Spoilers ahead for the recent Deathstroke #50.
Newsarama's three-part interview with Deathstroke series writer Christopher Priest continues, as we now turn our attention to how Deathstroke’s evil affects his children, and pitting the character against DC’s biggest heroes.
New to this series? Read Part 1 here.
Newsarama: Priest, how do you define the character of Jericho/Joey? He's someone who's trying to be "good," but his efforts are extreme and often have terrifying, destructive consequences.
Christopher Priest: Joseph is probably a lot more like his father than Grant was. Grant was a lousy supervillain. Jericho is a great supervillain, only he doesn’t realize that’s what he is. HE thinks he’s a hero. But Joseph has at least as much Deathstroke in him as Grant ever did. And that’s his conflict: struggling to do good when he knows that evil lives inside him, as evidenced by his lashing out and (nearly) killing his ex-boyfriend.
Nrama: Joey is explicitly gay/bisexual in this iteration, but even with his family's acceptance, struggles with self-hatred and tries to appear straight. What was important for you to express in depicting the character?
Priest: I have gay Christian friends who are only in the closet for the church. In all other aspects of their life, everybody knows and most everyone accepts and, frankly, loves these women and men. That’s the model for Joseph. He is, for the most part, out. He was only in for Deathstroke, keeping that secret from his father, likely out of fear of his father’s reaction - a well-founded fear.
He kept his secret from his (female) fiancée because, at first, it simply wasn’t relevant and he likely feared for her safety as well - another well-founded fear.
For "Rebirth," I felt DC and other publishers had evolved to a place where diversity was being promoted and prioritized. I had no interest in presenting Jericho as either a pacifist or unhinged psychopath - both have been done. I wanted him to be Marilyn Munster [from The Munsters] - the normal kid in a bizarre family. And that’s who he is - normal.
Jericho is 'the Good Son,' or at least 'the Son Struggling to Be Good.' He is, to me, much more like Jack Kirby’s Lightray - after whom I deliberately designed his costume - a fun-loving, warm, friendly guy who routinely risks his life to help others.
It is my hope that I’ve built a fully realized human being, endowed with humanity and human dignity, and that his sexual orientation, while a source of conflict for story development, is not the beginning nor end of the character, nor is the character defined by it.
Nrama: Rose is similarly trying to go against her father, but in ways that draw her to him. One specific element of the character you emphasize in this version is her Cambodian heritage and ties to that culture. How do you characterize Rose, and what was particularly compelling to you about that element of her character?
Priest: Actually, for "Rebirth," I chose to take a right turn away from Lillian Worth, Rose’s mother, being Cambodian just because that’s where Slade found her. Hmong people come from many Asian nations, some from the hills of Vietnam and Laos. I thought it more interesting if Lillian’s background were a bit more complex.
Artist Carlo Pagulayan, an amazing gift to the series, created Rose as visually Eurasian, which I’m very pleased to see continue in the Titans streaming series.
Rose’s relationship with Deathstroke is far less complicated to the point of cliché: she’s a girl who loves her dad and wants his attention, and therefore goes about earning it in dysfunctional ways.
Nrama: You define Slade's abilities and equipment in greater detail in this series, clarifying things beyond the oft-debunked "90% of the brain we're not using" description. How did you come up with these explanations, and how did they help you as a writer? I'm also curious about giving his sword the origin as "The Death Stroke."
Priest: Okay, first the sword: I really needed, for my own sanity, to come up with a reason why an assassin would drag around a huge broadsword; the sword needed to be special and have some significance to Deathstroke which, so far as I’ve read, it never has. He’s had lots of swords. But Rebirth Deathstroke is in love with this sword, an ancient blade once called the “Death Stroke.” So, we explain both his attachment to the sword and the inspiration for his villain name.
In issue #10 Dr. Arthur Villain, whom no one but Denys Cowan seems to be able to draw accurately (Denys created the character back in Steel #34), ventured a guess - it’s just his informed guess - about how Slade’s powers actually work and, subsequently, how Jericho and Rose’s powers work.
I left myself a lot of wiggle room in Villain’s long diatribe - that’s only Dr Villain’s theory. doesn’t necessarily make it so.
Man, I’d love to do a Dr. Villain series...
Nrama: What were some of the trickiest parts of pulling off Slade's tactical strategies and manipulations, particularly given how superpowers/supertech/occasional real-world politics enter the situation?
Priest: He is an incredibly difficult character to write. See, the trick to writing Captain America is 'Cap Will Always Find A Way.' And, he does - just ask Mark Waid. The trick to writing Deathstroke is much more like writing Frank Miller’s Bullseye. It’s not the big things - not the sword or the rocket launcher or the why-on-earth-would-he-even-carry-this M50 machine gun. Bullseye can kill you with the sharpened edge of a quarter. Geoff Johns had Deathstroke defeat the entire JLA without using much in the way of super-weapons; he used his brain.
Much like Black Panther, writing Deathstroke is incredibly difficult because the character is a lot smarter than the guy writing him. I can’t just have Deathstroke punch Superman out. He’d never do that even if he could. Deathstroke would find a way to force Superman to punch himself out (issues #7 - #8, my second favorite story of the run). Figuring out all of those bits took forever, and then poor Alex had to negotiate each one with the Superman editors who are, rightfully, protective of their character.
We had to constantly prove to other editors that Deathstroke was an actual threat, that he wasn’t just a bowling pin for their guy to knock down. So, for example, when the Superman people were having a fit about Deathstroke beating him, we - by which, of course, I mean Alex - had to educate them on who Deathstroke is. He’s not a stooge who brains you with a baseball bat.
And, speaking of bats, don’t get me started on the whole “Deathstroke can’t know Batman’s secret identity in spite of the fact he has traditionally always known Batman’s secret identify” thumb wrestle. Sheesh.
If Deathstroke is, more or less, a twisted dark mirror image of Batman to whatever extent, that would and should make him one of the most dangerous people in the DCU. I (by which of course I mean Alex) really shouldn’t have had to constantly explain that to other editors. It’s the core principle of the character: 'Cap Will Find A Way.' 'Deathstroke Can Kill Anybody In The G*d*mned DCU.' Not sure in what way that is unclear.
Nrama: Also curious about your collaborative process - what were some of the different challenges of working with multiple artists, and what do you feel are some of the unique strengths of your team?
Priest: I really hated working with multiple artists because multiple artists have multiple needs and use multiple approaches to story. And the deadlines routinely overlapped, so Alex was chewing through scripts faster than I could write them because, at times, he was feeding as many as four pencil artists at once.
I mean, right down to the finale, I was pumping out pages for Fernando Pasarin and Carlo Pagulayan at the same time, getting pages to review – and script, a lot of that was written “Marvel Style” because we were just up against the calendar), and the books were all in varying stages of production with pages flying back and forth between the letterer and colorist and inker and so on. Whew. Gone are the days when I actually had a month to write a monthly comic book.
I will say that everybody, and I do mean everybody, who worked on this series swung for the fences. Everybody stayed up late. Everybody worked weekends and everybody sweated the details. I am incredibly appreciative of all of them.
NEXT: Our retrospective concludes with a look back at Priest’s favorite moments, how he really wanted to end the series, and the time “we dared Marvel to sue us.”