“Is he MAN?—or MACHINE—or MONSTER?”
Of the many Marvel superheroes that populate the comic book landscape, one of the most underrated is Deathlok, the original cyborg antihero. Originally created in 1974 by Rich Buckler and Doug Moench, Deathlok is the alter ego of Captain Luther Manning, a loyal soldier who upon being killed in war games is resurrected as a hideous cyborg death machine. Deathlok’s original stories – published in Astonishing Tales #25-#38—were years ahead of their time, displaying startlingly intense character development and dark, psychological themes.
Despite Deathlok’s relative obscurity, it could be argued that his post-apocalyptic world has served as a major inspiration behind many classic works of film, literature and entertainment, including The Terminator, Escape from New York, Robocop, Neuromancer, They Live!, The Dark Knight Returns, Duke Nukem and even the Megadeth song Psychotron. Deathlok’s stories were gritty, tense and often nonlinear; they confronted issues such as suicide, the barbarity of humanity and the increasing power technology has over our lives.
Unfortunately, the original Deathlok run has never truly received the recognition it deserves, a tragedy which may largely be attributed to the fact that Astonishing Tales, while it was being written, was always on the verge of cancellation. The plot, while it starts out strong, sort of limps to the finish line with many issues unresolved; it wasn’t until J.M. DeMatties’ and Mike Zeck’s Deathlok Lives! came along in 1987 that Deathlok’s story was finally given a proper sendoff. Also, the years have been hard on the some of the more dated elements of Buckler’s post-apocalyptic saga. While the earlier issues still hold up in many ways, they don’t in others.
Basically, it comes down to this; even though the concept behind Deathlok is fantastic, some of the dramatic moments are absolutely brilliant and the character himself is one of the most original, most engaging heroes in Marvel history, the actual comic books themselves have now become a bit dated.
Charlie Huston and Lan Medina’s 2010 limited series, Deathlok: The Demolisher, is the breath of fresh air that the character has needed for a long time. It’s a throwback series that returns the killer cyborg to his roots, while simultaneously conveying a new message that is surprisingly…idealistic.
What? How? Deathlok…idealistic?!
Deathlok: The Demolisher is like a widescreen, blockbuster film in the form of a comic book. It is a total reimagining of the Deathlok mythos from the ground up. Unlike previous Deathlok reboots, however – most of which, such as the 1999 Joe Casey comic, basically discarded everything but the name Deathlok and the protagonist’s cyborg nature – Deathlok: The Demolisher is largely faithful to the core themes, characters and concepts that made the original stories so fascinating, while not being afraid to modernize things. Deathlok: The Demolisher is to Astonishing Tales what the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot was to the 70s series. It is a Batman Begins, a Casino Royale, a new story that clears out the cobwebs, goes back to the beginning and hits the reboot button.
Okay, so that’s all good and well. But does Deathlok: The Demolisher live up to its potential?
In the comic’s opening scenes, we are thrust into a somewhat different world than the one from Astonishing Tales—but one that is no less horrifying. In this version of the future, Earth is now run by entertainment corporations. Wars have become blood-soaked media spectacles, live TV reality show entertainment for the masses. We are soon introduced to two men, both of them soldiers for the Roxxon corporation: Captain Luther Manning, a family man, and his twisted counterpart – media darling Mike Travers, a showboating psychopath who’s happy to get his whole team killed if it gets him a closeup on TV.
Fairly quickly, both Luther and Mike – who were best friends in Astonishing Tales, but are depicted here as being bitter enemies – are killed in battle. And this moment, right here, is where this series makes its most daring, risky change to the familiar mythology.
This Deathlok isn’t just one man.
Dr. Harlan Ryker – nicknamed “Hellinger” – recovers the remains of both men for use in his Alphamec project, under the authority of Roxxon director Theresa Devereaux. Hellinger seeks to create a robotic killing machine, invulnerable to almost all damage and even capable of using a special satellite uplink to vaporize entire cities at will; however, for Hellinger’s machine to work, he requires the superior computing power of the human brain. To this end, he harvests the mind of Luther Manning – minus a damaged hypothalamus – and merges it with the cerebellum of Mike Travers. Combined with state-of-the-art robotics, Hellinger creates the ultimate death machine, a super soldier that combines Manning’s cunning military expertise with Travers’ muscle memory and motor control.
