There’s nothing cohesive about Deathstroke #13–20, but it certainly has its moments. These issues came out in 1992 and reflect the movement of the day, when there was nothing cooler than making an established villain an anti-hero. If it was good enough for the Punisher and Venom, then it was certainly good enough for Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke the Terminator.
Deathstroke had been a shades-of-grey villain introduced to great acclaim in New Teen Titans #2 back in 1982 at the start of the ground-breaking Wolfman/Perez series. Ten years later Marv Wolfman was again writing the character on a regular basis in his own series. The series had a single trade paperback, Full Circle, collecting issues #1–5, but for my money, the best of this run came in the second year and it was typically neglected by the DC collections department. The art ranges from adequate to great and is mostly by Steve Erwin and Will Blyberg. The great covers are by Mike Zeck.
At the start of “Terminator Hunt,” Deathstroke has been set up, his healing factor is on the fritz, he’s been on the run, and he’s had the misfortune of being involved in a Metropolis shoot-out that leaves “flight stewardess” (their words, not mine) Lucy Lane shot (as seen in Superman #68). Superman drops off Slade with the authorities, where he promptly escapes. The “Hunt” comes in because the mysterious skull-ring-wearing Agent Smith has some nefarious plan for Slade, and it’s obviously much easier to send wave after wave of assassins to capture him, and also frame him and involve the superhero community in his apprehension, than it is to, say, just hire him.
The word is out that Slade’s on the lam, and he’s now hunted by everyone from the odd Justice Leaguer to lame early Image wannabes: Hemp, Bear, Ninjato, Shuriken and Kitty Kat, to name a few. Deathstroke takes out the nobodies and in a very cool sequence outwits Hal Jordan and a very tough pre-hook Aquaman. A quick sidebar here -- Wolfman actually shows a lot of respect for Aquaman, making me wonder if he ever had a pitch in mind for the King of the Seas, particularly given that this was around two years before the Peter David series began. In a much less cool sequence, Slade also trips Wally West and makes his escape into issue #14.
Could things get any crazier? Why yes, they could, because part two of “Terminator Hunt” is also part one of the New Teen Titans/Team Titans crossover “Total Chaos.” Never was a crossover more aptly named. Issues #14 and #15 are mostly padding set amongst the events of the crossover; for some reason Wolfman decides to introduce a bewildering number of new teams: the mob from issue #13, sewer dudes, and finally a teen bag snatching crew. Slade is caught and escapes about three times in those issues. In the midst of it all, Slade tells his manservent Wintergreen about a mission in Cambodia that led him to meet a madam called Sweet Lili. This is aptly timely as he seeks shelter with her in her new base in New York. Notable in the long-term here is that this issue introduces Lili’s mysterious white-haired daughter Rose, who’ll one day become Ravager of the current Teen Titans. It’s done in a very “blink or you’ll miss it” fashion: Rose has no dialogue and she and Slade don’t even meet.
Issue #16 seems to get back on track, with “Total Chaos” hardly intruding in any obvious way. Slade’s escapes custody once again, steals a chopper and crashes on Titan’s Island. Wave after wave of armoured soldiers attack him and in a desperate burst of strength and a war cry of “I’m a goddamn killing machine!!!!” he guns down all his foes and succumbs to a heart attack. This is observed from a nearby submarine by a familiar face from the Titans rogues’ gallery, Mammoth of the Fearsome Five. So concludes “Terminator Hunt.”
Issues #17-20 tell the four-part story “The Nuclear Winter,” seemingly a homage to the late 1960s and ‘70s James Bond films. Slade’s body is delivered to an all-female submarine by the evil Agent Smith. We can tell how evil he is not only by his indiscriminate murder of military personnel, but by his sexist comments to female submariners. The submarine enters a massive hidden base in the Antarctic. What could be more James Bond than a hidden base? How about killing underlings for failing their mission! Agent Smith is immediately and brutally dispatched by Mammoth. Fellow Fearsome Fiver Shimmer shows up. Slade, we learn, isn’t really dead, but in a deep coma ready to be electrically revived by the organization’s leader, Cheshire!
Slade is soon up and running again, sporting a new costume, the way less fun blue and grey number sans the full face mask. After his brush with death, he’s come back better than ever and Cheshire intends to have him as a general in her organisation. No time for talk though, the base is under attack by mysterious white-clad soldiers. They appear to have the upper hand, when one of their own, carrying a crossbow, turns on them. And so Speedy aka Roy Harper joins the story. Cheshire has been allied with The Brain and Monsieur Mallah in forming a new Brotherhood of Evil, but having decided to keep her own franchise, she’s now their number one target. Good thing Roy still has an arrow in his quiver for her, and was happy to infiltrate the invading faction. The Brain has a plan to make his brotherhood a nuclear superpower, but Cheshire has plans of her own. [Fearsome Five? Cheshire? Deathstroke? This is a weird pastiche of New Titans supporting characters, sans the Titans; I bet Wolfman had fun writing it. -- ed]
The Cheshirehood of Evil are soon raiding Russian Nuclear silos and fighting Checkmate. Former Speedy (and not-yet-Arsenal) Roy Harper reveals himself as an agent of Checkmate, but he can’t stop Cheshire getting away with a few nukes. Cheshire plans to blackmail the world with the threat of the nuclear devices, and proves her intentions with the act that makes this hodge-podge of a story so memorable. The DC atlas loses its long-time Middle Eastern stand-in country Qurac, heavily featured in Suicide Squad, Checkmate and earlier issues of Deathstroke, It’s no understatement to say that this act has become a cornerstone for all characterizations of Cheshire since that point. [Further, I’d venture we haven’t seen such a dramatic change to the DC Comics physical landscape before or since, at least until the Cyborg Superman blew Coast City off the map. -- ed]
The story has dated pretty badly, but it still has a rigor to it that appeals to me. The hardest parts to cope with are the intruding crossover and a plot that gets more and more ridiculous when examined across several issues, but both of those traits are very much a symptom of 1990s storytelling that was all the rage. There’s a goofy emulation of early Image books (perhaps editorially mandated) in some of the one-off mercinaries, but when that gives way to the James Bondian hijinks the book becomes more comfortable in its own skin.
The milestones that this story delivered are the debut of Rose Wilson and the elevation of Cheshire from assassin to genocidal nutcase. Another minor point is you can see Roy Harper as a hero in transition from Speedy to becoming Arsenal, emphasized by his willingness to kill his enemies [as would Green Arrow on occasion, all conveniently forgotten now. -- ed]. Slade’s new costume introduced here lasted for a few years too, even featuring in other titles like the mega obscure Chain Gang War (a possible “Uncollected Edition” of the future). I can see why “Nuclear Winter” resists collection, because it has few logical points to break the story up neatly. Even this ending I’ve chosen has the dangling plot point of Wintergreen’s incarceration.
Thanks for coming along for the ride!
New reviews later this week. See you then!