Deathlok is certainly the most talked about Cyborg on television at the moment, thanks to J. August Richards on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. The Agents of SHIELD showrunners have based their Deathlok on the second character to use that name, the pacifist scientist Michael Collins. This version of Deathlok was created by the the team of Dwayne McDuffie, Gregory Wright, and artist Jackson “Butch” Guice. The Deathlok mini-series that introduced Michael Collins was a mega-hit which allowed Marvel to give the reluctant killing machine his own book, which was a fascinating mix of thoughtful storytelling, stunning art, new villains, social commentary, and ’90s excess.
It is our pleasure to sit down and talk to Gregory Wright about the genesis and creation of the Michael Collins Deathlok, the late, great Dwayne McDuffie, Marvel’s editorial policies of the era, fascinating projects that never came to fruition, and his feelings on how his creation has been used on Agents of SHIELD. This is a rare peek behind the curtain on a man who was on the frontlines at Marvel during the turbulent ’90s, whose dreams and creations are being mined for the Marvel television of today.
Den of Geek: Talk about the genesis of the rebooted Deathlok. How did the project come about?
Gregory Wright: Marvel was interested in rebooting several old characters, Deathlok among them. Dwayne McDuffie and I had already written a proposal for an ongoing RoboCop series that never came about, and we felt we could use some of those ideas in a new proposal.
Can you tell us a bit about your proposed RoboCop?
It was really going to be an extension of the original movie. But we had wanted to get into Murphy’s head more. Have him questioning who or what he really was. We were going to have OCP creating more Robocops. Except THIS time they would fix the problem of the human actually driving the body. Much like in the Deathlok series the BUSINESS of creating cyborgs was going to be the “bad guy.” And, like Deathlok, his family would play a big part in that series…even though we felt they would reject him which would set him off on his quest to figure out who he was now.
What led to the decision to not have Deathlok be Luther Manning?
Marvel wanted a brand new version of the character that would be part of the current continuity and not in some alternate future reality. Plus, there was some sort of legal snafu in utilizing the original version. At least that’s what we were told. So they had asked for proposals.
What aspects of Deathlok drew you to the character?
Both Dwayne and I loved the original character. We loved the idea of a man trapped in a machine against his will and having to fight for his own freedom. Plus the interaction with the on board computer was priceless. The original series was tremendous fun.
Tell us about the creation of Michael Collins.
The beauty of Marvel wanting a new version of Deathlok was that we could create anything we wanted. And we wanted to create a character that was TRULY different. We were not going to put a cop or a soldier in that cybernetic armor. We started with the premise that the man in the machine would be there against his will, that the human component was “supposed” to be utilized as “wetware” or storage and computer power. Then, through much discussion, we decided that the character would be the least likely person to be Deathlok. Preferably a nerdy programmer type, a family man with integrity. Dwayne suggested that we also make the character Black. He felt that maybe the original was supposed to be Black based on his name and being from Detroit. Plus, we’d been discussing the idea that psychologically the character would be questioning who or what he really was. Man or machine? Something else entirely?
Dwayne felt that because many Black people experience a sort of double consciousness, described by W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folks as “his sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” All pretty deep and interesting stuff. Continuing our process, we decided to go in a really risky direction. We chose to make the character a pacifist. Waking up as Deathlok, unable to control this cyborg body, having to watch from within as it massacred people as a war machine would be absolute torture for Michael Collins. And how he would overcome it would be incredible to write.
What did Butch Guice contribute to the project?
Jackson “Butch” Guice did a Wonder Man story with us for Solo Avengers and we really loved his work. He and I had become pretty friendly and we asked him to come on board as the artist when we did the proposal for the mini series. We had been creating detailed character bios and ideas for set design. So Butch was given all this material, and he created a whole bunch of visuals to help sell the book. His character designs helped us to develop the characters further. I’d say his art was a tremendous boost to our proposal, and on the final outcome of the first issues. Any time you have an artist of Butch’s talent working with you, it pushes you as a writer to write better.
Please tell us about your process with your co-writer the late, great Dwayne McDuffie? How did you split the writing?
