In Comics, Reboots Aren’t Always a Bad Thing

Here’s a controversial idea to throw out there, which many may totally disagree with: what if the two major comic book universes rebooted every five to ten years? Planned reboots. Total reboots.

Let me explain.

Walter White Breaking Bad

Remember  Breaking Bad? Great show, right? And what made it great was that when it started, you knew it was going somewhere—and then, when it got there, the finale was everything we ever could have hoped for. All of the seeds that were planted in the first season paid off in a huge way, so that fans felt rewarded for having embarked on Walter White’s journey.  Throughout Breaking Bad, we saw one man become something entirely different than what he was at the start, and it was believable. Unlike so many popular TV shows, which run too long and thus lose the very things that made them great in the first place—I’m looking at you, House MD—Breaking Bad had a five season plan, stuck to it, and was thus the perfect picture of how to tell a great serialized story.

You know why Breaking Bad was such a great story?  Because it was planned. Because it had an ending.

What if American comic books could tell stories the same way?

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What I’m proposing is simple. First, let’s clean the slate. Start all of the various superheroes fresh, right from the beginning—totally fresh, with no carryovers, no “some parts of continuity are still valid but not others,” none of that.

And then, once the clean slate is established, we start with a brand new comic book universe — let’s call it “World One” — and we set an END DATE.  For the sake of argument, let’s say five years, six years, whatever. So this means that World One has five years to play out.

And then, once writers are assigned to their various characters, let’s allow those storylines to play out with total freedom. This allows characters to grow, change, die, be reinvented, or what have you. Also, when the universe does reset, we don’t need to do some cataclysmic end of the universe crossover: we just need to say that we’re moving onto the next universe.

Consider the advantages of this.

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Let’s say that when World One starts, the writer assigned to Wolverine begins by depicting the Weapon X storyline. That writer then has the freedom to, during their five year reign over the character, bring Wolverine from that point all the way to being an old man, ala Logan. Alternatively, they might decide that they want to have this version of Wolverine take the place of Xavier, leading a new team of X-Men. Or, they may want to have this Wolverine sacrifice himself to save the world from Apocalypse. In a planned universe with an end date, all of these things are possible.

The stakes would be heightened. Individual events would matter. Characters would be free to change, grow, evolve.

If comic universes operated on a five-six-or-however-many-years year plan, all of these options would be open, and comic book deaths would have meaning again. If the World One version of Wolverine died, he would stay dead. The World Two version of Wolverine, whenever he appeared, would be an entirely new writer’s vision of the character.

Batman Begins

Because the end of World One was planned from the beginning, there’d be no feeling of betrayal when it ended. This is the problem with most reboots. When The Amazing Spider-Man rebooted Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, it caused an uproar of negativity that the new series never quite recovered from, and this was because the old trilogy still had a lot of fans who were expecting a Spider-Man 4, never thinking that Spider-Man 3 was the ending. In contrast, a planned reboot wouldn’t stab the old fans in the back, because everyone would already know it was coming. The third part of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was, from the outset, promoted as the end of the series. This left the door open for a new film interpretation of Batman to enter the door in a few years, without trampling on Nolan’s legacy.

Look, I love comic books, especially Marvel. As I’ve written before, I credit superheroes—especially Spider-Man—with helping me come out of my shy shell as a kid, and I’ve retained my love of them into adulthood.  The characters that Marvel and DC comics have brought to the world are iconic, and that’s why they’re now lighting up the silver screen and bringing in billions of dollars.

But let’s face it, comic continuity is a mess. Storylines can’t be shocking or exciting when they always, always revert to the status quo. Planned reboots would be different, because each reboot would herald the beginning of a new story. If a fan loves one version, they get to have that version. If they hate it, well, they can just wait for the next time around.

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Planned reboots would allow characters to have endings. Consider the impact of this year’s Logan: the reason that movie was so heartbreaking was because we knew it was the end of Hugh Jackman’s character. There might be a new Wolverine someday, sure, but at least we got a chance to say goodbye to the old one. Endings matter.

Endings are important, because endings are what gives a story deeper meaning. Without an ending, a story is forever unresolved.

We all know that the biggest American comic books out there aren’t ever going to end permanently: there’s too much money to be lost if Superman is suddenly gone forever, no more issues, done. But with planned reboots, an individual version of Superman could end, could be a complete, satisfying story. In a few years, the comic would still get to continue, without trampling on the work of the previous writer.

Would it work? Who knows. I’d imagine this might not be the most popular solution for the comic book continuity quagmire. But personally, I think it’d be worth trying out.

 

 

 

 

Some Thoughts on the End of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine

 

Quick note, I’ll be getting back to my Southeast Asia stories next week! But in the meantime, a pause: 

It’s crazy to look back and realize that it has been 17 years since the first X-Men movie came out. I still remember sitting in that theater, so nervous that they were going to get it wrong. Like any kid of my generation, I was obsessed with superheroes, and the X-Men were always near the top of my favorites list. And in particular, I loved Wolverine; the gruff loner of the team, the outsider who never quite fit in.

These days, there are multiple superhero films released every year, and characters as out there as Groot and Doctor Strange are featured on T-shirts, posters, and billboards all around the world. But back in 2000, superhero movies were a rare oddity, and when they did come out, it rarely turned out well.

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So yes, I remember sitting in that movie theater back in 2000, totally nervous, feeling certain that this was going to be the only X-Men movie that ever got made, and just as certain that they were going to ruin Wolverine. The commercials had marketed the movie as more of a horror-like suspense than a sci-fi film, the costumes were all black leather, and the actor that they’d cast as Logan was some unknown Australian guy who was way too tall, too friendly, not angry enough.

And then the movie started… and there he was. This beaten, tired, reckless guy in a cage fight, wandering from place to place, not knowing who he was or where he came from. The impossible had happened, and somehow, a four-colored comic book character with six razor sharp claws had just been brought to life.

Wolverine Hugh Jackman

From that first moment, that first scene in the bar, it was clear that Hugh Jackman owned this role. And he never stopped owning it. Jackman made Wolverine into a household name, redefining the character for an entire generation of fans. And then, instead of stopping after a couple movies, he continued playing the character for almost 20 years, a legacy almost unheard of in any major franchise. Even more amazingly, his passion for the character only became stronger over time. From then and until now, Jackman was Wolverine. He’s made that role his own, arguably more than any other superhero actor to date.

Sure, Christian Bale was amazing as Batman. Robert Downey Jr. has brought Iron Man from a B-list favorite into the poster boy of Marvel Comics. Tobey Maguire was perfect for Peter Parker. But honestly, I don’t think there’s ever been another actor who has been this dedicated to a superhero role, starring in so many different films, and even playing such a key role in the writing of the character as the series went on.

Hugh Jackman Wolverine Logan

 

What Hugh Jackman — and the director, Bryan Singer — understood about Wolverine, that could have been so easily screwed up, was that the fundamental appeal of the character is his humanity, and the constantly wavering contrast between the good man buried within him and the rabid animal that he was brainwashed to be.

Another creative team may have simply painted Logan as the X-Men’s cranky outsider with a bad temperament, or maybe the supporting character who is simply the badass of the team with all the best one-liners. Jackman’s take, instead, is to always show the vulnerability in those eyes — the eyes of a man who lost his memory, his past, and everyone he’s ever loved — while also not shying away from the brutality; this is a guy who has spent his time beating people in cages, who can fly into a rage and skewer soldiers on his blades, but who at the same time can fall in love, protect children from harm, and even learn to believe in some idealistic dream preached to him by an old bald guy in a wheelchair.

