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“D” Is For Deathlok!

Longbox Graveyard #29

In a development as bizarre as it is pathetic, my old pal (and former Malibu Comics Editor-In-Chief) Chris Ulm and I discovered we were independently reading Deathlok the Demolisher at practically the same time.

E.I.C. ULM!

Perhaps inspired by this very blog, and all full of nostalgia for the dimly-remembered comic book favorites of his misspent youth, the Ulm insisted on plunking down his folding green for a Marvel Masterworks edition of Deathlok’s original adventures (rather than borrow the bagged, boarded, and indexed original comics I had on offer, but no matter) … the wild thing is this affords us the chance to review a series together that first hit the stands almost forty years ago! Astonishing Tales indeed!

ULM: I would have been willing to read your old comics, but I can’t stand the vig. Being indebted to you is like working the midnight shift for Jabba the Hut. Plus, why read readily available comic books when instead I can search for the Marvel Masterworks version with the indifferent help of catastrophically uninterested clerks at several comic book stores, two used books stores, an almost shuttered Borders and our local Barnes & Noble? Luckily Amazon’s always open and is happy to destroy our local economy, so I was able to procure my 65 dollar reprint of $2.65 worth of old comics (original cover price). BUT, this is Deathlok, man, one of my favorite Marvel characters of all time. An anti-hero that serves as the basis for latecomers like the Terminator, Robocop and Harry Potter. Okay, not Harry Potter, but the other two stand.

LBG: I’d like Harry Potter a lot more if he was an undead cyborg killing machine.

The original books aren’t a slick as your reprint, but they do have karma and that old comic smell. Unfortunately, the originals are also hard on the eyes — the crabby, “computer-style” lettering for “‘Puter’s” captions is difficult to read, and some of the white-on-black caption blocks are nearly illegible. But maybe that’s a blessing in disguise, because it gave me an excuse to skip some of the longer passages in what author Doug Moench admitted was a book that took him twice as long to write as a regular comic.

ULM: He should taken three times as long. I remember the comics as sophisticated tales of an anti-hero at war with himself. That core is in the comics somewhere, but for the most part these comics are unreadable today. Deathlok has too many points of view, the villains and main core of the story are flaccid and each panel is wallpapered with so many balloons I feel like I’m at the carnival. I was honestly expecting that my 70’s lens would not be too distorted, but I’m now convinced that the power and majesty of the character conception and design addled my adolescent memory into creating a whole different story.

LBG: Hold your tongue! Moench is a mensch and I will FIGHT YOU if you suggest otherwise! Half the reason I started this blog is for the still-unrealized purpose of raving over Moench’s run on Master of Kung Fu. I will admit that his Deathlok is a tad … overwritten, with the “violent stream of consciousness” captions in the first four issues being especially tiresome, but this book has so many things wrong with it that it’s not fair to single out Moench’s errors of enthusiasm as an especially critical flaw.

It’s also inaccurate to think of Deathlok as a Doug Moench book. Editorial material in the debut issue makes much of Moench’s collaboration with Rich Buckler, but it’s clear this is Buckler’s character, and Moench is gone after the first half-dozen issues. Writers and editors come and go through the fractured run of this series, but Rich Buckler is there to the bitter end, and he has his moments. Buckler always struck me as a poor man’s Jack Kirby, but he is sometimes inspired here (especially when teamed with Klaus Jansen on inks), with inventive layouts and lots of visceral, guns-blazing action.

original art for the single best page in the whole Deathlok run, from the Dave Karlen Original Art Blog

ULM: Deathlok as a name, as a concept and as a character design are among the greatest comic book anti-heroes ever. It’s why a better and far more successful version emerged over time from James Cameron in Terminator 2 and the cinematic realization of Robocop’s conflict between internal soul and machinima. I think Rich and Doug were on to something really big — it’s why I dropped 70 bucks on the hardcover! — but they couldn’t realize it because of the 70’s comic book storytelling conventions at the time.

LBG: Since not everyone has an encyclopedic knowledge of failed Marvel Comics heroes I suppose a summary is in order.

Deathlok the Demolisher was a science fiction action series that ran in issues #25-36 of Astonishing Tales, one of those weird old bi-monthly Marvel books that had a changing cast of title characters (previous issues ran stories of Ka-Zar, Doctor Doom, and the unlamented IT! The Living Colossus). Raised from the dead as a cyborg assassin, Deathlok is literally “locked in death,” a revivified warrior kept alive by cybernetic technology and guided by an artificial intelligence — “the ‘Puter” — who serves to offer helpful analysis like predicting a “99% chance of death” if Deathlok goes forward with some half-assed plan. ‘Puter’s primary role — and really the whole hook for the series — is to torment the reawakened consciousness of dead warrior Luther Manning, who is in no way happy to wake up in a cyborg body, five years after his death, as the centerpiece of a Frankenstein-like experiment to create an army of undead supersoldiers.

