Review: Deathstroke Inc. Vol. 1: King of the Super-Villains hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Sunday, April 09, 2023

Not unlike the first volume of Joshua Williamson’s Damian Wayne Robin book, his Deathstroke Inc. Vol. 1: King of the Super-Villains is zany and irreverent, perhaps surprisingly so, and full of the madcap joyfulness you want from a comic book. This is a Williamson I’m not used to, knowing him mainly from his less-joyful Flash run, but I’m pleased to see the writer’s other side more and more.

It’s doubly good that Deathstroke Inc. can be such a fun time and also be so faithful to Christopher Priest’s recent, psychologically sophisticated Deathstroke run; the two series are pretty different but still feel like the same Deathstroke, a feat not every writer can accomplish. King of the Super-Villains is also well-tied to the ongoing events of the DCU, not too hard for Williamson since he essentially controls the horizontal and the vertical. But indeed there’s a feeling here like when Villains United led in to Infinite Crisis, and that’s good company for Williamson to be in.

It’s weird, frankly, that Deathstroke Inc. is billed as an ongoing series, but is not and, if I’m reading the tea leaves right, really never seems like it was meant to be. Williamson’s story sets up the status quo of the series, but then almost immediately Williamson departs and the next and final volume by Ed Brisson takes place (if I’m not mistaken) entirely in flashback. What we’ve really got here are two Deathstroke miniseries mushed together, and while I can’t complain about more Deathstroke material, at times I wish there was more truth in advertising.

[Review contains spoilers]

Deathstroke Inc. really gets moving in its second full issue, which Williamson and artist extraordinaire Howard Porter present entirely in two-page (paneled) spreads. It’s fantastically widescreen, contrasted with a hilarious depiction of Deathstroke as a fish out of water on a space mission. Rather like Priest, Williamson doesn’t shy away from the idea that Slade Wilson is rather older than his compatriots, even if doubly powerful, and Williamson builds humor in Slade being crotchety even if fully able to kick everyone’s rears. Again, even if Williamson’s story is more fantastical, it still feels like the Rebirth-era Deathstroke.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Not to mention the space issue features the Cyborg Superman, Jim Starlin’s The Weird, and Batman’s Hellbat armor, three things one would never expect to find in an issue together. And that’s before Cheetah and the Queen of Fables, Dr. Destiny, Prometheus and his Ghost Zone, Libra, and on and on. Again, much as with Williamson’s Robin Vol. 1: The Lazarus Tournament, Infinite Frontier, and Justice League Incarnate, Williamson is using a breadth of knowledge of the DC Universe and cameos therein to great effect for a set of books that continue to delight.

Williamson does a a fine job here balancing ongoing events in both his own and other books — Batman and Robin (which will cross over with Deathstroke Inc in Batman: Shadow War before its next volume) but also Brian Michael Bendis' Justice League and Checkmate. Even I, however, could have used a little more guidance regarding the villain groups here, the Legion of Doom and the Secret Society and so on (particularly when one group shown turns out to be an illusion). The characters, at least, seem to have a good sense of who belongs to which group and who’s betrayed whom, but that’s not as clear to the reader; some I think Williamson is inventing (Cheetah’s falling out with the Legion) and some seems anachronistic, like Talia al Ghul or Vandal Savage’s roles here vs. in Infinite Frontier.

It’s nice to see Black Canary getting her own-ish book again, or at least a co-starring role. Canary and Deathstroke seem an inspired pair, two realists willing to work in gray areas to get the job done. I loved that Williamson kicks this off with Barbara Gordon giving Dinah a mission, and there’s a believable Birds of Prey vibe to this whole thing.

Williamson makes a nod toward Dinah Lance’s parentage in this volume, and isn’t that a whole can of worms? I think we’re pretty well done with the New 52 “Black Canary got her powers from an alien” origin from Black Canary: Kicking and Screaming (though Williamson does still posit Dinah as having been a member of the New 52 Team 7!), but I wasn’t wholly sure why Dinah seemed so awed to see the picture of her mother here. Nor did I immediately recognize two supposed Golden Age heroes flanking her.

