WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Deathstroke #27 by Christopher Priest, Diogenes Neves, Jason Paz, Jeromy Cox and Willie Schubert, on sale now.
One of the standout books of the DC Rebirth era has been Christopher Priest’s Deathstroke. The series has turned the sometimes one-dimensional master assassin into a complex and nuanced character who is in equal parts highly competent and massively flawed.
Over the course of the title’s run, Priest has hinted at a larger history that we’ve seen since the launch of The New 52, and it’s a history we recognize. Deathstroke’s years long enmity with The Titans was re-established, with classic storylines such as “The Judas Contract” being brought back into continuity. However, the latest issue of Deathstroke introduces one fundamental change to that iconic storyline that puts everything in a new light. And while it establishes a line in the sand that Deathstroke won’t cross, it also draws another line in the sand that he will.
At its core, “The Judas Contract” is a story about Deathstroke manipulating a young girl into joining, spying on and betraying the Teen Titans. Deathstroke blamed the young team of heroes for the death of his son Grant — the first Ravager — and took up his son’s deal with the terrorist organization H.I.V.E. in order to get his revenge.
However, one of the most uncomfortable aspects of “The Judas Contract” has always been the relationship between Deathstroke and the young hero-turned-villain, Terra. Terra is roughly around fiteen years old, and it’s strongly implied throughout the story that she has a romantic relationship with Slade Wilson. They refer to each other by pet names, Terra gets jealous of Slade’s family from before he was Deathstroke, and when she’s around him, she walks around in a loose fitting robe and nothing else. The Terra that “Judas Contract” readers saw around Slade is drawn in a deliberately sexualized manner, and while it’s meant to make us uncomfortable, it’s also somewhat inappropriate for a superhero comic.
Unfortunately, later stories have expounded on the relationship between Slade and Terra, emphasizing the sexual aspect of their relationship. Flashbacks to the era of “The Judas Contract” would often show them in bed together. The weekly series Countdown featured back-ups explaining the origins of supervillains, selecting the most important moments in their careers to fit decades of history into two pages. When Deathstroke’s turn came around, a third of the page was dedicated to Deathstroke naked in bed while Terra takes off her dress. It became an established part of his history, and throughout any attempts to make the villain cool and marketable as a franchise star in his own right, he was always plagued by his hebephilic relationship with Terra.
Deathstroke #27 presents a new origin and history for Terra, starting with her time as a princess of Markovia from which she was forced to flee for her life, leaving her privileged life and family — including her brother Brion, AKA Geo-Force — behind. From there, she travelled to America where she found herself an able conwoman and was recruited by Deathstroke to bring down the Teen Titans from within.
While we do see Terra’s attempts to seduce Deathstroke, the comic is clear that Deathstroke does not reciprocate, and he absolutely does not sleep with the underage girl. However, we also see that “The Judas Contract” plays out in a new way — we already knew things between Deathstroke and the Titans went down differently in “The Lazarus Contract” crossover, and now we learn that, unlike in Mark Wolfman and George Perez’s classic story, Terra survives. To keep her from killing the pair of them, Deathstroke is forced to calm her down by returning her affections, and while it was a matter of survival, it still crosses a line.
The important thing about the retcon in Deathstroke #27 is that while it doesn’t absolve Deathstroke of his actions, it changes the history of the character just enough. He’s still a monster, and what he does to Terra is unforgivable, but it’s more in line with what we expect from superhero comics. We even see Deathstroke’s oldest friend Wintergreen condemn Slade for his manipulation of Terra, saying, “Even in our business there’s a line. You’ve crossed it.” and Slade knows he has as well.
Slade Wilson is not a good person, that’s been a core theme of Deathstroke since the start of DC Rebirth. Christopher Priest doesn’t seem to want to undo the awful things from Slade’s past, but the small changes to the character’s history do put certain actions into context and, if anything, it reinforces “The Judas Contract” rather than diminishes it. Slade manipulated a powerful teenage girl into doing his bidding, and that will always be part of his character, but now we have a larger frame of reference to see why he did it, and that makes him more of a villain than ever.