Wolverine may be a killer, but he’s not supposed to be cold. Jackman understood the character’s inherent warmth, and that’s how he was able to embody Wolverine so successfully.

Hugh Jackman Logan Wolverine

It’s surreal to think that when Logan comes out, in just a few days, we’ll never see Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine again. From a creative perspective, I admire his decision to end the story now, while he’s ahead. Too often, these giant sci-fi vehicles just roll on and on without any closure; while there’s no doubt that the X-Men franchise will continue for years to come, this movie will at least allow fans to say a true goodbye to the character who first made the X-Men movies so popular to begin with.

When we look back on classic adventure characters in film, we always associate them with the actors who defined those characters as well. Harrison Ford was Indiana Jones. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Terminator. Carrie Fisher was Leia. Bruce Willis was John McClane. And I think, in the future, when we look back on Wolverine, we’ll always remember the way that Hugh Jackman held out those claws, forever etching his place in cinematic history.

Next time: The journey through Laos, I promise! 

Luke Cage: The Real World Hero for Our Times

The most impactful image in Marvel’s Luke Cage — the shot that lingers afterward, cutting straight to the core of what the series is trying to say — isn’t an explosion, an alien invasion, nor even a scene of super-powered fisticuffs. No, it’s something much less fantastic, but far more important.

This scene comes near the end of its first season, the entirety of which has been on Netflix for a few weeks now. As comic fans know, Luke’s primary superpower is his rock hard skin, an epidermis so powerful that it can repels bullets; however, since his cotton and denim clothing doesn’t possess the same magical properties, his many confrontations with Harlem’s criminals tend to leave all his hoodies, jackets, and t-shirts riddled with bullet holes. So when the police go out in search of Luke, they hunt the streets for a tall black man with a bullet-holed hoodie — only to find that many people in the Harlem community have begun wearing hoodies riddled with holes, as a sign of solidarity toward their misunderstood hero.  One man, as the police drive by, even holds open his holey hoodie to them, to show that he’s not afraid. It’s a brief moment, but an unforgettable one.

Method Man, who has a brief guest role in the series, says shortly afterward that, “Bulletproof always gonna come second to being black…there’s something powerful about seeing a black man, who’s bulletproof, and unafraid.”

Luke Cage bulletproof

There’s no question about how much Luke Cage resonates in today’s world. The fact that the main character wears a hoodie is a direct reference to Trayvon Martin, and the show’s star, Mike Colter, has stated on a few occasions that this is due to “the idea that a black man in a hoodie isn’t necessarily a threat. He might just be a hero.” It’s clear just how much the showrunners deeply care about the issues they’re confronting, and they aren’t afraid to make powerful statements about the racial tensions, systemic racism, and inequality that exists within the United States today, and has always existed since the country’s inception.

Luke Cage is an amazing series, due to its combination of bold themes, fantastic writing, and great direction. A lot of what really makes it work, though, comes down to the title character. As played by Mike Colter, Luke is smart, confident, and charming, but also subtle, reserved, and soft spoken. He’s a good guy who doesn’t want the glory of being a hero, but nonetheless ends up being the big brother that Harlem wants him to be.

Luke Cage and Pop in Harlem

There’s a truly honest connection that Luke has to the show’s depiction of Harlem, in a way that goes beyond the other heroes in the Marvel Universe, who are more like celebrities than next door neighbors. While Daredevil foiling Fisk might land his name in the papers, and Jessica Jones’s heroic exploits might earn her more business as a private investigator, Luke has no superhero identity, no cape, no mask — especially not by the end of the series, when his old life as Carl Lucas, escaped prisoner of Seagate Penitentiary, is brought back into the public eye. Luke is who he is. He must actively deal with his increasingly important role in the day-to-day life of Harlem, whether he’s helping a neighbor out of a jam, giving a eulogy for a friend, or getting blamed for somebody’s busted window. All of it feels astoundingly real, grounded, and relatable. If there was a superhero in the real world, he or she would probably be a lot like Luke Cage, and we’d be lucky to have someone like him around.

Openly political, cerebral, featuring an almost entirely black cast and centered around a black hero, Luke Cage is one of the boldest shows of the year, and possibly the boldest project that Marvel Studios has ever done.

The Shadow Hero: Rebirth of the Green Turtle

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When comic books first birthed the concept of a “superhero” in the late 1930s, the floodgates opened, and dozens upon dozens of masked avengers entered the scene.  Many of these, such as Captain America, Batman and the Flash, are still around today and making splashes in pop culture.  Others faded into obscurity, and one of these lost heroes was a character named the Green Turtle, who was never very popular and disappeared after only five issues. Until 2014, the Green Turtle seemed lost to the sands of time, a relic forgotten even by comic buffs.

Not anymore.  Thanks to Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s intriguing graphic novel The Shadow Hero, the Green Turtle is back, and his reintroduction to the scene is an important landmark in comics history.

The back story is this: in the 1940s, Chinese American comic creator Chu Hing created the Green Turtle.  According to urban legend, Hing wanted his character to be the first Chinese American superhero, but his publisher vetoed the idea, and demanded that the Green Turtle be Caucasian.  In response, Hing purposely illustrated his comics in such a way that the Green Turtle’s face was always obscured; the character’s back was often to the camera, and if he was facing forward, then something was always blocking his face.  This way, Hing could maintain the Turtle’s real ethnicity without ever revealing it.

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It’s a crazy story, but a believable one: when reading the original Green Turtle comics, one of which is included with The Shadow Hero, the constant props and angles that obscure the character’s face seem far too intentional to be a coincidence.

In The Shadow Hero, what Yang and Liew have done is reintroduce the character by telling his heretofore unrevealed origin story.  In the process, the Shadow Hero also does in the contemporary era what the character’s creator was not allowed to do in the 1940s, and permanently establishes the Green Turtle as North America’s first Asian American superhero.

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Why is this important?

Easy: because even though American superhero comic books have often taken on social issues—see the classic “drug issues” of Amazing Spider-Man, or the recent Superman comic on police brutality—one thing that American comics are lacking in is diversity.  Sure, there’s a your Black Panthers, your War Machines and your Jubilees, as well as your occasional Northstars (and now Icemans).  But most of these characters tend to be sidekicks or members of teams, and rarely receive the solo spotlight.  The majority of superheroes—and heroines, and villains—are all white, and that’s something that doesn’t reflect properly society.

Part of what makes this important is that superheroes are, at their core, childhood role models—Spider-Man was such a huge part of my childhood—and it isn’t fair to children who aren’t white that all of the major superheroes are Caucasian. There should be superheroes, not just sidekicks, of every race, sexual orientation, and background of origin.

It’s important for comic books to have more racial diversity; the movies have dealt with this by recasting traditionally white characters with actors of other races, such as Michael B. Jordan playing the Human Torch and Samuel Jackson’s now-iconic performance as Nick Fury.   Marvel Comics has recently taken the initiative by having new characters take on the roles of its most classic superheroes, with Falcon becoming Captain America and Jane Foster becoming Thor, but the inherent difficulty in this solution is that the minority characters are functioning as secondary versions of the primary ones.

For true diversity, we can’t just create fill-ins for the original characters.  We need new ones.

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For comics to truly embrace diversity, we need new, unique characters that can form their own legacy, instead of simply complementing the legacy of another character.  The Green Turtle, while not technically “new,”  fulfills this role.  With the new back story that has been created for him, the Green Turtle is a strong, interesting new character that broadens the scope of comic books, playing into themes that have been inherent in the medium since the beginning, while also bringing something new to the field, creating a character that has a remarkably different background, power and goals from any other superhero out there.

