"The Long, Strange Trip of Deathlok the Demolisher"A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Paul Brian McCoy
In 1976, when I was eight years old, the only comic book that I was able to get my hands on regularly was The Avengers. I picked up whatever I could get my parents to buy for me when I could, but The Avengers was my favorite and I made sure to track down a copy each month. By April of the next year, I was also managing to collect Captain America (Kirby's return to the title!), The Invaders, What If? and The Uncanny X-Men, as well as grabbing as many Marvel Team-Ups, Two-in-Ones, Spotlights, Presents, Premieres, and reprint comics as possible. I was never a big Spider-Man or Hulk fan, but my tastes were pretty mainstream.
It was about this time, probably sometime around the end of 1976 or the beginning of 1977, that I stumbled across another character that, even though I couldn't find more of his stories, struck me as the most original and interesting character in any of the titles I was reading.
This was back in the days when once unsold comics were pulled from the shelves and the covers were stripped off and returned to the distributors for credit. Most of the local grocery stores where I lived would sell those comics, packaged in groups of three in plastic wrappers. Each side had a comic facing out, but the middle comic would usually be a mystery (unless you could pull the plastic apart far enough to see the edge of the splash page or the publication information at the bottom).
It was in one of these cheap, coverless, three-packs that I discovered Astonishing Tales #35, starring Deathlok the Demolisher. It was the tenth chapter of an eleven issue run that, at the time, didn't really wrap up satisfactorily.
But more about that in a moment.
All I knew about this book was that it starred a living corpse with a computer in his head and a cyborg body. It took place in a horrible future filled with cannibals and nuclear devastation. Deathlok was up against a man who had turned himself into an all-powerful god, and while determined to kill him, Deathlok was so miserable that he would have been happy to die too. Added to that, there was insanity, betrayal, espionage, and ultimately a mind-twisting ending where Deathlok's consciousness was transferred into an undamaged, living clone grown from his own DNA, but also stayed in his zombie super-soldier body as well.
Needless to say, my nine-year old brain was fried.
However, I wouldn't see Deathlok again until the July and August 1979 issues of Marvel Two-in-One (#53 and 54), when he showed up with his mind wiped clean of any human personality and being used as an assassin. He was destroyed at the end of the story and I assumed that was that. The character wasn't really the same without the Luther Manning personality arguing with the computer in his head, and I was never really clear about just how he ended up in the regular Marvel Universe and not in his own hellish, dystopian future.
It wouldn't be 'til four years later, in Captain America #286-288 (October – December 1983), that I'd find out just what had happened to him.
But maybe we should go back to the beginning, eh?
Part One: When I Waked, I Cried to Dream Again
Deathlok was the brainchild of artist Rich Buckler. He'd been playing around with the idea of writing a novel about a cyborg super-soldier for about three years, before bringing the idea to Marvel where he teamed up with writer Doug Moench to work out the overall plot of the story. Together, they created a pretty disturbing post-apocalyptic science fiction series that emphasized cinematic storytelling and simultaneous narrative progressions where the images and narration tell different parts of the story at the same time, as well as having the background art continuing narrative lines separate from the foreground art.
It was an innovative and experimental approach to comics that editor Roy Thomas described as a step forward from the traditional Marvel heroes, incorporating stylistic elements similar to Marvel's launches of Conan, Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night, and Man-Thing.
Aside from occasional appearances by The Guardians of the Galaxy and the tale of Killraven, a sequel to H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds that was running in the pages of Amazing Adventures (beginning with issue 18 (May 1973)), pure science fiction was a fairly novel avenue for Marvel. Horror comics, meanwhile, were selling like gangbusters with at least a dozen horror-themed comics being released nearly every month. So what better way to bridge the gap between the two than with a science fiction / horror title?
Our story begins in 1990, however, war had broken out in 1983, and tactical genius, Colonel Luther Manning was killed during a training exercise in 1985. Because of the military value of Manning's skills and knowledge, Major Simon Ryker salvaged a part of Manning's mind and put his body in deep freeze for five years before finally using him in the construction of the Deathlok cyborg. The plan was to eventually create an army of cyborg super-soldiers, but Manning's consciousness began subverting the programming of his computer half and he rebelled.
Pretty straightforward so far, right?
Well, it turns out that being legally dead means that your wife and child eventually move on with their lives. In this case, that means Manning's wife, Janice, married Manning's best friend, Mike Travers (both relationships being two of the first examples of interracial couples in comics - Manning and Travers are both white, and Janice is black). The realization that Janice sees him as a monster drives Manning to attempt suicide (Issue #27), however his programming won't allow it. The series then follows Deathlok as he devotes himself to finding and killing Ryker as revenge for bringing him back from the dead.
