We’ve been enjoying DC Comics’ Rebirth Deathstroke so far; writer Christopher Priest has given the character a new edge and an interesting backstory that’s rife with espionage and ultraviolence. Violence is a crucial element to the character after all, being a contract killer and all –and with word that he’s the new villain in Ben Affleck’s upcoming Batman film, he’s hotter than ever.
However, there’s a certain image from Deathstroke #2 that ruffled our feathers a bit:
Was this image of a hanging black man done in deliberate shock-value fashion or is there some underlying racial/societal commentary being made? Priest could have just as easily enacted the death via gunshot or knife wound, right? (Or a hammer to the head, like the page prior to the one above.)
We asked a few of our writers to chime in with their thoughts:
I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but it’s hard for me to imagine that Priest isn’t thinking about race and racism at least a little bit. As he’s said in interviews (at least the CBR one), he took the character because finally, after 11 years of not working in the industry because nobody could figure out that he didn’t want to be known exclusively as a “black writer”; he was finally offered a character that wasn’t black – even though Priest was such a nonfan that he didn’t even know that Deathstroke ever had his own series, among other things. He may still be thinking about the racism that held him back from comics for so long.
In a recent interview with Comics Alliance, Larry Hama (who does breakdowns this issue! COINCIDENCE?!), who was working as an editor for Marvel at the same time that Priest (then known as Jim Owlsley) was back in the 80’s, revealed that the two of them bonded as people of color (Hama is Japanese-American) in a predominately white office. Hama talked about how many of the white people in the office weren’t outwardly racist, but there were definitely microaggressions. So he experienced racism in the industry long before he took a long hiatus from comics.
Beyond that, let’s face it: as a black man, Priest probably thinks about race more than, say, Scott Snyder, because he must have experienced more racism than Snyder (or pretty much any other white writer).
It’s hard not to see ANY choice made by a writer as anything but deliberate due to the nature of the work. I think we’d be asking similar questions about the scene at hand if Grant Morrison had written it. You HAVE to know how evocative the image of an African American being hanged by a white man is, albeit a masked white man. (Even if Deathstroke wasn’t the one to do it, the imagery is still very evocative.) I suppose there is the chance that a scene like this could be written without the writer necessarily realizing the implications (thus, the scene being considered merely tasteless), but I’d be more willing to think that if it were written by a White writer.
We should also consider the possibility that Deathstroke’s victim’s race was not specified or further commented on by Priest? Maybe this was a choice made by Hama, Pagulayan, or colorist Jeremy Cox? Still worth asking what they were thinking, though, even if it was their choice.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this comment I got on my Deathstroke: Rebirth #1 review. I had suggested that Slade may be racist, given that one comment he made to Matthew, but the comment said that it wasn’t racism, but “blunt honesty.” He may be right. The U.S government’s record of actions (or inaction, for that matter) towards people of color is far from spotless. But I don’t know, I still think Slade’s coldness towards the subject shows at least some sort of racism. Then again, he’s pretty cold towards human life in general…
“I came fast like 9-1-1 in white neighborhoods.”
As far as the image of Slade waking up in bed — I don’t give Slade much repute in terms of racial tolerance for sleeping with an African woman. We’re not given any reason to believe that the sex was anything but meaningless. Seems to me that he’s using her the same way a guy like him would use any other woman (except, perhaps, his wife, introduced in the next issue, but even then it’s clearly an unhealthy relationship).
It seems like Priest is playing the long game. He has said that he wants the series to be about the aftermath of violence rather than just the violence itself. If race is going to be a theme throughout the run, we’re going to have to wait and see how it plays out.
Let’s not forget the (slight) possibility that this really was completely unintentional.
I’d need to reread it, but when I first read the Deathstroke: Rebirth issue I thought Priest might have been offering up a subtle parody of Black Panther (I believe Matthew’s nickname was The Red Lion). He’s a tyrant ruler of an African nation that uses his power for self-profit. I may have been looking too hard there, but it seemed like a possibility.
Certainly there’s some commentary going on with Slade dismissing any real government involvement due to the fact that Matthew’s victims are black, but that’s frankly just reflective of the real world. I’m somewhat hesitant to assign a more serious subtext without seeing more of the world Priest is building. I think certainly, any character like Deathstroke has an element of white privilege to them as their mobility and anonymity would be hindered if they were black. I think Priest has built that aspect into his book, but that it hasn’t been a focal point, and I’m not sure it needs to be.
Deathstroke: Rebirth hasn’t shied away from scenes of a sexual nature, either.
In regards to the hanging, I think it’s a built-in truth about Deathstroke’s world. This is a world of sociopaths and assassins and I find it easy to imagine that they might kill a man in any way they felt was appropriately degrading to their victim. That Slade simply leaves Rax in that position speaks volumes about Slade. This was his old ally, if not necessarily his friend, and he simply recognizes that he is dead and moves on without really worrying about the ramifications of how he died or how his death might be viewed.
Does the fact that writer Christopher Priest himself is black factor into the overall outlook on the matter? Priest has said in interviews about the Rebirth title: “Don’t come to the book with any expectations that [Deathstroke] will in any way or sense or form act heroically. He’s a bad guy, and that’s the fun of it. Hopefully that’s the main interesting factor about the book.”
Should we be shocked by the image of a hanging black man, no matter the context? Was this a panel chosen in poor taste, is Priest offering some subtext for future issues or are we simply overreacting? As Rob said above, “I think Priest has built that aspect into his book, but that it hasn’t been a focal point, and I’m not sure it needs to be.” Sound off in the comments below.