Review: Deathstroke: Arkham (Vol. 6) trade paperback (DC Comics)

November 13, 2019

In memory of Tom Spurgeon

It's been a minute since we last joined Christopher Priest's Deathstroke; I read Deathstroke Vol. 5: The Fall of Slade last December and what came out in the meantime was Priest's Batman vs. Deathstroke, a miniseries-within-a-series set outside the present action. So, as I imagined in my Fall review, Slade Wilson has been stewing a relative while when we pick up with him in Deathstroke: Arkham (the series' volume 6, as it were).

Indeed Arkham is a nice initial dip back into the Deathstroke waters. It is on the one hand a rather compact story, with Slade returning to his small padded cell at the start of every issue (depicted claustrophobically well by Fernando Pasarin and company), and the action rarely strays too far outside Arkham's walls, a change from Slade's otherwise globe-hopping adventures. On the other hand, the book is representative of Priest's Deathstroke run so far in all the best ways — dopplegangers, uncertain identities, questions of real or imagined realities, not to mention Priest's swift mid-page scene cuts.

In essence the book is just as crazy as usual but with a lighter touch and a smaller stage, which reflects to me an even sharper effort on Priest's part. This is a strong start to the second act and I'm as interested as ever to see where Priest goes with Deathstroke through a crossover with Teen Titans and beyond.

[Review contains spoilers]

With the aforementioned reoccurring padded cell motif, the virtual reality scenes, the quick cuts, and the story's ongoing question as to whether Slade did actually pause to fight in an alien war in the midst of his incarceration, Priest continues to offer up Deathstroke as a thinking person's comic. I think it's somewhat rare that a mainstream superhero comics writer trusts their audience to keep up to this extent. And it is not as though Deathstroke trades action or adventure for smarts; this same book that offers page after page of dead/alive and real/unreal reversals also has copious amounts of violence, buckets of blood, and an intentionally ridiculous alien invasion via Zeta beam. Which is to say that Priest has the formula down pat, a smart superhero book rather than a smart book that in some way deconstructs or rejects the superhero tropes.

As always, nothing is more fluid in this book than Slade's love/hate relationship with his compatriots and them to him. Among factors fueling the "is Slade crazy" debate are the fact that he still sees his AI assistant, in the guise of a younger version of partner Wintergreen, even though Slade no longer has his enhanced uniform. Late in the book we learn that his former tech assistant Hosun has been "gaslighting" Slade by infecting him with AI-enhanced nanites, but it's a strange kind of torture that both befuddles Slade and also provides him the keys to his redemption. Second, the fact that despite that Hosun seeks some revenge on Slade, he's still willing to break Slade out of Arkham on the specious grounds of a potential alien invasion continues to show how very small the space between friend and enemy is in this book.

Arkham dials back too in terms of characters. With the departure of Slade's Defiance team, the main story here mainly consists of Slade's children Jericho and Rose; ex-wife Adeline only cameos for a panel. Jericho seems to have had a "reset" of his own, having largely sloughed off the angst of previous volumes and now even able to refer to his late fiance relatively casually. For Rose, Priest seems to have brought her "possession" storyline to a close swiftly, even a bit blithely; I'll be curious to see if Priest has more up his sleeve or if this, similar to Jericho, brings Rose to a relatively stable state from which Priest can begin to build more hijinks.

A couple volumes ago, Priest's Deathstroke faced off against Benjamin Percy's Teen Titans and Dan Abnett's Titans in Titans: The Lazarus Contract. The contents of that "contract" were not so surprising actually, and ultimately the story didn't much deliver on its dramatic promises; if anything, Deathstroke was most affected with the formation of Slade's temporary team. Here and now, up next is a crossover between Priest's Deathstroke again and Adam Glass's Teen Titans, so far better than its earlier incarnations and also featuring fewer established Titans and more new members than before.

This seems key to me, because it means that rather than Slade and Beast Boy sparring about things that didn't even happen in this continuity, Slade and Robin Damian Wayne can vie over recent events, Kid Flash can confront Slade about their failed team, and we can see the damage Slade can do to new members Crush, Djinn, and Roundhouse. Though "Terminus Agenda" still sounds a bit like it's trying to reach back to the classic Judas Contract, I'm optimistic that this new crossover will seek to make new memories instead of trying to buoy itself on old ones.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Deathstroke: Arkham

I guess we'd call Deathstroke: Arkham a "down" trade, a breather before the big action starts up again, though this book is by no means a snoozer. "Season two" of Deathstroke is off to a good start, and as always, I hope Christopher Priest keeps on this one for a while.

[Includes original and variant covers, sketchbook section]

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Deathstroke: Arkham
Author Rating
4.5 (scale of 1 to 5)

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