Slade Wilson kills people for money. Sometimes, it’s just because he wants/needs to. In recent years, he’s been presented as a kind of antihero but his newest series is taking him back to his roots as a straight-up jerkwad.
Fans were first introduced to Deathstroke during the Teen Titans comics of the 1980s, taking on the team after his super-powered mercenary son died trying to fulfill a contract to kill them. Billed as the world’s greatest assassin, he gave the young heroes enough problems and talked enough trash to make readers believe it. The character cemented his archnemesis status in the iconic Judas Contract storyline, where it was revealed that new member Terra was working with him to undermine the team.
And, oh yeah, she was sleeping with Deathstroke, too. This was a sleazier, more personal kind of evil, one that would steal your girl, talk shit and humiliate you.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Deathstroke as a character was his status as an older, more established persona. Originally created by legends Marv Wolfman and George Perez as an adversary for a team of teenagers, the man in the black-and-orange mask was eventually revealed to be a middle-aged man with young adult children of his own. Making him older turned their later fights into a generational family vendetta as Slade Wilson’s other two children Joe and Rose joining the ranks of the Teen Titans.
A solo Deathstroke title debuted in 1991, focused on the character’s work as a cold-blooded mercenary and assassin. As the years went on, he’d show up to bedevil DC’s various heroes, sometimes allying with them if things were dire. Slade’s been through some changes of late, with his most recent solo title de-aging him, pitting the assassin against celestial targets and having him rub elbows with Wonder Woman, Batman, and Harley Quinn.
He’d even sort of save the day. He was still a jerk but less of one. Now, the pendulum is swinging way back the other way.
Written by Christopher Priest with art by Carlos Pagulayan, Jason Paz, Jeromy Cox, and Willie Schubert, Deathstroke: Rebirth and this week’s Deathstroke #1 pull Slade Wilson back to a more familiar iteration and digs deeper to make him read as more of asshole than ever before. The main plot revolves around Slade’s contract to ensure that American military forces don’t come to aid the rebellion fighting against the petty despot Matthew Bland/The Red Lion. Slade does this helping a fund a Democratic senate candidate, splitting the opposing vote that would have derailed the pro-intervention Republican incumbent.
Deathstroke’s also working an assassination contract to kill Silver Age cheeseball villain The Clock King and that puts him at odds with the Red Lion, who’s been providing sanctuary for the aging bad guy. Things get even more knotty when Clock King uses a pass-phrase known only to Wintergreen, Wilson’s presumed-dead partner who is supposedly being held hostage nearby.
Beloved for his runs on Quantum & Woody, The Ray and Black Panther, Priest is known for turning his stories into entertainingly elaborate jigsaw puzzles out of chronology, motivation and character dynamics. So far, these Deathstroke stories entertain in the typical Priest fashion, with Slade using one contract to get around another and investigate if Wintergreen is alive or not.
Priest is casting Deathstroke as an ice-cold killer-for-hire here, someone who can’t openly admit that he cares about or needs to know Wintergreen’s fate. In those earlier Teen Titans appearances, Slade was shown to care about his kids, at least when their lives were in danger or tragically ended. The flashbacks in this run so far call that into question, showing him as a hardass paterfamilias ready to verbally and physically abuse his kids.
Previous to this new series, the dissolution of Deathstroke’s family was portrayed as semi-tragic. His eldest son Grant tried to be like Slade and underwent super-science enhancements that killed him while he was fighting the Teen Titans as the Ravager. Middle child Joey got his vocal cords cut by Wilson’s enemies and later became Jericho, a hero would could teleport into other people’s bodies. Youngest daughter Rose also took on the Ravager mantle and worked alongside her dad as a merc-in-training before also joining another Teen Titans team.
The new Priest-proffered facets on Slade’s character make it seem like the implosion of Slade’s family was more inevitable than tragic. This is a man who lied about his age and ran off to join the army at 16 years old because he wanted to kill people, who volunteered for dangerous experiments in the hopes that they’d make him kill better. When he fell in love, it was with Adeline Kane, the woman who helped train him. The axis of his life is ending the existences of others. Nurturing probably wasn’t ever something he was going to do well. The question of why he ever endeavored to live a ‘normal’ life provides a great hook to keep reading.
What I’m liking most about about Priest’s Deathstroke so far is the density of the offering, especially since it’s being done by someone who’s been away from the monthly comics grind for more than a decade. All too often nowadays, a single issue of a comic can feel like a diluted piece of decompression, barely offering enough entertainment to justify its pricing. In two issues of the new Deathstroke, there’ve been multiple flashbacks that show Slade at his best and worst, double-crosses aplenty and razor-sharp slices of gallows humor. Pagaluyan’s art has rendered both the master-killer action and character-intensive moments in stylish fashion and the book has a intriguing core question that will likely get answered in sequences that are bleak, humorous and challenging. Deathstroke is already standing out from most cape comics series on the stands.