Welcome to our new column, “Back Issues,” where each week I’ll examine a character, concept or issue making waves in comics today through issues from the past. I’m hoping this column will remind you of some great stories you’ve always been meaning to read, introduce to classics you’ve never heard of, or even just show you how weird and downright insane some of the stories have been over nearly a century of comic book storytelling. And there have been some legitimately bonkers stories out there (looking right at you, Silver Age). So, I hope you’ll enjoy our weekly trips down memory lane.
For our first instalment, we’re going to look at a character that’s popped up on the internet feed of anyone who’s interested in comics and comic book films this week; DC’s Deathstroke
the Terminator (rarely referred to as that anymore for Schwarzenegger reasons). As of this writing, it’s been nearly a week since Ben Affleck tweeted a short video of what appears to be Slade Wilson from the set of Justice League. Deathstroke, aka Slade Wilson, has long been one of DC’s most popular villains, but the character’s profile has increased in recent years due to his presence as a recurring antagonist on CW’s “Arrow” TV series. And if his role in either “Justice League” or the upcoming Batman film proves to be sizeable, his popularity will only grow.
So, for those of you who might be wondering, “Who the hell is Deathstroke?” or fans of “Arrow” who want to dive into the character’s comic book history, here’s your chance to learn more about Slade Wilson and get your hands on his best stories.
Building the Terminator
In 1980, DC recruited writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez to relaunch “The Teen Titans.” The team had debuted in 1964, and throughout the turbulent 1960s, tried to reflect the youth culture of the time while still largely adhering to DC’s solidly wholesome house style. Though talented creators tried to inject substance and relevance to the title, the series was canceled in 1978.
But DC looked with envy at what Marvel was accomplishing with its X-Men series in the late 1970s, with its emphasis on soap opera, long storylines, and a more complex and nuanced treatment of young heroes. Wolfman and Perez hit the ground running with their relaunch, “The New Teen Titans,” which featured founding members Robin, Wonder Girl and Kid Flash joined by former Doom Patrol sidekick Changeling and new characters Cyborg, Raven and Starfire. A major problem facing the creative team was the fact that the rogue’s gallery of the Teen Titans was hardly impressive. They fought bonkers Silver Age goofballs such as the Mad Mod, Captain Calamity and the aliens from Dimension X.
The first order of business saw Wolfman and Perez beefing up the antagonists the team would face, introducing the shadowy organization H.I.V.E. and, in the second issue, a super-powered mercenary known as Deathstroke the Terminator. A former army officer who was skilled and experienced in the darkest of special forces operations, Wilson underwent a government experiment designed to create a super-soldier (you know, as you do). Not only super-strong, durable and agile, Wilson’s brain and reflexes work much faster than your average human, making it easy for him to always be two steps ahead of any foe.
Though Wilson left the army and began working as a mercenary for hire in the most dangerous places on earth, he still found time to start a family. In keeping with Wolfman and Perez’ goals of creating more complex characters, however, Wilson’s relationships with his children would be tragic, brutal and hugely dysfunctional, nearly abusive. His obsession with the Titans, young people themselves, would reflect Wilson’s own failures to be the parent and role model his children needed.
As Wolfman once said:
Frankly, when we started him in 1980. we knew we had something with him. Readers have always liked the character. He has always gotten the best mail of the Titans. I used him very sparingly because I saw he was so strong that I didn’t want to overuse him as a supporting character…I saw him as too strong for the book; he would eclipse everybody else – and he has done just that! To brag a little bit, I think it was one of those times that we came up with a nearly perfect creation, and you can’t plan those. This character just sang the moment he was created, and we all knew it.
Following his first appearance, Slade Wilson became an immediate fan favorite, becoming the signature Titans foe in almost every subsequent iteration of the team. Soon, Wilson would pop up to threaten other heroes throughout the DC Universe, facing off against Batman, Green Arrow and eventually the entire Justice League. As his popularity grew, Deathstroke would achieve that rarest of goals for a comic book villain; his own series. Launched in 1991, his solo series lasted for five years. Over time, Slade Wilson evolved from an out and out villain, into an anti-hero with a ruthless yet definable code, then into a morally shady warrior.
Deathstroke’s current series, written by Christopher Priest, seeks to return Slade Wilson to his roots. In an exclusive interview with me where he revealed upcoming plans for the new series, Priest had this to say about his take on Wilson:
Deathstroke is a villain. He’s not an anti-hero, not a mercenary, not morally confused or morally challenged, he is a complete and utter bastard…He really should not be a role model. For some reason he’s very popular, and a lot of readers really dig Deathstroke. I don’t know if they’re going to dig my Deathstroke, so I’ve been hiding under my desk for a while! Because they’ve kind of gotten used to this modern-day Conan the Barbarian. And I have him doing a lot of rotten things, and reaping the consequences of those bad things.
