When you want somebody dead in the DC Universe, you call Slade Wilson.
But who is Deathstroke, really, behind the mask? That's what comics legend Christopher Priest aims to find out when he returns to ongoing comics for the first time in a decade to write Deathstroke for DC's Rebirth initiative.
Beginning with Deathstroke: Rebirth #1 on August 10, the writer will relaunch Deathstroke for the third time since 2011, this time with an eye toward taking back some ground that he's lost in the eyes of the readership, both to overuse that has left Deathstroke feeling less special and more beatable than in the past -- and also to Deadpool, a character heavily influenced by Deathstroke who has exploded in popularity, with Priest saying that he wants to make sure the original doesn't feel like an imitator.
Yesterday at Comic Con International: San Diego, Priest joined ComicBook.com to talk about how he came back to ongoing comic book writing and what to expect from his Deathstroke.
What drew you to Deathstroke?
Nothing. I was minding my business, and Marie Javin from DC e-mailed me about Deathstroke. I went "Deathstroke?" It took me a minute but I had to go, "Isn't he that guy who fights the Teen Titans?" She goes, "Yeah." And I go, "He has his own book?" "For a long time now." I knew nothing. So I said, "Send me some of that and I'll look at it." I looked at The New 52 stuff and I looked at some stuff prior to and I got in contact with her and said, "I appreciate you thinking of me, but I can't write this."
And she said, "We're doing this 'Rebirth' thing, so if you were writing Deathstroke what would you do?" And I said that it would be interesting to me if I could do something introspective. Kind of "behind the mask," you know? Get inside his head a little and kind of treat him the way we treated Black Panther in a lot of ways, where people are speculating about his motives and what he's going to do, and he's always one step ahead of everybody.
So I really wasn't drawn to the character; the company approached me and that's what started me thinking about the character. So I called her back and said, "Okay, let's give this a shot. We'll get through the development process and see if this is working for both of us." That's how that got started.
You've done some work with antiheroes in the past; do you ever worry about retreading old ground?
Coming back into the business is a little scary because I haven't written an ongoing series in a long time. So there's some nervousness about failure; there's some flopsweat going on. As far as retreading things, the Deathstroke series is unlike anything I've done before. The only similarities between Deathstroke and anything I've done before is Black Panther, where we're kind of using the same sort of structure. With Black Panther we were using these title cards to break up the scenes and I did that deliberately to evoke that sort of Black Panther sort of storytelling. And the fact that he's really smart.
But unlike Black Panther, he is a bad guy and an unapologetically bad guy who runs around and kills people. So it really doesn't mirror anything that I've done before.
Part of my goal though was to reclaim ground -- and I mean this with all due respect to writers who have come before me, but to reclaim some ground for Deathstroke that Deadpool had taken from him. Because Deadpool is the echo of Deathstorke, not the other way around. And we don't want Deathstroke to look like he's some kind of ripoff of Deadpool but Deadpool is huge now. He's huger than huge. I don't even work for Marvel and let's just say Deadpool's been very nice to me lately.
So I definitely had a conscious goal to reassert Deathstroke as his own man, as his own character in a unique way. He's not at all funny. There's humor in the book but Deathstroke himself is not. He has no sense of humor, and it is nothing at all like Deadpool.
Hopefully, we'll kind of reset him back to being a top tier character in his own right.
I always feel like he became the anti-Batman for a while; "He can do anything." "Why?" "He's Deathstroke!" Is it difficult as a writer to fully realize somebody like that?
That's very ironic becuase that's what I'm running around enforcing everywhere I can at DC, that Deathstroke is the anti-Batman.
We've slimmed him down, we've taken away most of the hardware. He will still wear the bandolier and all the guns and stuff when he needs to. I thought it was dumb for him to be wearing this big, clanking bandolier when he's not even carrying a machine gun. So you will see that, but only when it actually makes sense for him to dress like that.
He's an assassin, so I wanted him to look like an assassin. Assassins are quiet, dude! They sneak up on you. They step out of the shadows, slit your throat and then vanish. That's what an assassin does. And over the years, he'd become so broad, where he's fighting whole armies and Darkseid and he's got a flaming sword fighting demons, and I just went, "Guys, with all due respect, I don't want to write that." I want to write something that's a more human character that's closer to something that Denny O'Neil would write.
