When Deathstroke is relaunched as part of DC's "Rebirth" initiative, writer Christopher Priest wants to make the book about more than just how violent the character is, instead exploring thematically how his mercenary life has affected his family. As Priest describes it, "like the Sopranos with super villains."
Priest, a fan-favorite writer from his run on Black Panther and other DC, Marvel and Valiant titles, is returning to DC for a twice-monthly Deathstroke title, working with artists Carlo Pagulayan, Igor Vitorino and Felipe Watanabe as the series relaunches this month. According to Priest, readers can pick up Deathstroke #1 without having ever read anything about the character before, and he encourages people to give it a try even if they didn't like the character in the past.
Priest said he's also trying to honor what's come before in Deathstroke stories, but has changed the timeline to fit into current continuity while also bringing back the character's children - in fact, Priest says Rose Wilson will be a co-star in the new Deathstroke title.
And in the first story arc, readers will get to see Priest writing Batman and his son, Damian Wayne, as Deathstroke's latest job takes him to Gotham City.
Newsarama talked with Priest to find out more about his plans for Deathstroke.
Newsarama: Priest, your name being associated with "Rebirth" was one of the surprises DC announced. How did you get involved?
Christopher Priest: Well first, I didn't know what Rebirth was. Marie Javins, one of the editors from DC Comics, contacted me about Deathstroke, and she mentioned, "well, we're doing this 'Rebirth' event that's going to transition us from the 'New 52.'"
And I said, "Great! What's the 'New 52?'"
So she got to really go back and explain this whole relaunch - all the stuff going on at DC Comics - because I really wasn't focused on comics. I was working in other fields and doing some ministry and writing novels. I just really wasn't reading comics and had no idea about what was going on.
The Deathstroke thing appealed to me really because, in the intervening years, I had approached Marvel, I had approached DC, some independents, and I pitched ideas to various publishers, and invariably, they'd try to go, well, you know, we're not really that interested in that, or, that's a great idea, but we already… like, I pitched a Western to Marvel, and they liked it a lot, but they were already doing a Western. And they said, "Well, we can't do two at the same time."
So it would be these mismatches where, things that I wanted to do, the publishers were either already doing them or were not that interested in doing those projects.
And then invariably, they would pitch projects to me that I didn't want to do. Most of them involved African-American characters or characters of color. And I felt like I was becoming typecast and moving from being a writer, as I was with Green Lantern and Batman and so forth - somehow I stopped being a writer and had become a quote-unquote "black" writer, and was almost exclusively offered characters of color - African-American characters in particular.
So I'd explain to virtually anyone who would sit still and listen that, you know, I appreciate the offer and that you thought of me, but I hope you'll think of me for something other than just ethnically-based series.
Frankly, if any of the publishers had offered me, you know, "Potato Man" - you know, the worst, least interesting character you've got, I probably would have taken it, just to get away from only doing characters of color.
Nrama: You ended up with a character that people love - he's often cited as a favorite - but he's also challenging because it seems like most people can't really quantify what makes him great, besides the advantages he has when fighting. How would you describe him as a character?
Priest: Yeah, I see him certainly as kind of a corrupt version of Batman, but in many ways a corrupt version of Captain America. In our series, we are frequently telling stories in two different timelines - the current day and "10 years ago."
In the flashback sequences, we see Slade, who is drawn by Carl Pagulayan, looking a lot like Steve Rogers in Captain America.
I see his character arc as beginning as a nearly heroic figure, when he was in the military. He went quickly from the enlisted ranks to the officer ranks. And he was kind of a rascal - kind of like George Clooney in Three Kings - but he was more of less and altruistic character who was fighting for America.
And then we see the turn. We see Anakin Skywalker turn toward Darth Vader. And it follows this gravitational pull of villainy.
And I think that turn really cemented itself when his son was kidnapped and ended up getting his throat slashed. I think from that point, he stops being like a rascal or anti-hero or mercenary. After Joseph, after he loses his second son, I think he just spirals into this person who's completely morally ambiguous and becomes fully-fledged as Deathstroke.
By the way, it's interesting that you say he's people's favorite character. I didn't even know that when we started talking about the book. I didn't know he had a book. And I certainly had no idea - I don't even know how Deathstroke became this popular, because I didn't realize he was popular.
It's a blessing and a curse, because I was able to develop the character in a pseudo-ignorance, without really worrying all that much about the fan base or the support that the character currently enjoys. I was able to kind of create it without a fear of all of that.
And now I'm just kind of terrified! Because what we're doing is a distinct step away from what the book was before. So I have a great deal of nervousness and trepidation about how what we're doing will be received.
