“That’s inspired by a great Marvel comic, Deathlok, a guy whose brain and lungs were stuck into a cyborg’s body. See, he was to be used as this ultimate killing machine and something backfired.”
-Dave Mustaine of Megadeth who wrote and performed the song PSYCHOTRON.
Today’s MMP recommendation goes to one of my favorite comic characters of all time-Deathlok the Demolisher.
During the early to mid-70s was the era in Marvel Comics that was referred to as the “Bronze Age”. This was a redefining period for the comics company, as they introduced more characters and concepts that would set them apart from their Silver age predecessors like Spiderman, Hulk and the Fantastic Four. Now with new characters ushering the Bronze age of Marvel (Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Man-Thing, Adam Warlock and Killraven) emerging on the scene, many readers who were somewhat tired of the sanitized super heroic clichés turned toward investing their reading time and of course, money into these groundbreaking titles. Within Marvel’s Bronze Age, one in particular had stood out among the rest. Not only for it’s exciting Sci-Fi premise, but also for being perhaps one of the most influential characters from that time period.
His name is Deathlok, A soldier turned cyborg who battles a madman’s privatized army while coming to terms with his lost humanity. Created by Rich Buckler, Deathlok and the dystopian world he lived in most likely were the inspiration for various science fiction movies. An easy comparison would be The Terminator and Robocop who shared familiar similarities to Marvel’s first Cyborg. And while we’re on the subject of classic 80s dystopia, Deathlok had tried to make his Escape from New York, while taking on cannibals way before Snake Plissken.
Released in August of 1974, Deathlok made his very first appearance in Astonishing Tales #25 and despite being inspired to some degree by the Six Million Dollar Man TV series, Deathlok‘s concept was original enough to stand on his own as well as have a more exciting concept than the classic television series. Whereas Steve Austin was a government operative in modern times, Deathlok became a programmed assassin whose world was filled with the horrors of cloning, genetic engineering, gene-splicing and cryogenics. Despite these aforementioned topics being featured in today’s world of information (Newspapers, Interwebs, etc.), the comic foresaw these almost 40 years ago.
This uncertain future had occurred when the Roxxon Corporation enacted operation purge a projector that is capable of banishing all of Earth’s super powered humans and in return would offset the balance of power this giving the corporation the advantage of taking over America through conventional methods.
Following the events of the purge, America had become a battlefield and conflict amassed to a global scale. During that time, Colonel Luther manning was involved in a training exercise, however when a concussion bomb went off by accident, manning became mortally wounded. Major Simon Ryker had preserved Luther’s remains in order to be utilized for the CIA’s “Alpha Mech” project, based on his knowledge and combat experience. Manning was the first to be selected for this Cyborg super soldier project.
Ryker however, had his own agenda as far as Alpha Mech is concerned, it would be used as a means for his personal ambition which is world domination. The Cyborg was named Deathlok as in a man locked in death. Deathlok had regained his human memories and in doing so, rebelled against his superiors.
Once manning had learned that not only was he declared dead, but his wife remarried his best friend; Mike Travers, he took a personal oath of vengeance against his “Creator” Simon Ryker and in doing so, crush his Megalomaniac dreams once and for all. Thus began the adventures of Marvel’s Antihero.
Throughout his objective to stops Ryker, there were some notable highlights from Deathlok’s stint in astonishing tales that were nothing short of say, groundbreaking. Despite the restrictions imposed by the Comics code authority, this series did not necessarily skimp on its ultraviolent content. One scene in particular that caught my eye, goes to the ‘lok pulling out a 45 magnum and in doing so blows three dum-dum shells into his pursuer two through the body, one through the face.
It’s apparent that Deathlok was created out of cynicism toward the United States government due to the fascist Nixon Watergate scandal and of course, the Vietnam war during the era of counter culture. One poignant scene albeit a controversial one, is when Manning discovers that both his wife and son are still alive, unfortunately Janice not being able to recognize Luther under the rotting face with steel limbs panics , shields their son while calling him a monster. It’s also interesting to note that this was among the first examples of an interracial romance which was still considered taboo during that time period.
This is the part in which Manning attempts to commit suicide via pointing his laser pistol to the brain. However, due to internal programs, he is not allowed to kill himself. Not only can he not live, but he’s incapable of taking his own life. Despondent and pissed off, Manning rips the American flag from his chest and stomps on it. A powerful dialog-free ending that sent patriotic readers on a hate mail frenzy.
