2 Davids, 1 Book: ‘Deathlok The Demolisher,’ Zombie Cyborg Killing Machine
Welcome to the second edition of 2 Davids, 1 Book where David Brother and David Uzumeri take a look at the “Deathlok: The Demolisher” hardcover by Charlie Huston (“Moon Knight”, “The Shotgun Rule”) and Lan Medina (“Punisher MAX”, “Fables”), a stark, uncompromising vision of a dystopian future that seems very rooted in the social anxieties of the 1980s. This series is a complete and total revamp of the Deathlok character created by Rich Buckler and Doug Moench, pulling various ideas and tropes from his past incarnations and folding him into an all new status quo.
David Uzumeri: The basic concept: Corporate-sponsored futuristic bloodsports as per usual, a conscientious general (Luther Manning) and a sociopathic, brand-boostering jackass (Mike Travers) get blown up and then resurrected as a zombie cyborg killing machine. As one might guess, the newly-awoken Deathlok is of two minds about his situation. [Ed. note: RIMSHOT]
David Brothers: To say the least. The two minds aspect has changed since Deathlok’s inception, as there are technically three minds at work in the story– Manning, Travers, and Deathlok, who has one command: “demolish.” Which makes for a neat twist on the old idea, which was (on occasion) a pacifist trapped in a war machine.Uzumeri: First off, in our pre-discussion… discussions, you brought up how very rooted in the ’80s this story is, and man, that’s totally right. The washed-out coloring, the nature of the dystopia… obviously Medina was in on this, since we saw a Logan’s Run ankh on the side of a building.
Brothers: Ha, I missed the ankh.
Uzumeri: Yeah, and the space marine armor is total Aliens/DOOM stuff, big burly space marines, the kind of tropes cinema has left behind and videogames will apparently never get tired of.
Brothers: This does feel like the closest thing we’ll ever see to a successor to Dark Knight Returns, doesn’t it? There’s so much about this book that is steeped in ’80s-style dystopia, and a lot of it is particularly evocative of “Dark Knight Returns.” This is a sci-fi story set in the future, but not *our* future, which tends to be either antiseptic to a fault in our speculative fiction or horribly washed out, like in “Mad Max” or “Book of Eli.”
Uzumeri: Oh, certainly, not least the invented futureslang that Huston brings up, an amalgamation of ’80s “Ninja Turtles” lingo and Internet acronymspeak.
Brothers: It’s set in the future of the ’80s, so you have consumerism and capitalism running wild over the Earth, to the point where companies are almost sovereign states unto themselves.
Uzumeri: The classic Neuromancer cyberpunk concept — ALMOST sovereign states? They ARE, really. I mean, at this point militaries are broken on corporate rather than political boundaries. Deathlok also has a deeply transhumanist message, as well. Deathlok isn’t a freakish experiment gone wrong, he’s the future.
Brothers: But even that message is, what, “tainted” by the ’80s dystopia of this book? The revolution that springs up around him is slapped together and led largely by insane people. “CAS” people, to use the lingo of the book.
Uzumeri: That’s not how I read it at all. The transhumanism is how humanity’s going to transcend this amazingly shitty society, especially in the case of the girl Mike. But that gets into the eye motif, which is something I don’t want to touch on until later.
Brothers: Okay, let’s pull back for a second then and hit the main features of the book: writing and art. What worked for you the best with Huston’s script?
Uzumeri: I mean, yeah, the revolution around Deathlok is mostly Heaven’s Gate cultist types, but even borderline insane hippies are probably better than the ‘sane’ leaders of the world in this.
Brothers: The hippies are more human, to be sure.
Uzumeri: The script was really tight. I don’t think there’s a wasted moment in this book; everything has a purpose, and it all comes together in the end. The themes and motifs are incredibly clear — Huston’s background is novels, and it shows, since this is definitely something that works better as a collected edition than as singles, I’d think. There are a lot of little details that wouldn’t work as well if you read it months apart, like Deathlok in the dreamscape being the same as the suits of armor Luther studied around as a child.
