Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Deathlok The Demolisher

Marvel's other great sci-fi hero ( other than Killraven ) was Deathlok. Created by Rich Buckler, Deathlok was a great character stuck in a, at times, very irritating series. Set in the far-flung future of the year 1990, shortly after ( or possibly during ) some unspecified war, Deathlok was Luther Manning, a soldier blown to pieces in a bomb blast, and put back together in cyborg form by his unhinged commanding officer Ryker, who may, or may not, be in charge of the army, as well as what remains of New York. Like a lot of things in this series, it's never that easy to be sure.

As the cybernetic creature that Deathlok is consists of only 17% of what was left of Manning, he's technically a kind of futuristic zombie, his dead flesh encased in metal alloy, and sharing what remains of his brain with a particularly supercilious computer. He's a classic tortured tough guy, constantly snapping at the machine in his head he calls " 'puter", and fighting a one cyborg war to survive, and to get revenge on Ryker. At least some of the time he is.

What makes Deathlok such a frustrating series is that, having created such a great character, neither Buckler, nor co-writer Doug Moench, really seems to know what to do with him. For much of the time, he just sort of wanders around New York, having random fights with crowds of faceless bad guys who might, or might not, be working for Ryker.
Ryker himself spends a good deal of time ranting at computer screens, swearing to catch his cyborg charge, before, halfway through the series, simply changing his mind, and forgetting about the whole thing.

So much is never explained here. We're never really given any kind of detailed look at the world we're in, or why things happen the way they do. For instance, there seems to be some sort of revolution against Ryker, but we're never told why, who or where.

Then there's the structure itself: In the early issue's there are so many flashbacks, it's impossible to figure out what's happening. If I've got the chronology right: Deathlok breaks out of Ryker's compound, comes across his best buddy from his previous life, Mike Travers, and escapes with him. Travers is then recaptured ( though we're never told why Ryker wants him ), so Deathlok goes back to break him out. But before that we're told that Deathlok was hired by some racketeer to murder two random people who turn out to be the doctors who operated on Deathlok/Manning. But when that bit happened, or why a cyborg would need money in the first place is beyond me.

Then there's War Wolf. Having decided to rescue Mike, Deathlok makes it to the statue of liberty, where Ryker faces him off against this other cyborg who he says is Travers, then says it isn't. So our confused cybernetic pal pushes War Wolf off the top of the statue. But we're never told who the furry felon actually was. Was he a real wolf that Ryker experimented on? Your guess is as good as theirs.
And then, having found his arch enemy, our unmotivated Death-Machine decides to just... stroll off for another couple of issues.

I kinda knew Moench & Buckler were really making it up as they were going along, when I realised they'd stopped using the third voice in Manning's head, a kind of emo/goth spouting stream of consciousness gibberish even Don McGregor would find hard to follow.
In the letters pages, Moench admits as much, saying they got rid of it as it " confused the readers".

Towards the end of the run, Bill Mantlo was brought in to try'n make sense of it all, and he does his best, but you don't really buy any of it. At this point, Deathlok is trying to track down a courier who was carrying counterfeit money to ( or possibly for ) the head doctor who operated on him. Eventually finding him, he turns out not to be the doctor, but instead Ryker's hitherto unmentioned brother Hellinger, another cyborg who's trying to take over the world. ( Oh, didn't I mention? Ryker's a cyborg too. Pretty much everybody in this strip is. ) Hellinger, by the way, has, for no apparent reason, a clone of Luther Manning standing around the place.

Apparently, Hellinger wants to deliver the money to the revolution, so Deathlok volunteers. Except it's not money, it's a bomb. And it isn't the revolution ( or maybe it is ), it's the C.I.A, who also haven't even been alluded to before this point. The C.I.A also have a clone of Manning, again for no real reason. Oh yeah, and the real doctor who operated on Deathlok finally shows up. In yet another Luther Manning clone.
Ryker meanwhile, concerned that the reader's forgotten him with all this going on, has plugged himself into the mainframe, and is now a 'God-Machine'. Deathlok goes into this virtual reality, and in a pretty cool scene, the enemies discuss american military policy before the special effects laden finale. In a disappointing ending, it's all over in a couple of panels.

