Deathstroke vol. 1: An Exploration of DC Comics' Dark Side
Graphic Detail reviews a new graphic novel or trade paperback release each week.
Slade Wilson, AKA Deathstroke, is the most ruthless killer-for-hire in the DC Universe. To take another comic book character's catchphrase, he's the best he is at what he does, and what he does isn't pretty. Someone with as long and storied a career as Wilson is bound to rack up enemies, though. What happens when an important figure from Deathstroke's past comes looking for him? Can even the sharpest mercenary in the DCU survive a plot to destroy him that's been years in the making?
Kyle Higgins and Joe Bennett's Deathstroke has a significant challenge right out of the gate: it has to make us care about its main character despite the fact that he's an evil, awful dude. Deathstroke isn't just an anti-hero; he's a straight-up villain. Is there any way audiences will root for him to succeed?
Well, yes. Despite his nasty proclivities, Higgins and Bennett do an excellent job making Slade Wilson an attractive character to follow. Even if we don't necessarily always want him to succeed, we enjoy watching him try. This is accomplished a few ways. One, quite simply, is the art; Joe Bennett does a great job laying down gritty, energetic pencils full of incredible costume designs and wild mercenary technology. The way he draws Wilson's old, chiseled features in particular is a fantastic touch that indicates just how much our main character has seen and done. It's a small touch of humanity in this brutal book.
A little more subtly, writer Kyle Higgins (Nightwing, Gates of Gotham) finds a great spin to put on our main character that makes him completely compelling, if not heroic. Deathstroke, it turns out, prizes excellence above all else. He really is the best at what he does, because why be anything else? He finds that being a warrior is a noble calling, and he kills for money because, well, money is the only way for sure that people will respect you. If you have everyone's respect, you're the best. Though a cynical outlook, it's hard to fault the tough-as-nails Slade for this kind of philosophy, especially given the revelations about his personal life contained in this book.
Of course, the eight chapters that make up "Legacy" might get a little boring if every outing was just an excuse to see Deathstroke off some more guys for cash. Those sequences are certainly fun, full of hilariously violent imagery out of the Crank films, but pretty quickly a deeper plot starts to develop and this book takes a bit of a turn. What starts off as a story about a nasty professional becomes a tale about family. For starters, Deathstroke's got a $20 million price on his head from the family of a girl he killed. Somehow, that plot relates to Slade's son, another mercenary who's long thought deceased. As Deathstroke delves further and further into this plan to bring him down, he's going to have to confront some serious skeletons in his closet. Spoiler alert: Slade maybe hasn't always been the best father, and someone wants revenge for past cruelties.
Fortunately for us, though "Legacy" gets into some surprisingly personal territory, its main character remains unflinching. At no point in these eight chapters does Slade Wilson become a sobbing husk of a man begging for therapy. He maintains his cold distance throughout, making this story a really fascinating look at a truly awful guy that still manages to come off as a really cool protagonist. Higgins, Bennett, and the rest of the Deathstroke team should be complimented on these eight issues, which seem to do something impossible: they make us care about a villain while keeping him a villain. Sometimes you've just got to explore the dark side. A-