Even more significantly, while the Green Turtle’s racial/immigrant background is a part of the character, it doesn’t define him.  What defines Hank Chu, the Green Turtle’s alter ego, is his choices, his strong morals, his love for his family.  He’s a character that’s easy for anyone to identify with.

Personally, I’d love to see The Shadow Hero get brought to a wider audience in the form of a movie, though I suppose that’s some time off.  Still…

As far as the storyline itself, The Shadow Hero is excellent.  It tells the story of 19-year-old Hank Chu, the hardworking son of Chinese immigrants, who lives a simple life and idolizes his father.  When his mother is rescued by a superhero and pushes Hank to become one as well, but it isn’t until tragedy strikes — and his father’s shady backroom dealings are revealed — that Hank embraces his destiny and becomes the Green Turtle.

The Shadow Hero is simultaneously touching and lighthearted, capturing the tone of 1940s comic books while adding in the depth of contemporary stories.  It’s an incredibly heartfelt comic, sometimes tongue-in-cheek but always sincere, with likeable characters and a flawed-but-worthy hero.  One can truly sense the passion that fueled this comic’s creation, and just how much love was poured into it.

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It’s a book with a lot of heart, and it’s wonderfully unafraid of wearing it on its sleeve.  Superheroes have always been closely tied to immigration; ever since Kal-El rocketed down to Kansas, superheroes have always told stories about people who are outside the norm, immigrants from strange places and other worlds, many of them created by first generation Jewish Americans.  The Shadow Hero connects the genre to its past while steering forward in new directions, creating a beautiful, unique gem that is a must-read for all comic fans.

I highly recommend The Shadow Hero. Now that the Green Turtle has been brought back from the abyss, I hope to see much more of him.

Why Superheroes Matter

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In the 21st century, superheroes – those silly little spandex-clad characters that used to be a subject of ridicule and the content of moldy cardboard boxes – have moved beyond the ink stained pages that birthed them, and they have ascended to the pinnacle of popular media. Three of the ten highest grossing movies of all time are superhero movies. Any trip to a department store, mall or internet shop is filled with billions of products advertising brightly-colored characters with capes and masks. While Superman, Batman and Spider-Man have been a part of American culture for decades, the contemporary era has seen formerly B-list characters like Iron Man, Hellboy and Daredevil become household names.

Through film, TV, comics and video games, the superhero genre has transformed into more than just a form of escapism. Films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy have used WWII-era characters to tell stories that deal directly with contemporary political fears, while superheroes like the X-Men are a rallying symbol against racial, sexual and geographic prejudice.

Popular culture has finally accepted comic books as a legitimate form of storytelling.  The superhero genre has become monumentally huge.

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But why, exactly? What is it about the idea of a “superhero” that appeals so much to people? What is it about this genre that’s taken the cinematic world by storm?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can describe my own experience.

Let’s flashback to the early nineties – and let me tell you, I was a quiet kid. I’m still introverted today, but the child version of Nicholas Conley was not only introverted, but deathly shy. Anxious around people, uncomfortable about himself, his identity, his body and his voice.

To put it bluntly, when I was young, I didn’t speak. I had a wonderful family, amazing parents and a comfortable lifestyle, but my social anxiety was utterly crippling. Communication, interaction with others, even family members, caused me to snap shut like a clam; I’d retreat into the back of my mind and hide. I was closed off from everyone, because I didn’t feel comfortable being myself.  I felt as if I was an alien that had come from a different species.  Whereas other kids were able to talk to each other, laugh and joke around, I felt completely closed off and unable to participate. Anytime I was forced into a big social situation, I went deadpan, flat, and I became the social equivalent of a brick.  People would look at me, smiling, talking, trying to hug me, and I just didn’t do anything. I couldn’t figure out how to do anything.

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Though I had a lot of love from my family and others, it all felt strange and foreign to me.  I felt terribly unable to present myself to others. I was scared to talk, but I also felt unable to talk.  Everything I said came out wrong and bland, an unfitting representation of myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked myself – the me on the inside – but I didn’t like the flat, shy, awkward me on the outside, and I couldn’t find a way to make these two totally different beings come together.

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So, I was silent.  I was reserved.  But I watched everything, with a deadly sort of intensity. I paid attention to every single clue, every expression, everything that entered into my sphere. I had a far easier time relating to adults than I did with children. I had a very analytic, encyclopedic type of brain that absorbed information like a computer, loved analyzing things (which might explains why my blog posts are so long…) and especially loved learning every single piece of information about anything I found interesting. It wasn’t enough to just know a few things—I had to know everything.

Every day was stressful and anxiety-inducing. I felt like more of an exposed wound than I did a person.  Having always been fairly empathic, other people’s emotions struck me as being startlingly intense and hard to handle; due to my intense social awkwardness I didn’t know how to respond to them.  I generally wanted to spend most of my time alone.

So, in any case, there was this one VHS tape, featuring a bizarre red and blue character named Spider-Man.

Art by Kaare Andrews.

Art by Kaare Andrews.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was. Three, four, somewhere in that range. But I remember this one videotape more vividly than I remember almost anything else.  It was an episode of the lesser-known—but underrated!—Spider-Man cartoon from 1981, titled Doctor Doom: Master of the World.

The episode has a rather simple plot, really. The villain, Doctor Doom, places a mind control device onto the President of the United States, and uses similar devices on every other world leader.  With every nation on Earth under his control, he has himself elected as the so-called “Master of the World.” However, before his vicious plans can truly get underway, he’s foiled by Spider-Man; that strange, wiry, red-and-blue suited character with the webs and the big white eyes. Spidey outsmarts Doom, turns his robot army against him and saves the day, cracking jokes the whole time.

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It’s strange how something as small as a VHS tape from an eighties cartoon can have such a huge impact on a child, an impact that effects the entirety of a person’s life. But it did. It absolutely did, in a way that still amazes me when I look back.

We had a few more VHS tapes from the same series. These episodes featured other villains; the Lizard, the Green Goblin, the Kingpin. All of them were deadly, but in the end, Spider-Man always won through a combination of intelligence, skill and a bit of luck. Watching these cartoons at that young, impressionable age, I found them completely mesmerizing.  I began gobbling up tapes from other cartoons of that era, such as The Incredible Hulk and Pryde of the X-Men. 

And that’s when it all exploded.  Soon, the slew of now-classic 90s cartoons took off—Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men, Spider-Man, The Tick, et cetera—and pretty soon, I became an expert on just about every Marvel and DC superhero that existed. From that point on, I was absolutely obsessed with superheroes, to the point where they occupied my every waking thought. I’d spend long hours reading the comic books, watching the cartoons and playing make-believe games with my younger brother.

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But as much as I fell in love with every superhero I learned about, none of them quite eclipsed my adoration for the character who introduced me to all of them in the first place.

Looking back, I fully understand. As much as I loved (and still love) every superhero, there was just something about Spider-Man that spoke to me on a level that other superheroes didn’t. Something that, even today, I still connect to in exactly the same way. There’s something both perfect and perfectly flawed about the character.  On one hand, he’s edgy and tormented; his motif, powers and costume—and particularity those big white bug-eyes—have a certain bizarre creepiness to them that can’t be denied, and Peter Parker’s back story is terribly tragic.

But at the same time, there’s a fascinating duality to the character. Instead of simply being dark and gritty, there’s also something loveable—and almost cuddly, in a way—about Spider-Man. The playful sense of humor, his messed up personal life, the inherent optimism that the character maintains despite his painful lot in life…

It wasn’t just that he was likeable to me as a kid, he was inspirational.

