Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Deathlok the Demolisher: Origins

Another look at a series that is not touched by the Essentials.

Deathlok the Demolisher: Origins is a Panini pocketbook that reprints Astonishing Tales #25 to #28 & #30 to #35. The writing credits vary a bit but are mainly Rich Buckler with Doug Moench or Bill Mantlo scripting and/or co-plotting at times. The art on all issues is mainly by Buckler with additional contributions variously by Keith Pollard, Arvell Jones, Bob McLeod and "the whole blame Bullpen". Bonus material includes a two-page humour strip from issue #25 that was George Pérez's first published pencil work and various pencils and a 1976 watercolour by Buckler.

This is a strip with an interesting combination of themes that were prevalent back in the mid 1970s. There's a dystopian future in which familiar cities have become rundown hellholes whilst war has driven the military into an ever more powerful position. There are cyborgs as humans are reconstructed to be part machine and even more effective warriors than before. And there's the zombie fad adapted into science fiction with the lead character being a reanimated corpse.

Often an era's general cultural outlook is best reflected in the prevalent visions of the future. When the future is portrayed as a bold, pioneering vision of harmony it usually reflects on a present that may have big problems in the here and now but is confident of solving them. But there are times when such optimism is in rather short supply. The 1970s was a decade of cynicism in which many of the previous confidences had been dramatically shaken. It's unsurprising to find this future set strip takes place in such a grim and pessimistic environment. What is a shock though is the time. It's set in 1990, suggesting that nobody expected it to be still be read by that year or beyond. No doubt the pessimism about the future extended to the US comic industry, though 1990 would see it not only still going and in strong health at that, but also launching a new Deathlok series.

The fusion of cyborg and zombie produces a lead character with some unique characteristics. A dead soldier whose corpse has been kept in storage for five years, Luther Manning finds himself unexpectedly sentient again in a form that's part decayed corpse, part cybernetic addition. With a built in computer that he often converses with in private, Deathlok is set on a search to recover his humanity and seek revenge on Simon Ryker, the major who has yanked him from a noble death and brought him into this living hell as part of a wider scheme. Ryker is the main villain throughout the book though we also see the rise of his rival Hellinger amidst a wider development of cyborgs, military attacks on Deathlok and the cannibals who roam the streets of New York. Deathlok has some good character moments, especially when he turns up at his old home only for his wife and child to recoil in horror. Later he finds out that his best friend has married his wife.

But whilst the series may have some good concepts, the whole thing is let down by bad pacing. It suffers from "decompression" decades before the term was coined, with a rather simple storyline of Deathlok going rogue and seeking revenge on Ryker who in turn tries to neutralise him. This drags out over ten issues and although the individual chapters may generally hold up well the overall storyline feels excessive and somewhat dull. The series suffers a reprint fill-in, a truncated issue and an issue drawn by multiple hands, all signs of a series suffering troubles. Being very much an artist's pet project one might expect it to be all flashy art at the expense of plot but instead it's more character moments and smaller incidents that drag the whole thing out. The art is, however, quite good and does an especially effective job at portraying horror through reaction shots rather than showing it on panel. This is also notably a series without any interaction with the rest of the Marvel universe, instead taking place in its own time and thus a greater degree of creative freedom than was normally available in this era.

This edition lacks the final issue of Astonishing Tales but promises another Deathlok book is coming soon. It has yet to appear on Panini's schedules leaving the series on a slight cliffhanger though the main story of the struggle with Simon Ryker is completed here. Overall this edition shows a series that's very strong on ideas and individual moments but rather weak when collected together as a whole.

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