Deathlok wakes up in Ryker's body, while Ryker wakes up in Deathlok's, so that he can see the true horror of becoming a machine ( even though he already was, being a cyborg ). Then they swap back. Then the CIA put Deathlok's consciousness into the Luther Manning clone. Manning is alive again. Then Deathlok wakes up again and he's still alive too. Then my head exploded.

I know it seems that I don't like Deathlok, but I really do. It's just such a damn frustrating series. As I said, the character is superb & the fight scenes exciting and shockingly violent for the times. I always liked how Deathlok actually exulted in the violence he created, and the verbal sparring with 'puter makes for riveting dialogue. There are individual scenes that really work too, like when Deathlok goes back to see his wife & child, an inter-racial marriage that, tellingly, isn't made a big deal of:

Or the fight in the subway with the cannibals, obviously lifted from the Yul Brynner post-apocalypse flick The Ultimate Warrior, then doing the rounds, or even the scene where Deathlok tears up and treads on the american flag. There's clearly a political edge to Deathlok, if only the rest of the story was as lucid.

Buckler, although he's the king of the swipes ( ripping off Buscema every few pages ), does turn in some mostly good work, and, when he's inked by Klaus Janson, you could almost pretend you're looking at Neal Adams.

But, every time I read this series, I give up about halfway through trying to understand it, and just enjoy the character & the action.
After getting rid of Ryker, the series lasted two more issues, with Buckler introducing Devil Slayer, his character from Atlas comics, but it was all over bar the post mortem. Deathlok keeps coming back, 'cos like most characters from The Bronze Age, he really works. Regardless of the story he's in, there's just something ridiculously cool about him. It's like what Cary Grant said: If you find yourself in a bad movie, the least you can do is look good.
Deathlok. The Cary Grant of comics.


  1. I almost hate to say it, but you're making me feel good that I never read this series. there was something about the ads for it, and the covers, that just turned me off when it was coming out. It seemed too dark and nasty for my tastes. Maybe I could tolerate it now, but after what you described, it makes me realize that my own writing is a LOT more coherent than much of what went on at Marvel back then.

    DEATHLOK does seem to have inspired a few other series over time. Some have pointed to THE TERMINATOR, but much closer to home is ROBOCOP (there's even a scene in one of the films where he goes in secret to visit his ex-wife, who believes he's dead). And then there's COLDBLOOD-7, by Doug Moench & Paul Gulacy, which struck me as "Deathlok DONE RIGHT." I figured at the time, it's a good thing Marvel is publishing this, that way they can avoid a lawsuit.

  2. Pete,
    That was an exquisite description of one of the most underrated comic book characters ever. I remember just being so enthralled with the character and action (to paraphrase your own words), that I completely overlooked the foundation (which didn't exist) of the story. Looking back on it now, I see that those then "futuristic" elements alone seemed to sustain the narrative and kept the story moving forward. Too bad (or good?) that quality was lost on most of our comic-buying peers at the time.
    Needless to say, the often-copied Deathlok was WAYYYYY ahead of his time, but would find an almost ridculously "comfortable" home in the tech-addicted, privacy-intruded, perpetual war/profit-driven, IED-victimized 21st century. Does life actually imitate art?

  3. I loved it back in the 70's as a kid - still do. Deathlok, Ghostrider,
    Power man and Swampthing. I always liked the fringe characters :)
    and now that google glasses and wearable pc revolution is just around the corner. The future is now. pretty soon we'll all be talking to our "Puter" Deathlok will be discovered by the masses and they'll maybe make a cool movie in honour of this awsome character.....thats my prediction