After a long time away from comic books, writer Christopher Priest returned to DC Comics a few months ago, launching the new, twice-monthly “Deathstroke” series. In issue #8 of the series, due out on December 14, Priest has the world’s deadliest assassin taking on the Man of Steel in a no-holds-barred finale to the current “The Professional” story arc.
In an exclusive interview with the Superman Homepage, Christopher Priests fills us in on what Superman fans can expect from the Superman vs. Deathstroke story.
SupermanHomepage: What’s your reaction to the reception for your run on Deathstroke?
Christopher Priest: Very pleased. I’ve actually never before worked on a book readers liked. It’s true: my Marvel Knights: Black Panther received wide criticism and loud boos when it debuted. I was hung in effigy for giving King T’Challa an iPhone. Throughout my career, most of my other work was met with a kind of tepid reception. One prominent editor once described me as a “niche writer,” a guy who should be content to fly under the radar and just be happy for whatever assignments come my way. That’s actually good advice; us workaday low-profile guys last longer in the biz than the huge names who tend to get shown the door eventually.
I don’t pay any attention to sales. I have no idea what numbers Deathstroke is doing. For years, on Black Panther, on Quantum & Woody, we obsessed over sales and sales figures drove our creative choices. With Deathstroke I am ignoring all of that. It’s me and Alex Antone – the book editor – and that’s it. I just keep doing what I do until Alex calls me up and tells me it’s over.
If the book is finding an audience, that obviously pleases me, but my ego is not wired to sales or anything like that. I’m just one of those under the radar guys who’s happy DC still calls me.
SH: Would you say your run differs from say, Marv Wolfman’s, whom displayed Deathstroke as an antagonist, and solely as such?
CP: Well, I would expect my run to differ from Marv’s mainly because I’m writing it. In terms of story, you can have a protagonist – which only means “main character” – and an antagonist who puts up roadblocks to the protagonist’s goals. A protagonist is not necessarily a hero. Deathstroke is a hero in the strict sense of his being the protagonist and overcoming obstacles, but that distinction does not come with a moral component.
I *am* writing Deathstroke as a villain because that’s what Marv created him to be. And, not only was Marv’s Deathstroke a villain, he was also kind of an asshole, which I thought was unique. He wasn’t some misunderstood anarchist; he deliberately did skeevy things-most notably sleeping with Terra, a presumably underage girl – in his quest to exact revenge against his enemies. I read that and went, “Whoa.” This was beyond The Joker, well beyond Lex Luthor. Marv created the first modern supervillain. He broke every rule by making Deathstroke three-dimensional and giving him internal conflicts while maintaining a level of skeeve we weren’t used to seeing from a typical 2-dimensional bad guy.
SH: How is it writing a Super-Mercenary, when heroes soup de jour of the DC Universe?
CP: I dislike the term “mercenary” as applied to Deathstroke and actively, repeatedly, try to discourage it. “Mercenary” was a term applied to Deathstroke once DC needed the character to function within the wider context of the DC heroes’ flow of traffic, so they broadened his description and started rounding the edges off. I’m trying to put those edges back.
Deathstroke is a villain. A supervillain. Period. He is the world’s deadliest assassin, and he’s an asshole.
As for the broader DCU, I am also actively trying to discourage other DC writers from using Deathstroke as the generic go-to villain and punching bag for their heroes. If Deathstroke takes a contract to kill somebody, that somebody WILL get killed. That’s the rule. So, I warn anyone who will listen, please be careful who you stand in front of Deathstroke because Deathstroke is a killer. Fans want to see Deathstroke versus Your Favorite Hero. That has to be done carefully because Deathstroke is extremely resourceful AND more than willing and able to kill. He’s not Wolverine who talks all this yang and then, for whatever reason, his prey is still walking around after the fact. If we keep seeing story after story where DS says “I’m going to kill you,” and then doesn’t, we are violating his character and undermining his import within the DCU.
Deathstroke is not the Penguin. I urge other writers to stop treating him like The Penguin. I’m happy to work with anybody to assist in a Deathstroke guest shot to prevent what I’ve seen repeatedly: Slade Wilson appearing as a 1-dimensional brute who gets beat up or bought off. That’s really wrong. Once Deathstroke takes a contract, there is no buying him off. And beating him is incredibly difficult to do, not because he’s so tough but because he really is just that smart.
SH: Superman makes an appearance in the near future; how does that come about?
CP: Slade Wilson visits his ex-wife, Adeline Kane, and ends up ticking her off. That’s basically it. Adeline, who is a contract covert ops type, has every good reason for appealing to Superman to go arrest Deathstroke, but her motives are purely personal: he ticked her off. Deathstroke and Adeline have a love-hate relationship; there’s clearly still something there, but the death of their son Grant and near-death of their younger son Joseph has created a deep divide and enmity between them.
So Adeline gets an arrest warrant and tries to coerce Superman into arresting Deathstroke (issue #7). She figures to go to the biggest gun to get that done, and tries to guilt trip Supes into it by noting he’d be saving the lives of the dozens of young soldiers she’d be forced to send after DS should Supes refuse. Supes goes along with her request but we will see he has his own agenda as well.
SH: A large portion of your tenure with superheroes has been with characters of “reasonable” abilities. How do you make the jump to a character like Superman?
CP: Oh, easy. I’ve written Superman many times before. I’m not concerned or even bothered by his powers, I see him as a unique character with unique character traits and challenges.
