Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Dead In My Sights: The Coming of Deathlok!

The concept of Deathlok, the Demolisher had apparently been kicking around in the head of artist Rich Buckler for three years before finally premiering as a feature in Astonishing Tales in August of 1974. And while Deathlok might not have gone on to attain the status of super-stardom as a comics character, I was nevertheless impressed with the character that Buckler (and scripter Doug Moench) breathed life into. A cyborg from roughly a decade in the future, the mystery of Deathlok received a generous amount of billing on both the Bullpen Bulletins page as well as a senses-shattering (remember when things at Marvel were senses-shattering?) debut issue cover rendered by Buckler and Klaus Janson.

(Kudos to whoever thought to use a gun scope sighting for the logo's "O"--a nice touch.)

Along with selling Deathlok, the issue's cover also hypes "The Marvel Age of Comics, Phase Two," whatever that entails. It was around the time when the Giant-Size books were getting off the ground; there was a price increase across the board; and Stan Lee's The Origin of Marvel Comics was published. Beyond that, there was nothing else of significance coming down the Marvel pipe. Like many of Marvel's promotional blurbs, this one appears to be just a throw-away line, one that seems to have been retired after this single use of it.

As for the cover's other captions, it's perhaps a stretch at this early stage of the character's appearance to come right out and call Deathlok a superhero, offbeat or otherwise. Deathlok's origin is certainly tragic, and he seeks to break free from those who wish to manipulate him--but while we can sympathize with his circumstances, his actions must give us pause, since a man who becomes a hired and willing killer in order to raise the funds for a medical procedure for himself hardly fits the definition of "hero."

That leaves us with the descriptive epithet of "The Demolisher!" on the cover, which Deathlok probably owes more to creative alliteration and the character's overall attitude than an indication of his modus operandi, which focuses on the quick and efficient liquidation of his targets rather than demolishing them. But judging by his opening splash page, which has a little fun by sensationalizing the character that's being introduced to us, Deathlok will no doubt do a fair amount of demolishing in the course of his deadly work.

Deathlok's origin gives us the basics, but doesn't bog down the limited space of the story with details which will likely be (forgive me) fleshed out as his story continues. In brief, military strategist Col. Luther Manning was mortally wounded by an explosive device and died on the operating table--but not before another officer, Maj. Simon Ryker, ordered that a portion of his brain be isolated and kept alive, while his body was to be refitted with a prosthetic arm, metal grafting, and computer circuitry. In short, Ryker wanted to turn Manning into an unstoppable super-soldier, a functional tactician who could be programmed like a computer but who would have no independent consciousness.

It seems clear that Ryker, though able to obtain funding for this project by the military, is proceeding with a private agenda built on an almost crazed sense of patriotism. We don't yet know the specifics of the "war" which the military is involved in, but it appears desperate enough for Ryker to have received the backing he needs to launch a project which will create an army of cyborg soldiers. He confides later in Nina, his close assistant (it's not clear how close, though the two appear to be on intimate terms), that he's "duped" the military to an extent regarding his plans for Manning--but at least on the surface, Ryker maintains that Manning's procedure is a directive, and that Project: Alpha-Mech is a result of desperate times calling for desperate measures.

Yet once "Deathlok" is active, there are incidents in the field where the cyborg fails to follow through on his programming. And when he's captured after an apparent attempt to attack his base, a diagnostic procedure reveals that the consciousness of Luther Manning was not as lost as believed, and was now in a state of coexistence with his built-in computer.

Clearly, Manning highly resents the procedure that was performed on him, to the point of breaking out of his confinement and violently escaping custody--actions which we have no choice but to buy, for now. We know that Manning was a military man, and at some point was on good terms with Ryker, so at the very least it would stand to reason that he would want some explanation for what was done to him; instead, he breaks with the military altogether, effectively declaring war on the army and on his once-fellow soldiers, developing an intense hatred of Ryker in particular. We can't argue that Manning would naturally find his new existence loathsome--but for all intents and purposes, he was already dead, and Ryker seems as surprised by his cognitive recovery as anyone. So is Manning angry at being brought back to life? Is he angry at the state to which he's been adapted? Does he want revenge for some reason? Does he have a sense of Ryker's true agenda? We simply don't know at this point--and with the little we do know, it doesn't make sense for him to sever his ties with the military without at least demanding a briefing.

Following his escape, Deathlok strikes out on his own--his main goal being to acquire the money he'll need for surgery which will hopefully make it possible for his brain to exist in another body. To that end, he becomes a mercenary in the service of underworld racketeer Julian Biggs, who has him targeting two specific men. As the hits take place, we're introduced to the clever hook which bolsters the concept of Deathlok and helps to give us insight into Manning--the compelling interaction between Manning and his built-in computer, simply nicknamed "'Puter."

