Deathlok: The Marvel Comics Phenomenon That Almost Was

Deathlok's appearance on Marvel's Agents of SHIELD is a milestone for the character, but he's flirted with celebrity in the past, too!

In 1974, Marvel added a new type of hero to their pantheon of costumed adventures, gods, and monsters. In the pages of Astonishing Tales, creators Rich Buckler and Doug Moench created Deathlok the Demolisher, a cyborg that fought evil corporations and technological nightmares in a dystopian future. When Astonishing Tales ended, Manning was shunted off into the Marvel Universe proper, where Deathlok became an infrequent but fascinating guest star. Deathlok was a bit player in the overall tapestry of the Marvel Universe until 1990, when Dwayne McDuffie, Gregory Wright, and Butch Guice reinvented Deathlok for a new generation, one that had a fascinating character twist that should have made him the next Marvel superstar. 

This version of Deathlok was introduced in a self-titled 1990 prestige format mini-series. Unlike, Luther Manning (the original Deathlok), the latest Deathlok cyborg, Michael Collins, existed in the contemporary Marvel Universe and not some possible alternate future. Where Manning was cold, distant, and difficult for a reader to relate to, Collins was an everyman with deep seated beliefs and principles. Collins was a technological genius standing on the fringe of the digital age. He was also a devout pacifist, a follower of the tenets of Dr. Martin Luther King, and an anti-weapons advocate.

When he discovered that his technological innovations were not being used to help build artificial limbs but instead to build weapons, he threatened to blow the whistle on his boss, Harlan Ryker and Roxxon Oil. Ryker had Collins killed and downloaded the gifted programmer’s consciousness into the body of a Deathlok cyborg. Now, a man who defined himself as a pacifist was inside of the ultimate weapon.

This ironic dichotomy defined Collins as an archetypal Marvel hero: an ultra-powerful being who was defined by his ironic flaws. Like the Hulk, Thing, or Wolverine, Collins was a complex individual trapped in the body of a monstrous killing machine. Every inch of his deadly titanium frame was designed for violent intent and was thus repugnant to Collins. Collins had left behind a wife and a daughter, a peaceful life that he could never get back to while living the life of a walking weapon. Every conflict, every battle that Deathlok found himself in went against his enlightened nature. In other words, Deathlok had the trademark pathos and contradictions that epitomized most of the truly great Marvel characters. Sales were brisk, and the prestige format mini went back for a standard format second printing to meet demand.

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After the success of the mini-series, which ranked #65 on the Diamond top 100 titles for 1991, things looked bright for Marvel’s newest hero. Deathlok was awarded his own monthly in 1991 during the heart of the speculator boom. Deathlok’s first issue was enhanced with a metallic yadda yadda cover and got lost in the gimmicks and bells and whistles of the day. The book sold, but everything in those days sold. Speculators saw the gimmicks and not the character potential of Michael Collins, and thus the excitement of this new and different take on Deathlok was lost in the glut of titles hitting the racks every month.

A reread of these issues, particularly the ones written by McDuffie, will show that there was a great depth to the book. The innate tragedy was played up as well as the ever present irony of a pacifist operating a killing machine. The banter between Deathlok and his onboard computer (simply referred to as ‘puter by Collins) gave the book a fun tone that contrasted with the bleak circumstances of the protagonist to create a narrative unlike anything else on the racks, then or now.

Sadly, the order of the day was gimmicks and guest stars and Deathlok soon lost its focus. By the fifth issue, Collins was forced to share time with the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. An issue later, the Punisher guest starred, and as awesome as it was to see a Denys Cowan drawn Deathlok/Punisher battle, the constant guest spots relegated the main character into a visitor’s role in his own book. Perennial ‘90s guest star, Ghost Rider, popped by in issue #9 further distancing the readership from the protagonist. This should have been the time that fans were learning about Collins the man, his conflict and pain, rather than turning the book into a glorified fighting game between Deathlok and other Marvel icons.

McDuffie and Wright, at times, shared the writing duties on the title, and at times, each writer flew solo. The shared writing chores made the book feel disjointed as McDuffie focused on Collins as a growing and developing character and Wright focused on Collins’ place in the larger tapestry of the Marvel universe proper. Character development happened in fits and starts as both writers seemed to be pulling in different directions, McDuffie internally and Wright externally. McDuffie forged ahead with some subtle character work, but it still felt like Deathlok, with all his story potential, was an afterthought in the Marvel machine.

During the flip-flopping of writers, McDuffie penned a tale in which the modern Deathlok met Luther Manning in an awesome story that still holds up today. After McDuffie’s turn, Wright was able to maintain some momentum before resorting to guest stars again, this time, Silver Sable, a character Wright was also writing. The dueling writers, one subtle and character driven in McDuffie, the other, a writer fueled by action in Wright, didn’t mesh well, and the book lost creative focus as it juggled creative visions.

By 1992, the speculator bubble had burst and many titles’ sales plummeted. Where once Deathlok stood at #65 in the same year as Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1, Jim Lee’s X-Men #1, and Rob Liefeld’s X-Force #1, by 1992 Deathlok was off the charts completely and never gained momentum back in the dark days of mid-90s Marvel. From needless team-ups, to constant gimmicks, to unstable creative direction, to turmoil within the upper echelons of Marvel, to the entire comic industry collapsing under its own weight, Deathlok was never able to realize his full potential as an A-list character in the Marvel Universe. The foundation was certainly there, but the foundation was built on the bedrock of an unstable company trying to vie for survival in an ever more unstable industry.

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Deathlok has been an infrequent part of the Marvel Universe since his solo title was cancelled in 1994. Marvel tried again with the property in 1999-2000 in a book that had no connection to Manning or Collins. The new Deathlok came and went without making any lasting memorable impact on the Marvel Universe. Recently, Jason Aaron has used the concept of Deathlok to great effect in his runs on Wolverine and Wolverine and the X-Men, although none of this saw Deathlok as the viable solo star he nearly was in the ’90s. His appearances on Agents of SHIELD certainly helped lead to a new Deathlok ongoing at Marvel, as well.

Maybe this one will allow this new Deathlok to forge his own legend…a legend that was almost realized in the turbulent ‘90s.

A version of this article originally appeared on February 4th, 2014.