Deathstroke: RIP – Bringing Slade Wilson’s Story to an End

Christopher Priest talks Deathstroke, storytelling, and where he's leaving his hit DC comic.

Deathstroke #44 Cover

Christopher Priest is one of the best comic writers of all time. His career spans almost 40 years now, and in that time he’s had his hands on just about every big name superhero character out there – Captain America, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Justice League. You name it and he’s probably written it. His most famous work is probably his defining run on Black Panther, a run that greatly informed the tone of the ultra-popular cinematic take.

So when DC announced he was coming back to comics, we were understandably excited. When they said it was for Deathstroke, we were puzzled for a second, and very quickly overjoyed. The book became an instant classic, and over the course of 44 issues, Priest has given us one of the greatest single issues of the last decade; one of the best books of the year; and one of the most oddly touching. We were given the chance to chat with Priest about his new arc, “Deathstroke R.I.P.”, which kicks off in this week’s issue #44 and, we were shocked and saddened to discover, ends his tenure on the book after issue #50.

Deathstroke #30 Panel/Favorite Moment

Perhaps my favorite moment from the series. Deathstroke #30  /  Pagulayan/Paz

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Den of Geek: Dead is almost never actually dead in comics, and never more so than with the title character of a book. But it seems like Slade might be out of commission for at least a little while here. What’s your narrative goal with knocking him out of the book for a bit?

Christopher Priest: Wasn’t my doing. Slade’s death was the brilliant suggestion of Teen Titans writer Adam Glass, with whom I’d been collaborating on “The Terminus Agenda.” We’d worked through the story but didn’t have an ending. I think Adam’s suggestion may have been facetious at first, but I immediately loved it because it seemed a natural escalation of the Robin v. Deathstroke love-hate story. I kind of envy Adam’s opportunity to explore the consequences of Slade’s demise with Damian and especially Wallace (Kid Flash) West, who could have saved Deathstroke but chose not to. I’d further like to assure readers that Slade is, in fact, dead. But that’s far from the end of his story.

Allow me to pause parenthetically to vent a little: my main frustration with Deathstroke has been reader reluctance to engage the series because so many of them assume the book is about slashing and killing. Now, to be fair, until uh, last month, I assumed the HBO series Six Feet Under was about zombies and didn’t watch it. Deathstroke is no more about hacking and slashing than Six Feet Under is about zombies. Both series are about dysfunctional families and the lengths to which they go in order to support and love one another.

DC Comics could not maintain nor would I wish to write a book singularly focused on a two-dimensional mustache-twirling baddie who tries and fails to kill the Super Friends every month, yet I’ve met a lot of fans who have arrived late in the game expressing surprise that our series has so much substance to it.

read more: Why Deathstroke is the Most Versatile Villain in the DC Universe

Deathstroke is not about the world’s deadliest assassin so much as it is about the world’s worst dad. Dad just happens to have this specific and peculiar job. The book has been, however, a tough sell because it stars a villain. Even The Joker has had a tough history of headlining his own title.

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Deathstroke #8 Panel

Deathstroke #8 / Pagulayan/Paz

The most substantial recurring theme in the run so far seems to be family – Jericho and Ravager are both important characters, and Slade’s built a weird kind of found family around himself at various points in the series with Damian, Kid Flash, and Power Girl. How much are you trying to define Slade by his legacy, and how much of this is trying to organically grow his stature within the DCU?

I never had much of an agenda for Deathstroke in terms of the character’s legacy or facility within the DCU. I was just trying to do good work and approach the work with integrity. This meant not taking anything for granted but rather exploring, in as much detail as allowed, the mindset of this character. I’ve always seen Slade Wilson, as written by Marv Wolfman, Geoff Johns, and others, as an extremely complex character. But I am never satisfied to retread familiar ground but to look for unexplored areas even within established events. We re-told and condensed a lot of Deathstroke’s original history with an eye toward exploiting overlooked areas or missed opportunities, or simply modernizing his story for a 21st century audience.

