With the super-villain ensemble Suicide Squad making bank at the box office and Marvel and 20th Century Fox’s Deadpool going forward with a confirmed sequel, we’re experiencing a surge in interest regarding comic book antiheroes. It hasn’t been too long since we last saw Slade Wilson, a.k.a. Deathstroke, but now is as good a time as any for DC to spotlight its own cold-blooded merc.
Slade took on Olympian titans in Tony S. Daniel’s Deathstroke: God Killer last year, but now as a part of DC’s Rebirth, Deathstroke returns to a ground war, the kind of fight he knows best. But Deathstroke: Rebirth #1, out now on shelves and written by Christophe Priest (Black Panther) and illustrator Carlo Pagulayan (Marvel’s Agents of Atlas), is going outside the battlefield and inside his killer instinct.
“Instead of just fights and blood-letting, we’re really trying to get inside Slade’s head and explore what is it that makes or motivates a villain,” explains Priest in a phone interview with Inverse. “Really get inside the mind of a killer, about this deeply disturbed person and the challenges his lifestyle presents for his family, and for his friends.”
On a recent call with Inverse, Christopher Priest and Carlo Pagulayan layed out what Deathstroke fans can look forward to in the newest refresh of DC’s meanest mercenary.
Deathstroke has been an anti-hero and sometimes even a hero. What made you want to paint Deathstroke as a full-fledged villain in your new series?
Christopher Priest: My point of reference for Deathstroke is kind of narrow. Marie Javins, a DC editor, she invited me to write the book. My first thought was [Deathstroke creators] Marv Wolfman, and George Perez, where he carried labels like “anti-heroes,” “super soldier.” I don’t think of him in those terms. I think Deathstroke is a villain. Period. He is a bad guy who does bad things. He has his own warped code of ethics, but by and large he is just a villain. This is what I’m trying to drill down with the editors at DC. I don’t want to write stories where we create a bigger villain so he can seem heroic. Slade is not a good person, and that’s the core value that we’re trying to get back to.
Carlo Pagulayan: It’s more psychological. I’m trying to, as much as possible, capture emotion, and hopefully be successful in interpreting expressions, and what he’s thinking at the moment. It’s challenging, and I guess it’s fun.
Have you had trouble telling your story of Deathstroke, especially since it’s so connected to the overall Rebirth?
Priest: I was given a wide berth to pitch my version, so there really were not a lot of editorial restrictions. As far as Rebirth, Marie mentioned to me in the offering, “We’re doing Rebirth which you’re going to transition us out of New 52”, and I said, “What’s New 52?” I had no idea what New 52 was. I haven’t been reading comics for quite a while, so I was really just out of the loop.
I’m writing Deathstroke as though there’s never been a Deathstroke book before. If you’ve never read Deathstroke, if you’ve never even liked the character, it’s a perfect opportunity to sample this, and you get in from the ground floor up. It’s like Deathstroke: The Netflix Series, or Deathstroke: The Movie.
What’s it been like for you to return to comics after so long?
Priest: It’s been a challenge. Getting back into the swing of things, formatting, and just the general pace because Deathstroke is published twice a month. That was interesting being thrown into that. In the interim I have been writing novels, so I’ve been writing long form and comics are very short form. You only have 20 pages, and page 20 comes at you like a bullet. As soon as you’re really staring to have fun, all of a sudden time is up. That’s taken a bit to get used to.
What attracted you to taking on Deathstroke as your first subject since returning?
Priest: For me, it was the challenge to write a bad guy, to write him from the inside out. The theme of the book is exploring not only villainy, but justice. The price of having justice in the world is guys like Deathstroke, because justice demands due process and legal proof. We don’t just lock up the villains and throw them in Guantanamo Bay without charge. That would be vigilantism, not justice. A guy like Slade, he’s an expert at not getting caught, and he’s got a lot of money, just like Bruce Wayne, and he has a bunch of lawyers that can get him off. That’s kind of thematically what’s going on in the book, and that’s what really I felt was a real challenge to write.
**What has your team dynamic been like, especially since Priest is coming back after a leave from comics?
Priest: A lot of what I’m doing in Deathstroke just wouldn’t work if Carlo wasn’t capturing the expressions, and the body language of the characters amazingly well. I think he’s just doing a fabulous job of it.
Pagulayan: It’s a learning curve, everytime I collaborate. Christopher writes like a director. I see how the way he composes a story sequence.
There’s a subtle redesign to Deathstroke. He’s a little slimmer. What motivated this trimmed-down version of Deathstroke?
Pagulayan: The way I see him is like, Snake, from Metal Gear Solid.
Priest: His modus operandi is he’s an assassin. I said [to Marie], “If this guy’s an assassin, assassins don’t run around with a bandolier and all this armor. An assassin is like a ninja. He melts out of the black, slits your throat, and vanishes into black again. He will bulk up in issue six, he’s fighting like a hundred guys, but he’s air-dropped into a war zone. When he’s on a mission trying to creep silently, get out without being noticed, why on Earth is he dragging all that stuff?
DC’s Deathstroke: Rebirth #1 is out now on shelves. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.