Monday, July 27, 2020

Countdown to Operation: Purge!

Having followed the trail through time of the cyborg known as Deathlok the Demolisher, who unwillingly vanished from the year 1990 to appear in our own time only to be rendered mindless and subsequently battle to his own destruction, what more is there to say about the character, after having met such a pointless end that for all intents and purposes swept what amounted to a loose end under the rug? Well, putting aside for a moment the efforts of artist Rich Buckler and writer Doug Moench in taking such care and effort to build this character from the ground up, there is still his apocalyptic world of the future to consider--just over a decade away from the point where he met his end at Project: Pegasus, a date on the calendar that can't be as easily dismissed. And so we turn now to the year 1983, as writer J.M. DeMatteis and penciller Mike Zeck craft a story from the bits and pieces they've pieced together from Deathlok's prior appearances and seek to resolve his fate, and the fate of his future, once and for all.

But as surprising as it is to come across another Deathlok story when Marvel had put the character out of his misery over four years prior, we must first add another piece to the puzzle, in the form of Luther Manning--Deathlok's human identity before being turned into a cyborg assassin. In this case, however, the Luther Manning crucial to DeMatteis's story is actually the man's clone, created by the C.I.A. and housing the cerebral imprints of the brain of the real Manning as part of an effort to return his humanity to him. Yet Manning soon discovered that he felt no more human than his inhuman counterpart; and so, compelled to find Deathlok no matter where in time the mysterious Godwulf sent him, Manning is transported to 1983, outside of the Brand Corporation, where he is spotted by Steve Rogers--the one and only Captain America.

The Brand edifice has been abandoned since being shut down; but once introductions are made, and Manning relates his story culminating in his tracking Deathlok to the Brand complex, Cap joins forces with him to explore further, and finds the facility not so abandoned after all. Worse yet, it appears to have one hell of a security enforcer.

Previously, as he stalked the corridors of Project: Pegasus, it was clear that all semblance of Luther Manning had been eradicated in Deathlok, leaving only his embedded computer to give voice to the cyborg and carry out its preprogrammed instructions by those who had co-opted him. Yet now, it seems that Deathlok has found his voice again--but how? As Cap, enraged at what Deathlok has done to Manning, takes him on, he realizes that Brand must have wiped Manning's memories from the cyborg--but at Pegasus, that had already been accomplished by Roxxon, Brand's parent company, so what's going on here?

Given what little he's been left to work with, even DeMatteis seems to realize he can't connect the dots as seamlessly as he might wish to; but in one respect, at least, he has a useful means of restoring Deathlok to his former state of mind, in the form of the Manning clone--near death, but at last realizing why he felt so driven to seek out Deathlok.

If you're like me, and thinking back to that scene at Project: Pegagus where Deathlok was left in a sizzling heap of bits and pieces, and knowing at a glance that there was no way the original Luther Manning's human brain was sitting in all of that mess completely intact for Brand to salvage, you probably were left wondering just whose mind was present in the Deathlok we have here for the clone Manning to bond with. But the answer isn't present in the collage of images which Zeck presents of Deathlok's history to date--and even the PPC knows when to throw in the towel when faced with the realization that the story and DeMatteis have moved on without any intention of accounting for the discrepancy.

At any rate, once the dust settles after Cap and Deathlok (mostly Deathlok) have cleaned house at Brand, and the two have buried Manning, Deathlok and Cap prepare to part ways. But a question Cap poses concerning Deathlok's future, only a few short years away, opens the door to a mystery that Cap doesn't care to walk away from; on the contrary, it's one which he's now strongly motivated to prevent!

And so the circle closes, as we return to the figure called Godwulf, who had sent Deathlok through time and now welcomes him back. But where Godwulf expected Luther Manning to appear as well, there is another in his place who comes as a complete surprise to him, if a heartening one; yet while both newcomers require explanations from Godwulf, only Cap is unprepared for the shock that awaits him on the streets above.

It's at this point that DeMatteis reaches back to the Project: Pegasus story and avails himself of the plot put in motion by Roxxon: the Nth Command, originally designed to ensure that the company would have a worldwide monopoly on all energy research by eliminating any private or governmental competition (first up being Project: Pegasus itself). Yet for DeMatteis's purposes, Roxxon has retooled the Command to accommodate a much more ambitious agenda--one that would not only allow it to take over the country, but to also eliminate any interference from its costumed heroes.

