The Consequences of Violence: Priest And Pagulayan On Deathstroke’s Rebirth [Interview]
DC's Rebirth initiative has been an opportunity to revitalize some of its core characters and get back to the roots of what made them icons in the first place. Deathstroke, AKA Slade Wilson, has been sliding more and more into antiheroism over the past few years, and was one of those characters desperately in need of a reset. Many fans were pleasantly surprised when they heard that Christopher Priest would be the writer to take the helm on that project.
Ahead of Deathstroke: Rebirth #1, ComicsAlliance caught up with Priest and artist Carlo Pagulayan to chat about the core of Deathstroke's character, his dysfunctional family and his place in the DC Universe.
ComicsAlliance: The announcement that you would be writing Deathstroke was one of the biggest surprises of DC Rebirth. How did you wind up on on the book?
Christopher Priest: Marie Javins, who is a group editor at DC Comics, she called me kind of out of the blue. I don’t know Marie, actually she emailed me first, out of the blue and wanted to talk to me about Deathstroke. My first thought was, “Okay, so that’s the villain from the Teen Titans?” and I wasn’t even aware that Deathstroke even had his own book, I had no idea that the character was as popular as he apparently is, but they were casting about for writers for Rebirth and somehow my name came up, and here I am!
Carlo Pagulayan: I think Marie remembers the conversations we had two years ago when we were talking about Convergence and I was asked which characters I find interesting and one of my top characters was Deathstroke. I guess they remembered me and I got assigned to the book.
CA: What was it about Deathstroke that attracted you to the character?
Priest: What interested me was two things. One was that the guy is a villain, and I have never really taken on a villain as a protagonist before, and it gave me a chance to stretch, and it was an interesting challenge to kind of get inside his head the way I might try to get inside Batman’s head. The writing approach is the same whether he’s a hero or a villain, it’s, “What’s his motive for doing what he does?” and, “How does his lifestyle impact him, his family and his friends?”
The other thing was that Slade is a family man, he is the patriarch of this deeply dysfunctional family, these people who will betray each other over a ham sandwich, so it kind of has a twisted appeal, sort of like The Sopranos with supervillains, so I thought this might be an interesting thing to do.
Pagulayan: I was attracted to the character because he’s such a badass. He’s a villainous Batman --- if you can make the comparison --- and I wanted to be on the book for the possibility of unrestrained action. Him being an assassin and a killer, you know there’s action to be found in the pages if he’s allowed to.
CA: We’re at a time when gun violence is at crisis levels but assassin and mercenary characters like Deathstroke and The Punisher are more popular than ever, why do you think that is?
Priest: I don’t know, you look at Daredevil and it’s all pretty violent, and then even DC got criticized for the level of violence in Batman v Superman. I really don’t know, but in our series I’m trying to make something that’s not about violence, but is about the consequences of that violence. Certainly the violence in the series plays a role in the storytelling, but rather than just glorifying violence for the sake of violence, we’re seeing that there are a lot of consequences --- emotional, political, financial --- there’s a lot of different consequences for that kind of stuff happening.
Pagulayan: I don’t think the clamor for violence has been increasing, to me it’s stayed the same. It’s more for readers and viewers wanting to see realism, I guess?
Priest: I think that’s right. They want to see that it’s not cartoon violence, and they’re taking it seriously at some level, I guess.
Pagulayan: Most of the readers have grown up and just don’t want to see the usual action and stuff.
CA: The issue contains a number of flashbacks to a formative time in Slade’s life with his children. Are we getting a sort of Deathstroke: Year One?
Priest Yeah, the first arc is basically setting up the new status quo, and it will operate on two different levels. One is present day, and one is approximately ten years ago, more or less. So we will see the evolution of his children --- Grant, Joseph and Rose --- and learn their story and in so doing we kind of see Slade Wilson progress from an anti-hero and soldier in the military, and kind of a Captain America type figure in some aspects, how he goes from that to being this villain.
In other words, we’re seeing Anakin Skywalker make that turn towards Darth Vader, and the best way to explain his motives and why he is a villain is to tell his story pretty much from the beginning and see that evolution happen.
Pagulayan: I really like the way Chris is writing the parallel story progression.
CA: With a mercenary character like Deathstroke, it’s easy to avoid a lot of the trappings of the superhero universe, but this issue dives right in. Will we see more of cameos from DC heroes and villains in future issues?
Priest: Yes, he’s going to go head to head with Batman in issue four and five, and then he has a knock-down, drag-out with Superman in issues seven and eight. A character like Deathstroke, we kind of have to have the gang from the DC Universe popping in every now and then.
If he’s a villain, then his enemies need to be heroes. With all due respect to the other writers, I don’t want to disparage any other writers, I don’t want to have to invent a bigger villain than Deathstroke, so Deathstroke can seem heroic fighting this bigger villain. I’d rather just have Deathstroke be who is, and he’s kind of a bastard. He does bad things not only to superheroes, but he does bad things to his family. Slade Wilson is a villain, I can’t underscore that enough. He’s a really not-nice guy.
