In previous posts, I’ve spoken of the rise of the anti-hero in comics published by Marvel and DC in the Seventies. Last time, we charted the adventures of the morally ambiguous survivalist Skull and in the recent Thor post, I made reference to the Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter at DC, an assassin who seemed a plausible stablemate for Shang-Chi. Today, it’s the turn of a suicidal zombie who survived eleven issues of Astonishing Tales and has helmed a couple of series over the decades.
Deathlok is a rogue cyborg assassin in the dystopian world of 1990. This is cyberpunk about a decade early. The cinematic influences of Steranko – panel layouts which keep the stories in jittery, paranoid motion- are married to a schizophrenic narrative coursing with pop culture references to Bowie and Blue Oyster Cult- although the nods to the Doors already seem quaint in 1975. As with Skull, tropes in pop culture at the time informed the comic, from the original Westworld to the Six Million Dollar Man and The Stepford Wives. Deathlok himself is a significant influence on Robocop.
Deathlok, a conflicted protagonist literally locked into a living dead state by technology, was the creation of Rich Buckler with assistance from Doug Moench. Halfway through the series, however, Bill Mantlo takes over and, as he did with Skull, tries to build links between the series and the mainstream Marvel Universe; Mantlo retrofits antagonist Simon Riker into a Marvel Spotlight vehicle for the Sub-Mariner.
Deathlok’s messianic enemy is defeated by his own hubris, in a cybernetic spin on the fates of Thanos and Kang. But a new enemy, the robotic Hellinger was waiting in the wings, with a cadre of radioactive clones, like a metallic version of Captain Action’s Dr. Evil or the modern Golden Skull. The strip finally ended in the aforementioned Marvel Spotlight with a typically 70s oddball team-up in the present day with Devil-Slayer, a reworked Buckler creation once known as Demon-Hunter.
I came aboard with issue 32 posted above, after seven issues, at the point where colour Marvels suddenly deluged the shops on a weekly basis after an absence of some years, Despite a dearth of traditional super-heroics, I was clearly interested enough in the series to buy four consecutive issues at the time. But re-reading the collected edition a few weeks ago, I was not engaged despite its innovation.With its psychedelic excursions into cyberspace and its preoccupation with cloning and electronic surveillance, Deathlok is a much more sophisticated and ambitious series than Skull The Slayer. But the clinical, callous world of the cyborg is off-putting and the individual episodes are terribly slow.
And what was the story behind the crucifixion imagery? Was it merely influence of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell? It seems excessive and distasteful.
In the near future, we’ll revisit the demon sorcery of Magik in the Eighties and celebrate fifty years of Fantastic with the mid-60s exploits of the merry mutant X-men.
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