So, let’s look at this complete and utter bastard’s best stories through three categories: Essential Deathstroke, Advanced Reading, and The Deep Dive.
New Teen Titans #2 (1980): In his first appearance, Deathstroke is approached by the sinister cabal known as H.I.V.E. They attempt to hire Deathstroke to kill the Titans, but he refuses, so the organization turns to Wilson’s oldest son Grant, giving him powers and abilities similar to his father. Deathstroke eventually joins in Grant’s attack on the team, but the process that gave Grant his powers is unstable and winds up killing the young man. Blaming the Titans for his son’s death, Wilson vows revenge. Available digitally from Comixology, and in print from DC Comics and Amazon in a variety of editions.
Tales of the Teen Titans #42-44, Tales of the Teen Titans Annual #3 (1984): This arc, known collectively as “The Judas Contract” is the definitive Teen Titans storyline and one of the best arcs in super-hero comics of the 1980s. It was the culmination of the conflict between the Titans and both H.I.V.E. and Deathstroke that had been simmering for four years. The story is full of seminal moments, including Dick Grayson abandoning his Robin identity for his current role as Nightwing, the debut of Wilson’s second son Joseph, and the incredible revelation that a Titan had been a traitor working with Deathstroke since their debut. Dark, emotional and a rare example of super-hero comics genuinely attempting to tell a gown-up story with real consequences, “The Judas Contract” deserves its high standing in comics lore, and cemented Deathstroke as one of DC’s signature villains.
Identity Crisis #3 (2004): This mini-series was immensely popular when it was released over a decade ago, and just as controversial. Writer Brad Meltzer‘s story told a dark and previously unrevealed tale from the beloved classic age of the Justice League which revealed that the League had actually altered the brain of Dr. Light, one of their foes, following his rape of Elongated Man’s wife Sue Dibny. And that they had kept that a secret, going so far as to also wipe Batman’s memory of the incident after he had objected to what his teammates had done. The third issue finds the League, in the present day, tracking down Dr. Light, who they believed has murdered Sue. But Light has hired Deathstroke as his personal bodyguard, and the Terminator proceeds to take on the entire Justice League single-handed, coming incredibly close to defeating them all before he is finally subdued by a brutal all-out assault by the League. One of the signature moments in the modern age that proves Slade Wilson’s relentless capability.
New Titans #71-84 (1990-1992): “The Titans Hunt” storyline is actually kind of a mess, really. But it does feature a significant part of the Deathstroke mythos. First, it’s the story that really cements the interpretation of Slade as an anti-hero with a code. While he’s still at odds with the Titans, he’s not averse to helping them for his own reasons, less positioned as a bad guy and more as someone whose motives are his own. Second, it is also the tragic resolution of his relationship with his son Joseph, a resolution that allowed Slade to move onto the semi-final bracket of the Comics’ Worst Parent Tournament. Not collected that I can find, folks, so you’ll have to hit eBay and other resellers, but they should be easy to find (and cheap!).
Teen Titans Vol 3, #43-46 (2006): In the “Titans East” story arc by writer Geoff Johns and artist Tony S. Daniel, Deathstroke sets up a shadowy East Coast version of the Teen Titans, who naturally come into conflict with their counterparts. Though Titans East eventually fails, it is revealed that Slade’s entire scheme was a ruse to allow the original Titans to finally trust his children Joseph (Jericho) and Rose (Ravager) as part of the team, giving them a sense of family Slade himself could never provide. Available from Amazon and DC Comics
The Deep Dive:
Deathstroke the Terminator #6-9 (1992-1993): In the “City of Assassins” arc, writer Marv Wolfman and artist Steve Erwin (NOT the Crocodile Hunter) have Wilson get embroiled in mob business in Gotham City, which of course brings him into conflict with Batman. The arc delivers everything you want, including a brutal fight between the Terminator and the Dark Knight. Of course, as more is revealed, the two become reluctant allies and must work together (because comics, kids!). The arc also finds them teaming up with Vigilante, making large part of this arc become a contest to see which character can be the tersest and grimmest. Available from Amazon and DC Comics.
Deathstroke the Hunted #0, #41-45 (1994-1995): Near the end of his first series, Deathstroke was framed for an assassination of a politician, leading to an all-out manhunt for Wilson. Pretty much everyone is after Wilson here, with the Titans obviously leading the charge. The mini-series reveals that Slade is somehow immortal, which is in keeping with the silly story-telling excesses of the mid-1990s. Like a lot of books from the mid 1990s, this arc doesn’t appear to be collected, so enjoy hunting through the bins at your local comic shop, where these shouldn’t cost you very much at all!
That’s it for our inaugural edition of Back Issues! Hope you all enjoyed it. Join me each and every Throwback Thursday for another instalment!