Friday, March 11, 2011

One of the good ones: Deathlok#1

A little over two weeks ago, the comic book industry lost Dwayne McDuffie. Aged 49, he nevertheless still felt like a young talent. Praise for McDuffie has been delivered across the internet (my favourite here). His development of Milestone Media in the 90s is considered his greatest achievement in most eulogies, while Damage Control is also frequently cited. It's also been wonderful to see how many people loved his work on TV's Justice League Unlimited; as one person observed, Justice League reached an audience of millions, compared to the thousands who read the comics; therefore, to an entire generation of fans, McDuffie's Justice League will be the Justice League.

However, I haven't seen much made of McDuffie's Deathlok, which was my own introduction to him as a writer. Tim O'Neil covered it briefly, but I'd like to highlight McDuffie's Deathlok#1 because I think it is simply one of the greatest comic book origin stories ever put to paper.

Background: the Deathlok property began at Marvel Comics in 1974, courtesy of Doug Moench and Rich Buckler. In his initial appearances, Deathlok was Luther Manning, living in the futuristic post-apocalyptic world of...1985! An army veteran, Manning was maimed during war games and rebuilt by the sinister Harlan Ryker into the disfigured cyborg Deathlok. Deathlok wages war against Ryker, all the while hoping to find some way of regaining his humanity. Deathlok didn't survive as its own series but was later brought into the proper Marvel Universe, first via time travel, but eventually Deathlok's "future" was discounted as a mere alternate timeline as it became clear the real world 1985 wouldn't bear much resemblance to Deathlok's. It was through these stories we learned the regular Marvel Universe had its own Harlan Ryker. Hmmm...

Perhaps it goes without saying, but I should remind you Deathlok originated in 1974 - 10 years before the Terminator and 13 years before Robocop. Dwayne McDuffie's Deathlok debuted in 1990 after both of these aforementioned properties but - another reminder - a year before Terminator 2.

Right then. So, from 1990, I bring you Dwayne McDuffie, Gregory Wright and Jackson "Butch" Guice's Deathlok#1!

We open at Cybertek Systems, Inc., a cybernetics firm under the auspices of Roxxon Oil, Marvel's all-purpose sinister corporation. Under the oversight of Harlan Ryker, Cybertek has successfully built its own Deathlok, thanks to having encountered the original Luther Manning model when he time traveled. Soldier John Kelly was used to fashion Deathlok, but on a test run the computer system took issue with Kelly when he didn't follow its rigid parameters; thinking the brain was in error, the computer electrocuted it, killing Kelly. It was a nice piece of black comedy, not unlike the opening of Robocop where a hapless executive is killed by ED-209 during a demonstration.

Harlan pressures his technicians to get Deathlok ready for a new brain donor. Cybertek already has interested buyers for a completed Deathlok model. One of the technicians, Dr. Jacobs, thinks Deathlok is inferior to his own invention, the Cybertank (more on that later).

Elsewhere, we meet Michael Collins, a software programmer for Cybertek who lives a comfortable life with his wife Tracy and son Nick. Michael designed a computer game for Nick, but he grows disappointed when Nick acts as though having the biggest gun is the best way to play.

With Harlan pressuring everyone at Cybertek to get Deathlok done, the unwitting Collins wonders what could be so important; so far as he knows, Cybertek designs artificial limbs for amputees. Hacking into Harlan's computer, he sees the truth; his co-worker Dworman already knew.

Being a pacifist, Michael is unsettled by this development. Without telling Tracy about Deathlok, he asks if she could accept him leaving his job; she offers unconditional support.

Consider, if you will, a comparison between Michael Collins and Miles Dyson from Terminator 2: both men are African-American, have a wife and son and find themselves working on a project inspired by a time-traveling cybernetic creature, but neither man is actually a villain. Again, Deathlok predates Terminator 2.

Michael has to take action on his principles, so he confronts Harlan about Deathlok, not realizing Harlan is the one masterminding the project. When Michael suggests they tell the newspapers about Deathlok, Harlan responds by shooting him with a tranqulizer dart. Now Harlan has his brain donor; he tells Tracy there was an accident at the lab.

A few days later, Deathlok is dropped into the (fictional) South American nation Estrella to wipe out a band of guerrillas for the local government. We soon witness just how formidable Deathlok is.

In the midst of the carnage, Collins "wakes up." To fix the earlier problems with Kelly's brain, this time the brain donor is serving as a simple storage device. Collins has no control over his actions and can only watch helplessly as his body massacres people by the dozens.

To make matters worse, Collins' awakening mind sets off the computer's self-repair function; thinking the organic brain is experiencing an error it tries to wipe it out, but instead Collins begins to give the computer orders. This comes in handy when Deathlok is confronted by the last of the guerrillas: a frightened little girl. Even when she opens fire on Deathlok, Deathlok fails to respond.

Although the Estrellan government is ecstatic with Deathlok, Harlan is unnerved by the girl's survival. Harlan's technicians quickly theorize that Collins is overriding the computer. They suggest bit-mapping Michael's memories and dumping them from the brain.

It's fast work, but not fast enough. Within cyberspace, Collins mind is continuing to hack Deathlok's computer, placing it firmly under his control. The computer even warns him about the bit-map process. It turns out when you need a brain donor for your killer shouldn't pick a computer programmer.

Deathlok bursts free and begins a run through the Cybertek complex, fighting his way out. Once again predating Terminator 2, Collins issues a significant order to the computer: "no killing."

Although the computer does a fine job of suggesting non-lethal ways to defeat opponents, it will continue to suggest Collins rescind his order. We soon get a taste of the interplay between Collins and the computer which will be maintained throughout Collins' stories:

Deathlok also goes up against Dr. Jacobs' prized Cybertank, which is something of an ED-209 to Collins' Robocop. So, it goes as you would expect.

Cybertek has a tracking device inside Deathlok's helmet, but the computer helpfully tells him and he simply removes it. Escaping the facility, he tries to go home to Tracy and Nick, but since he's already been reported dead and doesn't look or sound like himself...or anything doesn't end well.

Collins is now at his lowest ebb. He's become an instrument of war, everything he hates. He's lost his life, his family; he sees only one answer.

Of course, if he simply shot himself in the head the body would be retrieved and rebuilt by Cybertek. No, just like the Terminator in Terminator 2, he has to completely destroy himself.

But at the last moment before destruction, he decides to say goodbye to Nick. Tapping into a phone line his mind travels through the moden into Nick's computer, where he passes himself off as a program created for Nick by his father.

But now, reminded of his own principles, Michael realizes he can do more with himself as a live hero than a dead computer programmer; suicide is not the answer.


Deathlok continued in three more issues of the mini-series, then into a decent 34-issue run, some of it written by McDuffie. Sadly, Guice only drew issues #1-2 of the mini-series.

I think this is simply an excellent super hero comic book. It updates a familiar (but never outrageously popular) hero by deliberately going against the grain of the original concept and the creative direction of most late 80s to mid-90s comic books by using a pacifist super hero. Collins' unwillingness to kill became one of his defining characteristics, especially in age where so many heroes seemed to be packing deadly weapons. Because he didn't use lethal force, Deathlok had to find more creative ways to get out of his problems than simply "kill 'em all."

I've indicated a few similarities between Robocop and Terminator in this review not to diminish any of the involved parties, but to show how McDuffie was thinking along similar wavelengths as those film franchises' creators. If I have a point, it's that people who consider themselves Robocop and Terminator buffs would do well to seek out Deathlok#1.