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Of course, as a young boy, I loved superheroes because they were inspirational. Here I was, this scrawny and self-conscious little kid, and these guys were what I wanted to be.  Strong, powerful, confident, able to do great things.

But what separated Spider-Man, I suppose, is that he was actually like me. Peter Parker was a weirdo, like I was. When trapped in his “real” identity as Peter Parker, he was a nerdy, shy, socially awkward, self-conscious misfit—but then, in one fell swoop, he could put on that wonderful, face-covering, Steve Ditko-designed mask and become the person he truly was on the inside: Spider-Man, the cocky, brave, wisecracking hero who always saved the day. Unlike most other heroes, Spidey could mess up sometimes. He got sick, didn’t always get the girl, wasn’t always celebrated by the general public, but he was free.

Art by John Romita Jr.

Art by John Romita Jr.

In the same way that I felt trapped within my own shy and fragile identity, Peter Parker was also trapped. But unlike me, Peter had an outlet. By becoming Spider-Man, he could cast aside his skin – the flawed and inaccurate perception that others had of him – and then, with the aid of that red mask, he could publicly reveal himself to the world.

Understanding the character better as an adult, I now see that as one of the fundamental keys to Peter Parker’s character development. Unlike most other superheroes, who assume a fictitious costumed identity in order to fight crime, Peter Parker did the reverse. By assuming that identity, by becoming another person, Peter actually sheds his worries, doubt and self-consciousness.  By becoming Spider-Man, Peter Parker becomes himself.  And by seeing Spider-Man’s example, the younger me was inspired to realize that hey, maybe I can be myself, too.

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Instead of hiding behind my “mask” of indifference, I could bring myself out into the open and be who I was. I could be comfortable in myself, and be proud of myself.

On top of that, the example that superheroes gave me as a child – these selfless, heroic figures who sacrificed their lives for the good of others – has never ceased to inspire me. In my life, I’ve always been passionate about helping others in any way that I can. Giving blood, working at jobs that support the less fortunate, showing understanding to people when they need it the most, these are the things I care about the most deeply.

And today, as an adult, I’m no longer shy. I’m certainly introverted, which isn’t a bad thing, but there’s barely a trace of shyness or self-consciousness left in me. I’m extremely comfortable in my own skin.

Now, it’d be silly to give all the credit for my life to a fictional character. As I said before, I was lucky enough to be born into an amazingly strong, close-knit family. But superheroes were certainly one of my biggest influences when I grew up, and it’d be a lie not to credit them with helping establish the idealism and moral code that is so fundamental to my life today.

And I suspect that, in this regard, I’m not unique.  I was born into a generation that grew up with superheroes, and the kids that read comic books, fantasy, horror and science fiction novels are now at the forefront of the entertainment industry.

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

See, this is the reason that superheroes are so huge these days. This is why they matter.

On one hand, they are the contemporary equivalents of ancient mythological gods.  Superheroes are larger than life figures, more powerful than we are, able to achieve the great things that we can’t. But on the other hand, since Stan Lee and his league of Marvel artists revolutionized the genre in the 1960s, superheroes are also flawed human beings, real people who must overcome their problems so that the world can remain safe from alien invasions, criminal masterminds and extradimensional demons.

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Every major superhero holds a unique appeal. Sure, Spider-Man is the quiet, self-conscious outsider who opens up and dedicates himself to helping others. But Batman is the intense, focused intellectual with near-superhuman devotion toward a single goal. Iron Man is the inventor, the clever scientist, the mechanic who loves creating new things, taking them apart and seeing how they fit back together. Bruce Banner is the pent-up, repressed victim of a painful childhood who finally releases himself in a torrential green wave of emotion. The X-Men are the repressed minorities of the world, the victims of prejudice and unfair judgment, people who instead of lashing out, fight for peaceful coexistence with the same ones who judge them so harshly. Daredevil is the victim of a disability, who instead of allowing that disability to rule his life, instead learns to accept it and uses it to make himself a better person. Idealistic heroes like Superman and Captain America are the good, pure,  salt-of-the-earth people, the backbone of society, the people who instead of allowing the immoralities of the world to knock them out and pervert them, strive to make it better.

Batman Begins

Superheroes have taken ahold of society because they hold a truly universal appeal. They appeal to the children they inspire, or the child inside us that thrills at their colorful adventures and hijinks.  They appeal to adults, as their stories become a vehicle for the discussion of important social issues, problems and moral debates. Like the best escapism, the best superhero stories don’t just take us away from our problems. They also bring us back, make us think, and inspire us to lead better lives.

Modern myths? Living legends? Inspirations of both children and adults? Great, edgy stories? Yes, all that and more.

For those who prefer white backgrounds, this post also appears on Medium.com. Enjoy!  

Truth, Journalism and an Alien Symbiote with Sharp Teeth

“The great part of my job is that I get to be an ‘administrator of truth.’ Crime occurs every thirteen seconds in this city. You know how we have these statistics? Because guys like me are out on the streets, collecting these stories. We put the caution in cautionary tale, y’know? And being aware the crime out there, the people of this city can live their lives accordingly. In fact, I’m the one doing this city a public service. We’re the heroes out there….”

-Eddie Brock

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Though Spider-Man has always had one of the most imaginative rogues galleries in comics, there’s no Spidey villain with quite the same fan following as Venom.  Though Venom’s character has, over the years, been abused, written incorrectly and reworked countless times, there’s something perfect about the original conception.  Venom, more than Doc Ock, the goblins, Vulture or even the Scorpion, is truly the ultimate anti-Spidey.  Doc Ock might be the one who parallels an older Peter Parker and sure, Green Goblin is the one who twists Spider-Man’s head around, but Venom is the alien menace that really makes Peter Parker shiver at night – the perfect portrait of an egotistical, greedy, immoral man accidentally given great power.  A man who, in direct opposition to Peter’s obsessive doctrines about responsibility, uses that power only to hurt others and achieve his own ends.

Truth in Journalism – a short fan film produced by Adi Shankar, directed by Joe Lynch and available HERE – is an intriguing look at the character, a tribute that brings Venom back to his roots.

The film introduces us to Eddie Brock, scandalous news reporter, as he guides a Belgian film crew through New York City.  As Eddie’s layers are slowly peeled back – as he starts progressively acting weirder and weirder, from talking to himself in the bathroom to stringing muggers up on balconies – the crew comes to find that the person they’re dealing with might be a far more disturbed individual than he initially appears.

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The first thing that makes Truth in Journalism stand out is its commendably unique style.  It’s a professionally made film with a clear aim in mind; instead of simply imitating the comic, it creates its own dark, horrifyingly realistic sandbox and then plays around in it.   The grainy, black and white footage is gritty, uncomfortable, flawed.  The characters seem like real people instead of actors, and thus their actions—played in a brilliantly subtle manner, instead of being over the top—are utterly disturbing, instead of being thrilling.  While the clear inspiration is the 1992 French film Man Bites Dog, there’s also a touch of Pi in here, a bit of Eraserhead.

The other thing that makes this little adventure really click, though, is Ryan Kwanten’s performance as Eddie Brock.  I don’t know Ryan from anything else (I’m not a True Blood viewer), but based on this short film, I’d be inclined to sign him up for any big budget version of Venom in a heartbeat.  Kwanton totally encapsulates the twisted yet weirdly sympathetic character that David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane created.  The character that later stories and writers all too often forget about,  as they attempt to twist Eddie into being something he’s not.