Very soon, this “Deathlok” monstrosity is released upon the battlefield, instantly slaughtering thousands of enemy soldiers –and, happily enough for Roxxon, Deathlok becomes an instant media sensation.
I have to admit that, at first, I was highly wary of this story’s central conceit – and by that, I mean the idea that this version of Deathlok is an amalgamation of two men, instead of just Luther Manning. Most of the early marketing emphasized Mike Travers, implying that Luther would be marginalized. Thankfully, this is not the case. As both men “awaken” inside the Deathlok cyborg’s brain, which is intriguingly depicted here as a medieval wasteland, the clear driving force behind the cyborg’s actions is Luther. Not the whole Luther, though – keep in mind, there are a few bits missing.
Naturally, having this many voices fighting for space in the same head creates a predictably schizophrenic scenario. This dynamic is familiar to Deathlok fans; we all fondly remember the often hilarious mental exchanges between Luther and ‘puter – the nickname Luther gives to the Deathlok cyborg’s impassive, symbiotic computer – as well as the mysterious, grotesque “third personality” that sometimes emerges in the earliest issues. Here, though, the familiar dynamic is turned on its head; instead of a running dialogue between man and machine, the internal conflict is now between Manning and Travers…and as we’ve established, Travers’ homicidal tendencies are certainly equal to any computer.
So, as we’ve established by this point, the overall storyline is fairly faithful to the original comic books, albeit with a few twists and turns. But this version of Deathlok that Huston and Medina have created is not the same Deathlok from the 1970s, and this reimagined cyborg protagonist is here to convey a very different message to the contemporary reader. This isn’t the same Luther Manning from Astonishing Tales, a desperate man who once famously attempted suicide, only to be stopped by the computer. No, this is a very different Luther.
What do I mean by this?
Well, for starters, when Luther/Mike/Deathlok finally does override the homicidal computer’s programming and wakes up inside the death machine…our hero’s reaction to this disturbing predicament is surprising. Whereas the 70s Luther and the 90s Michael Collins versions of Deathlok were both understandably horrified by their condition, this Deathlok doesn’t gasp in horror at the violent atrocities he’s been forced to commit – which makes sense, considering that this Deathlok was born into a sadistic, corrupt world that glorifies violence. So when Deathlok becomes conscious, he doesn’t immediately throw a fit. He doesn’t become overwhelmed with self-loathing or anger.
Instead, he simply wakes up, calmly…and he immediately goes out in search of Luther Manning’s wife and son.
No, this isn’t the same Deathlok, and I’ll admit that I was at first disappointed not to have the “wake up” scene that is such a significant part of most versions of this story (especially in the excellent 90’s series by Dwayne McDuffie and Gregory Wright). But having Deathlok react calmly to his condition is not a betrayal of the character’s essence; it’s just a new approach to an old idea. This new Deathlok accepts his fate, instead of struggling to escape from it through suicide, a new body and so on.
One might even say that this Deathlok actually embraces his new existence.
Now, at this point the origin story continues in the expected direction. Deathlok rebels from his masters at Roxxon, and in the process of seeking out his family (and running into such figures as Godwulf), the cyborg powerhouse manages to spark a world revolution. This is familiar enough. What’s different is that this Deathlok embraces his newfound role, fully accepting his position as the “savior machine.” He isn’t a reluctant antihero; he’s the morally-driven leader of the revolution, a revolution of technologically-enhanced humans – transhumans, let’s say – against the morally-bankrupt flesh and blood humans that have poisoned society.
That’s right; for once, the computers are the heroes. It’s a daring twist, and by incorporating this decidedly transhumanistic theme, Huston brings new meaning to an old character, a character who for nearly two decades has been crying out for a revamp. To put it simply, Deathlok: The Demolisher, through its transhumanist ideals, has effectively redefined Deathlok for the 21st century. While later writers have all tried to put their own spin on Deathlok, none of them have done so as successfully as Huston.
Now, this begs the question; why is such an update needed? The 70s stories were decades ahead of their time. Why can’t we just savor those stories, and keep that version of Deathlok forever?