When we wrote together, it was really a whole lot of asking insane questions and discussing how that would work. A lot of deep discussion of consequences and what ifs. Taking the good parts from that and questioning it some more. We’d create outlines and then tweak those. Question it some more until we had an outline we were both satisfied with. Then we’d divide up the story parts based on who was better at which parts or who was really vested in that particular section. Then we’d exchange parts, make comments and changes and integrate it into one story. Most of the dialogue was usually in the detailed plots, but we’d just divided it up and check to be sure we were writing each character correctly. When we wrote the separate story arcs we just checked with each other and the editors to be sure we weren’t doing anything to conflict with each other. We had kind of outlined the series beforehand and divided up storylines. Not that we wound up doing what we originally planned all the time.
What was Marvel’s reaction internally to Deathlok being a pacifist?
Well, that particular part of the character was what won us the book. It was so different form anybody else’s idea. But, there were those who felt that it would be better to have the character act more like the original. The original version of Deathlok was well liked by most people on staff, and they weren’t always so happy to see things change. And we were pretty untried writers at the time, so entrusting this complex idea to us was pretty risky.
What was it like introducing a series into the marketplace of 1991, competing with titles that were racking up legendary sales like Jim Lee’s X-Men and Rob Liefeld’s X-Force?
On the one hand, it probably helped to boost our sales initially, because everything was selling so much more than it had a right to. But in the end, because our sales did not come anywhere near those mega selling books, we got cancelled. And at that time, Marvel wanted BIG hits. Period.
What was your reaction to Marvel granting Deathlok a new solo monthly, something the character had never had?
It was awesome. But, the mini-series was done with the intention of launching an ongoing series anyway. If sales on the mini-series had tanked, we wouldn’t have gotten the ongoing.
You and McDuffie began splitting the writing chores of the series, what challenges did that cause and why did the decision take place?
It was simply a matter of logistics and finance. I was leaving my Marvel staff job as an editor and moving to Virginia. It was very difficult for us to write as a team with Dwayne in NY and me in VA. The cost of long distance telephone calls would be more than what we’d be paid to write the books, and the internet wasn’t where it is today. We did try to write over CompuServe at one point, but it was just a mess. So the decision was made for us to do alternating story arcs. It was challenging because we both had our own agendas with the character. We didn’t want to write a story that would conflict with the others story. And certainly we wanted to keep the character consistent. Even though we got to read everything, sometimes what we were going to do with the story might change and potentially cause an issue for each other. Ultimately we didn’t have any problems with each other’s storylines, but it did create extra work.
Not only did you guys split the writing chores, but there was also two editors, did that create conflict?
Yes. And I don’t want to point any fingers, because it wasn’t that any one of us was right and someone else was wrong, but when you have four people in charge of one character, there are going to be differences of opinions and conflict. Our editor on the ongoing series was Tom Brevoort (Coincidentally, he started his career at Marvel as an INTERN who worked in my office and the office Dwayne shared with the Mini-series editor Bob Budiansky). Tom was a brand new editor at the time and Deathlok was his first book to edit.
But, as was the custom at Marvel at that time, a new editor would have an experienced editor supervising him/her. Bob Budiansky was that supervising editor. So what would happen on occasion is that Tom would ask for changes, we’d make them and everyone would be happy. And then Bob would read it and want different changes that might conflict with the original changes. So Tom would have to call whichever one of us wrote the story and tell us about the new changes, that he might not even agree with. It was just too many cooks in the kitchen. I do want to stress, that both Dwayne and I really enjoyed working with Tom and Bob. And Bob was especially helpful to us on the mini-series. I just don’t want this to come off as some sort of attack on anyone, because it’s not.
Now…another little wrinkle is that anytime you wanted to use a character that belonged to another editor, THAT editor had to give you approval to USE the character. Plus, the editor had to sign off on the story that you used said character in. And, there were stories that were written using other characters that were approved by both Tom and Bob, only to get shut down by the editor (or sometimes editors if using more than one character) in charge of that character. And that added even more cooks to an already overcrowded kitchen.
What was your vision of the series, did it differ from Dwayne’s or the editors’?
We all had the same vision for the series. Deathlok is a reluctant hero, trapped in his worst nightmare, trying to desperately get back to being human so he could be with his family. Along with his adventures, we would explore the characters psychological nature. What differed, as you noted in your article was the types of stories we wrote to achieve this. Dwayne wrote more personal internal stories focusing on the man and I tended towards more action oriented stories that fit into the larger Marvel Universe. But I really don’t feel like Dwayne didn’t write terrific action or integrate the character into the Marvel Universe, or that I didn’t dig deep into Michael Collins’ character. But you could see where each of us was more focused. And the readers noticed that as well.
During the early issues of the series, guest-stars like Punisher and Ghost Rider began appearing regularly, was that an editorial edict? How did you feel the guest-stars affected the book?
