I was recently listening to Pod Save America, a pretty indispensable political podcast run by former Obama staffers, mark the occasion of the five year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting by talking to New Jersey Junior Senator Cory Booker.
Booker is probably the Democratic frontrunner for the 2020 nomination, and for good reason. Booker managed one of the most stunning feats I’ve ever heard from a politician on that episode: taking the host’s question about the gun control issue in light of that anniversary and pivoting to expand the scope of the issue to encompass the plague of gun violence that communities of color face and the kinds of victims left out of the national conversation without leaving a molecule of air for the idea that he minimized the horrifying violence of that day.
It would take incredible restraint, tact, and empathy to reframe a conversation like that at the best of times, but this was spoken in the dying days of 2017, in Donald Trump’s America. As Booker spoke about dealing with gun violence from his days as Newark’s mayor until now, the policies he wants enacted based on those experiences, and his invocation of what the rank and file NRA members profess to believe relative to the stance of the powerful lobbying group’s leadership, Deathstroke #11 weighed heavily on my mind.
It struck me especially hard, given that Booker was speaking passionately, as a progressive Democrat, on the same issues seen from a different angle that Christopher Priest, a noted conservative and NRA member, tackled with the same intensity at the beginning of the year. At a time when the national conversation is so brutally polarized, it feels remarkable to witness voices from very different ends of the political spectrum bookend the year by tackling the hot button issue of gun violence with the same intensely focused intersectionality.
My impression of Priest — between the issue itself and the interview that he gave on it — is that we disagree on a great deal, even within the network of issues he carefully untangled in the comic. But it’s a secondary concern relative to the fact that he laid those issues out in a way that I could seize on them in a way that only David F. Walker on Nighthawk has been able to do in recent memory. Priest created the space for a legitimate discourse, and he did it by speaking his truth with wit and empathy that many writers working today could stand to learn a lesson from, some more so than others.
I’ve spent countless hours over the last two years tying the issues of gun and police violence in comics tightly to the realities faced by Chicago, either when explicitly referenced in Material or Nighthawk, or more subtly at the apex of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, so Deathstroke was hardly an outlier in that respect. What separates it from the pack and makes it the indispensable companion to Batman #44 is Priest bringing his full perspective as a Black man to the story and the fact that he pulled it off using a vehicle as unlikely as Deathstroke to do it.
Once Priest enlisted Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz to realize the issue, whatever they decided to put on paper was going to emerge as the unmissable product of titans of the medium. Choosing to tackle inner city violence and implicate the racial dynamics of the most diverse, segregated, and violent city in the United States the way Priest did with legendary talents famous for their Wu Tang Clan album art meant that the year in comics was over on January 25th.
On a personal note, how I came to review Deathstroke #11 is also one of the biggest highlights of the year for me. I was only dimly aware of the series because it was the vehicle for Priest’s return to DC, but I got an e-mail from Matt as soon as the review copies came in telling me that the new issue of Deathstroke was about gun violence in Chicago and asking me if I wanted to cover it. In my mind, it was a tremendous act of faith and validation of my work on his part because Matt actually lives in Chicago, while I’m all the way out in Vancouver and have never actually set foot in the Windy City.
I developed a passionate belief that studying Chicago’s evolution as a city from the Civil Rights era until the present is key to understanding the ravages of neo-liberalism, the super-predator myth, gentrification, and mass incarceration before I started writing for Comicosity, but it intensified here out of respect for (part of) the physical roots of the site, so earning the first shot at the issue felt like a personal milestone.
It’s an aspect of comics criticism that many people have denigrated, calling for “objective” takes on comics. However, my opinion is that subjectivity and emotion are our most powerful critical tools, because they’re how we determine what comics speak to us, what comics connect us to other people, and what comics open up opportunities for discourse and personal growth. In this case, there’s a very clear chain of faith and risk that began with Priest pitching the story thinking it would get rejected and ending with my editor putting his faith in me to do such a unique and powerful issue the justice it deserved.