t mean in a “man, I’m really concerned that this might come to pass” kind of way, either; everyone involved knows that there’s something else going on beneath the surface and that there isn’t a chance that it’s true.  Self-awareness is good, but this book is a little too pleased with itself to come across as entirely sincere.

But, still, there’s plenty to like in this issue.  Besides the great verbal sparring between Damian and Slade, the issue as a whole looks great.  Ed Benes has a good visual aesthetic, and his panel layouts evoke the mood of a claustrophobic thriller.  Even if the characters are at times a bit too wry and droll for their own good, the way the story is told is relatively tense.  Characters are closely cropped in dialogue-heavy scenes, and Benes uses even the slightest change in POV to heighten the tension.

I particularly liked a scene where Damian is holding a man at gunpoint.  The scene goes back and forth between various shots of the characters, some straight on, others from a distance.  No matter what, there, you can always see at least one person in the shot.  It reaches a climax in a panel that shows Damian at a slight angle, that subtle tilt evoking a sense of vertigo.  The next panel is simply the gun in his hand, the first shot on the page where we can’t see a character’s face.  Damian delivers the ominous last lines of his monologue, pulls the trigger, and then in the next panel…

Nothing.  The gun wasn’t loaded, and we see the intended victim’s look of both relief and anger that Damian was willing to kill him.  It’s an incredibly well structured scene, a great study in tension and visual storytelling.

Even with some great banter and tense storytelling, though, my favorite aspect of the issue was the inclusion of Nightshade.

Had you asked me which character I expected to see in an issue of Deathstroke, she would have been near the bottom, somewhere around the Jared Stevens Doctor Fate and the Ma Hunkel Red Tornado.

…actually, I kind of want to read that team-up book.

Anyway, there’s a really great extended fight scene between Deathstroke, Robin, and Nightshade, and the pure visual aspect of it is great.  There’s creative use of lots of inky blacks to illustrate her powers, both from inker Richard Friend and colorist Dinei Ribeiro.  The two work off each other incredibly well: Friend keeps the characters clear and distinct while Ribeiro uses various shades of blacks and blues to depict the Land of the Nightshades.  It’s not like Nightshade is a favorite character of mine or anything (though I like her just fine), but just the fact that a relatively underutilized character was used legitimately and seriously is nothing short of great.  Too often these days we see C-list characters either reimagined to be overpowered and violent to establish some sense of legitimacy, or they’re nothing more than a punchline.  Thankfully, Priest doesn’t fall into either trap with Nightshade.  She holds her own against Deathstroke without seeming more powerful than she actually is, and the fight ends in a manner where she isn’t seen as a pushover or a joke.  For some of the questionable choices I’ve seen in this title, I’m glad that Priest exercised an even hand in this instance.

Nice character beats aside, it all comes down to story.  No spoilers intended, but the issue ends with Slade finally realizing the entire purpose of the “Damian is your son” ruse.  He doesn’t say what it is, naturally, but he seems confident that he’s finally figured everything out.  Here’s hoping that we’re also clued in before this story ends.

Recommended if:

  • You enjoy Deathstroke.
  • You’re a big fan of sass mouth Damian.
  • You’re an even bigger fan of Nightshade.

Overall: Divorced from the rest of the story, I enjoyed this issue quite a bit.  The visuals are great, and there’s some pitch perfect banter between Robin and Deathstroke.  Still, the story isn’t exactly engrossing, and the fact that the characters themselves are so dismissive of the central mystery makes it really hard to get invested.  Out of context, this issue is fun and enjoyable, but it still doesn’t fix the storytelling problems evident in the rest of the “Deathstroke vs. Batman” arc.

SCORE: 7/10