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This is the real Eddie Brock.  He’s not a noble antihero, not a slobbering brain-eating beast, and certainly not a raving lunatic.  Eddie Brock is a liar, a hypocrite who portrays himself as an idealist – I.E., “administrator of truth” – but in reality, is all too willing to sell out and betray those ideals the second that they get in the way of his goals.  He constantly justifies his immoral actions with poor excuses, desperately tries to prove his importance, and refuses to accept responsibility.  Eddie Brock is, at his core, a power hungry loser who really, really, really wants to be winner.  His psyche is too fragile to accept his own failures – so instead, he blames Spider-Man.  It’s Spider-Man’s fault for turning in the real Sin-Eater, Spider-Man’s fault that his reputation is in shambles, Spider-Man’s fault that his career and life are ruined.

No, this line of reasoning isn’t remotely logical, but Eddie Brock is not a logical man.  He’s an emotional wreck, an impulsive opportunist with severe self-consciousness problems.  That’s why Venom, when used correctly, is such a creepy enemy for Spider-Man.  Whereas Peter Parker is all about responsibility, temperance and guilt, Eddie Brock is a small man who constantly justifies his actions as being for the “greater good,” but refuses to take responsibility when people get hurt.

The Eddie Brock in this short is totally believable.  He’s a real, tragically flawed human being, a person who’s brought down not by terrible catastrophes but instead by his own ego, ambition and arrogance.   The way that Kwanten plays Eddie is simply perfect; you can sense that Eddie is a likable guy, a talented guy with a lot of ambition, the kind of guy who is probably really fun to share a beer with…but at the same time, Kwanten deftly portrays the simmering rage and desperation beneath Eddie’s act; the more we find out about Eddie, the more we see how he’s simply a skilled performer with an obsessive need to prove himself.

He desperately needs to be somebody.  He needs friendship, he needs respect, he needs affirmation.  Notice how, throughout the short, Eddie slowly corrupts the entire film crew, even as he’s trying to prove his innocence to them.  He’s the kind of guy who, if you met him on the street, you’d probably like him – and you’d even sympathize with him – but who would, if it suited his ends, double cross you in a heartbeat and say it was your fault.

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In the the film’s dark denouncement, when Eddie finally gives up, gives in and releases his other side, we know that he’s not going to feel any guilt over his murderous actions.  He’s going to tell himself that he “had to do it.”  He’s going to justify that he had to kill those men “for the greater good.”  And then, most likely, he’s going to continue to repeat the same pattern he’s previously demonstrated to us.

I’ll admit, I actually really liked Spider-Man 3 – though it certainly doesn’t hold even a candle to the absolute masterpiece that is Spider-Man 2 – and I actually thought Topher Grace did a good job as Eddie Brock.  The problem wasn’t Eddie’s characterization; Eddie was suitable hypocritical, smarmy and egotistical, and the symbiote was as menacing as ever.  The problem was simply that a complicated character like Venom simply can’t be crammed into an already overstuffed movie like that.

What could’ve been the biggest bad guy of the franchise was stuffed into the last half hour of an overcrowded movie, and the result felt predictably rushed.  If Venom had been given time to breathe – say, in the potential Spider-Man 4 that never was – he could’ve been a cinematic villain on par with Doc Ock and the Goblins.  As it was, we only got a intriguing glimpse at the most popular Spider-Man villain of all time…and then poof, he was gone.

Truth in Journalism, though it has a short running time of only seventeen inutes, truly excels in all the areas where Spider-Man 3 missed the mark.  This is largely due to the fact that the people involved in this short film have a highly intuitive understanding of the character, and a fervent desire to flesh him out.  Instead of rushing Eddie along his path, the film takes time to develop him, make him likable – and at the same time, make him scary.  The Eddie Brock presented here is truly the comic book character brought to life.

But more importantly than that, Truth in Journalism is just a very cool little movie.  Unlike other fan films – which often function more as extended fake trailers for nonexistent movies than anything else – Truth in Journalism is a terrific piece in its own right.  It’s creepy, intriguing and wonderfully atmospheric.  Truly, an excellent achievement.

-Nicholas Conley

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The Top Ten Genre Adaptations/Sequels/Remakes that Hollywood Should Make

So hey, when are they gonna make the movie?

When it comes to genre fans – and I use the word “genre” here as an umbrella term, so that I can group all horror/sci-fi/fantasy/etc. properties under one roof –  we’ve all got our own ideas about which of our favorite properties should be put up on the big screen – or which properties should be rebooted, remade or just generally “fixed.”  For every horror fan clamoring for them to finally get off their asses and make an awesome, Jason-focused Friday the 13th flick  (ahem), there’s another one shouting that what Hollywood really needs to do is make a big-budget, Christoper Nolan-ized version of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.  So when one compiles a top ten list such as this one, I feel strongly that it’s best to chuck any attempt at objectivity out the window.  When one writes a top ten list like this, it’s incredibly silly that pretend that he or she is speaking for anyone other than himself or herself.

I mean, seriously?  The truth is, you’ll never find an objective top ten list.  Top ten lists are automatically subjective by their very nature; they exist as a way for us feeble mortals to make-believe that we have some kind of control over the universe, so much control, in fact, that we can actually organize it according to our whims.

So, without further ado, here is my highly subjective list of the top ten potential sci-fi/horror/fantasy/speculative/yadda-yadda-yadda properties that Hollywood should take under consideration:

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10. Brave New World, directed by Ridley Scott

When it comes to the great dystopian novels, I’ll admit that I’m highly partial to George Orwell’s 1984.  However, there’s a lot to be said for Aldous Huxley’s horrifically prophetic vision of a world consumed by its obsession with trivialities, drug-induced brainwashing and genetically-engineered test tube babies…and unlike 1984, which in the actual year of 1984 was marvelously adapted into a film starring John Hurt, there has yet to be a great adaption of Huxley’s novel.

Really, it’s a bit of a shock that this movie hasn’t happened yet.  In today’s world, where society is being consumed by wave after wave of mindlessly solipsistic Facebook statuses and Tweets, people spend most of their time amusing themselves instead of seeking out knowledge, actual human interaction is lowering and we’re coming closer and closer to becoming the genetically-engineered humans that Huxley envisioned in 1931, a Brave New World film could possibly open up the general public’s eyes about the inherent danger of what Huxley was warning us about, all those years ago.

Now, why do I name Ridley Scott as the director?  One – because Scott has previously expressed interest.  Two – because I can’t imagine a director who could possibly have a more interesting, more appropriate cinematic vision of Huxley’s world.  Considering that Scott is the man who directed such films as Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus and the famous 1984 Apple Macintosh commercial, Brave New World would definitely be right up his alley.

So, that’s ten. What’s number nine?  Don’t worry, this is an obvious one…

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9.  Evil Dead 4, AKA Army of Darkness 2, AKA whatever the hell they want to call it

Yeah, that’s right.  I said Evil Dead Four—not Two.  While I actually was surprised by how much I enjoyed the Evil Dead remake, I still don’t really look at it as a true Evil Dead film. Let’s face it, while Evil Dead 1 might’ve been a “real” horror flick, for most of us Evil Dead fans, the film that really made us fall in love with this franchise was Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, with its splattery combination of horror, scathing satire and Three Stooges-style slapstick.

Now, even though Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness are easily two of my favorite movies of all time, there’s a reason that this one is relatively low on my highly subjective top ten list; because really, we don’t need an Evil Dead 4.  Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead trilogy actually stands pretty well on its own; there’s a definitive character arc for Ash Williams, and the way that the franchise cleverly slides from all-out horror to goofy, Ray Harryhausen-style pastiche is really quite brilliant.

If Sam Raimi does ever move ahead on a proposed fourth movie (which has been “in the workings” for the last two decades) and stays faithful to the quirky low-budget feel of the original three, then I’ll definitely be in the front row…but as it is, I’m pretty happy with the original trilogy, as is.

