Transmyscira: DEATHSTROKE #11

Written by Priest
Art by Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: January 25, 2017

I feel the pain of my city wherever I go.

– Kanye West, Murder to Excellence

Chicago is a city that haunts the public imagination like no other. It’s ostensibly the city’s murder rate that drew Christopher Priest to assemble the all star team of Denys Cowan, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Jeromy Cox to tell an even more arresting story about urban violence than 2015’s Batman #44, but as they illustrate in this issue, it’s just one thread in a deeply tangled web. According to famed statistician Nate Silver, Chicago is both one of the top ten most racially diverse cities in the United States while also being the most segregated (and frequent murder capital).

Living in a city with a broad range of races while living completely isolated from them is a condition he describes as being an all too common feature of life in America’s major cities. Chicago, however, is exceptional in that category given that the population is split into nearly even thirds of non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks, and Hispanics yet the distribution of that population is highly uneven.

It’s the central contradiction about the city from which all others flow. Chicago is a fortress for the Democratic party and progressive political thought -boasting both the birthplace of President Obama’s political career and the biggest disruption of one of Donald Trump’s political rallies- yet is a toxic swamp of political corruption and police violence. The latter of which being so severe that Vanity Fair, reporting on a thirteen month investigation by the Department of Justice, described the use of force by police as “reckless and unconstitutional.” For these and other reasons, Chicago is likely to remain at the forefront of both fictional and non-fictional conversations around the most urgent issues facing the country as a whole.

It’s the canvas that the creative team very deliberately chooses to paint on, cruising past the conceit of a fictional mirror for the city by opening with murder statistics quoted from a local newspaper barely a month before the issue’s street date and overt references to the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida.

Priest very clearly telegraphs from the first page that he isn’t interested in wading into the divisive issue of using superheroes to address real world social issues and that he wants the membrane between fiction and reality as thin and porous as he and his artistic collaborators can manage.

Our eyes and ears for the issue are Jack Ryder, the civilian identity of The Creeper, tracking persistent rumors that the mothers of several victims of gun violence pooled funds to hire Deathstroke to kill the perpetrators, which he’s done without using guns. The story opens with Ryder interviewing a cynical Black police detective who points out the absurdity of police regulations barring him from lighting up a cigarette at a crime scene when compared to the lack of action on gun control in response to an epidemic of shooting violence.

The crime scene they’re discussing is, like Peter Duggio’s death in Batman #44 and Latron Stanis’ in Nighthawk #1, the epicenter of both the story and the issues facing the city. The story laid out for Ryder by the detective is that a white woman, whose car broke down in a Black neighbourhood, was the subject of an attempted rape by a pair of locals. Her frenzied gunshots in self defense resulted in the death of an innocent bystander, another Black child in the city’s ever mounting casualties. Ryder sees through the scenario offered almost immediately, suggesting that the men were mechanics coming to the woman’s aid and that she’d come there to buy drugs from the child she accidentally shot.

The truth of the situation is all that and something more as Ryder later discovers, but what Priest lays out is a tight network of the intersections of race and class that produced the violence. The white woman is out of place because she’s driving a luxury car late at night in a Black community. The Black men are assumed criminal because they approached a white woman. The child’s role, as well as the true nature of the interactions are concealed by the weary cop out of a need to protect himself by preserving the existing social order.

In Batman #44, Scott Snyder and Brian Azzarello teased those threads out one by one as the underlying purpose of the issue was for Bruce to disentangle them towards a confrontation and reconciliation with his own unintentional culpability. On a metafictional level, that issue was intended to be a vehicle for a predominantly white audience to contemplate how privilege can cloud and corrupt even the best intentions when they aren’t actively informed by community engagement.

Deathstroke #11, by contrast, isn’t about Jack Ryder either directly or as a surrogate for the white readership. Ryder is very purposefully cast as a white interloper, to make distinctions and raise questions that point to accepted truths that the members of the community wouldn’t have a need to interrogate on their own. When Ryder lays out the truth of the murder scene, he isn’t telling anyone else there anything they don’t already know. He’s giving us a window into the difference between the facts and the accepted truth.

In Ryder, Priest delivers the nuances and the subtle judgements. Ryder outlines the woman’s recklessness in both driving a luxury electric car she forgot to charge and firing a gun she barely knew how to use. The implication is that the fruits of white privilege don’t require malice to be deadly. At the same time, Ryder’s own insights are limited entirely to class markers; the worth of her car and the tools in the supposed attackers’ truck.

As Ryder’s investigation deepens, the limitations of his perspective become more apparent and his participation shifts from active to passive. The biggest moment where Ryder misjudges the dynamics of the situation is in speaking to one of the mothers who supposedly hired Deathstroke in retaliation.

He points out what he thinks is a contradiction, that they would contemplate hiring Deathstroke — a white man — to kill Black men when they wouldn’t tolerate a white cop shooting them. She responds by reminding him that in her case, her child was killed by Black shooters and that the race of the agent of her revenge is immaterial, so long as she has agency over it.

Ryder quickly becomes stymied in his line of questioning as the racial double standards begin to stack up. The mothers acknowledge that hiring Deathstroke perpetuates the cycle of violence and that more guns are hardly a solution for de-escalation.

Their counterpoint is to expose the racial divide in gun ownership, pointing to how white gun ownership is enshrined as being valid self defense while Black gun ownership is received as irresponsibility and criminality, a lie exposed by the white woman recklessly killing a Black child in defense against a crime that wasn’t being committed. A chain of events set in motion by her own criminality.

