So, we come to this: the conclusion to Rob Liefeld’s run on Deathstroke, ending with a gimmick. A fitting capstone to his casual, one could say accidental, subversion of superhero comic books. As in Savage Hawkman and Grifter, there’s a surface of gritty, po-faced determination and celebration of Western might-is-right values, but below we find Liefeld depicting life for his Slade Wilson as empty, grinding, and soulless. A completely disposable product of the corporate age.
Where the other titles operated under his stewardship, here we get the full Liefeld effect as he writes and draws this series. The result is something resembling anti-immersion: page after page of characters looking straight out at the reader, inviting them to see into their doll-like gazes (only five pages ever show characters facing away, three of them are for background characters), which only reminds the reader they’re reading a comic book, and one that has the plotting and substance of an E! True Hollywood Story episode. It’s almost comparable to French New Wave, the cinematic movement best defined by Jean-Luc Godard, which often featured actors breaking the fourth wall. It’s a peculiar motif for a cape comic, which could qualify as lazy staging if not for the deliberate repetition of poses. One in particular: Slade marching into battle, left foot before the right, forever charging into conflict (the first use, along with a few other images, is a ‘tribute’ to George Perez; the rest honoring Joe Kubert’s war comics, perhaps?). The backdrops change–an anonymous desert war, lifted from Tales of the Teen Titans #43; covert operations with Team 7, trudging through what looks like liquid metal in a jungle; and finally becoming the mercenary Deathstroke, bringing murder to yet another warzone–but the pose, and the war, is always the same. Does it even matter if the timeline Liefeld presents doesn’t match up with that shown in Team 7 #0, where Wilson is already an old mercenary at the start? For these purposes, showing Slade as nothing but a continual Johnny Come Marchin’, I believe it does not. Often, the backgrounds themselves don’t seem to matter, becoming blocks of color upon which the characters and readers project their blank slate existence. Significantly, Slade’s wife Adeline walks out on him using the same way he’s shown marching into battle, unable to stand watching him turn into the monster DC fans know him as today. She is also a soldier–formerly Slade’s instructor–and even as she tries to remove her husband and children from that lifestyle, its pull is still felt on her.
Like Hawkman and Grifter, Deathstroke under Rob Liefeld is about an (anti-)hero whose complete lack of self-awareness diminishes everything about him: Hawkman’s obvious mental break from reality, Grifter’s con games so elaborate they even con him and therefore become ridiculously incompetent, and Slade Wilson’s inability to see the road he’s on has only taken him to the same place he’s always been (Liefeld’s first issue has Wilson soliloquizing that he is “racing towards ruin” despite living a life as hardened war criminal that would have put him well past that point by now). The characters in Liefeld’s comics all suffer these sorts of neuroses and psychoses, certainly, because they all exist in a continuum of unchecked machismo and fake-wisdom that defines the current Justice League series drawn by Liefeld’s Image co-founder, Jim Lee. Liefeld’s love of the über-badass protagonist, a single-minded obsession of his since Cable was introduced into his run on New Mutants, shows itself to be a love of dysfunctional personalities hopelessly lost in their scramble for meaning and purpose, hence Wilson’s career choice as mercenary.
This vision is so pervasive, so completely realized, that Liefeld manages to make it so Deathstroke appears to be little more than a bad superhero comic: fans singled out the terrible depiction of Lobo in previous issues for being out of step with the character they knew and loved. But, in this age of sponsorship and media empires, where characters are rewritten and redrawn to suit the needs of the dollar, what does it mean to be a fictional character, with personality and foils unique to them when it can all be erased, rebooted, and done again to be more “cool”? Liefeld, with his blank backgrounds, aloof plotting, and by-the-numbers characterization, proposes an answer: nothing.