Priest And Denys Cowan Talk Comic Book Anti-Heroes And Chicago’s Painful Reality

DC’s vicious, amoral assassin Deathstroke is about the last character you’d expect to anchor a story about Chicago’s struggles with gun violence. And yet, in Deathstroke #11, Priest and Denys Cowan have him doing exactly that, as reporter Jack Ryder investigates rumors the assassin is going after the people shooting up the streets. We spoke to Cowan and Priest about this change in direction, and the unusual choice of hero who took it.

So why Chicago, and why Deathstroke?

Priest: I wanted to do an anti-violence story in Deathstroke. I really felt like if you’re going to do one, then where better in Deathstroke, which glorifies violence? As a person of faith, I think we’re way too invested in violence, and I tend to blame that on the entertainment we see. All we see routinely is conflict resolution with violence. Deathstroke is about the impact living that lifestyle has on an individual. Slade’s life is destroyed a little bit every time he goes out and does something stupid. Around the time we were talking about this, Chicago had one of its worst weekends, so we thought he should go to Chicago.

I invited Reginald Hudlin to co-write, but he didn’t have time. But we talked about ideas and directions to go in. He suggested I do something like A Fistful of Dollars. The beleaguered gunslinger is hired to solve their problem, but more violence doesn’t solve the problem of violence. Denys Cowan was my first thought. This story should look and smell and feel like a Milestone comic, that was my first thought, and since it was an inventory story, we could give it to him without a deadline, so that was how the ball got rolling.

It’s interesting you mention Milestone [DC’s comic book line developed by creators of color in the 1990s]. It felt a lot like those books. Was that a conscious choice or did it happen naturally?

Priest: Probably a little bit of both. I was going back and forth on the phone. I sought him out mainly because he’s so plugged into current events, these tragic events, in the African-American communities. Certainly that influenced the style going in, but I just wanted to write a serious comic book with a serious tone. I don’t think this story would have worked if we’d stood around dictating to the people of Chicago how to solve their problems, and nobody can.

Was it tough balancing the superheroics of Deathstroke with a real city in the artwork?

Denys Cowan: It wasn’t really that much of a challenge, because this is what we do. We make things work as artists. There weren’t a whole lot of different elements fighting each other. It was about telling the best story in the most effective way. It takes place in Chicago, which I’d visited, I had a feeling of the city and the people in it. If there was anything that was difficult, it was about capturing the sense of Chicago. Drawing the characters, that part is the easy part. Getting that sense of character in the city, that was the challenge. And when you work with Bill [Sienkiewicz, the issue’s inker]… [Laughs.]

Priest: Deathstroke in the story, I wouldn’t consider him heightened. He’s not using his staff or sword, at one point he drops a refrigerator on a guy. He doesn’t use any guns on a guy. The heightened character is the Creeper, but by the time he shows up, if we’ve done our job right, it’s a surprise. But he’s bright yellow and he’s wearing a green striped speedo, so when we do go larger than life, we go larger than life. (laughs)

The Creeper was a surprising choice for a protagonist in this issue. How’d you land on him?

Priest: I was looking for a reporter. I wanted to tell the story through the eyes of a reporter. I wanted to ask questions. Everyone else would go to Lois Lane or Jimmy, but there’s all these Loises, Red Lois, Blue Lois, there’s a lot going on with Lois! [Laughs.] So I was looking for other reporters, and I came across Jack Ryder, an ex-Jerry Springer guy, a freelancer down on his luck looking for sensational stories. As the story developed, it became obvious we needed to let the Creeper out.

“Heightened” is a good word for the Creeper. How much work went into drawing him?

Cowan: I had a lot of friends drawing the Creeper, but I’d never drawn him before. But I was always drawn to the Steve Ditko, and that was what I modeled him on. I’m not sure if I pulled it off at all, but I had a lot of fun trying. And you don’t realize how weird that costume is until you draw it. What is that around his shoulder? Hair? Fur? (laughs)

What goes into capturing the soul of a city?

Priest: I write Chicago on the script and make it Denys’ problem. [Both laugh.] In terms of writing, it’s the crisis that’s unique to that city. A lot of what we did took place indoors, and the story takes place at night. But it’s not about the flavor of the city so much as this are the sad events that go on there and the extremes some are willing to go to.

Cowan: My approach was, I’d been there several times and enjoyed the city. But it was more about getting a feeling of the people, their toughness, a sense of the cold, that was part of what we did with the art, and the whole thing takes place around Christmas, but there’s not a whole lot of Christmas, the happiest season but the saddest time in Chicago, and we were hoping to convey that feeling.

What are you hoping readers will get out of the issue?

Priest: My wish would be if every kid in Chicago could get a copy of this. I don’t know if there is a solution in our generation. Not just because of specific things going on in Chicago, but because of how polarized the nation is, and the people grappling for political power are just so willing to perpetuate that polarization. There’s a lot of blame and finger-pointing, everybody’s in their camp and isn’t willing to move. The real hope lies in the schoolchildren who are being raised in this awful environment. All I can do is hope and pray those little kids grow up and say “enough is enough.” “When I grow up, we’re not going to be doing that kind of stuff.” That’s who this story is dedicated to.

Deathstroke #11 is on sale now, digitally and in comic shops.