Since the 1980s, Deathstroke the Terminator has been one of DC’ most complex and unsettling characters - a one-eyed assassin whose psychological manipulation and utter ruthlessness are just as dangerous as his weapons and superhuman abilities. He’s been portrayed as everything from a straight-up supervillain to a more ambiguous antihero, and in the 2000s he’s found his way into multiple forms of media, including TV’s Titans, Arrow, and various cartoons. But one of the longest and most acclaimed depictions of the character ended this month with Deathstroke #50, concluding the series that began with DC's "Rebirth" in 2016.
mbracing the idea that Slade Wilson is, at his core, a villain, the series combined international political intrigue and head games with Deathstroke’s dysfunctional relationship with his children Joey (Jericho) and Rose (Ravager), whose efforts to be heroes and defy their father was inevitably tied with their need for his love and approval. The series tied Deathstroke’s corrupting influence to other young heroes, including current Robin (Damian Wayne) and the super-team Defiance, who found out Deathstroke’s efforts to be “good” could be just as destructive as the bad. And it forced Deathstroke to face his most terrifying opponent - himself - in ways both literal and figurative.
The writer behind all this darkness was Christopher Priest, in his first extended run on a superhero comic in years following such influential series as his 1990s Black Panther run and his own creation for Valiant Entertainment, Quantum and Woody. Priest agreed to answer a few questions about his time on Deathstroke and delivered in spades, not only providing insightful, sometimes candid thoughts on the character and the behind-the-scenes process, but also picking out art from his favorite moments throughout the series.
In the first of a three-part, spoiler-heavy retrospective on Deathstroke, Priest explains what he used from the character’s decades of history to define the character in his run.
Newsarama: Priest, first up, obvious thing: How do you feel about the series coming to an end?
Christopher Priest: Oh, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I think a comic book writer’s first obligation is to the character, by which I mean don’t stay too long, don’t repeat yourself. Too many staffers and creative talent in this business hang in there too long and that’s bad for the I.P.
Back in the day, [former Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief] Jim Shooter used to shuffle the editorial assignments every so often. Kept things fresh, new perspectives on the various books and creative teams. Overstaying your welcome comes at the expense of both the character and the fans. It’s time for fresh horses on Deathstroke.
Nrama: What has your run on Deathstroke meant to you as a writer/creator? It's certainly been your longest comic run since the Black Panther days, and one of your most prominent titles.
Priest: It’s been a mixed bag. It was certainly interesting to poke around inside Slade Wilson’s head, but it was also pretty frustrating. I didn’t realize, when I came aboard, that Deathstroke’s enemies are DC’s heroes. Which meant my editor, Alex Antone, had to wander the halls of DC, hat in hand, negotiating appearances of these other characters and turning “no” into “yes.” That wasn’t fun for him or for me.
We worked very hard to get those guest appearances right, to make sure the characters were consistent with their own books.
What made me a great fit for Deathstroke was the greater body of my work mocks virtually everything that DC stands for. If you think about it, Panther, Quantum & Woody, The Ray, Justice League Task Force, Steel - which a lot of fans skipped but go read it now- all of that stuff mocked the conventional tentpoles of superhero comic books. Soon as I got my hands on Justice League, the first thing I did was have the heroes conspire to give Batman the boot. I’m sick of Batman leading that team. Enough already.
My general approach is to kick the shins of everything the fan knows to be true, to challenge every premise, virtually all things the fan holds sacred. Deathstroke mercilessly mocks everything about Batman, including his “bat fetish,” when he busts into the Batcave in “Batman vs. Deathstroke.” God alone only knows what a Priest Superman would read like, which is probably why you’re unlikely to ever see one.
Working on Deathstroke became this kind of second act in my career. There was all of this noise about “Priest is Back!” which confused me. I mean, I never left. It’s just that, for nearly a decade, no one would offer me any work other than black characters. While I was appreciative of those offers, I honestly don’t know how or when I became a “black” writer. Writing a villain presented an interesting challenge, and the fact the assignment had nothing to do with my ethnicity made it an easy “yes.”
Over the course of the run, the industry seemed to embrace me again as a writer, not just a “black” writer. So, I suppose that’s the greatest gift the series (and DC) gave me - my identity back and the opportunity to compete on a level playing field again.
Nrama: The character's obviously been around for a while, but when you started the series, how familiar were you with Deathstroke/Slade? When reviewing the history - constituting several universe reboots and interpretations across different media - what, to you, represented the core essence and appeal of the character that you wanted to capture?
Priest: I checked out of all things Titans after Marv [Wolfman] and George [Perez]. Like everyone else, I was a big fan of that stuff. And then I was gone from the biz during the entirety of "New 52" and had to have all of that explained to me, I had no idea what "New 52" was.
I’m not a big fan of these huge continuity shake-ups, but I assume people way smarter than me know what they’re doing. So, all I knew about Deathstroke was Marv and George. I didn’t recognize "New 52" Deathstroke or understand why he was now this hulking guy with all this armor and stuff. An assassin should be sleek, unencumbered, and likely wearing all black.
I designed the Ikon suit around that idea - slimmer, simpler Deathstroke, which went against the "New 52" grain and, now, against the grain of much of what I am seeing in film, video games, and streaming media. He’s wearing all of this useless stuff he doesn’t need and he’s clanking all over the place. Odd choices for an assassin.
