A Return to Form – a “Deathstroke Annual” #2 (Review)

Deathstroke_Annual_Vol_3-2_Cover-3_TeaserDeathstroke Annual #2
DC

Writer: Phil Hester
Art: Mirko Colak and Roberto Viacava
Colorist: Michael Spicer

The title is a bit of a triple entendre. It does not really apply to the book itself, because that has been on point for some time (except for that brief flirtation with manga-style art). It applies to me, because this is my first week back to reading single issues after a brief hiatus where I was only reading trades. It’s also my first time back at the writer’s desk, a seat I was not planning on returning to; maybe ever. Finally, it’s also a nod to the fact that, while DC has already initiated Rebirth, there are some really great books from the New 52 Continuity that are still closing out. Don’t miss ’em.

Truth is, I was partially motivated to write this review because I read another one of those New 52 close-out issues, Teen Titans Annual #2. It was not so good. However, it punctuated how strong this book, Deathstroke, was. So much so that I thought it would be a shame if no one covered it. Overall, I’ve been really impressed with this run of a Deathstroke comic. Quite honestly, I’ve liked all of the “villain” led books that I’ve read under the New 52. Sinestro. Red Lanterns. Deathstroke. I’ve become so much of a fan of anti-hero Deathstroke that I’m not sure I’m ready to see him go back to being a villain. This character and this creative team have pulled off a rare thing: made one of my favorite DC villains into one of my favorite DC heroes.

Deathstroke Annual #2 is a standalone story that takes place after the events of issue #20. “The Balkan” tells a tale of two families warring over the opium trade in an unspecified MiddleDeathstroke-Annual-2-2-600x923 Eastern country. It feels a bit “Temple of Doom”-ish with the presence of notable side-character, Adi. A child who is being turned into something awful by the nature of this battle between warlords, Adi is the equivalent of Deathstroke’s caddy. But ‘Stroke is also trying, very intently, to save his soul. A job which, Adi himself calls Deathstroke out on, is not really a duty that Deathstroke is best suited for.

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Mirko Colak and Roberto Viacava do an excellent job of showing us just enough of the mystery, but not enough to give the whole thing away. There’s a lot of that in this book. What there is not a lot of is innovation in panel layouts. At least not geometrically. But I tell you what; the way that Spicer plays with some of the insets by placing naturally occurring color in the outer panel, such as that of a dust-cloud, or just the Mojavianesque oranges and browns of the outer panel background, set sharply against a different hue in the spectrum in the inset panel does wonders for pages that don’t leap out at you in their uniqueness; until you dig a layer deeper. Colak and Viacava do some wonderful face work, even in scenes where there are dozens of antagonists going flying every which way but loose. And the close-out page full-screen panel is something I would pay an immense amount of money for to have it in a portrait. And Deathstroke isn’t even in that scene.

Hester does an equally masterful job of talking to you about some very important things, sprinkled in among the mayhem caused by the DC Universe’s #1 assassin. You will not even realize that you’ve been given a lesson in sociology and ethics until you’ve turned the last page of the book. For me, it wasn’t even that. I had this nagging feeling that I had just touched something transcendent, but could not put my finger on how, thinking I had just read a standard-faire comic. I pondered it for a few minutes, and then flipped through the book again, often saying “Oh, I see what you did there”. The story mixes a lot of elements, but by the end it has a very “Beasts of No Nations” vibe to it. You’re going to feel a certain joy when you read this comic. But you’re going to walk away carrying a certain sadness. And many, many questions. And that is the mark of a great story.

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This New 52 Deathstroke series could have easily been walked out on the arm of some swanky model (and, truth be told, it looks like there may be one or two more regular issues coming), with plenty of sexy sword and gunplay and artful banter. I am sure that someone toyed with the thought that he would face Batman in the final battle of this run. As it is, this annual is very off-tone for what you would expect to see from a super-hero comic. Sure, he’s a villain, but he’s still a costume at the end of the day, and I was expecting kind of a tropish exit. But I’m glad to see DC take this closure in a different direction. Long live Deathstroke. And bravo to this creative team, indeed.

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