read more: Deathstroke Animated Series in Development

It occurred to me that Deathstroke’s irrational obsession with teens, most especially, must somehow be an artifact of his dysfunctional family life. Deathstroke himself acknowledges this dysfunction in his choice to alienate Tanya (Power Girl) Spears by killing her dog in issue 17. I’ve never received any complaints about the numerous people Deathstroke has killed, but at every convention I’ve attended someone has complained to me about his murdering Roscoe the dog. It wasn’t a real dog, it was a comic book dog, but many readers found that shocking and cruel—which Slade intended it to be. It was the only way he could break the bond he’d formed with this teenage girl, a girl he’d grown to love, and a life he wouldn’t want his influence to corrupt.

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Deathstroke #21 Cover by Ryan Sook

Deathstroke #21 Cover / Ryan Sook’s homage/rebuttal to Kevin MaGuire’s classic Justice League #1 (1987)

Kevin MaGuire’s classic Justice League #1 (1987)

Of course, after Slade’s “conversion” several issues later, he makes amends with Tanya by offering her a new puppy. But, still, I catch hell over that dog.

Deathstroke #20 Panel

Deathstroke #20 / Pagulayan/Paz

Wallace (Kid Flash) West is an even more complex relationship, a kid Slade at first exploits but then genuinely grows to care for. As I see him, Wallace holds the most volatile and dynamic potential of any DCU character, and I wish I had opportunity to explore him more. Speedsters are extremely complex characters to write because, let’s face it, they can solve most problems before the reader can turn the page.

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As I see him, Wallace has the potential for both great good and great evil, and we’ve yet to know the limits of that potential. This makes for an extremely complex relationship with a guy like Slade, whom Wallace both abhors and admires, as Wallace himself presents enormous temptation to Slade to either exploit as a pawn or protect in a paternal fashion.

Deathstroke #40 - Robin and Kid Flash

Deathstroke #40 / Pagulayan/Paz

There was a density to Bronze Age books that is very much apparent in Deathstroke – a LOT happens in each issue, and plot events aren’t so much set up and knocked down as they are continually repositioned, referenced, and made important. But at the same time the dialogue is much more reserved than in older comics. Has this been a natural evolution in your work, or something you’ve had to be attentive to? Or is it just the right way for you to tell Slade’s story

Well (laughs) I’M from the Bronze Age, so there ya go. As a reader, I like density. As a viewer, I prefer complex dramas featuring complex characters and intertwining Game of Thrones relationships between them. I think that’s half the fun of comics. Some of the best and most memorable comics (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns) were incredibly dense and complex. As a fan, I am often disappointed when I can read through a comic book in a matter of minutes. I love beautiful art and double-page splashes as much as the next person, but I’m invested in relationships. Many of us fans have 20, 30, 40-year relationships with these characters. Sure, let’s do the big splashy graphics, but let’s earn them by first doing the difficult work of worldbuilding and storytelling.

Conversely, there is also a time to shut up. Deathstroke is struck dead in the middle of gloating at Robin which, as I see him, was Deathstroke trying to help Damian and teach him rather than his simply being a jerk (although Deathstroke is more than capable of being a jerk, too). From that moment until the next issue box on the following page, there is total silence. That’s because arrows are silent killers and I wanted the moment to be shocking an unexpected, which artists Carlo Pagulayan and Jason Paz delivered spectacularly.

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There are usually rhythms to my storytelling—very busy, very dense followed by something big or something quiet. This is time-honored storytelling pacing from the movies. When you hear the bongo music, the heavy percussion music, you know the chase scene is starting. When the screen goes silent, you know a loud note is coming. So I write in tension, building rhythms. Words are exactly like music. If you can get inside the reader’s head and build that rhythm, you create these patterns within the narrative; the music.

