Deathstroke #4: Guest (Dis)appearances

Spoilers for Deathstroke #4 follow.

Deathstroke is a character I never thought I’d have any interest in reading, but when I heard Christopher Priest was writing the Deathstroke Rebirth series, with pencils by Joe Bennett and inks by Mark Morales, I resigned myself to the fact that I would, in fact, be reading a Deathstroke title. Priest to me is one of the most innovative and challenging writers of mainstream comics – he makes liberal use of title panels, unreliable narrators, mixed up chronology, and long narrative arcs with delayed payoffs. Often, you might not know what’s really going on until the last page, when all the pieces fall brilliantly together, as in his iconic run on Black Panther, where T’Challa is always four steps ahead of everyone else, including the hapless narrator. Even stories of Priest’s that haven’t totally worked (Captain America & The Falcon, for example) still feel like they’re breathing new life into the superhero genre.

In retrospect, Deathstroke actually makes a lot of sense for Priest – like Black Panther, Deathstroke is formidable not just for his physical prowess but also his intelligence. He always knows more than anyone else on the page. With that in mind, it was doubly exciting to learn at the end of issue #3 that Deathstroke, a.k.a. Slade Wilson, would be trekking to Gotham City, home of another character who always knows more than anyone else on the page, and it’s really the way this crossover appearance is built-up in the story that steals the issue.

The first half of Deathstroke #4 is pretty straightforward in the way it’s told – no complex plots playing out between the lines, hardly any jumping around in time. Wilson and his daughter Rose arrive in Gotham, tracing the origin of a hit put out on Rose. They survey the parking lot of their motel. They get into a scrape with a biker gang. Dialogue bubbles and action. But it’s with the arrival of “The Batman” that the whole story transforms into something else entirely. Take a look at the first page of this sequence:

 
 

We see one page-width panel showing a shadowed overpass, dim streetlights, darkened apartments, a dog crossing the street. Then, four more panels, offering one of Priest’s signature chapter titles and more of the dog as it tips over a trashcan. Then, completely removed from these panels, there’s a block of text. Without the text, this scene, the underpass, the unlit houses, it all might be a little spooky or unsettling. But the text casts a wholly different light on what we’re seeing – and what we’re not. The text reads as a report from Wintergreen, Wilson’s partner, as he describes the Batman’s appearance, or lack thereof:

"Slade couldn’t be sure he would appear, but, suddenly, there he was: lost in the shadows of the Queensland Park El… surveying the area while remaining totally invisible. Slade scanned him several times and every scan came back with ever more useless data. The man had almost no heat signature, which meant he was wearing body armor. Slade couldn’t get his definitive height or weight because the man had a cloak he kept rearranging. He kept his mouth shut so no dental records were forthcoming. And he maintained complete radio silence. The Batman."

The phrase “The Batman” in that passage appears on a line of its own. Everything Wintergreen tells us about what Wilson observes makes it obvious why Batman is set apart from everyone else.

Normally in Batman stories, Batman serves as our point-of-view character – we get a kick out of him sneaking up on criminals, vanishing when Jim Gordon looks away. But this scene puts us in the shoes of someone being stalked by the Batman – we wouldn’t even know he was there if it weren’t for Wintergreen’s report, which is itself two steps removed from the moment, and even when we're looking, we still can’t see him. After reading, our inclination is to scan the underpass for any sign of him – there, could those be the ears? – but we are not Deathstroke. The Batman is still invisible to us.

The next page continues in this vein – the dog digs through the trash, lies down. The street is dark and quiet. No sign of Batman. But Wilson sees “The infrared laser mic in the booze bottle. The ultrasonic whistle spiked into the lawn that summoned the stray dog with the heat sensor built into its flea collar.” These two pages, then, are a one-two punch – first, they impress upon us the mysteriousness of The Batman, make us feel the way his enemies do, like he is a supernatural specter, appearing and disappearing at will. Then, they show us the man behind the curtain, which consequently establishes how much of a match Deathstoke is for him. Sure, we may know he’s Bruce Wayne, that he’s a great detective, and his money buys him endless amounts of weapons and gadgets and vehicles. But it takes Wilson to demystify his tricks, to take note of a detail as lovely as him keeping his mouth shut to prevent a dental record match.

In the following page, a paperboy appears on the scene, tossing the morning’s headlines onto doorsteps. The dog gives chase. Wilson isn’t fooled – he knows this is not paperboy but a certain Boy Wonder. As the movement in the art increases, Wintergreen’s report becomes more integrated into the scene, taking the shape and feel of more traditional narration. In the final panel, we are shown the same panel of the underpass again, only this time we are told “Batman [had] vanished.”

On the fourth page, there are only three panels, one of which is a full-bleed vertical of Wilson emerging from his hiding place, then opening the driver’s side door of one of the parked cars on the block. Wintergreen’s report is reduced to two boxes of narration, in which he tells us that Batman’s vanishing “meant Deathstroke’s plan had failed. Exactly the way he’d planned it to.” As Wilson climbs into the driver’s seat, we turn the page, Wilson turns his head, and there is the big reveal: Batman, already in the car, waiting for him:

 
 

Over the course of five pages, the Batman has gone from invisible in the darkness to nearly the only thing visible: this page is a single image, full-bleed, Batman looming over Wilson, the tight shot evoking the claustrophobia of the car. All of Wintergreen’s reporting has fallen away, overpowered by the voice of Batman asking Wilson what he wants.

All this is a great way to plant Batman in a firmly antagonistic role, and in a role where someone else finally has the drop on him, but it’s also just a marvelous way to bring the character alive on the page – taking him from the shadows to an inch away from our faces, illuminating and enriching what’s already compelling about the character while also making him feel new, unknown before this very moment.