By Zack Quaintance — This week’s Deathstroke #33 made absolutely clear what writer Christopher Priest’s run on this book has long been about: regret and fatherhood. The comic’s current arc posits Damian Wayne may be the son of Slade Wilson Deathstroke, rather than Bruce Wayne Batman. The truth is foggy (and probably doesn’t matter), but in searching for answers, Damian joins with Slade, subsequently ushering in a poignant moment of growth for our central character, which is what we’re looking at today.
See, even now Slade continues to insist any involvement with Damian is because the boy can help with the only thing that matters to him: working as a mercenary/assassin. This is telling. Throughout this run, Slade has taken the same attitude toward many youngsters, some of whom are biological children and some of whom are surrogates (more below). This time, however, something changes.
Wintergreen—arguably Slade’s only real friend—guilt trips him about Damian, telling him the boy is...grandson of Ra’s Al Ghul—raised by the League of Assassins...his own mother had him killed once, Slade...this is a severely damaged young boy. We don’t see Slade react, not immediately, but artist Ed Benes soon illustrates a closeup of Slade’s concerned face, his head on a pillow with a gun beneath it as young Damian intones rhetoric about being a warrior, sounding both traumatized and borderline insane (standard for Damian, but still…).
There’s a clear implication: Slade is recalling past kids who’ve been damaged in his care, as far back as his first fight with the Teen Titans (which is in continuity again?). Protecting children—or failing to—has been central to Deathstroke from his start, and so Priest logically centers this run on the deaths, losses, disillusionment, all of which is traumatizing, even for one as hardened as Slade.
Change, however, does occur. When Damian is nearly lost in a magical shadow realm that causes insanity (yay for superhero comics!), Slade hears echoes of Wintergreen’s words—this is a severely damaged young boy—and saves Damian. Got you! After so many failures—some due to selfishness, others to circumstance—it’s a powerful moment of growth. It’s also expert storytelling patiently executed by Priest. So, with that in mind, let’s look now at the narrative tools that helped build this payoff.
Man vs. Self: Slade Wilson’s Efforts to Deflect Emotional Damage
The simplest tool Priest uses is depicting Deathstroke as removed from the pain he has suffered. Essentially, Slade Wilson’s constant insistence that young people in his life mean less than nothing is an invincible Ikon suit for his feelings. Whereas the actual suit protects his body, his repeated insistence he doesn’t care protects his psyche, also distancing him from past regrets.
Slade is a cold person, to be sure. He kills for money, etc. Being emotionally removed is obvious. To flesh Slade out, however, Priest also cracks his exterior, putting hesitation or clumsiness near his worst moments, including when he alienates his young hero team Defiance (a who’s who of kids he’s failed), or when he contracts a hit to get closer to his estranged daughter. Priest puts in work to build a compelling dichotomy within Slade, showing rather than telling us he is conflicted by peppering subtle but consistent moments throughout this lengthy run.
The Kids in Deathstroke’s Care
Those aforementioned moments are best examined via the other kids involved with Slade before Damian, specifically by looking at how Deathstroke fails them each. They are..
Grant Wilson (biological son): It’s incredibly significant the first panel of Priest’s run (back in the Deathstroke Rebirth one-shot!) is Slade’s now-dead son Grant curled in a fetal position, cold and alone in a truck during a hunting trip. Slade bursts in and demeans the boy, the least grandiose of his failings. He’s just a bad dad, insensitive, uncaring, mean-spirited, but it creates an effective starting point for his hero’s journey. For full effect, compare Slade then to the man who saves Damian Wayne...powerful.
How Deathstroke Fails Him: Slade’s cold (heh) parenting pushes Grant to run away, join H.I.V.E., and get superpowers that later cost him his life.
Joseph Wilson (biological son): Having the most interactions with Slade, Joseph (a.k.a. Jericho) also has the relationship that is arguably most complicated. Of all the kids in Slade’s orbit, Joey is possibly most like him, although obviously not as cold.
How Deathstroke Fails Him: When Joey is young, The Jackal comes looking for Slade, finds Joey, and slits his throat. When he’s older, Slade sleeps with his fiance (it was complicated, but still…), and the list goes on from there.
Rose Wilson (biological daughter): Rose is the first character that causes a real crack in Slade, showing us growth from the painful mistakes made with his sons. His methods are clumsy, but, ultimately, Slade is trying to get closer to Rose.
How Deathstroke Fails Her: He’s absent most of her life. As an adult, he puts a hit on her so they can investigate it together, assuming it won’t endanger her because she’s clairvoyant (but still…).
Wally West a.k.a. Kid Flash: Deathstroke comes into Wally’s life as a fatherly mentor, which makes sense because Wally’s own biological father was an actual villain.
How He Fails Him: By letting Defiance fall apart, leading to an apparent suicide by Power Girl (more next). Basically, he was not a great mentor.
Power Girl a.k.a. Tanya Spears: Power Girl’s case is the saddest of this bunch. She has little else in her life, before being set upon by Slade, who oscillates wildly between helping her and needing help, misleading her throughout.
How He Fails Her: Slade deceives her constantly, taking one redemptive step forward and two back, before putting her on a path to being lost in another dimension (I think?).
Christopher Priest’s Flashbacks
Priest has a unique style, jumping fitfully through time. This is fairly common in superhero comics. Priest, however, uses more precision than most writers. If Deathstroke is consumed by regret over failing young people around him, his head would logically be in the past. There are myriad examples of how Priest shows this, but perhaps the most effective is in the Rebirth one-shot, wherein a man begs for life, telling Deathstroke, I have sons...and Slade hesitates, recalling the long ago hunting trip and his lost boy. It expertly sets the tone for how meaningful flashbacks will be moving forward, for how Slade’s past will inform his present and future for the next 30-plus issues.
Ultimately, it’s this flashback structure that is Priest’s most interesting use of graphic storytelling, deployed not just for exposition but to convey our hero’s interiority, especially in memories of that cold day Slade took his sons hunting, how he treated them, and how he could/should have been a better man. The setting is frigid and so is Slade, and as the story progresses, this significance becomes painfully clear in the context of Deathstroke’s flawed decisions.
The Future of Priest’s Deathstroke
Lastly, I'm predicting the Deathstroke vs. Batman arc is a finale for Priest’s run on this book (my predictions are always wrong, but still...). Issue #35 drops in September, concluding the Damian Wayne story while possibly bringing to a head all of Slade’s issues with fatherhood, responsibility, trauma. There’s an interesting mirror structure between Deathstroke #33 and Deathstroke #4, which share similar openings—Slade disguised on a road trip with a kid.
Could the entire run be mirrored? Is it winding down the way it was ramping up the last time we saw this opening? We’ll see.I’ve said many times that I hope Priest gets a long character-defining strech on Deathstroke, a la Jason Aaron on Thor, but if this is how it ends, I’ll be satisfied with all he has accomplished. It’s so rare that a superhero (supervillain?) comic gets to show this many careful and quiet moments of hard-earned personal growth.
Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.