Nrama: Well, people called him a favorite villain, but I don't think people were running out and buying his books all the time, so it probably makes sense to try something new with him, as long as it's sticking to what the original essence of the character has been. I assume you did research on Deathstroke?
Priest: Oh yeah. Well, obviously.
First of all, my frame of reference with Deathstroke was rather narrow. It was Marv Wolfman and George Pérez. So when Marie pitched the character to me, that's the picture that flashed in my head, was George Pérez art and that whole business with the "Judas Contract."
So I was familiar with a lot of his history. I was not as familiar with the "New 52" version or interpretations just prior to that.
What I'm trying to do in my series is create what I am calling a composite history. In my opinion, I feel like all versions of Deathstroke are valid. Just like with Black Panther, I felt like it wasn't good for a writer to say another writer's work was invalid or never happened. That's happened to me and it's really unpleasant. In Black Panther, I tried to preserve virtually all versions and interpretations of Black Panther, including the Jack Kirby one, which was really tough to do, and make it work within current continuity.
So what I'm doing in Deathstroke is I'm trying not to say, you know, one guy's Deathstroke didn't happen or didn't exist. But what we're doing is taking a lot of Deathstroke's history - and some of it was thought up, these events were thought up over a span of several years - and what we're doing is just adjusting the timeline so some of these events, they all happened, but some of them happened concurrently or happened closer in time than they actually did in the published books. Because, you know, if we did it as written, then Rose would be 40 or something, and Jericho would a be a senior citizen.
So we had to make some of those kinds of changes, but I'm trying to respect the hard work that writers in the past have done.
Nrama: You keep mentioning Deathstroke's family. I noticed that Rose is in the first story arc, and you've also got Deathstroke interacting with Batman - including a great cover with Deathstroke and Damian Wayne coming up. Can you talk about the supporting cast, or who the people are around Deathstroke, as well as how he'll interact with the greater DCU?
Priest: Well, we're basically bringing his family back. The book, you know, in as much as let's say the West Wing was about politics, it really was a workplace drama. It was about this family that occupies this space and accomplishes these tasks and has these conflicts. Deathstroke, in my view, is a family drama. It's like the Sopranos with super villains.
Slade is the family patriarch who makes his living by running around and whacking people. So he has this morally ambiguous occupation, and he's not above using people, including his own kids, to achieve some goal.
So it's really about this dysfunctional family, including Wintergreen who is kind of, you know, the wacky uncle in a lot of ways.
Rose ends up being more or less the co-star of the book. She is Robin to his Batman.
And then Jericho will enter the series with issue #6 and play his own role. Jericho will be struggling against a gravitational pull of Deathstroke's villainy. So Deathstroke will be desperately trying to be a heroic figure while Rose is more morally ambiguous, like her father.
So you end up with, well, Grant was the bad kid, Joseph is the good son, and Rose kind of weaves both good guy/bad guy - it all depends on which side of the bench she gets up on, how she's going to react. But that's basically how that works.
We are bringing back his entire family and his traditional cast, which was a difficult choice, because, as I said, I really hate invalidating someone else's work or saying it didn't count. But we really just didn't have a whole lot of choice as we relaunched the series. Other writers have killed off his entire supporting cast - some more than once - and we really had no choice but to hit the reset button and bring these people back.
Nrama: I'm sure there will be fans happy about that. Then to finish up, is there anything else you want to let people know about what you're hoping to do with Deathstroke?
Priest: Thematically, the book runs along a kind of introspective investigation of the concepts of villainy and justice.
For example, one way of dealing with Deathstroke would be for Superman to lock him up Guantanamo Bay-style in some kind of ultra-secure prison, without charge, and just leave him there. And that would solve the problem of Deathstroke. But that would not be justice. That would be vigilantism.
And so what my Deathstroke book says is, the price that the DC Universe pays for justice is that people like Deathstroke are out there running around.
Because as opposed to vigilantism, justice requires a due process and a court of law. And guys like Deathstroke are experts at not getting caught, not leaving evidence. And Deathstroke has the same sort of financial resources that Batman does, which means he has a cadre of lawyers that can get him out of just about any situation.
So that's thematically what it's about.
And then on a lower level, it's about family. And it's something that everyone can identify with. Some people might shy away from a character like Deathstroke because, you know, all of the blood-letting and the swordplay and violence and all that other stuff.
But even if you don't like that type of violent stuff, this book is not about the swordplay and the violence - it's about the consequences of the swordplay and the violence, and the effect that has on this American family, and why this family's so deeply dysfunctional.
So I think that's the main things I'd like people to know about the book. If you don't know anything at all about Deathstroke, you can easily get into it right from the jump, and even if the type of character Deathstroke is is less appealing to you, you will find something in this book that does appeal to you, because it's written on a myriad of levels.