DC’s New 52 Reviews: Deathstroke

Posted: September 21, 2011 in Braak, comic books, reviews
Tags: , , , ,

I didn’t find this one as offensively stupid as Suicide Squad, so don’t expect a huge and furious rant about it, but I did have some (mostly one) major problem with Deathstroke #1 (by Kyle Higgins, art by Joe Bennett & Art Thibert).  It’s a problem rooted in the spoiler, and I’ll get to it in a minute once I’ve brought you up to speed.

So, Deathstroke is a superhuman assassin/mercenary/bodyguard/roughneck.  He is superhumanly strong and fast and has a superhumanly weird sword — like, not only is it clearly balanced badly, and too long and fat to be a one-handed weapon, but he also always seems to be holding it the wrong way so that he’s hitting people with the flat of the blade, rather than cutting them.  He also has a Superhuman Strategy Mind, and the introduction to this fact is kind of hilarious:

We meet Deathstroke, cornered by like, fifty Russians with guns, and the captions go over and over about how great he is, how stone cold badass he is, how strong and fast he is.  And right when the caption talks about how he’s a got a brilliant superhuman strategy intellect, we see it put to use, as Deathstroke fights the hell out of those Russians.

Except, his “strategy” apparently consists of just leaping right into the middle of them and chopping them with his sword.  Admittedly, this strategy is effective — no question there.  It is, technically, a “good strategy.”  I’m just not sure, “Well, what if I just hit them all and kill them?” really showcases Deathstroke’s ability to form a tactic.

Deathstroke gets hired to do a job, which is a daring mid-air hit — he’s got to break onto a plane and assassinate this dude who looks like Count Orlock from Nosferatu.  To do that, he is partnered with three “teenagers” (presumably they are all at least 18) called the Alpha Dawgs (a name so stupid that even they don’t really like it).  There are a few nice moments of camaraderie between them, a few little bits of them being competent at their jobs, some parts where Deathstroke is just being a colossal prick to them, and a nice part near the end when he grudgingly acknowledges something they did is “not terrible.”

It’s kind of neat, actually.  It sets up a sort of “new team of naive mercenaries and their cranky dad” dynamic, which is fun; that old-timer / new-timer idea is actually a really good way to introduce Deathstroke as a character, because putting him in the “mentor” position lets us automatically accept his experience and ability as read — you don’t need to tell us how tough and badass he is (even though Kyle Higgins does do that), because he’s in a role that presumes that he’s tough and badass.

There’s also a pretty cool enigma set up — the intimation that the Count Orlock guy actually paid for the hit on himself so that he could deliver some kind of message to Deathstroke (in the form of a case with SOMETHING in it, we don’t know what — good mystery, nice question for next time), to which Deathstroke responds by exploding him with C4 (though this does bring up a bit of a flaw in the plot:  if they were just going to blow up the plane, why didn’t they just shoot it with a rocket instead of having Deathstroke leap onto it and then zipline back?).

Everything is good so far, this is actually looking like the kind of action-movie noir comic that I might enjoy reading.  The kind that I might even pick up monthly!

Then comes the twist, which I’m going to spoil for you, because I don’t think you should actually bother reading this comic.


At the end, while the Alpha Dawgs are celebrating their first real mission and their status as “up and comers” in the mercenary world, Deathstroke says something to the effect of, “there are no up and comers, just competition.  And I don’t work with it.”


Kyle…Kyle Higgins, look.  I think…I think there might be some kind of misunderstanding here.

An “anti-hero” isn’t a villain.  They might be mean, they definitely often use immoral methods, but ultimately every anti-hero is at least ARGUABLY a force for good.  The point of the anti-hero is to exist in the moral grey area, to make us think really hard about when and how and if the ends ever justify the means.  You use them to explore the emotional and psychological causes and consequences of violence and cruelty, to show depth beyond “well, that guy is just a stone-cold killer.”

I get that Deathstroke is an assassin, I understand that, but do you know why every story about a hitman either a) has them start to question the morality of what they’re doing (typically when they are required to assassinate a man who has a child) or b) has them kill mostly people that the audience can comfortably despise (like oil magnates or politicians)?

It’s because if he is just a regular murderer, who can happily kill just any old person without a hint of remorse or even a moment’s question about the moral ramifications of murder — if he is like that?  Then he is just a regular bad guy.  There’s no point in telling the story from his perspective because, as it turns out, he’s exactly the same on the inside as he seems to be on the outside:  a horrible fucking bastard.

I know I don’t speak for the world when I say this, but I personally don’t really want to read about some horrible fucking bastard.  I can get down with the idea of the anti-hero, especially if an old-hand assassin is couched in an environment when he comes into conflict with some naive kids about just how horrible the world of professional killing is — I can get down with that.  But I don’t give a fuck about some shithead murderer’s adventures in murdering.

Are those vampire guys going to fuck with Deathstroke?  Do they have something on him, some kind of leverage to use against him?  Good.  I hope they do.  I hope they get him good.  Fuck Deathstroke, man, I hope those vampire dudes eat his face.

The other problem here is, the thing about a first issue is that it is supposed to introduce me to a bunch of characters that I want to continue reading about.  Whether or not I think there’s any merit in reading about a guy who is just a stone-cold killer, you’ve introduced five major characters.  One of those guys was just exposition.  The other three get killed off.  This is in the first issue.  This is not a good way to build a story that I am going to want to read.