At that time character crossovers were encouraged. Sometimes enforced. One of the reasons was to try and get new readers who are reading certain books, (like The Punisher or Ghost Rider) to try another book. It’s a strategy that works pretty well and makes sales go up. We weren’t really forced, but certain characters had to be approved ahead of time for certain issues.
In the case of the Punisher and Ghost Rider, they were made available for those specific issues, so if we wanted them, we had to use them. This was all very common back then so it didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time. I enjoyed getting to write the guest stars, but they definitely get in the way of character development. Looking back it’s pretty surprising to see how many guest stars we had in the first 12 issues. Another reason some guest stars would show up is because I was writing other books and had control over the characters. Silver Sable is a prime example.
Artist Denys Cowan had a very different style than Guice, what did Cowan bring to the book, and how did fans react?
When we did the mini-series, it was originally going to come out when it was finished. We had written the book to fit specifically with Jackson Guice’s art. His art was very slick, realistic and clean. When the series suddenly got placed on the schedule, we were late. Jackson Guice decided that he would not be able to make the deadlines, as he was also the regular artist on Doctor Strange at the time. We initially tried to find an artist to replace him whose artwork would more closely match. Plus, this was not a good thing for sales. Stores would be ordering based on the decision we made for the new artist. We couldn’t find anyone whose art looked like Jackson’s. (and many we asked were not happy to have to follow an artist as talented as Jackson Guice).
Luckily, Denys Cowan had expressed enthusiastic interest in finishing off the series. The only problem was that his art style was dramatically different from Jackson’s. Conventional editorial wisdom suggests that it would not be the best idea to select an artist whose work was not similar, especially for a limited series. Now we had to make a decision. Here we had an INCREDIBLE artist, ready to jump on board…but with a very different style of art. Ultimately we went with Denys, who really stepped up and did some stunning work. And, he delivered it in record time. I would say that Denys was the hero of the team.
To answer your actual questions, Denys brought a certain weight and authority to the book. There was something warm about it. More emotional. His Deathlok’s body language just spoke volumes about the character at any given moment. But, fan reaction was mixed. There were fans who just went with the change and embraced Denys’ awesome art. And there were fans who revolted. They were fans of Jackson’s type of art and the change was too drastic for them. It was a shame, because we REALLY loved Denys’ work. We hoped that when the ongoing series started it would be a non-issue because we adjusted our writing to highlight Denys’ art. Can’t please everybody. I mean, fans were somewhat divided over the fact that we made Deathlok a pacifist, too.
Talk about coloring Deathlok, what was your artistic philosophy to a character like that?
My philosophy is always the same. Color should enhance the artwork that is drawn, not redraw it or cover it up. Color should be used as a storytelling device. I used color to convey emotion, passage of time, or to tell the reader something subtle about the characters. I will say that I enjoyed coloring Denys the most. Denys’ style is one of those that really speaks to me. Jackson’s is so much more realistic, and clean. Wonderful stuff, but I like a bit more grit.
“Cyberwar” was a five part arc, talk about the idea that sparked that saga.
For good or bad, I was very influenced by fan reaction. Deathlok came with lots of baggage in the form of the expectation for him to be more like the original Moench/Buckler version. We were never going to alter Michael Collins like that. But I wanted to give readers something. Part of what kept Michael Collins from just searching for his body and doing nothing else was his realization that what happened to him could happen again. So I thought it would be a good idea for him to discover that it was indeed happening and he would have to stop it.
I had been thinking about the psychological angles again and realized we’d neglected to address the issue of whether or not a person is a whole united body, or if simply that the brain is where the entire person is. I thought it was logical that the onboard computer might have automatically downloaded a copy of the original body/brain’s memories/consciousness. If so, if it were triggered, there’d be a third voice in Deathlok’s head and it would also want control. I reasoned that IT could be downloaded into one of these NEW cyborg bodies and become a new character who could be more like the original Deathlok, to provide some counterpoint to our version. That’s where Siege came from. Plus, because he’s really just a digital copy of memories/consciousness, I could explore the idea of whether or not he was really alive…something the character unexpectedly was struggling with.
Towards the end of the series, you brought back Luther Manning, was that something you always had planned or was it pressure from fans or editorial?