Deathlok is variously described as weighing three hundred pounds, six hundred pounds, and a quarter-ton, but all that really matters is that he’s armored up, and he’s strong as an ox. Deathlok can jump around and smash things like most Marvel heroes, and he’s a dead accurate gunman. Much is made of Manning having been some brilliant military mind, but mostly he just runs amok and acts without thinking (although he does destroy a tank with a makeshift crossbow, so he’s got that going for him). With his rotting flesh and a blood-red eye (which would later influence Chris and I when co-creating Jericho Cross for Darkwatch) plus a laser pistol and a throwing knife, Deathlok looks the part of a “cyborg death machine for hire,” and the series does have some superior action sequences, but it doesn’t take long for the book to go madly off the rails.

I’d try to summarize the plot of the series but it’s above my pay grade (and you can read up over at Wikipedia if you really care). It’s a mixed-up muddle of Deathlok raging against his creator and pursuing a vague plan to find a surgeon to restore his humanity, but make no mistake — this is a high concept book. What we have here is, “What if a warrior was raised from the dead as a cyborg assassin, but his consciousness battled his programing?” and little else. All we know about the world is that there’s been a terrible war that started in 1983, and that the streets are overrun by cannibals (so it’s our world, basically). There’s reference to a “Provisional Revolutionary Army” and by the end of the run the C.I.A. had made an appearance, but for the most part, Deathlok’s world is a series of drab warehouses, rooftops, and subway stations where our hero battles the aforementioned cannibals and armed mooks in the employ of General Simon Ryker, the series’ uninspired villain (a kind of closet cyborg uber-fascist, who’s plan for world domination is unhinged when he leaves the access plate off the back of his head, allowing some girl to see that he is not truly human, inspiring Ryker to hook her up to a computer to power a tank by remote control, and … trust me, it’s not worth explaining).

ULM: Yes. Where the book falls apart is in the manifestation of the villain and Deathlok’s world. Ryker has all the menace of a drunk uncle who shows up at Christmas. The world is dull and inconsistent. The octane-fueled imagination of the creators in conceiving the character of Deathlok seems to just run out of gas. How cool would Batman be if you replaced Gotham City with a Florida beach town, replaced the Bat Cave with an empty warehouse and instead of solving mysteries you returned valuable heirlooms to distraught retirees?

LBG: I think you just spoiled George Lucas’ plot for the next Indiana Jones movie.

It’s actually kind of shocking how fast this series comes off the rails. It seems like they had an opening, an idea for an origin, and enough action for about a single issue, and after that had no idea what to do. A revolving door on the scripting side didn’t help (and it helped even less that each new writer seemed not to have read what came before). Aside from decent art and some shocking (for the time) violence there’s just no “there” there.

For all that the series turned out to be a mess, picking this book off the rack in 1974 it certainly blew my mind. A poison-pen missive from an early letter column derided the “thirteen year-old-zombies” that would write in support of the book, ill-recognizing it as a “rip-off” of Manhunter and The Six Million Dollar Man — and though I was twelve rather than thirteen at the time, I was among their legion. That first issue hooked me — hard — with it’s complex storytelling and cinematic art style. I must have read the debut story a dozen times, puzzling out the three voice-over narratives (Manning, his computer, and that unrestrained voice of Manning’s Id), and the flashback-driven storyline that has Deathlok on the hunt for some forgettable bad guy even as we see how Deathlok became self-aware in Ryker’s lab, (awesomely) tearing himself down from the crazy cross-thing that was his operating table, and shooting his way out into the cannibal-haunted wasteland of 1990s New York.

The violence and angst of this book really spoke to me as a kid — here was a hero who wanted to be dead (he attempts suicide at one point), who lives in a nightmare world of cannibals, and who is tormented by his creator and knowledge that his past life — and his wife and child — are forever lost to him. He’s a badass cyber death-machine who blows away bad guys by the score and just seemed so damn bitter and cool to my severely alienated twelve-year-old self that I thought, yeah, right on, brother! Stick it to The Man! I wish I was a cyborg too, so I could stalk around and kill everything, and not have to deal with all these weird emotions and stuff!

ULM: You worry me, even now. As a kid, Deathlok spoke to me as well, but I drew the line on wanting to be a bitter doom-driven cyborg. Now, yes, of course that sounds appealing. But back then, Iron Man was the stronger role model. With Deathlok, I wanted to experience a future world and a really tight action-adventure story with a resolution. As is the trouble with most anti-heroes, their story arcs are usually not able to be resolved, because the arc IS their character. At least this seems to be the case for Deathlok.

