Journey through the mind of a killer.

I’ve never been more nervous about a new title launch. This is a book most readers will either love or hate because it both reinforces classic history and re­in­ter­prets it. The characters are exactly the same and completely different. Will Deathstroke fans like what we’re doing, or will the Rebirth enrage them?
The answer is yes.

Journey Through The Mind of a Killer

I‘ve been binge-watching the ABC drama The Good Wife, which co-stars actor Josh Charles who reminds me of his career breakout performance as anchorman Dan Rydell on Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant but short-lived ABC series SportsNight. Post-Rebirth—DC Comics’ sweeping realignment of their creative universe—Deathstroke shares a conceptual core with SportsNight in the sense that Deathstroke is as much about blood and guts as SportsNight was about sports. Which is not to say the bloodletting won’t be in the series anymore, but that ultra-violence is not—in and of itself—what the series is about.

Although its feature set is manic violence, Deathstroke is actually a family drama falling short of a Shakespearean tragedy starring Slade Wilson as an ersatz King Lear, his ex-wife Adeline as Lady Macbeth, and Wintergreen as Prospero from The Tempest. Within this triangle are three souls: Grant the Evil Son, Joseph the Good Son, and Rose, who more or less weaves lanes on the Good Guy/Bad Guy Autobahn. The deeply dysfunctinoal Wilson family, who have many times betrayed and/or actually killed one another, struggle through the universal challenge of trying to love someone you can't stand.

Foreplay : From an issue #2 flashback sequence, Adeline and Slade.
The dysfunctional Wonder Woman and Captain America.

Family patriarch Slade Wilson is Deathstroke, the World's Greatest Assassin. The common wisdom that Bruce Wayne is merely a daytime mask for Batman-- that Batman is Batman all of the time and only wears Wayne like a raincoat in order to serve Batman’s purpose--is reversed for Slade who is, in many ways, Batman's criminal counterpart. Slade Wilson really is Slade Wilson. “Deathstroke” is just a character he created to act more-or-less anonymously, although Deathstroke’s secret identity is hardly secret; it is, at best, selectively secret. Slade is “Deathstroke” the same way Paul David Hewson is “Bono.”

Slade began adult life as a fiercely patriotic and even heroic figure, recruited into the U.S. Intelligence shadow world by his superior officer, Adeline Kane, who later became his wife. Slade adopted the "Deathstroke" persona after gaining enhanced strength, reflexes and rapid healing from a classified experiment, becoming a sort of lethal DC Comics version of Marvel's Captain America. His covert missions--most involving illegal assassinations--rapidly eroded Slade's altruistic values which were ultimately lost altogether after his youngest son Joseph was kidnapped by contract killers seeking revenge.

Slade rescued his son but not before the boy's throat was cut. A psychotically enraged Adeline, who only discovered Slade's "Deathstroke" identity through this episode, lashed out in rage, attempting to assassinate Slade but succeeding only in destroying his right eye. From that point forward, Slade spiraled into deviant criminal behavior, more than earning the brand of "super-villain" as the World's Greatest Assassin.

Fans familiar with Deathstroke should note we haven’t changed the series continuity so much as we have streamlined it a bit, creating what I call a composite history from events which originally took place years apart. Deathstroke has a long and complicated history of cast members dying and being resurrected and changing in various ways. I really prefer my series not be focused on reconciling or explaining all of the various past versions of the premise but instead stand on its own as a new version of the original classic.

Audiences readily accept this idea in films (Daniel Craig’s v. Sean Connery’s James Bond; Tim Burton v. Christopher Nolan’s Batman), but, in comics, there’s traditionally been a sincere desire to make all of the pieces fit in order to validate the readers’ investment in the characters and their history. I think killing off cast members is usually a pretty bad idea (I prefer to put characters “on a bus,” sending them off-series). My coming along and saying, “No other interpretation of this character is valid,” is pretty arrogant. Rebirth is a kind of ingenious best-of-all-worlds solution that actually empowers the readers themselves by building a firewall around DC’s rich history while not limiting the future. We are, in the best sense, returning to Marv Wolfman’s core concepts and updating them for 2016.

I don’t believe all the slashing and stabbing and heads exploding and being chopped off actually mean anything unless the audience—you—have a stake in the outcome. What works for Game of Thrones or, before that, Gladiator or, before that, Braveheart, was the investment those films made in the characters that kept us on the edge of our seats when the swords came out.

And therein lies DC’s challenge: to retain Deathstroke’s current fans while convincing new ones to sample a book they may not have traditionally supported. ABC tried and failed with SportsNight, mounting an entire ad campaign which virtually screamed, “IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT SPORTS!” PriestStroke, Slade The Deathstroke, is not about violence. It is about a man; an exploration of a lost humanity.

