When I got my hands on a copy of Deathstroke #11, I let out a joyful squeal and ran to my comic nerd friend chat room. “FYI, Priest, Cowan & Sienkiewicz on this week’s issue of Deathstroke.” That was enough to bring our entire crew on board. I went in with pretty high expectations. The book was, after all, on our list of best comics last year. Little did I realize at the time that the content and craft of the issue would mark it as one of my favorite single issues of all time, and an early frontrunner for the Eisners.
Denys Cowan has been drawing comics for longer than I’ve been alive, and he’s been one of the greats for nearly that long, picking up Eisner nominations in 1988 and 89 for his work on The Question (and let’s take a moment to praise DC’s trade program, which had this back in print recently, because it too is excellent). He’s also a co-founder of Milestone, and co-creator of Hardware and Henri Ducard, so he gets undying loyalty for those. He’s also just plain good. His art style is scratchy but clear, angular and stylistic, and he does normal, non-superpowered human action really, really well. He’s so good that I willingly bought two aggressively mediocre issues of a Convergence tie-in just because I liked the pictures.
Bill Sienkiewicz is someone we’ve talked about here before (for his art on Elektra: Assassin) and will talk about again (when we get around to talking about the Demon Bear Saga, which looks like it will be adapted in the New Mutants movie), so I don’t want to get too in the weeds on him beyond saying his inking is perfectly suited for Cowan’s pencils – heavy, thick blacks with a lot of lines, but moody as hell.
In this issue, the team drops him in the middle of Chicago’s ongoing gun violence crisis – a group of mothers of children killed by gun violence hire him to take out the people who shot their kids, and Jack Ryder (the aforementioned Creeper) is investigating Slade’s reported appearance in the windy city. No one is above criticism except for Ryder – Detective Gill is incompetent, Slade is a bastard, and the mothers and the Reverend are perpetuating a cycle that no one is willing to truly break. This comic is challenging because it uses superhero trappings to be sharply critical of the very real problem of gun violence.
But here’s the thing: it might sound like a Very Special Issue, but it’s certainly not treated that way in the pages. There’s no sap to it, no emotional hook. Everybody is part of the problem, and no solution is offered at all. It just is. People are pissed about it, and it’s almost like Priest is saying “you are barking up the absolute wrong tree looking for answers to this problem here, friends. This comic is about an asshole.”
Priest doesn’t really do anything new this issue that he hasn’t been doing for the previous 10, except for grounding his story in real world problems. Deathstroke had been hard superhero stuff prior to this issue – a mix of an origin story, high political thriller and dysfunctional family drama weaved together to form a distinctly Priest-ly (:wiggles eyebrows: AAH? GET IT?) comic. None of that exists in this issue. In fact, Slade appears on fewer than 3 pages (any more info would spoil the hook) and one of them is the comic equivalent of the freeze frames that ended Cowboy Bebop episodes. Which was also incredible.
The comic as a whole has been challenging because Priest hasn’t made any effort to make Slade anything other than a bastard. Deathstroke has been pushed as an anti-hero for years now, and prior to this the only time his character ever worked for me was as the main antagonist of the Teen Titans cartoon, where he was unambiguously awful. He’s a piece of garbage here too, but a compelling, unapologetic one who finally seems as smart and as badass as we’ve been told he is for a long time.
Cowan and Sienkiewicz are exceptional here. They have a lot to draw – only 2 pages have fewer than 5 panels, and both of those are vibrant action splashes. They keep the talking heads panels (of which there are several) interesting and use facial expressions to tell a lot of the story – check out the dead eyes on the girl who explains to Ryder how to find Deathstroke on the darknet. Matched with Priest’s sharp dialogue and everyone’s immaculate pacing, and you have something truly special.
It’s still early in the year, and it is, of course, hyperbole to start predicting Eisner nominations thif ar out. But with the skill that Priest, Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz brought to Deathstroke #11, I’m certain I’ll be hard pressed to find a better single issue in 2017.