LBG: And going back to this book after so many years, the concept and the character remain strong, if thoroughly mined by later stories (put Deathlok and Judge Dredd in a blender, and you have Robocop). I see Marvel did a series of reboots, but I’m utterly uninterested in them — I could barely make it through this eleven issue Astonishing Tales run, let alone face the sad attempt to wrap up this incomprehensible story in the pages of Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Premiere. A little part of me died when I realized how terrible these comics really were, but I’m going to try to forget Warwolf and Godwulf and Hellinger and that stupid case of counterfeit money and just remember the way cool, iconic moments this series had to offer — the hardcore, murderous anti-hero busting loose from his torture table and blazing away with six guns from the cover of Astonishing Tales!

ULM: Yes, yes and yes. I LOVED Deathlok and even now, my bitter disappointment is in knowing what this could have been rather than being able to enjoy what it was. And despite my incessant carping, my overpriced hardbound copy of these comics will sit proudly on my shelf until the day I die — and my daughters promptly sell them to the mutant cannibal book collectors of the near future.

LBG: Despite that stirring endorsement, poor ol’ Deathlok earns the poorest grade yet for any book here on Longbox Graveyard, eking out a “D” only because I can’t give a failing grade to a book we both remember as being so much better than it actually is. I’ll be keeping these books, if only for the covers, but I won’t be reading them again — this is the first time since opening the Longbox Graveyard six months ago that I’ve come away from reading a series wishing I hadn’t done it. But for better or worse, Luther Manning was part of our adolescence, and seeing as how we both so easily overlooked the warts on this series back in 1974, it serves only to reinforce that the “golden age” of comics is “twelve.”

Thanks, Ulm, for sharing your undead cyborg wisdom here on Longbox Graveyard! And the next time I offer to loan you a stack of comics … take me up on it! Those Marvel Masterworks ain’t cheap!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #30 Limited Universe

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on January 4, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. Deathlok really is one of those old titles that sounds great in concept and falls apart in execution – its Frankensteined story-elements from different sources start to unravel when looked at closely. Also, it proves something that we’ve all talked about before – you need to have a really good villain to play the hero (or anti-hero) off of. And it’s easier to see that when you read the issues all at once instead of every 60 days or so. 1970s Marvel is full of free-wheeling, crazy stuff like Deathlok.

    Buckler wrote about Deathlok here: http://bit.ly/AkhpCK and it’s a pretty revealing version (his version) of events at Marvel at the time he created the series.

    “How cool would Batman be if you replaced Gotham City with a Florida beach town, replaced the Bat Cave with an empty warehouse and instead of solving mysteries you returned valuable heirlooms to distraught retirees?”

    That would be the only Batman book I buy in 2012, that’s how cool it would be.

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    • A Tom Mason sighting! Groovy!

      Thanks for posting that link, Tom, I remember reading that article some time ago and intended to work it into the post but forgot or was drunk or whatever … it is interesting that so much crazy stuff got started during the Roy Thomas EIC era (I think that’s when we got Kilraven and Black Panther in Jungle Action too). It is revealing that Buckler felt no one was reading his stuff before publication (and maybe not even then). His tale of post-publication woe will be familiar to anyone who has worked a creative job in a corporate environment. The shame is that all the “help” Buckler was getting didn’t seem to improve the book one bit — the deeper you go in the series, the more the quality of the storytelling deteriorates, although the imagination and the concepts remain strong. I missed a lot of the visual innovations that Buckler mentions in my read-through (the sideways pages, etc.) but I expect those did stand out in 1974 and my modern eye just failed to credit them.

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  2. I think it goes deeper than that – during that 70s period, Marvel had stuff like Master Of Kung Fu, Tomb of Dracula, their monster books, Kull, Howard the Duck, some offbeat Chaykin projects, the b&w magazines, Ghost Rider, and then ended the decade with Star Wars. Can you imagine anyone these days publishing a book called Son of Satan?

    Reading Buckler’s account of Deathlok and looking at the stories, it seems like Moench early on was trying to take Buckler’s spew of ideas and organize them into a compelling narrative. After he left, and Buckler moved out of NY and Marvel start tinkering editorially (and probably starting to read what they were publishing now that Rich’s ‘office’ was closed) Buckler seems to get more proprietary and controlling about his work, referring to the subsequent writers as working for him with Buckler dictating. It’s an interesting behind-the-scenes look at post-Stan Marvel. Shooter’s blog paints a similar picture of turmoil before, of course, he showed up.

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    • I liked the description of Early Figurehead Stan Lee, too, with Buckler appealing to Lee to protect his artistic integrity, and with Lee telling Buckler not to worry his pretty little head … then Buckler having to go back to the bullpen and fend for himself. The cheese had moved!

      That wide-open aspect of Marvel in the 70s is one of the reasons I got hooked on comics — many of the books you mention would become life-long favorites, along with titles like the Defenders (there’s Gerber again, along with Howard and Son of Satan as you mentioned).