Deathstroke #43 - Robin Shooting Deathstroke With a Red Arrow

Deathstroke #43 / Pagulayan/Paz

There’s also this phenomena of “Middle.” Stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but over the past couple of decades we’ve seen the evolution of Middle; extended story arcs where we get installments of a larger story that lack the satisfaction of conventional act structure or climaxes. We want stories, but what we get is month after month of Middle

My preference is that each individual issue be a story in and of itself. Even if it is a chapter within a larger story arc, I want to serve up a complete meal. I actually don’t mind being called “Old School” or even “Bronze Age.” I’m committed to giving the fans a good, strong read. I beat myself up a lot and work much harder than I have to because I myself am a reader, I myself am a fan, and I hate being ripped off.

You’ve been working with some extremely talented artists over the course of the run. How have the strengths of guys like Carlo Pagulayan and Fernando Pasarin influenced how you’ve written or structured the book?

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Well, Fernando is the new guy, kind of thrown into the breach after our Batman vs. Deathstroke hardcover. With Deathstroke: Arkham we needed to reinvent Slade a little, so the rapid departure from Carlo Pagulayan’s Rebirth design was certainly in order. Fernando brought a new and inventive tone that worked well with Arkham’s twisted Groundhog Day storytelling, and he continues to be a huge help to the series

Deathstroke #36 - Arkham

Deathstroke #36 / Pasarin/Paz

Carlo Pagulayan is the architect of the Rebirth Deathstroke. He has given the character a unique voice through his amazing reinterpretations of George Pérez’s seminal arch villain. Because of Carlo, you can read every line of conflict on Slade Wilson’s face, the tortured man who desires to be a good father and even a good person but who is capable of neither.

read more: DC’s Heroes in Crisis Ending Isn’t About Superheroics

Carlo instinctively and intimately understands the subtext of my writing, the stuff that doesn’t exist in words but in the motivation and intent of the characters. I am deeply appreciative of his obvious investment in breathing life and intense emotional content into this work. Forget me; any epic or landmark moments represented in this series are owed completely to this man’s amazing gifts.

Deathstroke #20 - Jericho

Deathstroke #20 / Pagulayan/Paz

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Deathstroke #30 - Batman

Deathstroke #30 / Pagulayan/Paz

Deathstroke #20 - Tanya

Pagulayan’s perfect, exceptional timing in Deathstroke #20. The rhythm, the music, building to the punch/exit line. I love and adore Tanya and really wish I had more opportunity to write her  /  Pagulayan/Paz

Carlo’s work is brought vividly to life most often by our regular inker, Michael Jason Paz, whom I regard as one of the industry’s top talents. Inkers are too often overlooked, viewed as interchangeable, or even dismissed sometimes by pencil artists. But inking is an artform in and of itself; the venerable Dick Giordano bringing a difficult to describe flavor to Neal Adams or Terry Austin helping define John Byrne’s groundbreaking style. There’s nobody better in the business than Jim Lee, but there’s a reason he has Scott Williams on speed dial.

read more: How Doomsday Clock Explains the History of the DC Universe

Jason has tackled nearly every artist to draw this book, handling each with his own unique signature while maintaining the individual and specific approaches each artist brings to Deathstroke. He deserves much higher name recognition, top-tier status and mo’ money. He’s just awesome, as is our colorist Jeromy Cox—the soundtrack to Deathstroke—and my letterer Willie Schubert, who provides my “voice” in comics.

I’ve been incredibly blessed by the talents and integrity of these artists, including my long-term former Marvel partner Joe Bennett, guest artists Denys Cowan and Ed Benes, and my editors Brittany Holzherr, David Wieglosz, and Andrea Shea, under the direction of the longsuffering Alex Antone.

What’s Deathstroke RIP leading to? What from earlier in the run should we be looking at for clues to the future of Deathstroke?

Deathstroke: RIP is my final story arc of the Rebirth Deathstroke series as I take my bow with the double-sized issue #50. The story arc is intertwined with DC’s Year of the Villain crossover event, so expect the unexpected with no guarantee Slade, as we know him, will ever be seen again. As the DCU grapples with a world without Deathstroke and his children take center stage with unpredictable consequences, this feels like a fitting last hurrah for the Rebirth series.

Deathstroke #44 is in comic shops and online this week. And the entire run is available in collected edition. You should go buy it. It’s worth every penny.