Today, Michael and Patrick are discussing Deathstroke 1, originally released August 24th, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Michael: There’ve been numerous attempts at a Deathstroke solo series since the dawn of The New 52 – none of which I have read, but also none of which have been received very well. Overall I’d say that I’m enjoying the maiden voyage of Christopher Priest and Carlo Pagulayan’s Deathstroke, probably because it’s broaching the questions of “who is Slade Wilson?” and consequently “why do we find him so fascinating?”
Thus far I think that Deathstroke 1 is the first book that is a direct continuation of its preceding “Rebirth 1” issue. I found the particulars of the numerous double-crosses among Deathstroke, Clock King and African Despot Matthew Bland laid forth in Deathstroke Rebirth 1 were a little murky. Christopher Priest makes all of those plot points explicit in the first few pages of Deathstroke 1, providing an easy jumping-on point for new readers and confused Michaels alike. With the majority of the plot mechanics already underway, the conflict of the issue plays out in a fairly straightforward manner, interspersed with a few flashbacks that give us some insight into Mr. Slade Wilson and his partner-in-crime Billy Wintergreen.
In Deathstroke 1, the “who was (is) Slade Wilson?” question is being posed by Clock King – pleasantly drawn in classic long underwear fashion by Carlo Pagulayan. Deathstroke proves that a few of Clock King’s tricks are merely Mysterio-esque illusions, but he still seems to have some grasp of temporal power. As he holds Matthew Bland prisoner, Clock King dives back into the watershed moments of Slade Wilson’s life, probing further into his character. I don’t think that Clock King really got his answer – it is only the first issue after all – because what drives Slade Wilson is a little more complicated. It reminds me of the amazing Punisher MAX run by Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon, where Bullseye is trying to examine when Frank Castle actually became The Punisher, mentally.
Priest gives us glimpses of a Slade Wilson who is equal parts sentimental, honorable and cold blooded. The more that I think about it, I like Priest’s characterization of Deathstroke. He feels like a three-dimensional character who’s loyal to his old friends and loyal to his work – to a point. Deathstroke typically stands out among other DC villains because he’s a master strategist, allowing him to stand toe-to-toe with the most skilled of fighters. The way that this issue opens with Clock King expositing Wilson’s plans already in motion illustrates another way of how Deathstroke plans so meticulously.
The one scene that gives me pause in Deathstroke 1 is the flashback where Wintergreen walks on Slade and his then wife Adeline post fight fuck. I’m not clear on the utility of this flashback really. Adeline is naked wrestling on the floor with Slade because he’s about to merc around with Wintergreen while she’s left “stuck with the kids.” She complains about “laundry, PTA meetings and becoming a damn nanny” while Slade doesn’t want to be blamed for her uterus. Yeesh. The fight becomes the aforementioned fight fuck, making me wonder what the hell I just read. There are far damning examples of poorly-realized female characters, but this sequence left a bad taste in my mouth (possibly because of the slightly similar Batman/Batgirl fight-fuck in The Killing Joke movie.) Is Priest trying to give Adeline a voice here to fight gender norms? Is this just a tasteless scene? Or is it just an example of two terrible parents being terrible?
The fight-fuck scene is the only low point of Deathstroke 1, which is otherwise a well-paced introduction to the character. I think the fatal flaw of many Deathstroke stories is the habit of taking the character too seriously – which neither Priest nor the characters themselves seem to do. After Wintergreen has an emotional outburst about being abandoned by Slade, the two merely shrug it off and talk about Slade’s golf swing. That’s my kind of humor you guys: make a joke and move along. Deathstroke 1 isn’t heavy on the Deathstrokey action that I mentioned earlier but it’s a very talky book so Carlo Pagulayan accompanies that very nicely – specifically where Slade and Wintergreen are having a back and forth in the car. I’m hoping to see some crazy kinetic action in the future, but I’m A-OK thus far.
Patrick, whatdya got!? Do you think that the name Matthew Bland is kinda…bland? Seems like we’ll be seeing more of him in the future. Do you think that I’m being a little harsh on the fuck-fight? And whatsup with Clock King? Were you happy to see a bad guy in the tights like me?
Patrick: I do like seeing big dumb Clock Clock in his Adam-West-Batman-style costume. I am definitely a sucker for that move away from grittily re-imagining a character’s costume. It’s just odd that the Deathstroke side of the story leans so heavily on Slade getting his hands on his bad-ass old suit. Clock King is allowed to be stupid (and therefore, fun), but Slade’s visual aesthetic is so tied up in being FUGGIN TUFF that he’s trapped in hyper-violent monstrosity of a costume. Wintergreen even charges the potential energy of the suit (or… I’m not totally clear on how this thing is supposed to work) by unloading a clip into his friend’s chest.
Superman flies above the cloud cover, Popeye slams a can of spinach, and Deathstroke gets drilled with an automatic weapon. I get it – he’s a villain – but, man, that’s an ugly way to celebrate someone’s strength.
That is also what I think is happening in that fight-fuck scene, Michael, so I’ll happily endorse your combination eye-roll / throw-the-book-across-the-room. I was all worked up and ready to post that “Don’t blame me for your uterus” panel with a tirade about how this whole issue is terrible, but I did myself a favor a slept on it. Priest and Pagulayan are clearly tapping to a host of different genre tropes for this series, but they are unfortunately leaning too heavily on the ideas and storytelling techniques that make Deathstroke such an ugly character. Most of this story is compressed as hell — so much happened, I’m not even sure I can track it all — but time slows to a crawl to allow Pagulayan four pages of Slade and Adeline fight-fucking. (Thanks for the term, Michael, I’ll use it often and think of you.)
I find this scene reprehensible. It’s fucking gross and pointless, and not even an active way to show how Adeline is frustrated with her overly-domestic life. It would have been much more effective to see her trapped in one of those activities she feels boxed in by — your laundries, your PTA meetings — and have her lash out violently in those contexts. This scene makes Adeline a kind of psycho-sexual maniac and the relationship between her and Slade totally poisonous.
But I also sorta feel like Priest is baiting me on this one. Er… people like me anyway. Adeline’s nonsense line in that same scene sounds like a poorly worded screed buried deep in the comments section on a Vulture article (y’know, one of those that would be accused of being a SJW). She says “I take responsibility for my uterus. And the white male bosses who are so terrified of it. But only on Thursdays…” That “Thursday” bit is a weird little bit of rhetoric that may be too clumsy to even evoke the kind of clumsy rhetoric Priest is after here. And the rest just sounds like she’s insane – grabbing buzz words and hoping the incite a reaction.
That makes Adeline’s characterization an incoherent mess, but then again, I don’t think we’ve got clear characters for anyone in this issue. I had a hard time tracking all of the little plot twists in this issue, partially because everything is motivated by political deals made off the page. Why does Deathstroke get involved? Because he was hired? Because we wanted to stop the genocide? Because his friend was in trouble? Because he missed being a bad-ass anti-hero? Priest doesn’t offer any clues, instead insisting that Deathstroke’s lack of motivation is compelling enough on its own. That paves the way for that golf joke Michael was praising above, but it also means we come out of the issue without really knowing why we should be following Slade around in the first place.
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