In June 2016, DC Comics kicked off the start of its Rebirth initiative. After a wave of criticism surrounding the way they have treated their characters’ rich histories since 2011’s New 52 relaunch, DC has decided to rebrand. They hope that by restoring their characters’ pasts, they will restore readers’ faith in them as well. Do they succeed? That’s what the Comics Beat managing editor Alex Lu, entertainment editor Kyle Pinion and contributor Louie Hlad are here to discuss. Book by book. Panel by panel.
THIS WEEK: Kyle takes a look at this week’s oversized issue of Deathstroke, easily the strongest effort of the entire Rebirth line.
Note: the reviews below contain **spoilers**. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
Pencils: Carlo Pagulayan
Inks: Norm Rapmund, Trevor Scott, & Jason Paz
Color: Jeromy Cox
Letters: Willie Schubert
Goodness gracious! What a great comic Christopher Priest and team have been putting together over the past year and a half. I remember being fairly dubious about Deathstroke being able to work as an ongoing series in any serious fashion these days, at least in a way I would find remotely readable. Given how the New 52 treated the character – basically in full-blown 90’s mode but without the exciting art that I tend to associate with that era. Thankfully, when you hire a stellar writer, you tend to get stellar comics, and that’s just what DC did when they brought Christopher Priest on board to revamp the character for the Rebirth era. Under Priest’s pen, and joined on art usually by Carlo Pagulayan, and sometimes Larry Hama hops in to provide layouts, Deathstroke has turned from a pretty lousy hyper violent comic and into something far more meditative. What Priest and team seem most interested in exploring throughout their run is how a past of evil deeds haunts an individual and if there’s ever anything approaching redemption that they can embark upon. Literally, this is a comic about the war for Slade Wilson’s soul, but despite some outside influences, the battle isn’t really an outward one. It’s the ongoing conflict that Slade wages within himself.
Over the past 24 issues leading up to this one (which, of course, if you’re thinking this a series dwelling in nothing but ennui, does not lack for higher velocity moments thanks to Pagulayan’s muscular yet still attractive linework) Priest has treated readers to a Slade that is a damaged father and is attempting to make up for the sins of his past through reconciliation with both his existing family and the one he’s trying to build with his Defiance team. At that same time throughout the run, we’ve borne witness to flashbacks that have pieced together the puzzle that is Slade Wilson. Slade as an abused child, Slade as a terrible parent, his mercenary past, his relationship with his ex-wife and mother of two of his children, his oldest son Grant’s death, super-villainy, and it all leads to where he is now. When the Deathstroke movie was announced last week, a number of people I knew rolled their eyes, “ugh, Deathstroke” they’d say. But I retorted, “you just don’t know Deathstroke until you’ve read this run”. It’s not only the best the character has ever been, but frankly it’s the best comic in DC’s full line-up. Sure, you have your Mister Miracles and Shade the Changing Girls, but Deathstroke has been bringing the goods month in and month out – and while I typically don’t re-read modern superhero comics too often (there’s just way too many coming out at a regular clip to jump back and dwell too much in what came immediately before), I would be delighted to sit down and read all of this again when Priest and Pagulayan lay down their arms for the last time and witness how all the pieces fall into place in one go.
I wouldn’t look forward to slogging through that Lazarus Contract crossover so much, but the Priest written issues are absolute gold.
This week’s Issue #25 is the next in the line-up of DC’s extra-long installments, and it’s a regular occurrence that I’m quite happy the publisher continues to do. Every Rebirth hitting this milestone gets the extra breathing space, and for Deathstroke, it’s just more of a very good thing. Priest and Pagulayan make the most of the extra time to make the issue a relatively good jumping-on point for the uninitiated. The story is simple enough, Deathstroke has been kidnapped by the Society of Super-Villains after ignoring their recent summons to appear in a hearing thanks to Deadline filing a complaint related to Slade’s actions from a number of issues earlier. Deadline wants reparations for his lost money and lost hand, and Deathstroke is represented at this tribunal by The Riddler who utilizes Hector Hammond to delve into Slade’s mind for purposes that at first seem related to the trial but are instead more in tune with the deeper themes of the comic.
You see, the Society is very concerned about the sudden rash of villains that have found themselves turning over to the sides of the angels. Not just Slade, but also Killer Frost, who is gallivanting with the JLA, and perhaps most devastatingly to their order, Lex Luthor. Vandal Savage, the chairman of the group, so to speak, is deeply disturbed by this turn of events and wants to utilize Slade as a test case. And in turn the Society finds themselves putting not just Slade on trial for some misbegotten act with one of his fellow mercenaries, but instead it opens up a much fuller dialogue about the nature of evil itself. Is evil Mankind’s natural state? Is it a subject of language instead? Or is it something that simply exists?
