Each weekday, Tim will take a look at what we know about each of the upcoming 52 new comics from the September DC relaunch, one series at a time. Today: DEATHSTROKE!
The Concept and Characters: The character once known simply as “The Terminator” made an immediate mark on the DC Universe when he appeared in 1980’s New Teen Titans #2. Strikingly designed by George Perez, the man who would be Deathstroke played no small part in the popularity of that pivotal Marv Wolfman-penned series from thirty years ago. But in the years since, even though he has starred in his own comics and found a featured role in the opening scenes of the still-discussed-and-debated Identity Crisis miniseries, Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke, aka the Terminator, has been far overshadowed by the Marvel character who became a parody of the DC mercenary: Deadpool, the “merc with the mouth.”
This new series seems a clear attempt to rekindle the spark that one glowed so brightly in Deathstroke, without turning him into a self-parody, or worse, a parody-of-a-parody.
No, this series, in writer Kyle Higgins’s own words, is “going to show why he’s the greatest mercenary assassin in the DC Universe.”
The PR around this new Deathstroke series talks about the character reclaiming his “fearsome legacy” by “taking out the toughest targets,” but in a comic book universe built partially on the vigilante actions of an unbalanced millionaire who dresses like a bat before kicking street thugs in the face, the tough talk of the press release doesn’t necessarily translate as anything particularly hardcore. But Higgins himself as clarified that, yes, this is a comic featuring a villain as a protagonist. Not an edgy hero, not an “anti-hero” with questionable ethical standards. Nope. The Deathstroke comic is about a killer.
Such is the freedom that comes with the abandonment of the Comics Code Authority.
For nearly 60 years, DC had slapped the “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” stamp on the cover of its mainstream superhero comics. It wasn’t until this past winter that DC officially announced that they would discontinue their participation in the long-standing regulatory organization. The Comics Code itself withered and died shortly after. But under the traditional standards of the code, which was adopted by publishers out of fear of public condemnation after the Senate Juvenile Deliquency hearings of the 1950s, a Code-approved comic couldn’t feature an unrepentant villain as the lead character. If a villain did star in his own comic, he had to be on the receiving end of some kind of justice, or, in recent years, when the code softened, at least demonstrate some kind of redemptive qualities.
A vicious assassin as a comic book feature would surely have been frowned upon by the Code. Changes would need to be made to soften the character.
That’s no longer the case, and DC is free to launch, as one of their 52 new series, a comic in which Deathstroke can be a brutal killer, without scruples, without the automatic assumption by the readers that the character will veer toward goodness.
Higgins may, of course, add far more nuance to the character than I’m implying here, but the writer has made it clear that this is a book about a bad guy doing bad things. Though, as he describes it, Deathstroke does have a motive for his actions, as selfish as they may be: “He’s at a level where, to him, it’s all kind of a game,” says Higgins. “Life, the world, etc., is there to be played. And killing and doing what he does for his legacy or his reputation—that’s the absolute most important thing to him. Family dies, friends disappoint, but legacy is forever. Everything he’s doing at this point is built on that idea. Without it, he doesn’t have much else.”
The Creative Team: Kyle Higgins has skyrocketed into the outer orbit of the comic book world over the past year. With basically no credits, or professional writing experience, he turned a superhero-centric college thesis film into a gateway to comic book scripting, and he’s landed some extremely high-profile work in the past twelve months. He garnered national notoriety for his participation in the launch of the Nightrunner character in the Batman annuals last year. Nightrunner, you may recall, is the “muslim Batman” whom racists totally freaked out over. Since then, Higgins has had a shot at writing a little Captain America, a little Batman, and a relaunch of the Squadron Supreme universe at Marvel.
He’s a writer on the rise, for sure, but he still hasn’t produced anything notably compelling on the story level. He seems to be a facile craftsman, but his stories, so far, tend to be a bit sluggish, when they could benefit from a bit of narrative acceleration. My fear about his Deathstroke scripting is that he will linger on a particular assassination job for too many issues, instead of controlling the pacing of the story to more effectively suit the story he’s trying to tell (and without trying the patience of the audience). Higgins does show signs of promise, and a tendency toward ambitious planning. And his dialogue is crisp. He’s still just starting his career, really, and I’m rooting for him to pull all the pieces of his craft together to make this comic something worth reading.
Artist Joe Bennett is one of the many Brazilian artists who have become, for better or worse, synonymous with the “house style” of DC comics over the last decade. Bennett, coming off an alternate reality take on a “pirate” Deathstroke as part of the Flashpoint summer event, will be inked on the new series by Art Thibert, whose angular pen-and-ink work will complement Bennett nicely. There’s nothing in this comic that will look any different than any generic DC comic from the past few years, but it certainly won’t look bad.
Recommendation: Wait for the trade. With only a handful of comics to judge Higgins on, it’s tough to say how he’ll execute this series, but with his tendency for measured pacing, and cinematic plot movement, he’ll likely end up reading better in a collected edition. Though this series, with its less-than-heroic lead could end up as one of the more interesting series out of the entire batch, it’s better to wait for a whole story and read it all in one sitting to see just how vicious this metahuman mercenary really is.
Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, Back Issue magazine, and his own Geniusboy Firemelon blog.