Conclusion:  Deathstroke #1 — this comic is for you if you want to read about a serious guy who likes to murder people.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    “(though this does bring up a bit of a flaw in the plot: if they were just going to blow up the plane, why didn’t they just shoot it with a rocket instead of having Deathstroke leap onto it and then zipline back?).”

    I’m kind of enjoying the idea of Deathstroke as the Bear Grills of superpowered assassins, choosing the most needlessly complicated way of doing something just to show he’s really good at this whole killing stuff.

    And also this book sounded awful, but then I’ve never been clear on who the audience is for Deathstroke as the star of a book.

    Teens who shop at Hot Topic, I guess?

    In which case, I guess I’m just impressed that they didn’t de-age Slade Wilson to be more relatable.

  2. Moff says:

    if they were just going to blow up the plane, why didn’t they just shoot it with a rocket instead of having Deathstroke leap onto it and then zipline back?

    I think my inability to ignore questions like that is largely what has kept me from having a career writing fiction.

    Seriously, how do you turn off that part of your brain? You must have to, to turn out a story or more a month. But how do you not walk around feeling guilty for weeks or months or years afterward?

  3. braak says:

    Teens who shop at Hot Topic wish Deathstroke was their dad.

    The thing about the plane is actually an easy fix, of course — answer: they had to make a hundred percent sure the guy was actually on it. They can’t see inside the plane from their own plane, which means the only option is to throw Deathstroke at it and have him check.

    It’s actually such an easy fix that I’m not a hundred percent sure it wasn’t the case. I mean, it’s an obvious fix, right? Maybe they did say that; I don’t have the book in front of me, so I can’t be sure.

    The thing is, the middle part of the comic was pretty good, and it gave a good insight into what could have been a pretty spectacular comic: crabby old hand Deathstroke the Terminator — the Bear Gryllis of metahuman assassins — and this crew of naive kids who wish they were mercenaries have to take on the most insane missions in the world, because no one else will. Deathstroke ziplining onto a plane in order to blow it up or whatever.

    That would have been a good comic, I would have read that comic.

    (Because it is basically Leverage, but with Deathstroke instead of Timothy Hutton, and in the DC universe.)

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    “Because it is basically Leverage, but with Deathstroke instead of Timothy Hutton, and in the DC universe.”

    Well now, obviously I would read something along these lines.

  5. John Jackson says:

    That’s what Leverage is? Hmm…Maybe I should watch it.

  6. braak says:

    In fact, in this scenario, Deathstroke would be both Timothy Hutton AND Christian Kane, which I think is actually a pretty neat combination. Also, there’d be more killing than in Leverage, which is generally about sophisticated grifting.

    Anyway, duh, yes, we would ALL read something like that, because it is fucking awesome.

    You know, DC has gone to all these lengths to talk about how they’re rebooting, restarting, making this whole thing available to new readers. But Deathstroke is a comic that relies wholly on the prospect of — not of you KNOWING about Deathstroke but — of you GIVING A SHIT about Deathstroke.

    If you don’t care whether or not Deathstroke the Terminator is DC’s most dead serious badass? Then you don’t care about this comic at all.

    And man, does this piss the fucking hell out of me, because look — look what we did here. We sat down and said, “Here’s the material DC has to work with. Let’s make: 1) a comic for middle school girls (Supergirl) 2) a competency-porn comic like Leverage (Deathstroke) 3) a fantasy adventure comic (Demon Knights), ET CETERA AND SO FORTH

    And what did they do, instead? They just made the same thing they were making before.


  7. Jesse says:

    Moff, you can write fiction. You have no obligation as a writer to ignore your implausible plot; you probably even have an obligation to do the opposite. No matter how much you love that zipline out of the plane idea, no matter how excited you were to finally write it down after thinking it up, if you just listen to the truth when you get there and scrap it, your story will be better. That’s because the plot twist you didn’t even imagine the first time will pop up instead when you ask yourself the question, “Wait, why don’t they just blow it up right now?” If you just ignore that question and hope no one notices, or try to retroactively tinker with stuff around it to make it at least appear to make sense, the whole thing feels shoehorned. “Because I think it’s cool” is never a justification for including something that doesn’t make any sense.

  8. braak says:

    I tend to be a little more forgiving when it’s just one thing like that — I mean, I didn’t even notice it while I was reading it, it didn’t even hit me until just now when I started writing about it (I guess this is called a Refrigerator Moment).

    And when you consider the very, very short turnaround on a comic script, and that the writer doesn’t get to see it illustrated until it’s basically too late to change anything, then I can understand why inconsistencies like that are going to creep in. I can ignore one or two, though, and if the rest of this comic had been good I’d have been happy to ignore this one.

  9. Jesse says:

    Yeah, and sometimes it’s sincerely accidental, especially when writing fast on deadline, which is where the editor comes in. But as an editor, when I point out an implausibility or inconsistency, 2/3 of the time the writer will rationalize it instead of, “Oh wow, thanks for the save!” Which is sad because, again, if you let your characters work their way out of the corner you painted them in you can wind up with some amazing, unexpected stuff. Just got to use your imagin-a-ti-on like the Muppet Babies said.

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