So, no, the fans don’t need an Evil Dead 4.  But do we want it?  Hell yeah, we do.

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8. Martian Manhunter

So, here’s one that’s  totally out of left field.

Yes, I know that this might seem bizarrely random.  Most people will only recognize this green-skinned Martian shapechanger – real name J’onn J’onnz – from the Justice League cartoon.  Even in the comics, Martian Manhunter is primarily known only as a member of the team, and his individual comic appearances are pretty limited.   DC Comics has never really given Martian Manhunter much of a chance to strike out on his own; since the New 52 event, he’s even been exiled from the Justice League!

However, there’s a tremendous amount of untapped potential in this character – and I think that film is absolutely the proper medium for him.  Why?  How can they do it?  You wanna know?  Okay, I’ll tell you how to make a badass Martian Manhunter movie on a low budget, and how make it sell:

Focus on Detective John Jones.

For those of us who aren’t serious comic geeks, I’ll explain:  back in his earlier appearances (and occasionally in the years afterward, as well as in his TV appearances on Smallville) Martian Manhunter, as a shapeshafter, took on the “earthling” identity of a detective named John Jones.

So then, my proposal is this; make a dark, gritty, noir-style detective story starring Detective Jones, where everything at first seems down-to-earth, realistic and suitably Nolan-ized.  This way, it will fit perfectly within the post-Man of Steel DC film universe  –and then slowly, carefully, allow the sci-fi elements to bleed into the narrative, as the film slowly unveils the fact that Jones’ actual identity is J’onn J’onnzz, an alien, and that he has come to Earth for a very specific reason.  From here, we can reveal that the seemingly “realistic” world we’ve been inhabiting up until this point isn’t quite what it seems.

…and that, my friends, is how you make a Martian Manhunter movie work.

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7. Duke Nukem

These days, ol’ Duke Nukem’s street reputation isn’t necessarily in the best shape around; the misogynistic, stogie-smokin’, ultimate action hero stereotype has been a bit wounded ever since the development cycle of Duke Nukem Forever passed the ten year mark.

However, DNF aside, there’s no denying that in the 90s, Duke Nukem 3D was one of the best games around; back when its contemporaries  were still imitating the dark, space station corridors of Doom, 3D Realms was blowing the competition away with its combination of gut-busting humor, real life settings, startling interactivity (“I can use the pool table? I can use the urinal?!”) and a central character who – unlike the vast majority of computer game protagonists – couldn’t keep his mouth shut.  Duke was always full of one-liners after one-liners, simultaneously mocking and celebrating all of the action movies he was playing homage to.

As a movie, Duke Nukem would be pretty tough to successfully adapt; the biggest risk I can see is that filmmakers might allow the material to be too goofy, humorous and/or lewd, to the point where it became unwatchable.  What made Duke 3D work so well – and what most of the Duke games that have come afterward seem to forget – is that while Duke himself was certainly a ridiculous character, the alien invasion taking place around him was a lot darker—and even scary, at points.

No, to make a Duke Nukem movie work, what we need is some like Paul Verhoeven – or at the very least, someone who can master that Verhoeven-esque approach to these sorts of action movies.  Why?  Because in many ways, Duke 3D is like a video game version of a Verhoeven sci-fi movie. Verhoeven was the director of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, all three of which are highly satirical and at times quite humorous, yet always maintain just enough seriousness to make the threat still be menacing.  If Duke ever hits the silver screen, that’s exactly the kind of approach that’ll make it really shine.

Photograph by Wilfried Bauer.

Photograph by Wilfried Bauer.

6. At The Mountains of Madness

Guillermo Del Toro (the director of Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy and Pacific Rim) has been fighting to make this happen for years; it’s one of those “seems too good to be true” scenarios, but God, let’s keep our fingers crossed.

The many works of H.P. Lovecraft, though widely celebrated in horror circles across the world, have been largely untouched by cinema…largely because, for the most part, they’re pretty unfilmable. Lovecraft’s cold, wordy prose –  and his “monsters” that are more likely to drive men insane with a mere glance than they are to slash through horny teenagers – would be extremely difficult to successfully transfer to celluloid without betraying their essence.  Sure, Re-Animator was awesome, but the original Herbert West: Re-Animator story was extremely different from Lovecraft’s other stories to begin with, and the film’s success was due less to Lovecraft than to it being a wonderfully dark, cynical tribute to 50s horror/sci-fi flicks.

At the Mountains of Madness, though, has enormous potential on the big screen.  Compared to Lovecraft’s shorter works, Mountains of Madness has a far more developed storyline, a number of fascinatingly creepy visuals and a very unique vision that’s about as Lovecraftian as a Lovecraft tale can get.  There’s probably no better director for this than Del Toro, but since Del Toro’s efforts to film this have been fraught with peril, and he seems to have several dozen different projects on his plate at any given time, the chances of this movie happening – at least in the near future – seem pretty slim.

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

5. A REAL Frankenstein movie

Yeah, you heard me.  Don’t get me wrong, the 1931 James Whale film is a classic – a classic that I still watch today.  But it has almost nothing to do with Mary Shelley’s original novel.

And I know what you’re thinking; didn’t Kenneth Branagh’s movie faithfully translate the book?  Well, not really.  Sure, it followed the storyline more faithfully than any Frankenstein movie before it, at times almost down to the letter – but in doing this, Branagh’s film completely and utterly sacrificed the dark, gothic tone of the original work.  This isn’t a minor point, because while the film is faithful to the novel on a surface level, all of the content’s meaning, passion and importance is stripped away from it.  Sure, the Branagh film follows the same plot points as the novel, but it rushes through them so quickly – in a blurry deluge of bad acting, bright colors and over-the-top sequences – that I find it hard to imagine that any Mary Shelley diehards were particularly satisfied.

No, I think it’s time that we finally had a real, authentic Frankenstein movie.  A movie that’s true to the spirit of the book, highlighting the classic Prometheus-inspired themes and capturing the tortured nature of Shelley’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein.

Visually, it seems obvious to me that the movie should take inspiration from the gothic, ink-heavy drawings of Bernie Wrightson (see above image).  No artist has better captured the novel’s eerie atmosphere, and his depiction of the creature is easily the best ever; just imagine Wrightson’s monster with hideous yellow skin, grinning fiendishly as it quietly stalks the Arctic mountains.  Seriously, the visuals alone could be breathtaking.

This is another project that Guillermo Del Toro has mentioned quite a bit, dangling it before our eyes like a rare coin.  C’mon, Guillermo.  Let’s make it happen.

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4. Deathlok

This is a total shot in the dark, I know.  Deathlok, though he’s easily one of the most fascinating antiheroes in Marvel Comics history, is a fairly obscure character.  Over the years, Deathlok has been sidelined, forgotten about or mucked around with many times, but the central concept has never lost its potency.

Created in the 1970s – and thus predating such popular franchises as the Terminator, Robocop and Neuromancer – the early Deathlok comic books told the story of Luther Manning, a soldier who is killed in action, only to reawaken when his mind is placed in the body of a ruthless killing machine.   Now wandering through the ruins of New York City in a horrifying, post-apocalyptic future, Deathlok rebels against his programming and takes the fight for freedom back to his corporate tormentors.

So, how can Marvel Studios make this work as a movie?

Hire me to write the script, that’s how!  But in all seriousness, while I recognize the unlikelihood of this movie ever happening (especially with that Robocop remake on the horizon), I think that a Deathlok film could make an excellent addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The technological, transhumanist themes that Deathlok explores are very rooted in contemporary fears, concerns and lifestyles.  We’re all slowly becoming cyborgs, but is it right for this to happen? Should we allow technology to infiltrate every aspect of our lives, and if we do, are we still human beings?