Brothers: Yeah, that sort of thing tends to get lost in the weeks between issues. I think my favorite part of the writing is simply how dense it is. Every page is layered with dueling captions and word balloons. And while in other comics, that sort of thing tends to be jarring or annoying, here it simply replicates what things are like inside Deathlok’s head. There are so many voices battling for your attention.
Uzumeri: There were numerous sequences I had to read a few times, just to get the parallel captions. It WAS kind of jarring, certainly, but — yeah, exactly! They did the same with the commentators, too. I never really got to tell the other two apart, but the green one as Hamad was pretty clear.
Brothers: Making the text mirror the reading experience is the kind of thing that’s tricky, but when pulled off, it works. You really get into the book.
But let’s talk about the commentators for a minute. They were the most Frank Miller-y part of the book to me. They delivered exposition, they shed light on scenes, and they basically served the same purpose as the newscasters from “DKR.”
Uzumeri: Well, they ARE newscasters. What news is left to report after Saturday Night Battlezone, where people kill each other on TV for sport? “Earlier, on Saturday Night Battlezone, a s–tload of people died. And now, here’s Angela with the CRAZIEST dog in the downtown core!”
Brothers: Ha! Yeah, I think I just assumed that there was real news in this world, but considering that everything is Roxxon owned, the lines begin to blur.
Uzumeri: Even Roxxon itself seems so ’80s, the name as a blatant Exxon homage. It’s like, if this was fully modern, it’d be RP.
Brothers: But they serve as sportscasters, as well, whose job it is to get people revved up and into the game, so when you’re seeing these guys trading barbs while people are exploding on the battlefield, it kind of tickles your brain a little.
Uzumeri: Well, the thing that really sets it apart is Hamad, the actual veteran, who’s there for the “football player who broke a knee and needs to pay the bills” role.
Brothers: I think Roxxon itself dates from the ’70s in Marvel, but here, in this ’80s future, it represents corporatism gone wrong.
Uzumeri: Well, damn. Roxxon was introduced in 1974.
Brothers: There’s one scene with Hamad that is just dropped into the rapid fire flow of the comic and stops it cold. He’s looking directly into the camera, extremely sad, and his image is reflected in the camera’s twin viewfinders.
Uzumeri: It’s in the first issue, isn’t it? Talking about medics? Yeah!
Brothers: That’s that first gutpunch, where it’s like Huston and Medina are saying to you, “Do not cheer these men on. This is corruption.”
Uzumeri: Honestly, who in the hell was cheering them on even before that? They were applauding child soldiers! “Corruption” is a massive understatement, since corruption is below the surface. Graft and bribes, that’s corruption.
Brothers: You’d go with “evil?”
Uzumeri: The desensitized socialization of death? Yeah, that’s pretty all-out evil.
Brothers: Or even fetishization.
Brothers: Every argument in this world is solved by violence.
Uzumeri: What else is left? Look at the way the kids speak, it doesn’t lend itself to rhetoric.
Brothers: You mentioned you had a theory about what’s up with all the one-eyed people in “Deathlok.” Hit us.
Uzumeri: Well, I think it’s a pretty clear Odin reference, you know? The loss of an eye means wisdom, and it’s something we see in the very first scene, with Luther’s grandpa having a fake eye.
Brothers: I just clicked over to Wikipedia and saw this: “His name is related to Åðr, meaning ‘fury, excitation,’ besides ‘mind,’ or ‘poetry.'” Fury… excitation… it fits really well, doesn’t it? And at the end of the book, Deathlok’s set up as the leader of new humanity.
Uzumeri: And you know, the thing is that throughout the book, Luther is so sure that he’s the smart one. So you’ve got the FAKE one eye, because the book still wants us to think of machines as not being people. So even though Deathlok FEELS wise, he isn’t. And even though he LOOKS one-eyed, he isn’t. And the second Luther attains TRUE wisdom – the second he realizes what Travers is, what Deathlok is, and how to merge them – he ACTUALLY loses an eye, and gains wisdom.