It’s lovely to see Howard Porter, and the “Lex Luthor crashes in with a big team of super-villains” feels devoutly Porter-esque, with shades of both JLA and Underworld Unleashed. It looks like Porter is inking himself through some if not all of this book, and that’s an interesting effect — sometimes it looks just the same as Porter being inked by John Dell, and sometimes in the real close-up faces (see issue #4) I saw hints of Kelley Jones.

3.0

Rating

So again, Deathstroke Inc. Vol. 1: King of the Super-Villains is just plain fun, a book I’d be happy to keep reading except, well, you know. I’ve been a long-time advocate of DC just doing serial miniseries sometimes (the way both Birds of Prey and the Tim Drake Robin series originally started) instead of trying to force series for characters where it just doesn’t seem to take (for Catwoman, for instance). Deathstroke Inc. appears to be two miniseries in everything but name, which is fine, though if DC named it as such, at least Slade wouldn’t have to take an L for the cancellation.

[Includes original and variant covers, character designs]

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7 comments:

  1. "It’s doubly good that Deathstroke Inc. can be such a fun time and also be so faithful to Christopher Priest’s recent, psychologically sophisticated Deathstroke run; the two series are pretty different but still feel like the same Deathstroke, a feat not every writer can accomplish."

    Yeah, I remember Williamson said in interviews he was a big fan of the Priest run too. He said the challenge was to strike a balance between NOT repeating what Priest had done, but to also push Slade in new directions that still felt like a natural trajectory from where Deathstroke was left at the end of DC Rebirth.

    Of course, the irony is that because of how high Priest set the bar, I had no interest in checking this out initially (even if it was Williamson writing).

    I only did so because of the march to Shadow War, but I'm glad I did. Dark Crisis is all the richer for having the context for Slade's through-line that segues in from this and Shadow War.

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    1. I have heard mixed reviews of Dark Crisis, so I'm glad to hear a positive note and that it relates to how Slade fares there. I was not as blown away by Shadow War ultimately as I was by Deathstroke Inc. Vol. 1, but still appreciate Williamson's deference to the character.

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    2. I'll save my Dark Crisis takes for the day you get there, but overall I'd vote that it wasn't a very successful Crisis as such. But as a transitional waypoint out of the 5G-that-wasn't, it's a good reframing back to what everyone loved about legacy in the DC Universe. (Overall the event reads like Williamson started it as one thing but then pivoted to another story - either by creative design or by editorial fiat, I can't say.)

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    3. "I have heard mixed reviews of Dark Crisis, so I'm glad to hear a positive note and that it relates to how Slade fares there. I was not as blown away by Shadow War ultimately as I was by Deathstroke Inc. Vol. 1, but still appreciate Williamson's deference to the character."

      Oh, don't get me wrong; I hated Dark Crisis.*Laugh* For me, Dark Crisis was the exact wrong event to follow Death Metal; it's just rehashing Multiversal crap we've already gotten and I'm as sick of Crisis callbacks as I am of Donner Suprman homages with the Fortress of Solitude.

      That being said, while it wasn't good as an event, it IS good in terms of the launchpad it's provided for the DCU going into 2023. There's some REALLY nice stuff that follows this or coming up in the docket.

      And Slade's arc at least, as I said, plays better with the context of Williamson's full, preceding through-line from Deathstroke Inc. and Shadow War. You better understand in hindsight what he was setting up.

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    4. Wonder who'll be writing Slade next.

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    5. With Tom Taylor relaunching Titans, maybe him?

      I expect even he won't be able to resist doing a Titans/Slade brouhaha eventually (though without spoiling things, it'd be a while given where Williamson leaves Deathstroke at the end of Dark Crisis.

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    6. At first I thought — perhaps unreasonably, given Injustice and etc. — that Taylor's characters tend too nice to really write a Deathstroke series on the level of Priest and etc. But then I remembered DCeased: Unkillables, and now I am all for a Tom Taylor-written Deathstroke series.

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