Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Deathstroke #11. Written by Christopher Priest (Black Panther, Quantum And Woody) with art by Denys Cowan (The Question, Steel), inker Bill Sienkiewicz (New Mutants, Stray Toasters), and Jeromy Cox (Grayson, Justice League United), this issue tells a powerful standalone story exploring the myriad sources influencing the gun violence currently plaguing the city of Chicago and other urban centers across the United States. (This review reveals major plot points.)
Earlier this week, President Trump put national eyes back on Chicago with a vague tweet threatening to “send in the Feds” if the city doesn’t clamp down on the gun violence that has been steadily growing over the last year. Even before that, gun violence in Chicago had been a widely publicized problem. It’s the perfect time for a new comic exploring the city’s current epidemic, and Deathstroke #11 is an extremely complex story delving into an extremely complex topic. This standalone issue asks a lot of questions about the origins of Chicago’s deadly problem and what can be done to remedy it, but the creative team doesn’t have any easy answers. The solutions aren’t simple. More law enforcement won’t eliminate the foundations of the violence, Deathstroke argues, which stems from a combination of sources including, but not limited to, economic disparity, lack of educational resources, messages spread by mass media, and negligent parenting.
Deathstroke #11 is a tangential story in the grand course of writer Christopher Priest’s run (he’s credited solely as Priest on this series), but it speaks to some of the major themes that have been developing over the course of the series, namely the consequences of violence and the questionable morality of using violence to solve problems. Joined by penciler Denys Cowan (a close friend of Priest’s who last worked with him on DC’s Steel ongoing), inker Bill Sienkiewicz, and colorist Jeromy Cox, this issue is a hard-hitting examination of the various factors that have led to Chicago’s rising homicide rate.
Priest’s script follows reporter Jack Ryder as he jumps all around the city, from the low-income neighborhoods of Austin and Pullman to the high-class luxury of River North, hearing a number of perspectives ranging from the detectives investigating the shootings to the mothers of dead children who have pooled resources together to hire a deadly mercenary to take out gang members. Ryder is trying to pinpoint what’s going on in Chicago, but ultimately he realizes that it’s impossible to pin down any one thing. Separate issues all feed each other, and the most obvious solution of getting rid of the guns won’t curb the violent impulses that drive these actions.
This isn’t an anti-gun story. This isn’t an anti-police or anti-gang story. It’s not even an anti-supervillain story. Priest wants to open readers’ eyes to just how broad the scope of this problem is, and one of the major takeaways from this issue is that everyone is complicit in these deaths in some way. Deathstroke #11 has been getting a lot of attention in the past week, including an interview with Priest and Cowan in the Chicago Tribune. There are a lot of smart takes on this story (Comicosity’s Emma Houxbois has a remarkably in-depth look at the issue and how it relates to 2015’s Batman #44, which explored similar narrative territory), and the ambiguity of the issue invites personal interpretation in a way you don’t normally see in most superhero comics. It’s messy and bleak and doesn’t sugar coat anything, and that’s why it’s such an effective story.
Rising homicide rates aren’t just a Chicago problem, though. According to an article published by The Trace last week, Chicago was one of the many cities to see more homicides last year. Chicago has become the primary location in the national conversation around this subject, but its homicide rate is eighth highest in the country when the numbers are adjusted for population size. This isn’t a Chicago problem, it’s an American problem, and Deathstroke #11 understands that. The first page makes this very clear: Detective Gill points out that there were 11,000 gun homicides in the United States last year (as a point of contrast, he mentions there were 11 total in Japan), and laments how tragic mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Pulse nightclub didn’t have any sort of meaningful impact on public policy. Cox’s coloring for this page reinforces the idea that this is a national issue, with a palette that is dominated by red, white, and blue.
