There seems to be an oft-recurring creative tension in comics. It is one that originates between the desire to be innovative and the desire to be true to the time-tested conventions of an established genre. This potential anxiety is no doubt compounded when the story in question is part of a massive relaunch of an entire franchise. A relaunch whose goal is to appeal to new readers while simultaneously avoiding actions that would alienate notoriously temperate fans.
Was the difficulty in finding equilibrium between these two potentially disparate concerns in Kyle Higgins mind when he was writing Deathstroke #1 for DC’s New 52 reboot? While all of the creators in the new line must have felt this issue to some degree, it feels that this particular story might have been a uniquely challenging task. Although the character is not well known outside of comicbook circles, the archetypal badass super-assassin is relatively ubiquitous and its surrounding tropes fairly common in mainstream entertainment.
So how is a creator to approach this character and its placement in DC’s bold, and risky, new universe? Higgins could have went for surprising both fans and the uninitiated alike—as Detective Comics #1 did with the Joker apparently having his face cut off. Or he could have told a story that might have pleased fans while potentially confusing new readers with backstory, such as Batwoman #1. Or he could have written a story with a more layered approach, like Swamp Thing #1, which presented subtle references to past continuity in a way that new readers wouldn’t find distracting, but old readers would pick up on.
Higgins instead, along with artists Joe Bennett and Art Thibert, appear to have chosen the path of telling a strong, straightforward, action story, filled with easily recognizable action devices. The opening is the super-assassin whipping asset against seemingly insurmountable odds. The mission is something straightforward but quickly goes off the rails. The conclusion is reaffirmation of the character’s coldblooded and ruthless nature.
All the tropes are easily recognizable. There is a mysterious black case, there are people who think the older assassin can’t handle the job anymore, and one character even says, “We didn’t think..you’d even make it this far.” This is a fairly typical story, but its use of recurring action tropes is not necessarily a sacrifice on the altar of cliché. Instead these recurring tropes become useful tools because they are battled-tested, tried-and true. The story, executed with skill and care by the writer and artists, features Deathstroke doing exactly what has made him a fan favorite for decades: kicking asset.
The approach is effective on two important levels. First, the focus on a conventional story fulfills the burdens placed on the series by its place in DC’s relaunch. The story will no doubt satisfy longtime comic readers, while also grabbing in the new readers. Even if you have never heard of character, you are given all you need to know in the opening lines of the first issue: “Deathstroke The Terminator – the scariest badass on the planet.”
As every subsequent event in the comic affirms this bold opening, both longtime fans and new readers are brought together. With an even limited knowledge of these action stories, combined with a few well-placed biographical details, new readers need not feel that there are crucial aspects of the character’s history that they are missing while fans of the character will not feel that anything has been lost.
The second benefit of the creators’ approach is that it allows them to room for innovation and exploration later in the series. With the first issue’s setup founded securely in a traditional story – and the reader’s attention hopefully hooked – they can now play around with the conventions that they stayed so true to in the first issue, assuming that is their goal.
The powerful-men-try-to-manipulate-the-super-assassin-only-to-discover-that-he-is-coming-to-kill-them-all story works in limited doses to grab fans, but it may not keep them. Hopefully the creative team will either break the series into tightly knit and focused arcs (like Brubaker and Philips’ Criminal, or will find innovative takes on the action badass story (like Ennis and Dillon on Punisher) to keep us intrigued. Only time will tell but judging by the first issue it seems that the creators know what they’re doing. We’ve taken the bait, now let’s hope they set the hook!