The hard part is finding new and interesting ways for Deathstroke, a guy on Captain America’s power level, to thwart him. I’m soooooo bored with Batman vs. Superman, something Frank Miller did marvelously in The Dark Knight Returns, but it’s now been done to death and then some.
Whether it is Batman (issue #4-5) or Superman (issues #7-8) my goal is to avoid doing The Same Old Thing. This can be frustrating for readers who’d have preferred fisticuffs, but I try to write as close to reality as comic books allow. If these characters were real, the last thing DS would do is go toe to toe with Superman. That’s insane.
The hardest part about writing Deathstroke is the character is exponentially smarter than the guy writing him.
SH: You had the chance to take on Batman in Batman: The Hill. That story examined how effective Batman would be in a situation where the people aren’t afraid of him. How does that contrast, if at all, with your approach to Superman?
CP: It’s very funny that anyone even remembers that story. This is Old DC, a DC that bears little resemblance to the company I am working with now. Old DC, or at least people who no longer work there, really damaged “The Hill” by forcing a script for a 4-issue miniseries into a 40-page story, deleting half the pages. I wince every time I see it. I wish we could re-do it.
Taking as grounded and realistic an approach to this material as I can, I do imagine there are demographic groups within Gotham who wouldn’t necessarily be frightened of a guy dressed the way Batman dresses. This point of view is both an asset and a handicap to my working as a writer in this business.
For example: my script for Deathstroke #5 had Batman driving around Gotham City with Rose Wilson-Deathstroke’s daughter-in a yellow cab. I don’t believe in the Batmobile. I think the Batmobile is among the stupider creative choices for the character, one firmly rooted in 1960’s camp.
I have always been a bridesmaid in terms of getting the main Batman writing assignment, and that may owe as much to my point of view that Batman would drive a taxi, not a silly looking over-the-top campy vehicle. Batman would drop from a rooftop, slide behind the wheel, and vanish in plain sight-in downtown Gotham traffic with a taxi medallion number that changes at every street corner. THAT is Batman.
But DC insisted Batman drive the Batmobile and how cool would it be for Rose to end up driving the Batmobile. That’s not me, that’s not who I am. I respect that point of view, but the audience for comics is now unfortunately markedly older than 9-year olds, and the Batmobile is for 9-year olds.
1999: Red And Black, one of my books features a Batman-like character who behaves and operates much more the way I would write Batman if I were ever invited to do so. That character, The Blue Man, is about thinking through all of the traditional conceits of the Batman character and logically reinterpreting them for 2017.
As for being afraid: Deathstroke is not afraid of anyone. He is ambushed on a ship at sea by the world’s most powerful hero, and he just makes it up as he goes; thwarting Superman at many turns. There’s never a point where DS stops and goes, “Oh crap, it’s Superman!” Superman showing up is just another obstacle he must overcome to achieve his goal.
For Superman, who, in this story represents all DCU heroes, the larger question is, once you capture Deathstroke, what do you do with him? We could throw him into Guantanamo Bay and hold him indefinitely without charges, Superman could lock him up in the Fortress of Solitude or the Phantom Zone if that’s still around. But, in order for any of us to have justice, Deathstroke must actually be convicted of something, and that’s really tough to do because Deathstroke is an expert at being Deathstroke. He doesn’t leave fingerprints or drop bloody gloves in an alley. The fact Deathstroke and Slade Wilson are one and the same is a fairly open secret. Proving it in a court of law, however, is a different thing.
So, yeah, Superman can go and grab Deathstroke up, but then what? Does Superman have to violate everything he believes in in order to rid the world of Deathstroke? If he does, then what happens to Superman? The story is about vengeance versus justice, and Deathstroke is the price we all pay for justice.
SH: Do you have any interest in doing some stand alone Superman stories?
CP: No. Writing Superman every month would be a nightmare. I deeply admire the folks who can do that.
Also, I’d drive my old friend Eddie Berganza insane because my Superman would bear little resemblance to and likely mock the franchise as it now exists.
SH: You’re noted for producing what is believed to be the definitive take on one of Marvel Comics premier characters, The Black Panther. How would you apply such a take to Superman?
CP: It’s important to stress how hated my Black Panther was when we launched and how small that audience for it was. Turns out it was way ahead of its time and would likely do much better now than it originally did.
People would despise my Superman. I don’t give it a lot of thought because it’s just not going to happen.
SH: What would be your pitch for a Superman/Black Panther crossover?
Ha. I have no idea. I can tell you what it wouldn’t be: it wouldn’t be Batman vs. Superman. They likely would not fight. Stan Lee already did that story in Fantastic Four #52.
I see Kal-El as a kind of buffed out Tom Hanks: an identifiable Everyman with whom I identify a great deal. As a minister and a person of faith, I try, every day, to do good, to be helpful. We live in a cynical world where people are perhaps rightly suspicious of strangers trying to help them, and it is frustrating to constantly be treated with suspicion. There are days when I tire of it, where I become anxious about it, where I throw up my hands in anger.
But, the next day, I just get up and start over again. That’s Superman.
SH: Do Deathstroke and Superman fight? Who wins?!
CP: Deathstroke cannot win a fight with Superman. He knows that. That would be a stupid story for me to write-put DS in super-armor and juice him up. Snooze. Beyond that, my stories are not about fist fights so much as they are about competing values and goals. They certainly fight in that sense, although there are indeed lots of things blowing up along the way.
The Superman Homepage would like to thank Christopher Priest for agreeing to do this interview, and for fitting it into his busy schedule.