As amusing as it is to see Manning call his computer's bluff (while equally amusing that the computer attempts it in the first place), it becomes evident that Manning's horrifying appearance is meant to reflect the resentment he now feels for the flesh-and-blood targets which no doubt remind him of what he's lost--a resentment which quickly begins to work in tandem with sadism. And we learn something more during this episode--that the analytical, impassive directives of his computer are perhaps not so impassive after all.

We can't go so far as to call the state between Manning and his computer one of symbiosis--but the back-and-forth between Manning and his computer is an intriguing concept which Moench has introduced here, and it bears further exploration.

Since Deathlok's first target was scheduled to rendezvous with the second, it isn't long before the cyborg encounters his next victim--already fleeing for his life from a pack of robbers who also prowl the streets as cannibals, a small indication of the state of the world which Moench and Buckler have dropped us into. Deathlok shows the same lack of mercy toward a victim locked in his sights as he did with one who fled for his life--only this time, he receives confirmation of facts which are more for our benefit in these beginning pages of this story than for his.

But Deathlok hasn't escaped his fate as a military cyborg as cleanly as he had hoped. For when he arrives to collect his fee from Biggs, he finds that his employer is also a cyborg--a front for Ryker, who had covertly arranged for Deathlok to eliminate two men who were out to prevent Project: Alpha-Mech from proceeding. The final panels of the story reveal not only Ryker's manipulation, but also how Buckler plans for Deathlok's story to proceed--as well as a last-minute revelation which begins to shed some light on Ryker's obsession with this project.

Deathlok would go on as a bi-monthly run to close out the Astonishing Tales title from the '70s once scores are settled with Ryker--eventually making his way into Marvel continuity, though unfortunately shedding many of Buckler's nuances for him in the process. To get the story of the conception of Deathlok from the horse's mouth, there's a brief transcript of a meeting between Buckler, Moench, and Roy Thomas which follows this first story--and, for a more comprehensive look at the character's evolution from concept to the printed page, be sure to read Buckler's fascinating essay on the subject from 2010.

BONUS: Anatomy of a Demolisher!
Deathlok's parts 'n pieces (along with assorted notes and lunch cravings).

Astonishing Tales #25

Script: Doug Moench
Pencils and Inks: Rich Buckler
Letterer: Annette Kawecki


Kid said...

I got The Complete Deathlok softcover edition not that long ago - much enjoyed it. I've even got a Deathlok action figure from a number of years back - great stuff.

Comicsfan said...

Deathlok is probably best read just as you've done it, Kid--as a complete set. With a two-month lag (even three, at one point), I think its publication schedule made its story difficult to pick up again; by the time I'd finished its run, I was almost relieved at reaching the end. Having it all to read in one or two sittings would have been a much more satisfying reading experience. (It's no wonder the only way I can stand to watch television shows now is to stream them!)

The Groovy Agent said...

Not to nit-pick, but to honestly clear up a question, the "Marvel Phase Two" line was used several times starting in 1972. It was all about Stan becoming Marvel's publisher and Roy becoming EIC. So the phrase actually encompassed the arrival of the B&W mags, Treasury Editions, and mags like Warlock, Ghost Rider, War of the Worlds, Master of Kung Fu, Iron Fist, and so on.

Thanks for the article! Enjoyed it bunches. I have a great love for Rich Buckler's creation!

Anonymous said...

Weren't films like 'Robocop' and 'Universal Soldier' just rip-offs, I mean inspired by...Deathlok ?

Comicsfan said...

Groover, thanks so much for the info, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Jeez, I was around for Marvel's Phase Two and never even knew it! :)

Dale Bagwell said...

I'm proud to say I actually own this very issue, and you can just tell how much this probably stood out on the shelves at the time, because it was very much different from the other mainstream titles at the time.

Just a timeless design and character I wish got more love from Marvel as he was originally intended and conceived rather that what he's become, which is just another character placed into the SHIELD tv series. Now sure, that should be good news for his fans since that means more face time and earned him yet another short-lived series. But for me, he works better apart from the mainstream MU, with the exception of that captain america story. Otherwise he should stay loosely-affiliated the main MU. But that's just my opinion. What say you?

Also, who do you think other than Rich Buckler, drew Deathlok the best?
For me Mike Perkins and Mike Zeck, but Derrick Robertson drew a pretty mean and cool Deathlok as well for that one Marvel Max mini he did.

Comicsfan said...

IMO, Dale, it's hard to go wrong with Deathlok's art, with his distinctive look and features. For me it's how his character is handled by Moench and Buckler that makes him stand out in my mind. I'm all for him being part of the mainstream Marvel universe, if that part of him could be retained--though with the Deathlok who started out as Manning operating out of a different world, I can understand Buckler's reticence in continuing with the character elsewhere (and, in his case, elsewhen).

I'd actually planned on revisiting that Cap/Deathlok story at some point, so the PPOC will cover at least a little more of him in the future.

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