Priest’s run on Deathstroke has been one of the biggest successes of DC Rebirth, but it’s not a surprise considering how strong Priest’s superhero work has been in the past. With the exception of the Q2: The Return Of Quantum And Woody miniseries for Valiant Comics in 2014, Priest has stayed away from superhero comics for more than a decade, so it was a shock when DC announced that he would be tackling Slade Wilson, a character that DC has been pushing as a major player but has been saddled to two lackluster ongoings in the last five years. Priest has figured out the key to making Deathstroke a compelling character, and it involves fully embracing the character’s identity as a supervillain.
Deathstroke is a bad guy, and this series is fixated on exploring how his immorality impacts those closest to him, from his ex-wife to his children to the people crazy enough to call him a friend and ally. Focusing on the twisted Wilson family dynamic is a brilliant decision that has grounded the book in complicated personal conflicts, and Priest is dedicating a lot of time to fleshing out the characters around Slade to give this book a rich supporting cast. Making Slade’s son, Joey, bisexual (or perhaps pansexual, it’s not specified) is an inspired choice given that the character’s superpower to jump into other people’s bodies would logically broaden his sexual horizons. The Hmong heritage of Slade’s daughter, Rose, has never gotten much attention, but that’s finally changed thanks to Priest, who is taking big steps to reconnect Rose with the culture she left behind as a child. Joey’s and Rose’s arcs are the most fascinating aspects of Deathstroke, and while this week’s issue doesn’t move those stories forward at all, they’re a big reason why this series has gained so much depth in its first six months.
Deathstroke is a book that ships twice a month, and the editorial team (Marie Javins, Alex Antone, and Brittany Holzherr) has done exceptional work gathering a team of artists that can keep the book on schedule without diminishing the quality of the visuals. The first arc, “The Professional” (on sale in a collected edition on March 8), had art duties split between two teams, with Larry Hama, Carlo Pagulayan, and Jason Paz handling the majority of the issues while Priest’s The Crew and Captain America & The Falcon collaborator Joe Bennett tackled the chapters that focused on Rose. Pairing Bennett with inker Mark Morales resulted in the strongest artwork of Bennett’s 23-year career, and Bennett’s established creative rapport with Priest further elevated the quality of those issues. Cox’s coloring has brought consistency across the changing art teams, and he makes subtle adjustments in his rendering to find the look that best suits the team he’s working with.
The last two issues featured striking artwork from Cary Nord as Priest delved into the events that gave Slade Wilson the Deathstroke name, bringing an extra layer of grit to the visuals that becomes even heavier with Cowan and Sienkiewicz’s scratchy, textured art in Deathstroke #11. They do exceptional work capturing the harsh, frigid atmosphere of Chicago in the winter, as well as the devastation of the violence committed by the Deathstroke impersonator stalking the city’s streets. And then there’s the Creeper, the brightly colored, scantily clad entity that shares Jack Ryder’s body. Created by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, the Creeper is a very strange, underutilized DC character, and when he appears toward the end of this issue, he brings a manic, over-the-top energy that reminds readers that this is still a superhero comic. The creative team has a lot of fun invigorating the story with Creeper’s chaotic personality and bold design (he’s sorely underdressed for the Chicago weather), and he adds an element of humor that makes the dramatic aspects of the plot all the more impactful.
The Deathstroke impersonator in this issue takes out gang members in brutal fashion, but Slade Wilson doesn’t actually appear until the final pages, where he closes the book with a chilling message that makes total sense for his character. That last line is especially effective after reading Taran Killam’s embarrassing Deathstroke story in DC and IDW’s recent Love Is Love anthology, which had the assassin uncharacteristically dumping all his guns after learning about the Pulse shooting. When asked for a solution to Chicago’s gun violence, Deathstroke tells Ryder, “Better aim.” In Deathstroke’s mind, the violence isn’t the problem. The problem is the sloppiness that costs innocent lives, and if the violence was more precise, this would be a much smaller issue. It’s not a comforting message, but it’s one that is very much in line with the vision of Deathstroke that Priest has put on the page in this series.