Deathblow was created in 1992 by Jim Lee and Brandon Choi as part of the WildStorm universe. I’m one of the few comic book fans who didn’t care for the early WildStorm books–I preferred the second wave, when folks like Warren Ellis and Mark Millar came on board to revive the characters.
Part of that revival was 2003’s Deathblow 9-issue miniseries by Brian Azzarello and Carlos D’Anda. The series was a different kind of comic.
The book starts off with Deathblow being rescued from years of captivity at the hands of a foreign terrorist. I knew nothing about the character, having never read the 1992 series, so I didn’t have a backstory. I didn’t need one.
Azzarello creates a self-contained universe laden with symbolism and hallucinations. In the panel at left, he introduces one of the concepts of the book–animals being manipulated into being terrorist tools–to represent how Deathblow himself is a rat in a maze, and his only hope is to break down the walls that keep him running along the paths created by his captors.
There’s no real heroes in the book–no real good guys. It’s not clear whether Deathblow is a victim of a corrupt U.S. Government, or a useful tool–a necessary evil–to fight an even worse terrorist cell.
In the panel below, Azzarello uses the unique aspects of the comic book media to tell part of the story: Wordplay. Movies don’t show you the words, so puns based on homonyms are difficult or impossible to communicate.
The best comics make full use of all the tools at a creator’s disposal.
It’s also not clear until about halfway through the book whether Deathblow is completely hallucinating. The great thing about comics is they can use visual images as part of the narrative, while retaining internal dialog, and, layered on top of that, depict “actual” events as they occur. Which means there can be several stories going on at one time. In the sequence below, the reader doesn’t know whether Deathblow is seeing a dog where there’s really a person, whether he’s talking to a real dog and having an audio hallucination (like Son of Sam), or whether this is a literal depiction of actual events…
Azzarello and D’Andra keep us off-balance like that throughout the comic. They encourage us, in fact, to think the worst of Deathblow by showing that he’s kind of an asshole…
This is not a book for the squeamish. There are much more disturbing and violent concepts than the ones I’ve written about here, but I didn’t want to spoil too much about the book. Be warned, though: It’s a hard “R” rated comic.
A final note: Color. Carrie Strachan is the colorist for the series, and she’s brilliant. I usually take things like coloring and lettering for granted, but in this book, the colors are so perfect at setting the various moods that they cannot be ignored.