It’s a real life disparity that on one side saw George Zimmerman acquitted for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the first significant test of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws allowing gun owners to respond to perceived threats with deadly force and on the other allows police officers to go unpunished for shooting Black boys and young men for playing with toy guns or cosplay swords.

Although Ryder chases his subjects in rhetorical circles about the cycle of violence and just how far culpability can be spread to indirect cultural factors like music, the narrative regains focus when Ryder picks up the trail of the supposed Deathstroke tying up the loose ends over the initial incident.

Thanks to an axe to the skull, Ryder concludes that the woman was there buying drugs not for herself, but for her boss. Unlike in Batman #44, where the root causes were largely abstract and culpability was spread thin to tell a parable about community engagement, Deathstroke #11 is committed to finding a smoking gun.

The entire chain of events began with a rich white man who sent his subordinate into the Black part of town to buy drugs for him to shield him from criminal liability and maintain the disconnection from the population that the city’s entrenched segregation affords him. The entire wave of violence from the stray bullet that killed the child carrying the drugs to the back and forth retaliatory killings has one single point of origin: the collateral damage of white supremacy.

The cop who draws bitter irony from not being able to smoke on the job while guns flow through the city like water tells Ryder that legislating objects is a waste of time. That when Japan invaded Okinawa, they outlawed knives. Instead of quashing retaliation against their occupiers, it simply inspired the Okinawans to invent new ways to kill people bare handed.

Narrated against the backdrop of Deathstroke carrying out a reprisal against the gang members who retaliated against the mothers who initially hired the assassin, there’s an air of fatalism to his words. One weapon is as good as another, he implies, sealing the notion by saying “Guns don’t kill people, Deathstroke does.”

Anyone who follows gun control as a political issue in the United States has an intimate understanding of how wrong that mentality is. After noting that a half dozen lives were saved during the Sandy Hook shooting when the perpetrator paused to either reload or clear a jam, the math was done to determine how many fewer lives would have been lost if he hadn’t had access to automatic weapons or extended magazines. Videos have been shot showing how easy it would have been for the Pulse shooter to conceal a Sig Sauer MCX under loose clothing.

There remains a powerful thread of logic in the analogy, though. The detective has a point that power imbalances underwritten by violence like the military occupation of Okinawa or the enforcement of segregation in Chicago through economic and institutionalized violence cannot be rectified by disarming the oppressed. Entrenched resentments will inevitably find release.

As Ryder’s climactic encounter with Deathstroke makes clear, this is a story long on questions and short on answers by design. Faced with the question of naming a solution to the gun violence plaguing the city, Slade tersely replies “Better aim.”

As Priest has already said in interview, it drives home the absurdity of expecting a superhero or villain to have an answer worth hearing on a complex social issue. What it also does is subvert the expectation of a clear moral or direction on Priest’s part.

It’s a direction that Batman #44 couldn’t have gone in, because the entire purpose of Batman comics is to bring moral clarity to complex issues. Snyder and Azzarello carefully navigated that reality by steering that moral clarity not towards a simplistic solution any of the individual issues that played a part in Peter Duggio’s death, but a clarity of Batman’s position in the community.

It’s a burden that Priest and company don’t have to assume writing a comic about an antihero like Deathstroke. They have the freedom, and perhaps even the duty to subvert the moral framework and expectations of the marquee titles.

Seen in the correct light, Deathstroke #11 is a spiritual sequel to Batman #44. The latter was about Bruce coming to the realization that he couldn’t hope to act to improve the lives of the people in The Narrows without stopping to listen to them, and the former is about Jack Ryder learning that stopping to listen doesn’t guarantee easy answers, or any answers at all.

Deathstroke #11 is what happens when space is made for creators from underserved audiences to tell the stories that impact them in their own words, and there’s no better way to illustrate that than with a collaboration between industry heavyweights like Christopher Priest and Denys Cowan.

There’s a great deal of poetry in Cowan and Sienkiewicz coming together for this issue, given that they provided the covers for Nighthawk, the last critically acclaimed portrayal of violence in Chicago.

There’s also an amusing inversion of Marvel’s general idea of outreach in their participation in this issue: instead of getting artists to draw iconic hip hop album covers with superheroes on them, DC has the artists responsible for iconic Wu Tang Clan albums (Cowan for The GZA’s Liquid Swords and Sienkiewicz for The RZA’s Bobby Digital in Stereo) drawing an issue especially pertinent to the contemporary Black condition.

Their key virtue on this issue is to create and sustain the constricted, claustrophobic urban spaces the story takes place in. A lot of that comes down to breaking the page up into small panels fighting for space and carefully controlling the framing of the contents to further that tension. Where they really shine, however, is in the second and third pages, the only part of the story with open space not occupied by frenetic movement.

Given a full page splash of the crime scene, Cowan and Sienkiewicz enclose the space by drawing the treetops together into a canopy that leaves no room for an open sky. Jeromy Cox completes the picture by sticking to a simple, desaturated palette that lets the idiosyncrasies of Cowan’s lines and Sienkiewicz’s incredibly fine inks take prominence. The net result is an issue that recalls the aesthetics of Priest, Cowan, and Sienkiewicz’s late 80s, early 90s rise to prominence.

The starkest, and subtlest reminder of how long the issues explored here have been not only relevant, but urgently so.

The Verdict: 10/10

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