This becomes the ethical debate that closes the issue and where Priest and Pagulayan fully have caught the reader in their web. Come for promises of the one-eyed masked villain kicking ass, stay for fairly deep dive discussions of moral relativism. What’s even better about it is that the whole debate ends on what is basically a punchline from Black Manta (and frankly, one of the laugh out loud funniest moments I’ve seen in a superhero comic this year) and then all of a sudden we’re rocketed back into the over the top reality of the world in which these character reside as what appears to be Solomon Grundy in a Deathstroke outfit bounds in and steals Slade away from the squabbling blackhats. I don’t know what that means, and maybe I’m forgetting something obvious from the past year (it wouldn’t be a surprise really, I forget a lot of things, I read so many of these), but it’s a nice example of how Priest skirts the genre as much as he possibly can and yet still is able to tell a story that is clearly defined as a superhero comic. It’s just among the best kind. Do what it says on the tin of this article and read Deathstroke. Drop something else if you have to, but this is the comic we should all be talking about. Smart mainstream comics like this are far too short a supply.
- Forgive the brevity of my article this week, I’m going on vacation tomorrow to the UK (my first time in Scotland! Let me know if anyone has Edinburgh suggestions), so I’ve had very, very little time to read between closing things off with my day job for the week I’ll be gone and a number of other film-based writing assignments over at my other outlet. But I did read Neal Adams’ newest mini Deadman, and holy moley, does this thing ever live up to Batman: Odyssey. Full of the sort of dramatic exclamations and fanatic statements that marked that piece of Adams mastery, Deadman centers on Boston Brand again trying to hunt down his killer The Hook, but also has him interfering in a piece of international intrigue that finds James Gordon on a tour of Nuclear sites for some reason, while also flashing back to the time that Boston Brand last tracked down The Hook and had to in-turn save his life, which he failed to do seemingly…but then here is Hook still alive, just because. This book is totally nuts and that’s just before Boston takes over Alfred’s body and accidentally whacks Bruce Wayne over the head with a serving tray. Plus Boston calls Bruce a dirtbag a few times. And I don’t know who the narrator is supposed to be, but I’m just imagining Adams himself whispering in Deadman’s ear the entire time and getting a pretty good chuckle out of that. The antics with Boston taking over people’s bodies is clearly Adams just having a ball. If you thought his previous two minis were wild rides, you won’t be disappointed with what you find here.
- Tony Isabella returns to his signature creation at DC for the new mini Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands, which is the latest in the publisher teaming with the original creators of a number of Bronze Age heroes and getting them to breathe some new life their way. Isabella’s return to Jefferson Pierce is timely, as a CW television series is just on the horizon, and a number of readers will surely be looking for an easy entry point into the character. Isabella and artist Clayton Henry oblige with an enjoyable “new hero comes to town” tale as Black Lightning has become Cleveland’s first vigilante and finds himself, unsurprisingly at odds with both the cops, and the crime lord Tobias Whale. What I like most about Isabella’s approach is how he keeps everything very grounded. This is a street-level character, so we thankfully spend a significant amount of time with his family and friends, and get an opportunity to see what makes him tick within the current day context. I also appreciate Isabella’s unflinching approach to police brutality, which again, is fitting given the obstacles Jefferson is facing in just this first issue. And of course Clayton Davis’ art is very clean and easy on the eyes. I’m reminded a bit of Chris Batista, but that may just be because I’ve been talking about him with some friends lately…yet I’d say they come from a similar school of longer, thinner panels and smooth figure work. A nice start!
- The other big release this week is Jimmy Palmiotti and Pier Brito’s revamp of The Jetsons, and while I’ve been an admirer of the Hanna-Barbera/DC project since its inception, I feel like this second wave has perhaps taken a page from the best book of the previous line-up, The Flintstones. All of the newest titles released so far, Future Quest Presents excepted, have really turned their concepts on their head in a way similar to Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s success on that prehistoric satire, not necessarily in taking social issues as their core target, but instead doing more than just applying a genre twist to it that unfortunately drug down both Scooby Apocalypse and Wacky Raceland. The Jetsons plays relatively hard sci-fi with the book, but digs a bit into contemporary concerns, and is set in a world where Climate Change has made Earth uninhabitable and at the same time an asteroid is on its way to collide with what’s left of the planet and its citizens hovering above. Palmiotti and Brito are building an engaging enough world off the barebones of the cartoon, but what I really enjoyed more were the conversations between George’s mother, who is now their robot maid after she decided to extend her life through robotics, and various members of the family. That conversation with George especially was well-appreciated in how it played with the more existential nature of science fiction. What a weird thing to say about a Jetsons comic, but here we are. It’s great to see Palmiotti writing in a fully dramatic mode again too.
- Okay kids! I’m gone! Once again, don’t burn the house down while I’m out.
Entertainment Editor for The Beat covering film, television and the occasional comic book. His work can also be found at GeekRex.com and can be heard on the GeekRex podcast. He really loves the Legion of Super-Heroes a lot.