That being said, I can’t help but applaud this bold and impressive scene which no doubt was inspired by cynicism caused by the Watergate scandal.
Despite the comic’s nihilistic approach, there are a few humorous breaks that consist of Deathlok’s bickering with the implanted computer that he refers to as “Puter”. And it’s almost reminiscent to Dave & Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or nowadays Michael Knight and KITT.
The influence Deathlok has had in many major motion pictures is obvious. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK copies Deathlok’s view of Manhattan as a violent, anarchic hell filled with maniacs, cannibals and gangs. THE TERMINATOR borrows Deathlok’s imagery (right down to the glowing red eye) and even gave him similar computer suggested responses. The ROBOCOP Films, however, are the more inspired example when in comparison; Deathlok was a good man, a soldier with a wife and young son, then he’s killed and resurrected as a Cyborg by a sinister organization. ROBOCOP, same thing. Alex Murphy; a good man, a Police officer with a wife and young son, suddenly he’s killed and resurrected as a Cyborg by a…you guessed it; a sinister organization.
Both Deathlok and Robocop are preprogrammed by the evil organizations yet resist the company’s brainwashing and attempts to destroy them. They recapture their real identities, keep their evil programmers from wiping their memories, pine away for their families and vow to do their best in life, despite their new situations. Both Protagonists find their heads transplanted into robot bodies. There are quite a few similarities between the comic and the ROBOCOP movies and it’s apparent how one had inspired the other.
Especially notable is a surreal battle between Deathlok and Ryker within a computer network. Keep in mind, that this concept was written and drawn more than two decades before both The Matrix and The Lawnmower Man debuted, not to mention before the concepts of cyberspace and virtual reality became popular.
Once again, there’s that scene right out of the original DEATHLOK comics (Circa 1970s) where he goes back to see his wife but now he’s been turned into a machine, so it’s a big, tragic scene. Moench notes “I have also heard that the people who wrote ROBOCOP are comic book fans, so it seems pretty likely.” “I didn’t realize Deathlok was so unique; I think it was ahead of its time. It’s only in retrospect that people remember it and are really obsessed with it. When we were doing him, there were no movies like that. Now it seems like all the big movies are like the comics we were doing in the early’70s. They’re 20 years behind!”
Another rather interesting tidbit is how one may draw parallels from the comic to reality when once again, citing the scene in which Deathlok finally confronts Simon Ryker once and for all.
What makes this scenario interesting is how, in Astonishing Tales #35, Ryker justifies his attempts at establishing a new world order via The God Machine, in this heated exchange between The Cyborg protagonist and his power-mad creator that is somewhat prophetic: “It was for their own good! People need someone to watch over them!” To which Deathlok shouts back “So you elected yourself! Dictator and God all rolled into one! You’re mad, Riker! You’re insane!” The Major’s response to in turn, was “I merely brought our society to a logical conclusion, along a path it had long ago chosen for itself: benevolent control by an impassioned military-industrial complex.”
There was no mention of who was responsible for the bombing of Manhattan that has contributed to the decaying outlook of the city. Could some madman be held responsible, or was it the act of foreign terrorists? Deathlok’s deduction is that Ryker himself, may have caused the disaster in order to give him the opportunity to initiate his fascist policies. This is reflective of real life situations when certain politicians have often utilized catastrophic events such as the September 11 attacks, as a means to pass unconventional and controversial legislation such as the “Patriot Act” or the NSA monitoring phone conversations as a prime example. There are many within the populace that would and have easily embraced these policies when exchanging their personal freedoms for security.
As for the collection itself, Buckler’s art is reminiscent to John Buscema and Jim Steranko which isn’t a bad thing, however, Rich has a style of his own. He doesn’t skimp when it comes to high octane action panels or impressive storytelling aesthetics as with the aforementioned pages.
The stories can be convoluted at times, but its still a fun read and what I also like about this book is the crossover between ‘lok and my other favorite Marvel character of all time-Captain America! Mike Zeck’s art always delivers and this 3 part saga concludes Manning’s arc.
This is by all means a must read for its innovation and brave storytelling. Highly recommended accept no substitutes, Deathlok Lives!
The reprints of Rich Buckler’s Deathlok opus are available for the Marvel Masterworks Hardcover Trade. Or if you’re on the go, try Comixology’s Deathlok the complete collection.