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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, November 17, 2016


Creative talents at Marvel Comics in the first half of the 1970s displayed a level of experimentation that in some ways dwarfs the seminal work of Lee, Kirby, and Ditko in the 1960s. Possibly because superhero comics weren't selling as well as they had in the previous decade, Marvel editors allowed for far more off-the-wall projects than the company had ever published before, and arguably, since.

That's not to say that every experiment worked out, as seen with the case of Deathlok. Marvel's badass cyborg enjoyed less than a dozen issues of ASTOUNDING TALES, a title which was cancelled just as the titular hero was about to start a new plotline (later concluded elsewhere). The character was conceived by writer Doug Moench and writer-artist Rich Buckler, but like the Black Panther series I've touched on elsewhere, Deathlok's saga was somewhat compromised by the use of "fill-in" talents. Buckler had involvement in all of the issues, but ironically, the best single story of this run was scripted by Bill Mantlo-- though probably with some input from Buckler.

The concept was a nightmare version of ABC's teleseries THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, whose first TV-film aired the year before Deathlok appeared. Whereas astronaut Steve Austin was given a squeaky-clean reconstruction by his benevolent military/espionage bosses, soldier Luther Manning-- inhabiting a future-America that had suffered some vague military catastrophe-- found himself rebuilt into a mechanically enhanced Frankenstein by his less than avuncular commander Major Ryker. Manning was dead at the time the military decided to work on his corpse, giving it metal limbs, various weapons and a computer-brain. Unfortunately for Manning, his human mind survived the transition, so that he found himself literally "tied to a dying animal," as Yeats put it. Manning was not happy about having been transformed into Deathlok a conglomeration of metal and dead flesh, and his peripateric adventures-- mostly confined to New York of the future-- varied between the cyborg trying to kill himself (which the computer-brain overruled) and trying to kill Ryker.

Most of the stories, while affecting on the emotional level, lack the density of symbolic discourse that gives rise to a mythcomic; most of the time, it seems like Buckler and Moench are channeling a new version of THE OMEGA MAN. (Why did the war create roving bands of cannibalistic humans? Maybe because it was neat when OMEGA MAN did something similar--?)  Only issue #35 comes closest to realizing the complexity of myth, because Buckler and pinch-hitter Mantlo devote some special intensity to the final confrontation between Deathlok and Major Ryker.

Following a setup from the previous issue, Deathlok invades Ryker's sanctum and learns that Ryker has a new scheme. Instead of fooling around with building corpse-soldiers to fight in the war-- which may not even exist at all, after the fashion of Orwell's "1984"-- Ryker has downloaded his brain into the "Omni-Computer" that controls civilized life. The computer hasn't really been a big part of the narrative up to this point, but Deathlok is informed by computer-technicians that Ryker can endanger the whole world with this attempt at cybernetic godhood. So Deathlok downloads his own consciousness into the computer for a showdown, giving comics-readers an early taste-- though probably not the earliest-- of the many "virtual reality" conflicts that would appear in later science-fictional works.

The most interesting aspect of the script is that though earlier plots emphasized Ryker as simply a ruthless military man, here he's transformed into the representative of an idea of order so repressive that it's as dangerous as any external enemy. (America's involvement in Vietnam had ended the year before Deathlok appeared, but it's not hard to envision the alienated cyborg as a response to the U.S. using soldiers as pawns in a war of attrition.) During the VR-conversation of Deathlok and Ryker, the latter reveals that his people never knew what caused the explosions that led to the mobilization of forces, and the imposition of a military dictatorship. Deathlok, the low-level "grunt" who has been the pawn of authority, speaks on behalf of the ordinary citizens who are also Ryker's pawns:

"There was no enemy, Ryker! You just wanted order-- total, complete order! And the only way to get it was to get rid of the causes of disorder. People, Ryker! People cause disorder! So you got rid of the people!"

Ryker and Deathlok have a short conflict in the VR-world-- probably one of the shortest in the days when every Marvel comic had a fight-scene-- and then one of the scientists in the real world pulls the plug on the experiment. It's never quite clear what was preventing the technicians from forcing Ryker out of the computer and back into his own body earlier, but suddenly they are able to bring both hero and villain back to the real world--

But not-- to their own bodies--

In the series' most interesting trope, Deathlok is mistakenly placed in the body of his enemy, and the Major in the body of a half-rotted cyborg. The technicians correct the mistake within seconds, but in the seconds in which Ryker is forced to walk in the shoes of a cyborg, Ryker goes mad, and continues to rant madly even after being returned to his proper body-- thus ending him as a threat for the very short remainder of the original series.

This denouement is much more satisfying than Ryker's death would have been. The order-obsessed officer had no intention of reviving Luther Manning in the body of Deathlok, but the fact that Manning resurfaced speaks to the essential toughness of the common American infantryman. But though Deathlok tries to kill himself early in the series, he continues to perservere despite his unenviable lot. Further, the fact that Ryker can't handle even a few seconds of the hell to which he subjected his former subordinate suggests that despite Ryker's greater rank he's not nearly as much "man" as Manning.

Following the interruption of the original series, Deathlok went through various reboots, but none of them had the potential-- however unrealized-- of the original ASTONISHING run.

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