Jump In

No Experience Necessary

If you have never before in life read Deathstroke, please feel invited to jump in. Absolutely no prior knowledge of Deathstroke, his supporting cast, New 52 or even the Rebirth event itself is necessary to begin reading this book. Deathstroke: Rebirth may well be the most accessible comic I’ve ever written, and “The Professional,” our first story arc, is a rebuilding arc designed to reintroduce characters and concepts created by Marv Wolfman and bring them into 2016.

The twice-monthly publishing schedule affords us a great opportunity in the writing by not forcing us to shotgun everything at you but build out our narrative brick by brick. This avoids my echoing criticism about story arcs issuing a story fragment then making you wait a month for the next story fragment.

With Deathstroke, we are more or less doing old-style done-in-one’s; Priest in Denny O’Neil Mode writing within a planned episodic structure. Each issue is both a story and part of a larger story. This is a book that doesn't have to wait for the trade, it can be read issue-by-issue and still work (Rebirth being a notable exception as that story concludes in Deathstroke #1). In today’s broader and more visually-oriented style, telling a full story in a single issue can be a real challenge and make for a crowded look, but my goal is to give the fans more than their money’s worth: a good, solid read with strong characters we hope you will grow to care about and want to see more of.

Also appearing in the book will be something too often missing from Deathstroke: humor. Full disclosure, Deathstroke: Rebirth isn’t all that funny. DSRB will, in fact, be funnier when you read Deathstroke #1 and then get jokes you missed in Deathstroke: Rebirth. Deathstroke will not, in any sense, be Quantum & Woody, but I see no earthly reason why comic relief could or should not be in the mix. Deathstroke himself is not funny and has very little in the way of a sense of humor, but expect a broader range of narrative.

We’ve abandoned the first person narrative technique in favor of making Slade Wilson a man who holds his own council. Slade will never, under any circumstances, tell you what he is thinking. If he does, don’t believe it; he’s playing you. Ironically, by getting out of Slade’s head, we achieve a higher level of intimacy because now the audience has to guess, along with Slade’s family and friends, what his actual motives are.

PriestStroke talks about 65% less than Deathstroke traditionally has. This is among the grab-bag of tweaks DC has graciously allowed me to make. My Deathstroke is much more laconic and is not at all pompous as he has been portrayed. This portrayal is based largely on my observation of Tough Guys. A guy who gets in your face and threatens and snarls and tells you he’s gonna kick your ass really isn’t all that tough. Real badasses don’t need the preamble; a guy who’s really going to hurt you just walks up and hits you. Let’s go. My Deathstroke doesn’t talk about it, he’s just there one moment and you’re chewing concrete the next. The only people PriestStroke actually talks to at any length are people he has a close relationship with—friends and foes.

Post-Rebirth, the Deathstroke series becomes more introspective and character-driven. Slade (Deathstroke) Wilson and his adventures are toned down somewhat to be more in-keeping with the assassin’s core values: stealth, secrecy, invisibility, silence. This may grate some of the series’ current readers who have grown accustomed to Deathstroke leveling city blocks and battling space aliens and fiery demons, so I’m certainly more than nervous about how this new vision of the character—a kind of evil version of Batman—might be received.

We’ve slimmed Deathstroke down from what were becoming Hulking proportions. In my view, an assassin can’t possibly be effective if he’s running around, bandolier clanking, firing full auto like the Schwarzenegger Terminator. I see Slade more like the icy-quiet, emotionally stunted Jean Reno character from the genre-defining Léon The Professional or Vincent, Tom Cruise’s stealthy hit man from the Michael Mann classic Collateral. The Rebirthed Deathstroke is a shadow man, an urban legend, who moves invisibly, silently, strikes without warning, and vanishes.

As I see him, Deathstroke’s true super-power is his intellect. Marv and others have loaded him up with these other powers—virtually all of which I find to be unnecessary and tedious in the sense that I have to find ways to demonstrate them. I’d be much happier if Deathstroke simply was what I believe Marv intended him to be: the evil version of Batman. Slade’s most potent super-power is his innate genius (we are abandoning the silliness that Deathstroke, “uses 90% of his brain capacity,” which is ridiculous. If Slade could access 90% of his brain capacity he’d be Charles Xavier).

Outsmarting Deathstroke is likely not possible. He is at least as resourceful and intelligent and well-prepared as Batman. It grieves me a great deal to see Deathstroke portrayed as a mindless thug (worse, talking like one) who gets his ass kicked every time.

