When I first started taking an active interest in DC comic books in the early to mid-90’s, I thought, despite his name, that Deathstroke the Terminator was a super hero.
On the surface, it certainly seemed that way. For one thing, he had an ongoing series, and as far as I could tell, villains didn’t get those (Eclipso was an anomaly to me and I figured that was why Venom only got minis). I also remember reading bits and pieces of Panic in the Sky and seeing that Deathstroke was in there fighting Brainiac alongside Superman and the Justice League, pretty vigorously at that. Heck, I think he even wore a black arm band when Superman died.
And it was the 90’s, so “Deathstroke” was hardly the worst name I saw affixed to a good guy.
Imagine my surprise several years later reading Marv Wolfman and George Perez’ seminal New Teen Titans and learning that The Terminator—who they never really called Deathstroke even though that name was used at some point briefly in his early appearances—was a bad guy!
To be fair though, Slade Wilson wasn’t really that bad a guy. Well, he was. I’ll try to explain.
The thing that pushed The Terminator from vigilante to villain particularly in his earliest appearances weren’t just that he was pretty hard line about the ends justifying the means; it was that his ends were pretty unimpressive from a moral compass standpoint. The guy was a mercenary; end of the day, he was looking to score a pay day, and thus whatever he did to you along the way was cool. It wasn’t personal, but it was still pretty douchey.
Of course the whole genesis of Slade’s introduction to the DC Universe and grudge with the Titans was that his son got killed trying to collect a bounty he turned down from the H.I.V.E. for the teens’ heads so now he feels obligated to finish the contract. On the one hand, it’s honorable in a sense that he’s doing this for his kid; on the other, he’s still trying to ice a bunch of teenagers. And the really nasty stuff he did—primarily using and bedding a (maybe) barely legal sociopath as part of his master plan—code of honor or not was pretty darn inexcusable.
However, The Terminator’s motivation wasn’t really power or even money-driven when it came to the Titans; it was about preserving his family name, which sets him apart from a lot of the villain set similarly to what I was talking about with Kraven recently.
Ironically or appropriately—probably a little of both—perhaps my very favorite Terminator story is entitled “Shades of Gray” and comes from Tales of the Teen Titans #55 by Wolfman and Ron Randall. It’s after Slade has fulfilled his contract and gotten away with it after being acquitted thanks to friends in high places, so Changeling comes after him for revenge over what happened to Terra. Terminator beats the crap out of Changeling but doesn’t kill him, then calmly invites him to join him for breakfast, where he more or less says it sucks that Terra is dead, but he was just doing his job and now that it’s over he’s not going to bother the Titans anymore because he’s got no issue with them.
It’s a pretty awesome issue and a pretty awesome scene. It was also the perfect cap to The Terminator story because there really was no motivation for him to keep coming after the Titans or any other heroes as his story was over and his goal accomplished. Wolfman provided a great coda to the saga of a wonderfully complex character he’d begun five years earlier.
Unfortunately, Deathstroke couldn’t fade quietly into the night because he was too darn popular. To his credit, Wolfman held off bringing him back for a solid few years, and then when he did, he didn’t just invent a new reason for him to oppose the Titans, he brought him back as their ally, which made sense as his son was a member of their team.
At first, Deathstroke was kind of cool as a bad ass pseudo good guy with a distinct dark side. Reading the full Panic in the Sky story, I dug how he’s the guy Superman doesn’t want to go to for help because of his past, but needs for his military experience. He did ok for a bit on the outskirts of the DCU.
But more and more, Deathstroke the headliner became contrived and forced. The guy was a mercenary, yet he wasn’t taking assassination jobs on a monthly basis because stars of their own books just didn’t do that (even with Deadpool, who’s had a much longer shelf life, you notice he always has the heroic impulses creeping up every few issues as opposed to actually being a straight up “Merc with a Mouth”).
So Deathstroke’s book got cancelled and he became a bit of a toxic character for a bit because he was so far afield from the guy he started out as. I think he had a few cool appearances in the Batman books as a dude just taking money to kick the crap out of Batman, which is really the perfect use for him, but they were few and far between.
Then along comes Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis in 2004 and the inspirational rebirth of Deathstroke as a viable ass-kicker. In issue #3, Slade takes on the bulk of the Justice League—no big three—in a matchup fans had dreamed of back in the 80’s yet never saw and he dismantles them with precision and forethought, immediately bumping him back up to A-level baddie. Admittedly some of the ways he took out the heroes could be seen as a bit contrived—I never really bought that he took control of Green Lantern’s ring by just “out-willing” him—but Meltzer wrote the sequence with such obvious enthusiasm and it was so well-laid-out by Rags Morales that the cracks were pretty hard to see beneath the fun.
Suddenly, Deathstroke is back and Deathstroke is cool and everybody wants to use Deathstroke again. Out of all this we get some pretty neat comics, but also some that just seem to miss the point; that point being that Slade Wilson is not a moustache-twirling, cackling, out-and-out villain, he’s shades of gray, baby.
Meltzer had Deathstroke as the “bad guy” in Identity Crisis in the sense that he’s beating up the Justice League, but he’s really more of a set piece than anything else; near as I can tell, Meltzer didn’t really have any sort of goal as far as stripping down Slade Wilson and telling some broad character arc, he just had an idea for a great fight scene and pulled it off nicely.
But in the ensuing half-decade, I feel like we’ve seen too much of Deathstroke as just a plain old super villain who takes things personally and goes after heroes just cos. It’s the flipside of why he didn’t work in the 90’s as a hero.
That first run of Titans stories was awesome because it gave The Terminator a clear mission statement and reason for doing what he did: he was going to finish the contract his son took on to deliver the Teen Titans to H.I.V.E. no matter what he had to do in order to accomplish that, and then he was going to move on. It was nothing personal; they were just a mission.
The Deathstroke of today, in my opinion, takes things way too personal. He’s not a pro anymore. He attacks guys because they pissed him off, not because of any debt of honor or because there’s money to be made; that’s not Slade Wilson to me, that’s just a super villain. You make Deathstroke just another bad guy who holds grudges and has archenemies, you take away what makes him unique and cool.
To be fair, some excellent stories have been written with Deathstroke as a bad guy (I dug his Judd Winick-written appearances in Green Arrow myself) just as some awesome stories were written with Deathstroke as a good guy, but I maintain the best stories have The Terminator awash in shades of gray. It will always be tough to reinvent Slade beyond where those first five years of his existence had him just because Marv Wolfman really did give him a perfect beginning, middle and end, but I also understand there’s too many cool aspects to the guy—his rad costume not being the least among them—to just let him sit in limbo, so I heartily root for those who take on the challenge of taking him into the future.
Ultimately, Slade Wilson is a decent hero and an ok villain, but he’s an excellent character.