Brothers: Laid out like that, it sounds like Huston is laying it on thick, but in the book, the reveals are organic. No one points and goes “Oh, now you’re like Odin! Thor’s father!”
Uzumeri: And then, at the end of the book, when Deathlok is training the girl much as he was, she’s — seemingly without an accident to lead to it — got one eye.
Brothers: And, just for fun, another “DKR” parallel — the little girl, Mike? She becomes a sidekick to a grizzled old warrior who’d lost his way. And she’s a redhead. Hello, Carrie Kelly.
Uzumeri: Ha! I hadn’t realized that. I wonder how much of this was intentional, and how much of it was subconscious.
Brothers: It’s nice that Deathlok has this kind of depth. Deathlok could be one of Marvel’s most interesting characters, but he’s been misused, or simply ignored, for years. The instant conflict of Pacifist + Machine Designed Only for Killing is a good one.
Uzumeri: This was a great revamp, the only problem is that it has a very closed ending and could never be used in the MU.
Brothers: Is it just me, or is this the best Lan Medina has looked in years? He had several colorists, with June Chung doing the lion’s share of the work and Morry Hollowell and Brian Heberling doing a couple issues, but it looks great.
Uzumeri: Oh, Medina was on fire. The whole thing was gorgeously colored, too, even with the colorist switchouts, largely because everyone there is top of their game.
Brothers: I think Hollowell was the only colorist who stood out to me as being jarring, but even that was something minor. The way he does stubble is different than how must people color it, save for maybe GuruEFX. But the layouts, the action, the action, all of it was on point. Even the way that Deathlok was this chunky, awkward looking Robocop of a robot was a nice touch.
Uzumeri: Hollowell’s got a very specific, style, though – his issue definitely seemed DARKER than the others, probably because he tends to go for very rich colors.
Brothers: This is probably the most violent non-MAX Marvel book, at least up until “Ultimate Comics Avengers 3″ #1 came out. In fact, when Deathlok gives a certain character a close range laser burst to the mouth, the guy’s eye pops out on panel.
Uzumeri: Oh, it’s ugly and visceral, no doubt. I’d give it an edge up over “Avengers 3,” to be honest, since that’s so cartoonish. “X-Force: Sex and Violence,” well, now we’re talking. But to be fair that comic actually DID get the MAX label.
Brothers: Even the violence feels kind of ’80s to me. Does that make any kind of sense? It has that same feeling as the really visceral, but goofy, gore people used to do in movies. So you’d seen an entire head squashed on-screen, but it would look a little doughy. Here, the doughy has been replaced by a grittier approximation of real life.
Uzumeri: I wonder, actually, how much of the ’80s feeling from this is Medina and how much is Huston. Do you think it was in the script specifically, or did Medina just pick up on Huston’s DKR vibe and start playing along?
Brothers: It’s done so smoothly that I can’t even tell, and I love that I can say that. Huston and Medina are totally in-sync.
Uzumeri: In short, I recommend this thing, and I think it went under the radar as it was coming out. I hope it finds new life as a hardcover; it’s really easy to dismiss it as a book with violence and no point, and that’s about the exact antithesis of what this is. Deathlok is a very well-thought-out, very clear examination on what humanity is, both in the “being humane” sense and flesh-and-blood, and how the two interrelate.
Brothers: I like the way it approaches the ideas of both war (the end moral could be described as “Life is warfare,” even) and entertainment. It’s the story of the Roman colosseum extrapolated into a story that seemingly takes place twenty years from 1986. It’s smart, attractive, and there’s plenty of meat on its bones.
Uzumeri: The thing is, it’s NOT just the Roman colosseum story. There’s something modern and new about it that the transhumanist angle gives it that transcends it past all those other futuristic corporate battlezone entertainment stories. The brains and the heart are what set this apart from Smash TV, the same way the brains and the heart are what separate Deathlok from a sociopathic mercenary.
Brothers: That’s a pull quote if I ever saw one.