More than that, I’ve pushed DC to be careful who they stand in front of Deathstroke. Deathstroke is a killer. He doesn’t knock people out and turn them over to the police. Much as fans would love to see Deathstroke versus Aquaman or Deathstroke versus Harley Quinn, my point is, if Deathstroke loses every encounter it dilutes the brand. If he wins but chooses not to kill his opponent, it violates the character.

This concept is explored in Deathstroke #4 and #5 (September) where Deathstroke and Ravager go up against Batman and Robin. They end up trading partners, Ravager pursuing Batman and Deathstroke stuck with Damian, and the clash between Batman and Deathstroke is less about the punches thrown and more about two amazing strategists locked in a battle of wills.

The Wolfman's Tomb

Writer/editor Marv Wolfman was one of my first bosses in this business when I worked at Marvel Comics (for free) as a high school intern in the late 70’s, endlessly copying artist Gene Colan’s amazing pencil work for Marv’s book, Tomb of Dracula. Marv was always, unfailingly, kind and supportive, work-focused and disciplined. He was incredibly patient when I’d just kind of hover in the tiny, windowless office he shared with writer/editor Len Wein and, occasionally, artist Dave Cockrum. I had a great deal of respect for Marv personally, and was a big fan of his work (even when he—completely unawares—snatched the monthly Batman writing assignment from me by mentioning he’d be interested in writing the book; Marv is a “name” writer and I, in those days, was a relative unknown and designated Batman Guest Host writing fill-ins).

PriestStroke, my take on Deathstroke, is certainly not Marv’s Deathstroke, but Marv’s original writing is at the core of my interpretation. With all possible respect to the writers who came after Marv, when invited to write the book I really did not recognize the character from when last I was paying any attention to Deathstroke. I was interested in writing that guy—Marv’s guy—not out of some outsized homage to a former mentor but because that’s who I remembered.

A writer writes, first and foremost, for an audience of one. What Deathstroke comic would I like to read? As a person of faith, I find writing bloody carnage to be a real challenge because it directly contradicts my own core values. Therefore, it seems odd if not ridiculous for an ordained Baptist pastor to be writing a book about a cold-blooded killer—unless the book is less about glorifying the two-dimensional narrative and devaluing of human life in favor of making the book about the consequences of violence and the ultimate toll that lifestyle takes on you.

The other challenge with Deathstroke is, as it was with Tomb of Dracula, that just because the character’s name appears in the title, there is some expectation that the character will generally or ultimately behave heroically. Comics have, in overwhelming numbers, been about heroes or, at worst, antiheroes. It’s been awhile since I read Marv’s TOD, but Dracula cannot, in any sense, be classified as a hero without violating the character. Likewise I constantly remind myself (and others) that Deathstroke is a villain. The temptation to contrive ways for Deathstroke to ultimately or reflexively be heroic (as he appears to be in issue #1) is great but must be resisted. He’s a bad guy. DC knows this; we are rooting for the bad guy.

By Any Other Name

The book’s virtual co-star, Robin to Deathstroke’s Batman, is Deathstroke’s daughter, Rose Wilson, whom we keep off the board until issue #3. As with Deathstroke himself, there have been many interpretations of Rose, much of it troubling for me. I’d actually written a much different story arc for her in my first draft before DC Editor Alex Antone called and said, “You do realize, Rose is a teenager.”

Dysfunctional Teen Sidekicks In Love: Okay, I suppose she might be a teenager,
but she really doesn't look the part in Teen Titans #35

Well, no, I hadn’t. I’m not sure Rose has ever been drawn as a teenager. I assumed she was early to mid-20’s, which would make her half-brothers mid to late 20’s. With due respect to previous writers, it really bothered me that a person so young could already be a hardened killer (I have similar concerns about the very popular Damian Wayne). In terms of character dynamics, I’m not sure such persons can ever be fully redeemed, and I’m really uncomfortable with the general handwave most superheroes seem to be giving teen (and even pre-teen) killers, most especially given our nation’s climate of violence. What do these characters say about our values?

I am not suggesting every super-hero has to be pure or angelic. What I mean is somebody, somewhere on some page should express some concern for the emotional state and overall wellbeing of these very young people who have taken a life before graduating high school. What bothers me is that none of the other DCU characters seem to bat an eye, chalking killing up as perhaps juvenile delinquency.

That’s the emotional headlock I’ve placed Rose in. I see her as a deeply conflicted very young person on the cusp of adulthood who is still trying to figure herself out. She ends up following Batman around in issue #5 (and driving the Batmobile!) lost in a kind of awe at this iconic hero and father figure of her mentor, Nightwing. Only, much like Deathstroke himself, Batman rejects her. She is a killer. Batman despises killers. Batman is the product of a killer. Batman should be extremely conflicted about Damian.