Whether it's cannibal mobs trying to kill and eat him, or mind-wiped drone humans, or mind-controlled tanks sent by Ryker to stop him, there is a surprising amount of cold-blooded killing going on in these comics. The opening pages of the debut, Issue #25, are a Steranko-inspired series of displaced panels as Deathlok hunts down and murders two victims in order to collect payment as a hired assassin. The money is intended to help finance his revenge on Ryker.
What Deathlok doesn't know, however, is that Ryker is also a cyborg with plans for uploading his own consciousness into the Omni-Computer which watches over The City in an alarmingly prescient surveillance society. After the destruction of New York in 1983 by enemies unknown, Ryker orchestrated the evacuation of the population to a safe and orderly city where he could watch over and control everyone. By becoming one with the Omni-Computer, Ryker intends to become the Saviour Machine, or God by any other name.
This actually happens, and in Issue #35, Deathlok, with the help of the C.I.A. (who are using this opportunity to depose Ryker) uploads his consciousness into the Omni-Computer to kill Ryker and, if he's lucky, die himself.
Which is where I came in as an impressionable nine-year old.
This also happens to be the moment when Marvel decided that both Deathlok and Killraven could use a boost with a Spider-Man crossover. It seems that over in Marvel Team-Up, Spidey had been having an adventure in the year 1692 involving The Scarlet Witch, The Vision, Doctor Doom, and Cotton Mather. Anyway, while trying to get back to his own time, Spidey ended up on a two-issue diversion where he visited two of Marvel's possible futures. In Issue #45 he encounters Killraven, and in Issue #46 (June 1976), Spider-Man crosses over with Deathlok in a forgettable adventure involving mutants, radiation beams, and mind control.
This is interesting for a couple of reasons, despite the story (by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema) being pretty weak. You see, Mantlo had been scripting Astonishing Tales since Moench left with Issue #31, but the Marvel Team-Up appearance was the first use of Deathlok that had no direct input from his creator, Rich Buckler.
However, it is the first time that Deathlok's world is incorporated directly into the mainstream Marvel Universe as a possible future for the Super Heroes we all knew and loved. The mysterious part is that in 1990 (the year the crossover is set), Spider-Man has either been forgotten or has never existed. In years to come, Deathlok's world would be retconned into an alternate earth (Earth 7484, to be exact), but at the time, Mantlo planted a very interesting narrative seed that wouldn't be addressed again for nearly 8 years.
Meanwhile, back in Astonishing Tales #36, Rich Buckler was for the first time taking complete control over his creation, scripting and illustrating what should have been a "New Beginning" for the character as both Deathlok and Luther Manning worked for the C.I.A. trying to bring some kind of peace to the world and to battle the threat of Ryker's even more evil brother, Harlan Ryker and his radioactive clone bombs.
Harlan Ryker has built himself a cyborg body, but unlike his brother "benevolent madness," Harlan Ryker, calling himself Hellinger is a full blown psychopath with more interest in chaos than his brother's obsession with order. Hellinger is all about destruction and evolving the human race into a cyborg species, whether humankind is interested or not.
Buckler also introduces a new character this issue; the primitive-weapon-using, loincloth-wearing, long blond haired and bearded mystery man called Godwulf. However, before we get a chance to really find out anything about the character, he flips a switch, Deathlok disappears, and the C.I.A. think he's dead. That's the end of the series, too, as Astonishing Tales was canceled with that issue.
As far as Buckler was concerned, that was the end of Deathlok. He'd been getting more and more interference from editorial over both the violence and edgier adult content (the scene in Issue #28 where he rips the American flag from his uniform, throws it on the ground and stomps on it, for example), as well as some of the more experimental artistic choices (such as the sideways two-page spread, also in Issue #28), so he walked away.
Part Two: A Torrent of Light Into Our Dark World
It would be almost a year later before Deathlok returned to the pages of Marvel Comics, and while Buckler would have a partial hand in it, things were clearly different.
In Marvel Spotlight #33 (April 1977), writer David Anthony Kraft picks up the narrative thread left dangling at the end of Astonishing Tales #36 with Rich Buckler on art (along with a gaggle of other artists, as well). Kraft is best known for his two year run on The Defenders (1977-79), his work on Savage She-Hulk (1980-82), and his long-running magazine David Anthony Kraft's Comics Interview.
