Everybody loves Deathlok.
As seen in Wolverine: Weapon X, Jason Aaron loves Deathlok. As you can currently see in Uncanny X-Force, Rick Remender loves Deathlok. Charlie Huston loves Deathlok and devoted quite a bit of time to him. Brian Bendis drops Deathlok Easter Eggs into his books just about whenever he can. New Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso has a real soft spot for Deathlok. Artist and friend of the CKT Mike Perkins loves Deathlok so much that he’d likely shed his nice guy persona and do terrible things for the opportunity to draw him regularly (which he could do quite well).
And what’s not to love? Though many variations on the theme have emerged over the years, the basic conceit remains the same and awesome: A veteran soldier suffers catastrophic injuries and has his mind implanted without his knowledge into a gnarly-looking cyborg body then attempts to overcome his new programming as a corporate killing machine and win over the computer he shares his new existence with to regain his humanity or at least become a force for good.
Why then with an inspired visual courtesy of Rich Buckler—and later refined by Butch Guice and others—plus a great back story and fandom from so many top creators has Deathlok only had three solo series in his 37 year existence, only two of those bearing his name and only one running over 11 issues?
Admittedly I have only a limited familiarity with Deathlok—I haven’t read the quintessential 70’s stuff or his 80’s Captain America appearances, which Rickey counts among his favorite comics—but even at a glance, I do believe I can see what makes the character simultaneously appealing and yet somewhat creatively restrictive.
Deathlok is like Wolverine on the most basic level in that his battle to retain and/or regain his humanity and not let his mechanical/bestial nature win out is at the crux of the character. Most Deathlok stories told from the point of view of Luther Manning—or Michael Collins or whoever—have him struggling not to go over the edge and become the monster he’s “meant” to be. Using this point of view makes sense and I wouldn’t argue against it; there is a lot of good stories to be mined from a fundamentally good man battling circumstances and internal urges perhaps more deadly than any external threat. You still get the big battle scenes you expect from a comic about a cyborg warrior fighting warmongering corporations in a dystopian future, but it’s Deathlok’s inner battle that gives his story heart.
However, there came a point when writers—specifically Chris Claremont—realized that Wolverine could only go so far as the animal working to keep his berserker tendencies in check, and thus worked to humanize him while not blunting his edge. From there you got classic stories opening up Logan’s world and cast, including his first solo tale in Japan, his romance with Mariko, his mentoring of Kitty Pryde and so on.
Wolverine had the virtue of being part of a long-running series that wasn’t going anywhere in Uncanny X-Men even before he got his own series, so there was time for Claremont and others to develop his layers. Unfortunately—perhaps—for Deathlok, he debuted not only on his own, but in a separate setting from the rest of the Marvel Universe, so it was sink or swim right off the bat for him, and his creators never really got the chance to build his mythology beyond establishing the basics and telling some rocking action stories. From afar, that original run of Deathlok seems to me almost like so many TV shows sold on their high concepts but that then don’t get to run long enough to make you care about the characters beyond the gimmicks. It’s like if Lost only got half a season and then ABC gave up on it: we’d remember that crazy island, but probably not the castaways themselves.
Building on that analogy a bit further, most subsequent creators who resurrect Deathlok are fascinated by the island and want to explore it as best they can, but there are no castaways for them to latch onto and build a series out of.
The noteworthy exception I’d say would be the late Dwayne McDuffie, who managed to get 34 issues—38 if you count the prelude mini—out of Deathlok during the 90’s, even if he did switch the guy with the ‘puter to do so.
McDuffie’s Deathlok was Michael Collins, a pacifist and family man who got shoved into a walking weapon by his employers. For nearly three years, Collins sought to get his body back—which unlike Luther Manning’s was still in working order somewhere—reconnect with his family and also make sure he never actually killed anybody even though every onboard program was screaming at him not to. McDuffie solved the Deathlok “problem” by creating a supporting cast from the get-go and also positioning his protagonist in the Marvel Universe, bypassing a few hurdles when it came to building his world and mythology.
You’ve probably noticed throughout this little missive that I haven’t really come out and said there’s anything wrong with Deathlok as is or the stories that have been told with him either 30 years ago or last year—see last paragraph where I put the word “problem” in quotation marks—because ultimately I’m not sure there is.
Some characters may receive the occasional regular series helmed by creators who get them and have an appealing story to tell that lasts longer than a few issues, but in the end aren’t Superman or Spider-Man and go back to being great guest stars or team members. I’d argue this list includes characters like The Silver Surfer, Captain Marvel (the Shazam! one), Doctor Strange and the freaking New Gods, so it’s hardly shabby company. At the end of the day, Deathlok may simply belong on this list.
Looking over the last few years alone, Jason Aaron and Rick Remender have both been able to craft bad ass story arcs around Deathlok as the mysterious heavy from the future while Charlie Huston spun a nice yarn re-telling the origin story. Do we necessarily need a 50-issue Deathlok ongoing when the tradeoff to not having it is impactful guest appearances and cool limited series? I don’t think we do. If somebody finds a way to make Deathlok as a long-term leading robot—and somebody inevitably most likely will, as I’d use Remender’s new Venom book as proof there’s always a spin that works—I’ll be excited to read it, but my world will survive without it.
So perhaps this particular installment of this column shouldn’t be “Why Won’t This Work?” but more aptly “Why This Doesn’t Need to Work.”