It is this kind of deconstructive analysis that allows me to write Deathstroke, a book I might not even read otherwise. One of many great moments from Late Night with David Letterman was a Howard Stern appearance where he was making OJ Simpson jokes and Dave wasn’t laughing. Stern called Dave out on it and Dave replied, “Well, double homicides don’t crack me up the way they used to.”

Comedic, over-the-top violence doesn’t crack me up at all. I think it’s terrible. Violence is awful. Killing is terrible and has real consequences. This book is about those consequences.

We developed a revised character arc that works better with an adolescent character, a young girl who has a complicated relationship with her father trying to find her place in the world. This may be received by some fans as “de-aging” Rose and her brothers, which we’re not really doing so much as refocusing on their fundamental attributes.

I don’t think I actually realized how popular Rose was with fans until I Googled around for images of the character and found a lot—a lot—of Cosplay (and even pornographic) images of women dressed like her. And, in my own defense, these were all grown-ups, not teens. Our Rose is a teen.

Deathstroke’s antagonists are all, to one degree or another, good guys. This is a concept borrowed from the fifth season of Shawn Ryan’s brilliant FX series, The Shield, where Forest Whitaker’s riveting, enthralling internal affairs lieutenant goes after Michael Chiklis’s iconic corrupt cop Vic Mackie. In many interviews, Whitaker expressed genuine chagrin at the loathing and outright hatred he encountered on the street as his Jon Kavanaugh became perhaps the single most loathed villain on TV. “But... Kavanaugh was the good guy!” Whitaker would exclaim with seeming genuine annoyance. The root of the Chiklis character was Vic Mackie’s murder of a fellow police officer in the series pilot and his subsequent struggle for redemption. Fans rooted for Mackie but Mackie was, ultimately, a despicable and vile liar, murderer and adulterer. It was Chiklis’s sheer force of acting craft that made his character not only likeable but loveable, and the ferocity with which Whitaker’s character hammered Mackie made Kavanaugh ultimately hateable.

If Deathstroke’s friends are villains (or people who ultimately behave that way), his enemies are, at best, dysfunctional heroes; people who believe they are on the side of justice if not God Himself. This throws into question the entire concept of “good” and “bad” guys, which ones are which and, ultimately, what “justice” actually means.

White Knuckles

I’ve never been more nervous about a new title launch. This is a book most readers will either love or hate because it both reinforces classic history and reinterprets it. The characters are exactly the same and completely different. I am tempted to compare our approach to film director J.J. Abrams’ revising of the Star Trek franchise, but Trek fans are deeply divided over that, too. Will Deathstroke fans like what we’re doing, or will the Rebirth enrage them? The answer is yes.

The last comics project I worked on became riddled with strife and creative conflict, resulting in a far-less than perfect product. With Deathstroke I can confidently report everyone on this book—everybody—is swinging for the fences. Artists Carlo Pagulayan and Jason Paz have surpassed my every expectation, delivering stunning (and, in places, poignant) visuals which will help chart a new course for DC’s premiere assassin. Colorist Jeromy Cox brings those visuals to vibrant life (I think I was most paranoid about the color; a lot could go wrong at this, the final stage of production). And, of course, I am utterly delighted to be reteamed with my longtime friend, veteran DC letterer Willie Schubert (Hit Man, Legends of The Dark Knight, The Question, Xerø).

The Boys are Back : and, yes, there's a good reason Wintergreen is sporting a pony tail.

The book looks amazing. Unfortunately, I can't show you much of it yet. DC has exclusive promotional arrangements which require we be extremely selective about pre-release display content, but I will update this page after Deathstroke: Rebirth ships this coming August—

--while hoping you all will have picked the book up, thus making that update unnecessary. Check us out, hit my blog and tell me what you think.

My thanks to Editor Alex Antone for the patience of a Franciscan Monk on Quaaludes through a long and at times turbulent labor toward a rebirth, along with the lovely and talented Brittany Holzher and Group Editor Marie Javins. Special thanks to the uncredited Geoff Johns—whom I know through his Aunt Ida Mae who lives here in Colorado—for his guiding hand, encouragement, and overall faith in this project. Thanks, Geoff, for opening the door. Thank you also to my former Marvel colleague Bobbie Chase, old pal Bob Harras, and new Uber Bosses Dan Didio and Jim Lee.

Christopher J. Priest
28 June 2016

Top of Page