Why? Because if we want a lesser known superhero like Deathlok to last – if we want the demolisher’s tales to challenge new audiences, for years to come – then the characters needs to evolve with the times. And for a character as philosophically-complex as Deathlok, this takes a hell of a lot more than a costume change or a new protagonist. It takes a redefinition of purpose.
So, what is Deathlok’s purpose? What is Deathlok about?
“We are all becoming more dependent on technology. One of these days it’s going to be inside of us. For example, we won’t need a cell phone; it’ll be built into our ear. Now is that a cool thing, or will it destroy us as human beings? Deathlok explores what those consequences may be.”
– Avi Arad
Deathlok’s story is an examination of our relationship with technology. It’s about our fears that someday, advanced technology will siphon away our humanity. It’s about the seemingly inevitable assimilation of us and our machines; when our bodies are composed of more metal than flesh, will we still be human? Is our humanity defined by our flesh, as Nietzsche would have us believe, or can our consciousness exist outside of a mere corporeal form?
Someday, there may be no separation between us humans and our technology; that’s certainly what the transhumanists and post-humanists believe. Someday, we might be cylons, or we may even dispose of our bodies altogether and become the strange, ethereal “humans” of Isaac Asimov’s The Last Question. But right now, as we stand at the precipice of change, as we prepare to become transhumans ourselves, we must ask ourselves – is this a good idea?
That question is what Deathlok is about. It’s what Deathlok has always been about. In the 70s, Deathlok pointed a sharp arrow at these fears of assimilation – and in doing so, Buckler’s stories painted a pretty bleak picture. At the time, we feared computers. Technology was a demon; it was the cause of pollution, the destroyer of the Earth and in the end, it seemed destined to destroy us.
The 90s Deathlok stories, featuring Michael Collins, painted a somewhat different picture. By the 90s, we were coming to understand technology. We had personal computers in our homes. We had game systems. As technology slowly integrated itself into our everyday lives, we learned to work with it. That’s why the pacifistic Michael Collins refuses to commit suicide, unlike the 1970s version of Luther, who infamously pulled the trigger on himself. Instead, Michael quickly installs a “no-killing parameter” into the computer. He still seeks out a cure for his condition, but despite his new body, he stubbornly refuses to lose sight of his moral values, his family or his deep belief that “you have to do what’s right, not what’s easiest.” Michael keeps his humanity by simply integrating the machine into his old life. It doesn’t quite fit, but he does a better job than the 1970s Luther.
Now, we have a new form of Luther Manning –or a Manning/Travers hybrid, I suppose – a Deathlok who, while still tortured by his separation from his family, actively embraces his role as the leader of a new kind of human being. Huston’s Deathlok doesn’t try to find a cure. He doesn’t struggle to hold onto his humanity; he knows that he’s still human. A better human. Instead of being a twisted experiment gone wrong, this Deathlok transcends the disgusting society he comes from. This Deathlok is the future, and he knows it.
…and in today’s world, what other attitude could be more appropriate for our times? We live in a world where we’re perfectly happy to be plugged into a computer 24/7, whether it’s a PC, a cell phone or a tablet. We don’t blink an eye at pacemakers or artificial hearts anymore. Mechanical prosthetics are getting better everyday. We use digital cell phone clocks instead of watches, Kindles instead of paperbacks, Gmail instead of snailmail, texting instead of talking. We aren’t scared of technology anymore. We have embraced it. We have incorporated technology into our lives, personalities and relationships – we have even allowed computers to change the way we think.
So here, in the dawn of transhumanism, could there possibly be a hero more symbolic of our time than Deathlok?
That’s why Deathlok: The Demolisher is a success. It’s intriguing revamp of an old tale. It’s a dark, violent action thriller. And, overall, it’s an excellent introduction to the character of Deathlok. Give it a read, or if you already have, loan it out to that friend of yours who doesn’t know the difference between a Deathlok, a Deathstroke or a Deadpool.
Even more importantly…next time you get on your smartphone – think about it. Consider the direction we, as a species, are moving in, for better or worse. Deathlok’s transhumanist revolution isn’t too far off. Keep an eye out. Stay ahead of the curve, or fall behind – but whatever you do, stay informed.
We’ll see, soon enough. Who knows what the future will bring. I’ll tell you this much; I’m never having any work done by a doctor who calls himself “Hellinger.”
– Nicholas Conley