Review: Batman vs. Deathstroke hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Christopher Priest's Batman vs. Deathstroke is an old-school crossover in the best way, the kind of true miniseries-within-a-series we just don't see any more. It has all the hallmarks of Priest's great Deathstroke series, where it appeared, but reflecting a skill for writing Batman and his ilk, too. Priest is no stranger to writing the larger DC Universe, though his recent Justice League foray was perhaps a bit too stylized for some's tastes; Batman vs. Deathstroke shows that Priest can still write a straighter DC Universe piece that equally has some of Priest's trademark edge.

There are elements for which Batman vs. Deathstroke couldn't and wouldn't work in the modern comics landscape, but Priest pulls it off with aplomb, not that that's any surprise at all.

[Review contains spoilers]

Loopy use of place and time has been present throughout Priest's Deathstroke, so the fact that this story escapes the narrative present in medias res and instead tells a tale set a year or so back is not wholly out of character. It is surprising, however, since we last left Slade Wilson confined to Arkham and it seemed perfectly logical that that would bring him in conflict with Batman, but that's not the case. Instead, as grows increasingly apparent, Batman vs. Deathstroke takes place entirely in the past. Were this any other series, I might even guess that Batman vs. Deathstroke is a kind of "lost" or speculative story, not perhaps meant to be mentioned again in the book, except that knowing Priest's penchant for mixing and matching elements of past and future here, I'd be surprised if some detail didn't factor later on (e.g., when Deathstroke next faces Damian Wayne's Teen Titans).

That Priest has an afterword at the end of this book is itself a throwback, and in that afterword he talks about this story as a throwback itself, originally conceived as a crossover between "old-school guy" Priest's Deathstroke and "young gun" Scott Snyder's Batman. (Were DC to have writers pen introductions or afterwords to all their books, it would be a glorious thing, a return to the days when collections were just for "event" stories.) Snyder's schedule didn't work out and so Priest ended up writing both sides himself — given Batman vs. Deathstroke's out-of-time story, one wonders if between the lines we understand the story was once supposed to be an independent miniseries before it became part of Deathstroke proper. Irrespective, the fact of it popping up here reminds very strongly of Batman: Year One, and Year Two and Year Three and on for that matter — particularly within the Bat-titles — when a guest-team would come on to deliver a one-off, whiz-bang story that immediately joined the canon.

What Batman vs. Deathstroke turns out to be is a character study of Batman and Deathstroke, cracked mirror images of one another as Priest conceives them. Admittedly, for as many doppelgängers as Batman's had over the years, I never thought of Bruce and Slade like this, but it enlightens among other things (unremarked upon in this story) the attraction Slade has long held for Nightwing Dick Grayson. One point Priest makes in his afterword, which I thought particularly interesting in light of Cory Doctorow's essay in Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman, is that Deathstroke is the dark side of Batman's wealth, where Bruce Wayne uses his money to fight for justice while Slade Wilson accumulates money he doesn't even need through the use of violence. That's a unique duality that Superman, for instance, can't personally share with Lex Luthor.

In the spirit of great crossovers, Batman vs. Deathstroke is not just a conflict (and eventual teaming) between the title characters, but also involves a partnership between Batman's Alfred and Deathstroke's Wintergreen (the direct pairings end there, though there's plenty more matches suggested between Batman and Deathstroke's supporting casts). Arguably this is the most ludicrous aspect of the story, that Alfred especially would endanger Batman's life and waste his time by forcing a team-up with Deathstroke, but it's also hilarious and touching and not wholly out of line in the Priest-verse, where characters tend to act more like real, fallible people (see Priest's aforementioned Justice League) — and also too the manner in which it just rolls off Bruce's back in the end, much like Priest's Slade and company have forgiven any manner of familial sins.

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Christopher Priest launches Batman vs. Deathstroke from a throwaway line in one of Grant Morrison's Batman comics from over 10 years ago, and there's a small nod within to one of Dan Curtis Johnson's Chase stories, too. These kinds of details make Priest's Deathstroke a joy — the clear indication that the writer is also a fan (not to mention that great Vigilante business a few volumes back!). On many books, my tolerance for completely abandoning the main story for six issues might be low, and basically I'm just not thinking about the fact that this makes it even longer until we find out what actually happens to Slade Wilson next — but Priest's Deathstroke is so smart and so creative, I'm happy with whatever comes. This book was not what I was expecting but I'm glad to see a "miniseries-within-a-series" once again.

[Includes original and variant covers, sketchbook section]

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Batman vs. Deathstroke
Author Rating
4.5 (scale of 1 to 5)
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