Denny O'Neil is one of my mentors; he taught me how to write. I was a fan of his for 20 years before I met him. I bow to the Denny O'Neil school of writing. What he did with Green Lantern/Green Arrow was a character study over the conceits of those characters being superheroes. So we're doing a very character-driven, very strong, character-driven series and we're kind of scaling him back down, containing him more, into something that I think works better and is more faithful to what Marv had in mind in the first place.
It sounds in some ways that what you're doing is similar to the Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon reinvention of The Punisher. Taking a character who had been so omnipresent in the Marvel Universe, and kind of bringing him into his own corner.
That's basically what we're talking about. One of the things I asked for and didn't get was a label because I wanted, to really be honest with the character, let's do the Garth Ennis Deathstroke. Let's go there. He's an assassin! So every month I get the e-mail, "You have to pull back on that one a little bit. Can we do that in shadow? Deathstroke really can't kill those chickens. I'm sorry." And I'm like, "Uh, hello? He's Deathstroke!" Every month I kind of get that call.
I feel like I want to make a t-shirt now that says "Deathstroke can kill those chickens."
Yeah, Deathstroke can kill those chickens!
Is he going to be a big part of the DC Universe, or is it mostly a Punisher-style thing where he's not necessarily dealing directly with them?
Well, he clashes with Batman in issue 5 and he has a knock-down, drag-out with Superman in issue 8. How much other people will use him is obviously up to DC and other people.
I think the main concern I have is that I don't want Deathstroke to be the go-to guy when you need a villain, so it becomes Deathstroke versus Mighty Mouse and Mighty Mouse kicks his ass. No, he's Deathstroke! He can kill those chickens!
So I told my editors about it and I said, "Look, you've got to be careful and you've got to tell your editor pals that you've got to be careful who you put up against Deathstroke because Deathstroke is a killer. He doesn't just knock you out and go, "I won that fight." You have to be careful who you put in front of him because if Deathstroke doesn't kill them, we're violating the character. If Deathstroke is always getting his butt kicked, then we're violating the character. So you've got to stop that. If he's going to fight Robin, that means you're tired of Robin and you want Robin to go away because he's Deathstroke! He can kill those chickens.
He obviously has a relationship with the whole DC community. Does his reputation play into the book in a big way? Does everyone know who he is and what his deal is?
I think it's characters who are in the business know who he is, but Joe Lunchbox in Mom and Pop America, they have no idea who he is. And part of our storyline for he first year or so of the series is explaining why the superheroes allow Deathstroke to walk around.
I had to get that done because otherwise this series has no credibility. Why is this guy still around? Why aren't you spending every waking moment tracking down Deathstroke? So we answer that question. And part of it is that he's very good at what he does in terms of not getting caught. Part of it is that first you have to prove in court that Deathstroke and Slade Wilson are one in the same, and that's really hard to do. Third, he has a cadre of lawyers that can get him out of anything.
He's rich, he's got a bunch of lawyers. Those kind of things all come in. So the heroes are faced with either kill him, or you lock him up in a Guantanamo Bay kind of deal with no charge. And that's not justice. The theme we have is that in order to have justice, Deathstroke is kind of a consequence of the whole concept of doing justice versus being a vigilante. Our mainstream characters are are heroes, not vigilantes and that's how
Now that said, DC is publishing a new book called Vigilante, so stay tuned because he's like "I'll just take the sucker out and be done with it." I'm anxious to see what that book's going to be about.
With Vigilante and some other characters being re-established who were introduced around the same time as Deathstroke, are there any other DC characters you really hope to use?
I think I'd have to say we'll see. Right now my main focus for the first year is re-establish his community. Over the years, they've whacked out every member of his family, sometimes twice, three times. Really establish his core, his status quo, and then stand him up to Batman, stand him up to Superman, help define who Deathstroke is between those two extremes. By standing him up next to Batman we define him this way, by standing him up next to Superman, we define him that way. We're really not that focused on guest star of the week or whatever, we're just trying to get his world together.