Deathstroke: Rebirth #1 marks the long-awaited return of writer Christopher Priest (credited here simply as “Priest”) to an ongoing comic book series, with penciller Carlo Pagulayan, inker Jason Paz, colorist Jeremy Cox, and letterer Willie Schubert along for the blood-soaked ride. Is it good?
Deathstroke: Rebirth #1 (DC Comics)
So, here’s the funny thing about Deathstroke: prior to reading this issue, I had very little knowledge of or affection towards the character. I knew he originated as a Teen Titans villain, I knew he had a kid or something, and I knew that he provided Rob Liefeld with the inspiration to create Deadpool, with the parodic Wade Wilson rather spectacularly surpassing his predecessor, Slade Wilson, in terms of sheer popularity and mainstream recognizability.
I was not even remotely interested in the idea of reading a Deathstroke series until I found out that Christopher Priest would be breaking his 11-year absence from the comic book industry (with a recent Quantum and Woody miniseries for Valiant Entertainment as the sole exception) to write a series about a character that, if this interview is any indication, he didn’t care or know much about either. As he told Comic Book Resources managing editor Albert Ching, Priest took the opportunity because “(Deathstroke) wasn’t Black…that’s pretty much it.”
Let’s talk about that for a moment.
First of all, it’s a pretty sad state of affairs in the comic book business when a writer who has had a respectable degree of success with Marvel and DC for decades (particularly an acclaimed Black Panther run, which was his last comic before his departure) stays out of the industry for 11 years simply because none of the decision-makers in the Big 2 could figure out that it’s insulting, racist, and frankly, foolish to only offer one of the superhero genre’s few popular black (or minority in general) writers assignments that involve black characters.
Variant cover by Peter Steigerwald
From an artistic standpoint, though, Priest’s assignment is a fascinating one. Yes, there are plenty of other interesting literary choices that Priest has discussed, and which I will get to later, but isn’t it odd that he would be writing a bimonthly ongoing series about a character that he had paid so little attention to the point that he wasn’t even aware that Deathstroke had had other solo series’ in the past? Not only that, but that Priest would publicly admit this, presumably while fully aware that the fan base that Deathstroke had built up over the decades would be listening?
When a comic book stars a preexisting character, whether its Archie, Spider-Man, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, most readers go into it assuming that the writer is working on the book because the writer has enough love and knowledge of the character that they can do their best to please fans of the franchise. This new Deathstroke series, then, Priest’s recent statements about it, and the mere fact that he is working on the book at all send a pretty clear message to readers that if you’re not a Deathstroke fan, this might be the book to make you one.
And frankly, on that same token, if you are already a Deathstroke fan, your mileage with this comic may vary. As a Batman fan, I’d probably be upset if the writer of a new Batman series admitted to only knowing Batman from a handful of Justice League issues.
This book may have benefited from being a “mature readers” title. Slade doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would say “effing” out loud. It would have even read better if the $#*@ing curse words looked like this &^%#.
As such, I can’t speak for how Deathstroke fans may react to this comic, but as somebody who had so little interest in the character (which does not mean that I actively disliked the character), I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and I am confident that other Deathstroke non-fans would find a lot to like here as well.
A large part of the reason that this debut issue works so well is the way that Priest subverts reader’s expectations of what a Deathstroke comic would be like. A vague awareness of who Slade Wilson is, or even just a glance at his costume, would suggest that this is yet another action-packed book about a violent antihero like The Punisher or any number of tough guys that those 12-year-olds in the 90’s loved so much.
Make no mistake, this is a violent book, but it’s surprisingly light on action. Most of the carnage takes place off-panel. Priest has said that he intends to use this comic to explore the consequences of violence rather than action, and considering that most comics about ruthless mercenaries like Deathstroke would probably focus on the physical acts of violence in the moment that they happen without bothering to get into the aftermath, that’s a bold choice. Considering that this is just an introduction to the series, it’s impressive that Priest was already able to dig into this theme as much as he did, and I’m excited to see where he goes from here.
Your hero, ladies and gentlemen!
It’s also fascinating that Priest doesn’t try to depict Slade as an antihero. Many writers find it necessary to give their protagonists heroic qualities to make them worth rooting for, but Deathstroke is a straight-up villain. He’s an abusive father, an insensitive bully, selfish, and, quite possibly, racist—not to mention the fact that he has killed countless innocent people—yet he still has interesting motivations, as the issue follows Slade searching for what seems to be one of the few things that matter to him. It’s a testament to Priest’s storytelling abilities that I –somebody who has said several times in the past that I can’t enjoy a story if I don’t like the main character—find myself intrigued enough to want to continue seeing where Deathstroke’s ruthlessness and callousness will take him.
Priest has a strong collaborator in penciller Carlo Pagulayan, even if his style is not a particularly unique one. At first glance, it’s not that different from that of any other DC artist to crop up in recent years, such as Jason Fabok and Ivan Reis. It’s clean, detailed, and about as realistic as one can be using the traditional pencil and ink method. Yet, as with Fabok and Reis, a lack of distinctiveness does not equate to a lack of talent. Pagulayan’s work has a filmic quality that works well for Priest’s cinematic writing (there’s almost no narration, save for a few “title cards), as well as a strong eye for the little touches that make the quieter moments of this book work, from Slade’s stoic face after waking up from what we can assume to be a night of emotionless sex with a woman that we know nothing about, to the smirk on the face of a man that had contracted Slade for his brutally efficient services.
I love the use of title cards to set up each scene.
There’s a real weight and texture to Pagulayan’s style that works well for a story that’s so grounded in realism (to the degree that such a thing can be applied to a DC Universe comic). It’s enhanced by Jason Paz’s inks, which make great use of shadows, as well as Jeremy Cox’s colors, which contribute to the “darkness” of the comic without making it murky, like so many other colorists would do for something so “grim and gritty.”
Is It Good?
Existing Slade Wilson fans may be apprehensive about a Deathstroke comic that’s more of a character study than an action romp by a writer who admits to have started the project knowing so little about the character, but they may also find Deathstroke: Rebirth #1 to be a refreshing change of pace.
As for non-Deathstroke fans, this is well worth a try, even if –no, especially if—a comic about a merciless killer that goes around stabbing and shooting people for money doesn’t sound like your cup of tea. This is a smart, ambitious, thematically rich debut, and I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.