While many of DC Comics’ New 52 series launched with first issues that highlighted a major change or a twist ending, perhaps the most unexpected shake-up came at the end of “Deathstroke” #1 — a comic which upended its own brand-new status quo. Set on a mid-air assassination job involving mutated bodyguards, Deathstroke was teamed with one of comics more recent cliches — a team of hot shot, know-it-all mercenary kids. By mission’s end, the anti-hero known as Slade Wilson picked up a briefcase with mystery contents and celebrated his victory in style…by killing every member of his team in cold blood.
While the finale spun the expectations for where the series will go from here, writer Kyle Higgins hopes that fans agree that the mouthy ops agents deserved what they got. “That was the first thing I pitched!” the writer told CBR News of the Joe Bennett-drawn book. “I was on the phone with Editor Rachel Gluckstern, talking about different ideas for the series. I pitched my whole view on who the character and the philosophy and outlook on the type of work he does — someone with 96% brain function is going to have a much more objective view of the world. I was talking about that, what we should do for issue #1 and how DC wanted a big twist.
“I like to approach issue #1s, generally, as ‘pilots,’ where you set up the status quo in the world and then, in the end, completely invert it. I was riffing on this idea and had the idea that it might be a lot of fun — and really set the tone for the series — if we show Slade with his long-time team, only to kill them all at the end of the issue. It would be a statement that says, ‘I’m tired of the way things are going, and I’m making a change.” The idea morphed a bit during the development process, but that ending always stayed.”
What will also be staying is a leaner, meaner Deathstroke as Higgins felt the character needed a major pick-me-up in order to restore his place in the minds of fans as the DCU’s #1 badass. “But since my sensibility is typically much more grounded and “real world” based,Â Deathstroke has really pushed me. I mean, you can see just by the type of mission we went on in the first issue. He’s much bigger than that. And he should be,” the writer said. “I think the thing about Deathstroke — and I’ve said this before — isÂ the same problem you run into with a lot of villains. They exist for the purpose of showing how good our heroes are, which means they’re going to get beaten — a lot. When you have someone like Deathstroke, who has these couple of moments throughout history that he’s known for, he exists as a threat in a lot of readers’ minds based on his reputation alone. Except when he’s continually getting beaten and you forget why he’s scary in the first place. I was very conscious of the fact that a lot of Deathstroke’s appearances in the last few years have make me go, ‘I don’t get why this guy is so intimidating.’
“When they called me for the title, it was a situation where I didn’t have a lot of expectations. I was familiar with the character, but only had a few instances I could point to that resonated with me. I guess that’s the same with any character.Â You have the moments you respond to, and those few are sometimes the only basis for why you like them — or are afraid of them”
Keeping that fear alive in will involve a more over-the-top, Grindhouse aesthetic when it comes to the action of the series, which Bennett will deliver with bullets and blood. “I think, based on the type of character he is, you can go a little bigger with the violence,” Higgins explained. “I want it to have that wow factor. I want the ‘Holy *&$%’ moments. At the end of the day, this guy isn’t doing nice things. He’s not working at a day care. To steal a Wolverine line, he’s the best there is at what he does, but what he does isn’t very nice. At the same time, there’s certainly an element I have to be careful with, as I run the risk of alienating readers by being too gory or too grotesque. For every reader who loves Garth Ennis’ Punisher, there are a lot of people for whom that’s too intense. For me — and this becomes quite apparent in issue #3 –Â there’s a very specific reason why he does what he does [and] the way he does it. This is a character who enjoys his work, and there are very few people in life who both get to do what they love and also be the best in the world at it.”
Of course, even in the world of high flying super-villainy, a comic can’t be all action, and the writer promised he has plans to explore the core of Slade Wilson as a man pressing back against the inevitable. “At this point in Deathstroke’s career, his approach to how he completes his missions is based quite heavily on what his past reputation is. In terms of the big, over-the-top violence and action, he goes about most of his missions in a way that may not always be best. But again, there’s a very specific reason for that, and to tease a little bit, there’s certainly an element of getting older and his ego getting in the way. If you look at Michael Jordan right now, you hear stories about him still scrimmaging with the young guns. And while that makes for a fun news story, I guarantee you there’s just as much ego involved. There’s an element of, ‘I want to show these guys that I can play and I’m not over the hill.’ He doesn’t want anyone to think he can’t do it anymore.”
Helping Deathstroke prove his worth will be his unlikely handler Cristoph, who will set the one-eyed assassin on future missions that can stand on their own while developing a bigger picture. “There’s going to be a combination of ‘hired work’ as well as personal missions that are tied to the briefcase. There are some players behind the scenes trying to manipulate him, and the fact that they’re doing this may or may not have an impact on the missions Slade takes, why he’s attacking things as hard as he is. He wants people to know he’s still relevant…he’s still a factor. A lot of that is motivated by the mystery of who sent him the objects in the briefcase and who thinks he’s enough of a joke that they can screw with him like this. Once people see what’s inside the case, I think they’ll understand why Slade takes offense.”
And just as he promised that his work on “Nightwing” will eventually draw in influences from across the DCU, Higgins has plans for Deathstroke to meet some of the bigger names in superheroics — just not right away. “The first seven or eight issues — aside from one particular guest star character in issue #4 — will focus on new characters, antagonists and threats,” he said. “I feel like it’s important in these first issues to firmly establish who Deathstroke is, and [that] if you put him up against Superman, he’s not going to win. If you want to establish him as a force to be reckoned with, you have to create a body of work to support that. That said, the hope is that the antagonists I’m bringing in aren’t just throwaway villains. Every action Slade performs has consequences, and there will be villains and threats popping up that connect in ways that are going to surprise a lot of people.”
“Deathstroke” #1 is headed back for a second print from DC Comics.