On some level, I probably should be surprised that Deathstroke lasted as long as it did.
When I arrived home from college in the middle of May 1996, I picked up the books on hold at the comic store and in that stack sat Deathstroke #60, which was a white cover that had the main character’s mask and skull balanced on the hilt of a sword and the letters “D.O.A.” It was the final issue of what I guess could be considered an experiment of sorts–giving a character who was essentially a villain his own title, something that wasn’t all that common back in 1991 when the first issue premiered (The Joker had his own series in the 1970s but beyond that, villain-led ongoings weren’t very common).
Of course, the fact that Slade Wilson was a mercenary and not inherently evil–in fact, his origin was more like a twisted version of Captain America’s–made him an easy “anti-hero” or adventure character. As I’ve explored throughout this series of posts, much of his series was exactly like that. Marv Wolfman took the character and the few supporting characters that had already been established–Adeline Kane and Wintergreen–developed them further and even added to them. Then, they were almost all completely wiped out because of editorial mandates in the post-Zero Hour Hunted/Crimelord saga.
I’ll get into the editorial changes that allowed Wolfman to leave the Titans and Deathstroke behind with a slightly better taste in his mouth in the next entry, so what I’ll say here is that somewhere around issue #53, the book’s editor changed again, Tom Joyner (co-creator of Damage) came on to do a two-parter where Slade had to stop a terrorist cell from assassinating the president, vice-president, and every other high-ranking Washington official with chemical weapons (specifically, a plague) only to be blown up in an explosion that destroyed the dome of the Capitol Building. It’s a serviceable story that sets up two things that would take the book through the last six issues of the series: Slade will get a new costume and Slade will be de-aged and lose his memory.
Both of these were obvious attempts to reinvigorate the character. The costume took away the orange and made the color scheme black and dark blue with enormous round shoulder pads that looked unwieldy and very Nineties. I actually didn’t mind the color scheme change, especially since they got rid of Deathstroke’s bell-bottomed boots, but the shoulder pads were ridiculous. The youthfulness made for a great story, but you kind of knew that there was only so much mileage available in that. But what did work was that Wolfman was able to quietly start to rebuild the world of his character. Pat Trayce, who we’d seen basically tortured and smacked around during the Crimelord saga, returned as the head of Vigilance, a search-and-rescue operation that she’d formed out of the ruins of Adeline Wilson’s old company, Searchers, Inc. And Wintergreen was again at the forefront, narrating quite a number of the adventures through his journal (something that had disappeared during the Crimelord saga, and I’m pretty sure the editor of the time wanted to get rid of him, too, but he was too important to the book to do so). It wasn’t a ton, but it was enough to lay the groundwork for a return to solid action stories.
What also helped was the new art team. I have nothing against Sergio Cariello, who was the penciller through the Hunted and Crimelord storylines, but when the three-part “Night of the Karrion” story began in issue #55, when newcomer Mike Huddleston came on board as penciller, the series really got a shot in the arm. Huddleston is currently pencilling the Dark Horse adaptation of The Strain, and while there was a bit of Nineties to his pencils (some of the women had incredibly small waists, for instance), things were so much tighter and so less angrier than everything we’d seen. Plus, Huddleston’s artwork combined with Buzz Setzer’s colors, was slick and made the action look cool again. When I would come home from college to get my comics, knowing that I’d see this artwork in Deathstroke, a title I’d been reading since the beginning, was one of the things I was looking forward to the most.
Alas, this couldn’t bring up the sales of an already flagging book, and about six months after New Titans gave its final farewell, Deathstroke got the axe. Slade left behind Pat and Wintergreen, saying that he needed to live his life on his own, and would show up as an adversary against Batman and Green Arrow before facing off against the late-1990s/early 2000s version of the Titans and finally getting a little more cred as a result of Identity Crisis. And honestly, quite a bit of that was good–if you’re going to have Deathstroke without his own title, make him an occasional adversary floating around the DCU.
But knowing what happened throughout much of the 2000s, I have to say that I still miss this era of Slade Wilson. For someone who had grown up on the popcorn action flicks of the late 1980s, this was one of the closest things I ever got like it in comic book form that wasn’t the umpteenth Punisher knock-off (not that I didn’t buy the occasional issue of The Punisher). Plus, to be cancelled just as the book was getting good again? Yeah, that wasn’t very much fun.
Next Up: The last New Titans storyline.