My suggestion?  Take cues from the excellent 2010 limited series, Deathlok: The Demolisher, but focus more on Luther’s humanity than the comic did.   Deathlok is an amazing sci-fi movie just waiting to happen; hopefully someday, the right executive will be brave enough to take a chance on it.

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3. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Originally published in 1967, Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic short story is one of the darkest, most unrelentingly brutal science fiction stories of all time.  Set in the future, I Have No Mouth  tells the story of AM – a highly-emotional, brilliant supercomputer that gains consciousness and, in a fit of rage, uses it to completely obliterate the human race.  Still not satisfied, AM spares only four men and one woman from this mass genocide, and proceeds to subject these five people to a variety of hellish tortures—both physical and psychological—keeping them alive for over a century of pain, suffering and guilt.  AM doesn’t have any master plan.  He’s not the classic cool, calculating, methodical machine that most science fiction stories depict.  No, he’s just angry.  He’s already destroyed the human race and the tortures he conducts on these five remaining humans – Ted, Benny, Ellen, Gorrister and Nimdok – is nothing more than the final stage of a long, drawn out, pointless revenge.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is one of the most horrifying science fiction stories of its kind.  Movies likes Cube, Saw and the like owe Ellison’s tale a great debt; it was certainly an enormous inspiration for me when I wrote my 2011 novella, EnslavementWhile there might be budgetary concerns, I think that with a thrifty director and a great cast, this could be an edgy science fiction thriller for the ages.

Now, as far as expanding the short story into a full movie, and giving it a proper narrative arc?  There’s an easy solution for that: follow the game.  By that, I mean the excellent 1995 computer game of the same name which, with supervision from Ellison himself, was a terrific adaptation of the novel and easily  one of the most underrated point-and-click adventure games of the 90s.  The game provides an excellent blueprint for how to expand the characters and where to take the plot.  The game fills in the back story for all five characters, showing us how each of them has deep, personal flaws that made them attractive to AM – particularly Nimdok, who is revealed to be a former Nazi scientist.

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2. David Lynch’s The Metamorphosis

Oh come on, this is obvious!  A match made in heaven!  How has it possibly not happened yet?

Franz Kafka’s famously surreal short story – the depressing tale of Gregor Samsa, a man who wakes up as a gigantic insect and is subsequently mistreated by the very family he once worked so hard for – is the sort of bizarre tale that seems made for the director of such surrealistic works as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and and Dumbland.  It’s not just the premise, it’s the execution.  Much like Lynch’s work, The Metamorphosis doesn’t overly dramatize its insane premise; it presents it very matter-of-factly, never trying to explain it.  It treats Gregor Samsa’s mutation much as if he had suddenly became infected with leprosy or AIDS.

So, why hasn’t this happened yet?  Well…I wouldn’t totally rule it out.

As it turns out, David Lynch has actually been attracted to Kafka’s story for a long, long time.  In fact, he actually wrote a script for it all the way back in the early 80s.  He has demonstrated interest in resuming the project a number of times, but never committed himself due to such concerns as budget, a desire to revise his script and so on.

So hey, maybe it’ll happen someday.  We can hope.   In the meantime, as we cross our fingers, here are Mr. Lynch’s own thoughts on the subject:

“It’s a story that millions of people have read and about a hundred-thousand people have written about, and each one has seen it from a slightly different angle. But…it’s just rich with things. But there’s a certain kind of dark humor that I love about Kafka and it is his stuff that thrills me to my soul. It’s just a completely perfect mood and story and characters. I like pretty nearly everything about it.”

– David Lynch

 

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Art by Jae Lee.

1. The Dark Tower

And finally, we come to this…as if anything else could have taken the top spot.

This one has almost happened a number of times, but no one’s yet had the guts to pull the trigger, and it’s easy to understand why.  Stephen King’s enormous, seven book fantasy/horror/sci-fi epic, the Dark Tower series has the potential to be the next huge Hollywood franchise – but if it isn’t done absolutely perfectly, it could also be the next devastating flop.

The series is Stephen King’s magnum opus, his great epic, and it not only ties together all of his work – from The Stand  to Salem’s Lot – but it also manages to reference such diverse sources as The Wizard of Oz, Doctor Doom and Harry Potter.  It’s an undertaking that would intimidate any filmmaker.  It has all of the potential to be the next Lord of the Rings, if the producers play their cards right.

If.  That’s the key word: if. The Dark Tower is a series that they really, really can’t afford to mess up, so the fact that everyone in Hollywood is stepping very carefully around is honestly a very good sign.

I’m sure it’ll happen someday.  It might be five years from now, or ten, but I have no doubt that at some point we’ll see Roland chasing the man in black through the desert.  It’s just a question of when that happens…and really, if we want to see the magnificent adaptation that these books deserve, let’s hope they don’t rush it.

 

So, there’s my attempt at numbering reality.  Thoughts?  comments?  Your own highly subjective top ten lists?  Fire away!

-Nicholas Conley

The Man, the Animal, THE WOLVERINE (2013)

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What kind of man calls himself the Wolverine?  Is he a hero?  A mercenary?  A psychopath?  Is he a diamond in the rough—or do his sins run deep enough that, once his external trappings are removed, the world’s favorite X-man is revealed to be nothing more than an animalistic killer in a hero’s clothes?

These are the questions asked by the surprisingly existential 2013 comic book film, The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma).  Putting aside much of the futuristic, superpower-heavy, highflying theatrics of previous X-Men films—aside from a new noteworthy action scenes and a sci-fi heavy finale—The Wolverine is, at its core, a character study of its title character.  It’s a film that sets out with the ambitious task of showing us who Logan is, explaining who Logan was, and redefining what Logan can become.

Unlike X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this film isn’t really an X-Men movie; hell, it’s almost a stretch to even call it a superhero movie, and that’s exactly what makes it so intriguing.

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Art by Frank Miller.

Taking inspiration from the classic 1982 Chris Claremont/Frank Miller limited series—often described by fans as “the Japan storyline”—The Wolverine largely moves away from the mutants vs. humans, segregation and anti-prejudice themes that have dominated the X-Men up until this point.  Instead of trying to win the audience with cool mutant cameos, The Wolverine instead puts its focus squarely on Logan.  The film places us in the role of an Anubis, weighing an ostrich feather against Logan’s heavy, heavy heart; it forces us to judge the soul of the man we’ve spent so many movies rooting for, to decide whether this animalistic killer with adamantium claws is really the damaged hero we hope he is—or whether he is a lost cause.

The comic books have often tackled the issue of Wolverine’s morality, most recently in Jason Aaron and Renato Guedes’s Wolverine Goes to Hell.  In fact, it was the aforementioned Claremont/Miller series that first revealed a deeper side to the character.  Before then, the depth of Wolverine’s inner torment—the idea of him being a failed samurai, instead of just a scrappy antihero—had never been fully examined.  However, The Wolverine marks the first time that this issue has been explored on film, other than occasional hints of it in X2: X-Men United.

Who is Logan?  Does he have any honor?  What drives him?  What defines him?

Art by John Cassaday.

Art by John Cassaday.

Over the course of the last decade, Wolverine has become one of the most popular comic book characters of all time—and this has resulted in a certain level of overexposure, which in turn has led to him often being written incorrectly.  To understand the complexity of Wolverine’s character—to grasp what turned this feral wild man into the breakout star of the X-Men franchise—it’s important to get away from any misinterpretations and go back to the beginning.   The first thing to understand about Wolverine is that he’s not in any way the archetypical action hero that his critics might try to pin him as.  He’s also not the stereotypical gruff, angry badass with a heart of gold, who always has a plan, and always gets the job done.