As with all projects I take on, I asked myself what was missing from the various presentations of Deathstroke. What was that “thing” they were all missing. I think Geoff Johns’ Teen Titans comics writing likely inspired my conclusion. I wasn’t writing the world’s greatest assassin; I was writing the World’s Worst Dad.
My book was about a man’s personal struggle against his own demons, and how those demons were winning.
Nrama: For that matter, in terms of employing the character's history and supporting cast, what did you feel was most important to keep? Characters like Adeline and Wintergreen had been killed off in previous iterations, for example, but are major aspects of your run.
Priest: I tried to keep all of it. Marv created a tremendous, rich environment for this character. It would have been stupid for me to not make use of it. Nothing pains me more than to have a writer come along after me and claim nothing I wrote, nothing I invested in the character, actually happened. That really blows, and publishers really need to stop doing that, invalidating the very hard work and investment of others.
But I strongly disagreed with, for example, Jericho being a psycho or Rose poking out her own eye. No offense intended, but, no. That felt wrong for the characters and the book. It pained me a lot to bring them back but I felt all of these characters were essential to who Deathstroke is. We considered just making up our own cast because I despise retcons (which is why I rarely kill ongoing or established characters). But [then-DC Chief Creative Officer] Geoff Johns gave me his blessing to retcon out even his contributions, and he’s the guy who killed most of those characters off.
'The World’s Worst Dad' is about a man who loves and desperately wants to be loved but is capable of neither. So, he does skanky stuff like put a hit out on his daughter so he can spend time with her. And, in the latter part of the series, Deathstroke clearly falls in love with Damian Wayne. I hope fans can understand that, I hope they got that. Deathstroke loves that kid and can access that love in ways he cannot with his own children because Damian is so very much like him.
Our custody battle between Batman and Deathstroke was literally undecided until the very last days before the book went to press. I know the decision wasn’t an easy one, there was real opportunity for major exploitation of all three characters (Batman, Deathstroke, Robin) had the bosses made another choice. In my head, at least, Damian is definitely Slade’s kid and Wayne is just lying to himself.
Nrama: And of course, a key element of your run is Slade's relationship with Jericho and Rose. I want to dig into those characters later, but having them as regular characters serves as a reminder of Deathstroke's connection to the larger world - not just the DC Universe, but the corrupting influence he has even on those trying to oppose him. One thing I'm curious about is the creative decision to make Slade aware of Rose earlier in her life and tie her into Jericho's origin - this makes Adeline's hatred of Slade even more twisted and gives the characters even closer ties. What led to your deciding to shift the continuity that way?
Priest: I don’t want to speak for Marv, whom I asked about this, but a lot of Deathstroke continuity was created over a span of years that we can’t afford. Today’s readers have a terribly short attention span.
Beyond that, when I worked with Geoff Johns to launch the book, I told him, “Well, Geoff, if we’re going to reimagine the character, why not set the franchise up so it translates easily to film or TV?” and Geoff agreed. So, we compressed timelines and combined events the way, say, Netflix surely would. And then, ironically, Geoff didn’t use "Rebirth" Deathstroke, which he helped create, on the Titans streaming show! [Laughs] That bastard.
Nrama: Slade is depicted as an abusive father, even before going full villain, and as a victim of an abusive childhood himself. What are some of the things you wanted to say about abuse with his character and his relationships with his children?
Priest: Well, not to excuse the behavior, but we showed Slade being abused by his father as a boy in issue #25. My mother used to beat her children because her mother used to beat her. This has gone on likely from the dawn of humanity.
I actually didn’t see Slade as abusive. I just wanted to make a point, a point I had to make over and again with DC, the House of Nice. See, I was raised at Marvel by total bastards (joke). And Marvel comics have traditionally allowed themselves, in the aggregate, to be meaner than DC Comics, which tends to be much nicer and friendlier. Marvel threw Gwen Stacy off a bridge - which was when I started reading Marvel.
So, with Deathstroke, I had to, again and again, remind them the guy is a villain. He is an asshole. Slade Wilson is not a nice man. He was never a nice man to begin with. DC’s instinct is to protect their characters, and we’ve gone out of our way protecting Deathstroke, which is what made the finale so satisfying for me as I was finally able to portray Deathstroke the way he should always have been: ruthless, deadly, and totally unlikeable. But how long could you sustain a series about someone that despicable?
So many was the time when I’d write a scene where Slade would be incredibly and unthinkably cruel (like sleeping with Joseph’s fiancé behind his back), and I’d get these notes back. Oh, they’d let me do most of these things ultimately, but only after I reminded them Deathstroke is a villain. Not a mercenary, not an antihero. He is a full-on jerk and, please write this down someplace, a supervillain.
Slade never wanted kids, and he treated his kids the way his father treated him. But he was doing that - abandoning his eldest son Grant in the woods - for their own good. In his mind, he was a great dad.
The opening scene of Deathstroke: Rebirth #1 was based on a true story, on a close friend of mine. Only, in that story, I was Wintergreen, asking my friend, “Shouldn’t you have maybe hugged your child first, called him stupid later...?” He disagreed.