We had always wanted to utilize Luther Manning. By the end of the series, I was finally given permission to utilize him. I was really excited, because there was so much great material I could finally use. Unfortunately they had already decided that the series was going to end, so I had to use him right away. It was fun but just too rushed. I was really happy with Kevin Kobasic’s artwork on those last issues we did. I had planned on doing a much longer and developed storyline, but that was not meant to be. Many books at that time got the same fate.
Were there any plans for the character you never got to do?
Of course. I’d actually done a proposal for a cyborg team led by Deathlok.
Tell us about that, what would it have been called, who was in it?
It would have been Deathlok, The Demolisher, and Siege. It was a time travel series that would have gone in and out of other stories and examined the ethics of changing the past.
Did the books cancellation come as a surprise?
No. At the time so many books were on the bubble and if they didn’t do something to raise sales they were cancelled. We hoped that the last storyline with Luther Manning would generate more interest, but it didn’t. One of the things that I always felt hurt our sales were the dual writers. I think our issues were different enough that readers felt a disconnect. Plus we had lots of artist problems. Denys was experimenting with an abstract style towards the end of his run, we brought in new artist who had trouble drawing the story that was written (preferring to focus on characters he liked better) and had trouble with the schedule, and several fill in artists. Dwayne’s last story arc had four different pencillers. All this chaos is never good for sales.
It was disappointing because by this time there was ONE editor, ONE writer, and an artist who was going to be there every month. We were finally a stable team with one vision.
Have you followed the appearances of the character since the book ended?
Not really, Michael Collins didn’t really show up much unless Dwayne wrote him in something. And Marvel had stopped sending me copies of their books, so I wasn’t even aware of any appearances. I know he was in Beyond and Dwayne’s run on Fantastic Four.
Deathlok popped up in many places during your run, did those editors or writers consult with you and Dwayne on how the character should be portrayed?
I used him quite a bit, as did my friend D.G. Chichester, so in those cases, there was consultation (laughs). Writers are not usually consulted unless the writer utilizing the character chooses to call them. Editors have to give permission and sign off on anything another writer in another office wishes to do. So, yes, Tom Brevoort would have been consulted.
There have been rumblings about a Deathlok film for years. Were you called in on any of those projects?
Nope. That’s the last thing they’d want is for the creators of anything to have a say.
How did it feel to see Deathlok on Agents of SHIELD?
AWESOME. Especially since J. August Richards based his portrayal off of our version. I’m very interested to see where it goes. I hope they don’t turn the character bad, because I like how they’ve set it up with him being used. I want to see him break free from his captors and be able to see his son!
What was your reaction when you found that Deathlok would be a television star on Agents of SHIELD? Were you consulted at all?
I was thrilled. It’s a huge thrill just to see an artist bring a story you wrote to life every month. So seeing a TV show or a movie that utilizes even a little bit of something you created is really cool. Dwayne, Jackson, and I even got a thank you credit for a split second. But consulted? No. They have their own vision for this version and anything they wanted to know about ours, Tom Brevoort would fill them in. Maybe he did!
What are you most proud of regarding the character and what do you wish could have gone down differently?
I’m really proud to have co-created a character with such integrity and morals. And made him an action hero to boot. I think he’s a truly intelligent character who is a powerful role model. That’s pretty rare. I wish we could have done the mini-series with one artist and that I could have done all the coloring on it. I wish Dwayne and I had been able to co-write the series together and that we could have had a stable art team on it for the duration of the book. I really think that the amount of chaos we had on our run had a negative effect on us as well as sales.
I really do need to say that this version of the character would never have been possible without Dwayne McDuffie. Dwayne refused to allow us to settle for anything short of what we eventually created. He insisted on integrity and depth of character. We weren’t going to be gratuitous and everything had to have purpose and meaning. He really pushed to make this character something fresh and different from what was “popular.” I think if you read the work he created at Milestone you can see the fruit of the seeds he and I planted with Deathlok. Dwayne inspired every bit of writing I have ever done and I miss him terribly.
Cast a film of your Deathlok for us.
Hmmm. Well, it definitely would be tricky. I’d still love to See Reginald VelJohnson as Michael Collins since he was who were were thinking of for the character. But I’d guess they’d want the same actor playing Michael to play Deathlok so I’d probably go with Chiwetel Ejiofor for both. Alan Rickman was always Harlan Ryker. I’d love to see Viola Davis or Alfre Woodard play Tracy. Edward James Olmos as Jesus, Sean Bean as John Kelly (because he always dies) …and Hugo Weaving as the computer voice.
Gregory Wright, thank you very much!