As we can see, DeMatteis has also gotten around to providing a backstory for Godwulf, though the character has apparently lost his derring-do cadence he exhibited as a free-wheeling saboteur at large in the 1990s. (Probably because a member of Godwulf's resistance cell, the aptly-named Swashbuckler, already excels in derring-do.) Regardless, it seems strange that Cap would effectively ignore Godwulf's admittedly shocking disclosure--that in 1983, he had been part of the committed band of Brand Corporation men and women which, armed with their Nth projectors, conducted raids on the bases of super-groups and dimensionally transported them to their deaths, while later doing the same to those heroes who operated solo.

With those raids scheduled to take place in Cap's own time of 1983, Cap obviously means to return and foil the Nth Command's plot while there's still *ahem* time; but he also feels a duty to commit to the forces of Godwulf and Deathlok in stopping the cyborg/madman Hellinger before his plan to wipe out every living thing on Earth (to pave the way for his machine followers) takes effect. That effort succeeds, thanks in part to Deathlok finding the strength of will to break free of Hellinger's control and destroy him.

But in 1983, Captain America's race to stop the insidious plot of Brand and Roxxon has just begun--even as the Nth Commandos of the Brand Corporation receive their marching orders and prepare to embark on their mission of death!

(Anyone remember Mr. DeVoor from an earlier Fantastic Four story, where he cooperated with Arkon to incite war among three worlds?)

Of all times, then, for Captain America, of all people, to be stopped cold by red tape:

Altering his priorities, Cap diverts his attention to heading to the location of the Nth Command's main generator (thanks to information provided by Godwulf). Yet DeVoor has been alerted to Cap's presence in the facility and activates its considerable defenses, both human and technological. But like the one-man army he is, Cap perseveres--and at long last, the Nth Command, its commandos, and its diabolical plot meet their end.

Presumably, with SHIELD mopping up Brand and its workers, what's happened here today will have significant repercussions for Deathlok's future--and for Deathlok himself, since Brand researcher Harlan Ryker (later known as Hellinger) wouldn't become head of Project: Alpha-Mech and develop cyborg super-soldiers for the military. Nor would Godwulf be around to send what would have been Deathlok to the past, thereby ending Cap's visit to 1991 before it would even occur. We'll have to leave such thoughts in the realm of speculation, even taking into consideration a later one-shot story in 1996 published in Marvel Fanfare where Deathlok and Cap (along with the Falcon) would team up once more to prevent Brand from initiating another "Operation: Purge"--a tale only loosely based on the 1983 story but which, perhaps wisely, makes no attempt to step in and deal with questions that even the Time Variance Authority would prefer to avoid.


Anonymous said...

I gotta hand it to DeMatteis, he wraps up the Deathlok saga quite nicely here.
This was a pretty good period for the Captain America comic, and I think this was the perfect place to do it.
If you think about it, Deathlok IS Captain America viewed through a glass darkly. He's the Captain America of dystopian science fiction, a lethal cyborg in the near future with a flag on his chest.
Great review, C.F. I think you're right that DeMatteis had his hands full pulling all the loose strings of the Deathlok saga together, and if it was a bit messy, it was certainly entertaining. I know I've enjoyed your deep dive into one of the coolest characters to come out of Marvel in the '70's.


Comicsfan said...

Thanks very much, M.P., though I have to say it was nice to come up for air! :)

Anonymous said...

A very interesting wrap-up to the Deathlok saga. It reminds me of the Terminator franchise (with multiple time lines), minus the confusing retconning of the series.

Also, no Arnold.

Anonymous said...

Admittedly I've not read this story Comicsfan, but I'm not gonna let that stop me disagreeing with my ol' pal M.P. - from your account it sounds just awful. Worse even than that Thor run when Roy Thomas tried to fit the Eternals into the Marvel universe.

Personally, I've never really understood the need to fit EVERY comic put out by a publisher into the same continuity, and don't really see how wrapping up the storyline of a series like Deathlok in a Captain America comic is at all satisfying for anyone.

Especially as Astonishing Tales #36 worked reasonably well as an ending anyway, with Luther Manning becoming (sort of) "normal" again. Sure, it was ambiguous, and there were a fair few unresolved loose ends... but that was Deathlok for you - the whole series never really made much sense and was full of inconsistencies anyway!


Big Murr said...

I have to come down with Sean on this discussion.

Comics have a balance for me in the ratio of words to art. When an issue has nothing but pretty pictures with few word balloons, then I know it's gonna be a weak story for my money. I cringe when an issue, like this prime example, is full of "montage pages" and the word balloons crush tiny characters into the corner. All too likely, there's some asinine effort at work to hammer out a few dents and make continuity smooth again.

I've seen the name "Deathlok" in passing thru many modern comics. I went looking for some overview...