However, in 1975, Rich Buckler had created the character Demon Hunter for Atlas Comics, plotting its single issue, with Kraft scripting. While Marvel Spotlight #33 says it's a spotlight on Deathlok the Demolisher, it also serves as the first appearance for their Marvel version of Demon Hunter, Devil-Slayer, who would go on to play a role in Kraft's Defenders run. Oddly, Kraft introduces Devil-Slayer as though the Atlas issue of Demon Hunter were a Marvel Comic, continuing that story without missing a beat.
The issue opens, though, with the final moments of Astonishing Tales #36 and the disappearance of Deathlok. We then pick up the story at Kennedy International Airport on July 13, 1976, as Devil-Slayer is returning from his adventures in Jamaica. After the typical mistaken battle between the two heroes, they must team-up to fight off the demons that have targeted Devil-Slayer's wife (another interracial marriage, for those keeping track). Deathlok disappears at the end, only to reappear that same month on the final page of Marvel Two-in-One #26.
Here's where it gets complicated. Marvel Two-in-One writer/editor, Marv Wolfman, had been the editor on both Astonishing Tales and Deathlok's Marvel Team-Up appearance. So without missing a step, he incorporated Deathlok into the contemporary Marvel Universe of 1976 (cover dated April 1977).
It seems that villains The Fixer and Mentallo overheard Spider-Man trying to piece together the recollections of his time-traveling adventures, and upon hearing about Deathlok, whipped up a time machine of their own and plucked him from space/time. Then, using their technology to brainwash him, planned to use Deathlok to assassinate President Jimmy Carter at his inauguration.
Needless to say, The Thing (along with the rest of the Fantastic Four and with an assist by The Impossible Man, actually) stops him. Unfortunately, not even Reed Richards can remove The Fixer's mind-control device from Deathlok's brain, so the comatose undead super-soldier is taken into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody.
When we see him again, in Marvel Two-in-One #53 and #54 (July and August 1979), Luther Manning is gone and in his place is a personality-free cyborg assassin, that is ultimately destroyed by Quasar. This story was written by Mark Gruenwald & Ralph Macchio, with art by John Byrne and Joe Sinnott. To be honest, the whole Project Pegasus storyline of which this is a part is worth checking out.
It turns out the Roxxon Corporation (an affiliate of HYDRA) had stolen Deathlok from S.H.I.E.L.D. and he was being studied by one of the top scientists at the Brand Corporation (an affiliate of Roxxon); a fellow by the name of Harlan Ryker. We can logically assume that this is where Harlan Ryker gained the initial knowledge needed to transform himself into Hellinger.
In this issue, though, there are some shadowy figures planning something to do with a device called an Nth Projector, but it's not explained to any satisfaction. Eventually, readers of Marvel Two-in-One would discover that a group calling themselves the Nth Command used Nth Projectors to travel between dimensions. But it wouldn't be until 1983 that there would be a satisfying conclusion to the Deathlok story, and it would involve the character Rich Buckler called Deathlok's inversion: Captain America.
If you'll recall, 1983 was the year that the war began that devastated Deathlok's world. And in Marvel Team-Up #46, Spider-Man found himself in that future, but there were no Super Heroes and Deathlok had never heard of him. Well, as 1983 actually rolled around, Mark Gruenwald had an idea.
He'd been the last writer to work on Deathlok a few years earlier, and, being familiar with the backstory that had already been developed, he brought his idea to the ear of J.M. DeMatteis. DeMatteis had been writing Captain America since issue #261 and probably the most predominant theme of his tenure was the exploration of just what it meant to be a symbol that actually stood for something and inspired others to greater heights.
The incorporation of Deathlok into his run worked perfectly as a study in contrasts. Where Captain America was the epitome of the American Ideal; Deathlok was representative of those Ideals crashing down. Cap was created by the government and became one of its greatest successes; Deathlok was created by a government gone mad and was a suicidal failure. Cap was the heroic ideal; Deathlok was an anti-heroic Caliban.
But not only was the pairing of the two characters a great idea, Gruenwald and DeMatteis worked out a story that would pull Deathlok's continuity into order, finally bringing him full circle and completing his original tale.
The first step was cleaning up the Deathlok in 1983 narratives, and in order to get this jump-started, DeMatteis returned to the source. According to this new story, beginning in Captain America #286 (October 1983), Godwulf had only meant to slip Deathlok out of his own time period temporarily, in order to get Hellinger, off of his trail. When Deathlok was snatched from the timestream by The Fixer and Mentallo, Godwulf lost him. So he recruits the clone of Luther Manning and sends him back in time to track down Deathlok and bring him home.