      And I am shocked, Tom, that you haven’t taken this opportunity to introduce one of your own favorite 1970s Marvel heroes into the equation. Have you broken off your decades-long affair with Brother Voodoo??

      Like

  3. Your insubordination is tantamount to dysfunction.
    Plus, his portrait includes an arrow pointing to brain fragments.
    Yes!

    We would be excited to find these in the bargain bin.
    Maybe take scissors to them and create a team up between Deathlok and Human Fly.

    Like

    • The Human Fly continues to buzz around this blog, I supposed I will have to review the one (and only) issue in The Accumulation, of which I have TWO copies, which neatly illustrates one of the many pathologies at the root of Longbox Graveyard.

      Astonishing Tales would be an astonishing find in the bargain bin, Mars, and you would be wise to grab them should they appear; even a bad Marvel comic from the mid-70s is better than many modern books, and Deathlok still has his charms, which I hope came out a bit in our review. It was heartbreaking to see how poorly the stories had aged, but the character and the concept remain dear to me.

      I am fortunate, though, that this wasn’t the first run I reviewed when confronting the Longbox Graveyard last summer, or this blog might have consisted of a single post — a photograph of a comic book bonfire in my driveway.

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      • It’s hard to believe HF isn’t available through your Marvel digital subscription. That way you could lambaste the entire series – from the kooky plots to the scratchy art to the conflation of ‘real’ heroes with historical fiction to the pointless superhero crossovers…. all of which will break our hearts because we still get a kick out of that one. Lambaste gently and with Bronze Age love. Some of the bad Marvel 70s we avoid like the plague (Defenders – not a fan) and some we eagerly scoop up out of the bargain bins like sunken treasures. They have a certain cool factor it’s hard to explain but they make great wallpaper.

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        • Any criticism of Human Fly will be directed at your humble narrator, and not at the book. It is a symbol of everything I did wrong as a comics creator, as I cut up my copy of Hulk #181 for the Marvel Value Stamp while at the same time buying TWO copies of Human Fly, for speculation purposes!

          Agg!

          I have a big post on the Steve Gerber-era Defenders coming up next month, Mars, will try to change your opinion on that much-maligned supergroup, or at least maybe inspire you to look at it in a different way. Will look forward to your comments, as always!

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  4. Deathlok was indeed a classic character, but 65 bucks?!? Booze doesn’t even cost that much!
    Please don’t tell our computer overlords from the future I said that.

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    • And here was me with the whole original run, organized, bagged, and boarded, ready to loan out … and the Ulm still drops sixty-five bones on a hardback.

      You just can’t help people sometimes.

      Like

  5. A bulleted list of Deathlok Thoughts for you:

    1. Since my early comic exploits was X-centric, I never ran across Deathlok until I got a pack of 1990 (/91?) Marvel trading cards that featured a Deathlok “Rookie Card.” (How ridiculous does THAT sound?) So I thought he was a new character around that time. Why the hell did they call him a rookie 15 years after his original publication?

    2. He looks a little like Jersey’s own, The Toxic Avenger.

    3. You mentioned the CIA appearing… I never thought about it til now, but aside from local PDs, Marvel rarely, if ever, uses real government agencies like the FBI, CIA and NSA in their stories, always sticking with SHIELD, SWORD and the short-lived ONE (probably others in there, too). You think that’s a conscious decision for some reason, similar to the way they wouldn’t feature a McDonald’s or Pepsi in the story? (I know that example would be a copyright issue, so it’s not really the same, but you see where I’m going here?)

    4. Yesterday Dies TODAY! is my new battle cry.

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    • I expect Marvel avoided CIA et. al. for the same reason the “Mafia” became the “Maggia” — Marvel was leery of some real-world scandal or especially topical event reflecting on their stories. Plus there was the long-standing comics tradition of setting tales in “Gotham” or “Metropolis” rather than real cities. Marvel was already iconoclastic for using the “real” New York in their tales.

      What I find jarring is when real-life characters appear in a story — David Letterman, the sitting President, etc. I read a lot of older books and it instantly dates them to see that the Impossible Man was impersonating Jimmy Carter to foil his assassination …

      … which was perpetrated by Deathlok, as I recall, in a particularly misbegotten issue of Marvel Two-In-One, where poor ol’ Deathlok was already into the fat, bloated, and drunken downside of his career, playing little stages and dinner theater and generally just a shadow of his original glory. It’s scary how fast and how far this character fell after leaving the comparatively high rent district of his own crappy book. His rookie card wouldn’t have been worth a fist-full of Forbushes at that time.

      Yesterday Dies TODAY … everyday … at Longbox Graveyard! That’s MY battle cry now.

      (Groovy to hear from you as always, Foogos).

      Like

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