CA: How closely are you working as a team, both together and with the other artists on the run?
Priest: Well the swing artist on this is Joe Bennett, and Joe is my old friend from Captain America & The Falcon, and we also worked on a book named The Crew, and Joe and I are just having a ball working together. His style is completely different from Carlo’s, so it’s very bifurcated artistically, and what the editor Alex [Antone] has done is kind of genius, he’s directing storylines to the differing art teams, based on different parts of Slade’s life.
For example, Carlo is handling Slade’s relationships with his sons and with his ex-wife Adeline, while Joe is --- at least initially --- the big story arc between Deathstroke and his daughter Rose. So the art approaches are very different from one another, but they’re also telling different sides of Slade’s life and I think that’s the interesting way to go about it. It’s not like a quilt that makes no sense, there’s a logic to the differing art approaches. Which is not to say that Carlo will never draw Rose, she’s in the issue he’s getting ready to draw now, but generally speaking we’ve divided the art chores along those creative lines.
CA: Deathstroke has a new costume designed by ACO. Did you have any input on the design process?
Priest: Yeah, actually it’s my costume design and ACO rendered it because I am not an artist; I drew a really bad sketch of it and said, “Okay, this is what it needs to do.” ACO did his take on it, and then we sent it on to Jim Lee, who added flourishes and finishing touches and voila, there’s a creative team who built the suit up.
Over the course of the first arc we will learn more and more about the suit. The suit has special properties and serves a specific sort of function within the book. It doesn’t give him any superpowers or anything, but when he’s wearing that suit, Deathstroke can mix it up with just about anybody in the DC Universe and not necessarily get harmed. You can harm him when he’s wearing the suit, but you have to know the properties or you’ve gotta know the secret password in order to actually harm Deathstroke.
Pagulayan: It would be fun in the future to see a schematic of the suit in the book or something.
Priest: Yeah, that’d be interesting too; how the suit works, like a dossier or something.
CA: There’s a similarity to your run on Black Panther in the use of panels as sort of title cards or chapter breaks. Do you prefer breaking up the story into smaller segments with their own headers?
Priest: I use it because I don’t like captions or thought balloons or things like that, and I wanted the comic book to read as much like a motion picture or a television episode as possible. In order to do that, sometimes you have to do time skips to get more scenes in the comic book and without the title cards we would have to show some transition between point A and point B. So instead of a black panel with a title in it, we’d have three or four panels of transition, like, "Oh, and then they got in the car, and…". So instead we just skip past the car and right to where we need to be.
So they are tools for a more efficient narrative, but beyond that I deliberately added in some cues from Quantum and Woody, from Black Panther, from things people who have followed my work are familiar with. It was a deliberate act for me to make things as familiar to them, because there are people who are coming to Deathstroke who are not necessarily Deathstroke fans, and they think of the book as just blood and guts. I’m trying to have a visual cue to say, “Look, there’s blood and guts in the book, but the book is not about that, it’s about what happens after.” So those cues are there for the people familiar with my work.
Current Deathstroke fans, I’m a little nervous about them because this book is very different from what they’re used to, so I’m just kind of hiding under my desk and hoping we find some friends among the current Deathstroke fans, because this really is, tonally, quite different from what they’re used to.
Then in issue two and issue three, you’re going to see more humor creep back into the book. Not funny, but there’s actually a joke in the Rebirth issue that you don’t get until you read issue one, and when you read, hopefully you’ll get the joke that you missed. I don’t know that current Deathstroke fans necessarily want humor to show up in the book.
CA: What can we expect later down the line in your run?
Priest: Without giving away a lot of spoilers, in the first two issues we are bringing in a lot of the supporting cast in, kind of one at a time. Each one has their day in the sun. The Rebirth issue and issue one, we’re reintroducing Slade Wilson and this new angle on Slade Wilson. Then in issue two, we’re reintroducing Wintergreen, and it’s a Wintergreen story where we get into him. Issue three is where Rose appears, and then the son Joseph --- who is the superhero Jericho --- he will appear finally in issue six.
We’re rolling that out there and reintroducing Deathstroke and our vision and our take on it, and putting him up against the two tentpoles of DC. That’s how you define character, you define character by action. So to better define who Deathstroke is, let’s stand him up against Batman and Superman and the both of them being very iconic heroic characters, they each bring out different aspects of Deathstroke’s character and define Deathstroke in different ways.
So that’s basically what we’re doing for the first six months --- no, actually the first three months, I forgot we publish twice a month! In the second half of the year, we’re doing to deal with Deathstroke’s origin, which will be displayed in a crossover with Nightwing’s Titans group, so stay tuned for that for the big war between Deathstroke and The Titans that will also tell the origin of both teams, and that’ll be the second half of the year.
Deathstroke: Rebirth #1 is available digitally and in stores August 10.