But wasn't Deathlok destroyed by Quasar? Further retcons will establish that the Deathlok that appeared in Marvel Two-in-One #53 and #54 was an android duplicate, but at this point, it seems that he was simply rebuilt, as he suffers through a flashback of his life and that destruction is included in his memories.
Regardless, when the clone of Luther Manning tracks Deathlok to the Brand Corporation in 1983, as luck would have it, he also stumbles across Captain America. However before they can make any real progress, Manning is shot from behind by a brainwashed, yet fully-functioning, Deathlok. Before he dies, though, Manning is able to somehow (metaphysically?) touch the suppressed Manning inside of Deathlok and wake him from his brainwashing. Together, Cap and Deathlok destroy the Brand Corporation laboratory and escape to Deathlok's exit point to be transported back to the future, together.
Captain America #288 is where DeMatteis pulls all the threads together and ties up the Deathlok Saga in a nice, neat bow, with only one major revision. But that revision is huge. In this new version of Deathlok's future, there's no mention of Major Simon Ryker, the Omni-Computer, or The Savior Machine.
In this new future, Hellinger is responsible for creating Deathlok and bringing Luther Manning back from the dead as a cyborg super soldier. Hellinger is responsible for all of the troubles in this world, going all the way back to his time working for the Brand Corporation.
It also turns out that Godwulf worked for the Brand Corporation back in the Seventies; for an offshoot called the Nth Command, actually. Sound familiar? Using Nth Projectors, Nth Command sent Nth Commandos on a mission called Operation Purge, where, using Nth Projectors, all of the United States' Super Heroes were trapped in other dimensions, never to be seen or heard from again. That was scheduled to happen on one fine day in 1983, thereby starting the war that would lead to the destruction of Manhattan and the eventual death of Colonel Luther Manning and the creation of Deathlok.
Together with a group of rebels, Deathlok, Captain America, and Godwulf confront Hellinger, kill him, and free the country. In the course of this, Cap gives Deathlok an inspirational pep-talk, convincing him that he can be the same sort of symbol as Cap, and inspire the cause of Freedom and Liberty and all that. In the end, Deathlok agrees to work with Godwulf to help clean up the devastated future world, and embrace his role as an inspirational hero.
Cap, meanwhile, travels back to 1983 and takes down Nth Command before Operation Purge can be initiated. What does that mean for Deathlok's future? Not really anything. By this point we can only assume that Deathlok's world is an alternate future, and not the world the mainstream Marvel Universe will devolve into. At some point Deathlok's world gains the designation Earth 7484 and none of the adventures with Captain America in the past change anything.
In fact, during the Nineties revival of the Deathlok concept by Marvel, we find out that nothing good happened after the death of Hellinger at all. If anything, things got worse. But that storyline also involved Time Police, an even more depressed Luther Manning, and an eventual return to Earth 616, where Deathlok would end up living in the sewers, isolating himself from everything and everyone.
I prefer to just pretend that Nineties stuff didn't happen.
There are still a lot of things I haven't talked about here. The psychological development of the character as he defined himself in contrast to the computer voice in his head. The embrace of violence, that may have been meant to reflect criticism towards the uses of violence, but never really reached that point of philosophical self-awareness. The role that televisions Six Million Dollar Man played in giving Buckler and Moench the opportunity to launch the series in the first place (Marvel was negotiating for the rights to adapt the show, but lost out to Charlton).
This is a series that is extremely rich in content that can be explored much more fully once the reader becomes familiar with all the twists and turns the plot ended up taking.
I don't know what Rich Buckler would make of the place Deathlok ended up after DeMatteis' work. I know he has no interest in the other characters that have taken the name Deathlok over the years. And to be quite honest, neither do I. As far as I'm concerned, Deathlok hasn't been around since the end of Captain America #288, (and we're not even going to acknowledge for more than a moment the insult to the character, the previous writers, and the overall concept of Luther Manning as Deathlok, that was Bendis' use of Manning in New Avengers) and while that story ended far more hopefully and encouraging than any of Buckler's work with the character might have implied, it's still a good story.
And it's one that's finally going to be available for a modern audience, when it is released as part of the Marvel Masterworks collection in November, 2009. The entire Astonishing Tales run will be included (#25-28, 30-36), along with Marvel Team-Up #46, Marvel Spotlight #33, Marvel Two-in-One #27 and 54, and Captain America #286-288.
I guess I'm not the only one who thinks that's the best place to end the story.