Friday, February 4, 2011

Astonishing Tales 25 and the Birth of Deathlok the Demolisher!

Astonishing Tales 25 1974 Deathlok 1st appearance cover by Rich Buckler

The cover blurb at the bottom of Astonishing Tales #25 called Deathlok: Perhaps the greatest creation yet in the Marvel Age of Comics, Phase Two!  You could call Phase Two the entire era under the editorship of Roy Thomas, the 70s period that saw the rise of creators like Steve Englehart, Don McGregor, Doug Moench, Steve Gerber, etc.  A period of wild creativity and doing new things with the toys that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko had left behind.  But there were also brand new characters during this period, and one of the most different and daring creations came from Rich Buckler and Doug Moench.

When I think of pop culture in the 1970s, the term anti-hero comes to mind.  In comics, movies, and novels.  Marvel was more prone to anti-heroes, since the writers and artists were more in tune with the counter culture.  Deathlok was a prime example of an anti-hero: in the first few pages he kills a few guys quite brutally.  At the same time he’s fighting against The Man, General Ryker and his military industrial complex—from a future set in the 1980s (that seemed so far off then).  You didn’t have to explain back then why anything connected to the military was bad, it just was evil by inherent nature, you dig it?

For the guys who read this first issue of the newsstand like I did, you will remember that The Six Million Dollar Man was on TV.  But this wasn’t a cheap rip off of ABC’s Cyborg.  Deathlok, who Buckler originally wanted to call Deadlock until Moench came up with the name, is literally Frankenstein as a Cyborg.  In the first issue we discover that Colonel Luther Manning, described by Ryker as one of the most brilliant battlefield strategists alive, was killed on the battlefield.  Half of Manning’s face and his entire right arm were blown off by a concussion bomb.  Ryker’s scientists have kept Manning’s brain alive, and they rebuild his body with cybernetic parts, making him better, stronger, faster, and more lethal than anyone in the future!

Deathlok 1st issue hunting down man by Buckler

Deathlok was Rich Buckler’s idea—he created the visual of the character and initially envisioned it as a novel.  But Doug Moench has to be listed as the co-creator, because he contributed so many essential elements.  My favorite thing about this character is that he shares his brain with a computer, who constantly challenges his decisions.  This sequence from page 2 of Astonishing Tales #25 is truly remarkable on a several levels.  One being that it is very cinematic, drawn by Buckler as if he is a movie director, with the sequence of the victim running away—every movement tracked by Deathlok’s computer.  The second is that there are three levels of narration in the captions: Deathlok’s computer voice, Manning’s voice, and a third-person voice that is the marriage of the two personalities.  In the backup article, Moench says that Deathlok took him longer to write than other comics, because of the complexity involve in the narration.

I think Deathlok is truly remarkable as a unique character, both visually and narratively.  Marvel has tried to reboot the character many times, but to me each attempt has always failed, because they lost the internal conflict of Manning versus Computer.  Who wants to have their decisions ruled by a computer telling them what to at every step of the way?  No one.  Deathlok’s computer threatens to override his functionality and shut him down entirely.  Manning is constantly fighting against it. I ain’t nobody’s bloody machine! Manning screams in the second issue. --and ain’t no more orders gonna be plugged into my arm—or my brain!

Buckler and Me and Deathlok makes three from FOOM 5 1974

The other remarkable thing about Deathlok’s first appearance was the promotional push that it received.  Back then we didn’t have Previews or web sites or any type of magazine telling us what was coming.  F.O.O.M. (Friends of Old Marvel) subscribers who received FOOM #5 in 1974 read this short article by Doug Moench: Buckler & Me & Deathlok Makes Three.  His first meeting with Buckler and discussing the artist’s ideas for the character over deli sandwiches in New York City.  How many kids dreamed of working for Marvel after reading that, hanging out with Moench, Gerber, Thomas, and throwing around ideas for Marvel Comics?  I know I did.

Deathlok schematic from FOOM 5 1974

To whet the appetite for this character, FOOM #5 also had this diagram schematic of Deathlok’s costume and gear.  All of which looked ultra cool to me.  Hmm, I wonder if Eliot R. Brown saw this diagram and that was the birth of his interest in doing this kind of stuff for Marvel Universe Handbooks?  Lol.

Bullpen Bulletins announces Deathlok

Maybe you were not an exclusive FOOM club member.  Well, you couldn’t have missed this promo column announcing Deathlok in the Bullpen Bulletins page for August 1974.  I just love everything about this column, how Marvel trumpeted their comics and creators to the world. We’re shifting into high gear, troops—but we’re not going anyplace without you!

Deathlok Mindlock article from Astonishing Tales 25

Back to Astonishing Tales #25.  The first story ended a bit abruptly, but there were some extra pages of content.  There was a two page discussion between Roy Thomas, Rich Bucker, and Doug Moench over the creation of Deathlok.  Buckler mentions again how he would like to eventually write a novel about Deathlok, with Moench’s help.  One funny thing that you can’t help but notice is the punched card on the page giving you the rundown on the creators.  Deathlok’s computer was programmed by punched cards!  Well, few of us could really predict the future.

Astonishing Tales 26 1974 Deathlok cover by Rich Buckler

Looking back at the whole launch of Deathlok, Marvel gave it a really good promotional push.  He had a two year run in Astonishing Tales, which ended with issue #36, with Buckler staying on until the end.  Moench left after the second issue, Astonshing Tales #26, and I think the series suffered in terms of story after that.  The visuals on the remaining issues were always dynamic, but it was the collaboration of Moench combined with Buckler that made the character work for me. 

I think Deathlok (along with Killraven) is one of the most unique characters created during the 70s.  I wish Buckler and Moench owned a piece of it; under the work for hire rules, it solely belongs to Marvel.  They don’t even get a “created by” credit on any new appearances in Marvel Comics, which seems quite disgusting.  There is something at the core of the character, a potential for untapped stories that Marvel has failed to realize despite many reboots.  I suspect Deathlok has influences beyond comics; when I saw the 1987 film Robocop, it seemed to me that character was similar to Deathlok in many ways.  Nuff Said! 

Update: Giant-Size fan Toby sent me this scan, for Rich Buckler's variant cover to the 2009 Deathlok #1 mini-series!  Hated this series entirely, but it is good to see that Marvel commissioned Buckler for this gem, a re-take on the classic Astonishing Tales #25 cover.

Deathlok 1 2009 Rich Buckler Variant Cover