No, at his core, what makes Logan so interesting is that he’s a failure.

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

Yes, a failure.  This is a man who, in a lifetime that spans over a hundred years, has failed at essentially everything he’s ever set out to do.  Almost every woman he’s ever loved, from Rose to Silver Fox to Jean, has died a violent death.  He’s a man who desperately needs to have a purpose, a man who has a clear idea of the noble figure he wants to become, but who is continually overwhelmed by his base urges.  He’s a man who wants to escape from the senseless violence that has always defined his life, but whose bestial instincts are so powerful that he’s never been able to overcome them, no matter how hard he tries.  Wolverine can never quite expel his violent tendencies, he can only direct them at the right people.  The Weapon X project—the terrible science experiment that turned him into a living weapon—was merely the tip of the iceberg.

This is the ultimate tragedy of the character, his terrible Achilles Heel, and the very essence of what makes us root for him.  Wolverine, when written correctly, is not the unemotional, brutish, arrogant powerhouse that critics often try to portray him as—if anything, he’s exactly the opposite.  Logan is a deeply vulnerable, highly passionate creature, a traumatized loner who struggles to balance the terrifying rage inside him with his deep desire to do good in the world, and to help others.  He knows that he’s a failure, and his efforts to find purpose (and momentary happiness) in a harsh world form the backbone of Wolverine’s best stories.

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The cage fight scene in the first X-Men movie—the sequence that introduced Hugh Jackman’s Logan to the world—is a beautiful illustration of the character’s flawed nature.  In that scene, we’re shown a powerful, fiercely strong-willed man, wasting his life away in meaningless bar fights against truckers he could trounce in a heartbeat—and yet, he doesn’t pop his claws.

In The Wolverine, James Mangold displays a clear desire to go back to that Logan—to take us back to the man we saw in that cage.  It’s no coincidence that one of Logan’s first scenes is, once again, a bar fight.  Comparing the meaningless cage battle in X-Men with the driven, angry bar fight in The Wolverine—a fight that Logan initiates out of loyalty to a senselessly slaughtered grizzly bear—the audience is shown just how much Logan has changed since that time…but also how, even after his time in the X-Men, the same demons continue to haunt him.

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The Wolverine wants us to reexamine everything we think we know about Logan.  To achieve this ambitious look into Wolverine’s core, Mangold’s film essentially puts Logan on the operating table, cuts him open, and then removes every trait we normally associate with the character.  The idea here is to get at the truth of who Wolverine is, beyond the more materialistic aspects we generally identify him with.

So, what does this mean?  Put it this way—in The Wolverine, Logan’s status as an X-Man is gone, past history; evidently, the end of X-Men: The Last Stand left Logan a little bit of a wreck, and he’s suffered from nightmare after nightmare of Jean Grey—the woman he loved, the woman he killed in order to save the world—ever since.

What else?  Well, how about his distinctive hairstyle? That’s gone, too, replaced by long hair and a beard—though the classic hairstyle does return once he gets to Japan.  His costume?  Gone, and so is the familiar leather jacket that he’s worn ever since his first film appearance in 2000. But these things are minor points, overall.  Where The Wolverine really finds its voice—where it really cuts into Logan’s flesh like a carving knife—is when it takes away the one thing that has, until this point, defined Wolverine more than almost anything else.  The one thing that has always made Wolverine such a force to be reckoned with:

His immortality.

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The fact that the film tackles this issue is truly commendable; in the comics of the last decade or so, Wolverine’s “advanced healing” ability has often been over-exaggerated, used as a sort of deus ex machina to get him out of any tight situation.  But this film wisely steers away from that familiar course.  Instead, it’s brave enough to show us the downside.

See, here’s the thing that’s easy to forget; while healing from any injury might be a neat little trick to pull out in a fight, the whole “never aging” aspect tends to make for a fairly lonely life.

Remember, Wolverine has lived for over a century.  He’s watched every woman he’s ever loved die.  He’s never had a steady family.  He’s made a lot of enemies, fought for a lot of causes—but even when he does find a cause worth fighting for, as he did with Xavier’s X-Men, it’s only a matter of time before the battle is finished, and he has to move on once again.  As the world ages around him, he stays the same.

How could this not drive a man insane?

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So, in The Wolverine, Logan is given the chance to end his immortality, once and for all.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite explore this issue as much as one might hope; the dramatic situation is such that Wolverine never really has the chance to consider whether he really wants to die or not.  The movie’s other big flaw lies in its conclusion—after such a compelling and down to earth first and second acts, the sudden futuristic sci-fi blowout feels a bit forced.

Still, exploring the inherent problems that Logan’s immortality causes for him is an intriguing route to take, and there’s a handful of brilliant moments.  One of the best scenes in the film is a slow, tranquil sequence about halfway through, where Logan—now powerless—quietly reflects back on a time that he was offered a man’s sword at the bottom of a well.  What this scene accomplishes is that, instead of telling the audience that Logan is immortal, it shows us; it captures, for the first time in this franchise, what it would really feel like to be this immortal being, filled with memories he can’t always access. It’s a character-focused moment that one would never expect in a movie like this, and scenes like this are what make The Wolverine stand high above many of its contemporaries.

Of course, a lot of the credit for this also goes to Hugh Jackman.  Having played Wolverine in six movies now, it’s amazing how he continues to bring the same energy and enthusiasm to a part that, by now, he must know like the back of his hand.  Really, what’s most surprising about his performance here is that it’s his best one yet; the Logan in this movie truly is the Wolverine from the comics, ripped from the page to the screen.  It’s the same tortured, angry, vicious—yet surprisingly noble—character that has fascinated readers since the 1970s.

Jackman has truly embodied this character on the big screen, to the point where it’s hard to imagine anyone else ever wearing the claws; now that he’s set to make a seventh appearance as Wolverine in next years Days of Future Past extravaganza, it looks like Jackman isn’t going anywhere, and thank God for that.

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So, then, we return to the same question; what kind of man calls himself “Wolverine,” and is that man a hero?

The film’s answer to this question, then, is a resounding yes—yes, Wolverine is a hero, but he’s a deeply flawed one.  However, as this movie’s total deconstruction of him proves, the reason that he’s a hero has nothing to do with his external traits.  Wolverine’s heroism doesn’t come from his costume, nor his adamantium skeleton, his healing factor, nor even his famous claws; no, what defines Wolverine is the fact that he’s a flawed man, a damaged man—with emotional wounds that don’t heal like his physical ones—but a man with good intentions, who fights for what he believes in.  Wolverine is the sort of hero who leaves a mess in his wake, a hero who often messes up, but in the end, he’s driven by a powerful sense of nobility, a strong sense of morals, a compelling urge to fight for a good cause.  That is what defines him.

Wolverine truly is a ronin—a samurai without a master.  That’s who he is, and that’s why The Wolverine, even with its flaws, is finally the Wolverine movie that we’ve always wanted.

-Nicholas Conley

Art by John Romita, Jr.

Transhumanism in Deathlok: The Demolisher

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Art by Lan Medina.

“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.

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Art by Rich Buckler.

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.

Enter 2010.

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?!

Read on.

Art by Lan Medina.

Art by Lan Medina.

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?

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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.

He’s two.

Well…sort of.

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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.

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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.

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A peek inside Deathlok’s mind.

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.

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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.

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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?

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Art by Denys Cowan.

“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.

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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.

Art by Denys Cowan.

Art by Denys Cowan, featuring “Mechadoom.”

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

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