In their 1974 “Deathlok” feature for “Astonishing Tales,” writer Doug Moench and artist Rich Buckler presented readers with a dark dystopian possible future for the Marvel Universe. It was a world without heroes, thanks to the machinations of a sinister corporation. That world wasn’t completely without hope though: it had Deathlok, AKA Luther Manning, a cyborg super soldier fighting to reclaim his humanity in an inhumane world. This November, writer Charlie Huston (“Moon Knight”) and artist Lan Medina (“Foolkiller”) will reintroduce readers to “Deathlok” and his world in a seven issue mini-series from Marvel Comics‘ Marvel Knights imprint. CBR News spoke with Huston about the project which was announced at Marvel’s Cup ‘O Joe Panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego.
Huston was introduced to Deathlok at a young age, and he found the character compelling for several reasons; reasons that continue to appeal to him today. “I was a big science fiction guy, and I was probably 11 or 12, and even then I liked stories with dystopian and apocalyptic futures. Plus, Deathlok was another great visual character like Moon Knight [Who Huston discovered around the same time as Deathlok]. Also, I liked the way the character was written in ‘Astonishing Tales’ with the internal dialogue between Manning and Deathlok; there was a separate entity that was Deathlok,” Huston told CBR News. “It was a team concept from Moench and Buckler, and Moench was doing stuff that nobody else was doing, at least not in the comic books I was reading. It just felt different, and I always liked the dark stuff.”
In the early and late ’90s, new versions of Deathlok were introduced in stories that took place in the modern day Marvel Universe. Their adventures were being published at a time when Huston wasn’t reading comics, though. The writer researched those characters and read several issues featuring them, but the inspiration for his “Deathlok” series comes completely from the character’s original 1970s appearances. And, like those stories, Huston’s series will also unfold in dark, futuristic world.
Huston finished his last “Deathlok” script almost a year ago, and much of the planning and plotting for the series was done three to four years ago, so the writer drew much of his inspiration for the series’s setting from the current events of the time. “The stuff that was on my mind was a lot of what was going on in Iraq in 2005-2006. Things were at their hottest there, and Blackwater, military contractors, and mercenaries were very big in the news. So what I pitched to my editor, Axel Alonso, was a story taking military contractors 20 years down the road,” Huston explained. “Basically, national armies cease to exist and wars are fought entirely by proxy by corporately owned and run armies. Warfare has become a spectator sport as well as a business.
“So I painted this broad picture of the world and said, within this, Deathlok is basically a commodity,” Huston continued. “Deathlok isn’t just an attempt to build a better soldier, but also something that can be spun off into things like toys and t-shirts. So that was where I was coming from, and over the course of the story, everything goes crazy and Deathlok goes rogue.”
In the original Deathlok stories, Luther Manning was a U.S. soldier killed in a training exercise and subsequently turned into a cyborg by a secret government project. In Huston’s story, which satirizes pro sports, military contractors, and corporate culture, Manning is blown up in what amounts to a war game, only he doesn’t die alone. Manning and another soldier under his command, Mike Travers, are both killed, and organic parts from each of them are incorporated into Deathlok’s cybernetic body.
“My memory of the original stories was that Travers only appeared briefly, and that he was Luther Manning’s best friend. The big shocker was that Manning went home and found Travers and his wife together,” Huston said. “The set up for this is basically that, in this world, Manning is a soldier’s soldier. He’s not a superstar, but he’s a respected professional and military thinker. He’s someone who gets results. Mike Travers is a rising superstar in the face of the game. Both are blown up simultaneously, and both end up incorporated into Deathlok. So the internal dialog the original stories had between Manning and Deathlok manifests in this version as an internal dialog between these two different personalities, Manning and Travers.”
Manning and Travers aren’t the only characters Huston has incorporated from the original Deathlok stories. Readers can expect homages to and new versions of several characters and concepts. “For the corporate armies, I tried to use as many of the businesses mentioned in the Deathlok stories as possible. Roxxon is, of course, the most obvious. The army that employs Manning and Travers is Roxxon,” Huston explained. “Then I did the same thing with character names. Simon Ryker is in this, and Doctor Hellinger, who was a big character in the original, is a major antagonist here. There’s a minor C.I.A. agent character in the ‘Astonishing Tales’ stories who plays a major role here, and I took a character who was a gangster in ‘Astonishing Tales,’ and now he’s the head of a toy division in Roxxon.”
The shape of Huston’s plot for “Deathlok” will echo the stories from “Astonishing Tales” in many ways. “Some of the more surreal, outrageous, and out there concepts that I thought I would dump, I started embracing,” the writer stated. “At a certain point, I started trying to embrace the weird a little more, and I think that served the story a lot more.”
While the ’90s versions of Deathlok mixed superhero elements with science fiction ones, Huston’s series is strictly a science fiction story. “This is science fiction in the broadest possible sense,” Huston stated. “It’s not ‘Hard Sci Fi,’ where you take a science concept and try to extrapolate it to its natural conclusion. It’s two-fisted, pulp-adventure, science fiction.”
Huston is best known for his series of gritty crime novels and his work on “Moon Knight,” so the author relished the chance to do a science fiction story like “Deathlok.” “Initially, I found myself being very rigid about trying to source a lot of the technology to stuff that goes on today, and that created two problems. One, by trying to explain what these things are and where they come from, you get tangled in a lot of exposition. The other is that it starts limiting your imagination. If you want to make everything cohesive and internally consistent, at a certain point that bogs down the story,” Huston explained. “These are comic books, so things need to be visual, and I’m talky enough without having to explain some of the weapons technology or biological stuff that I allude to in the comics.
“So it was fun to start with those reference points, but I’m glad that, at a certain stage, something clicked in my head and I went, ‘It’s a comic book. I should relax,'” Huston continued. “That’s a hump I have a lot of problems with in my writing. I’m trying to use comic books to free up my imagination and I often find myself doing the opposite.”
For Huston, having Lan Medina as the artist on “Deathlok” meant that he could run wild with all sorts of crazy ideas and elements. “He’s got this detailed, hyper-realistic style and takes some more of the fantastical elements and puts them into a visual context that grounds them,” Huston explained. “Lan is a beautiful artist and does great work.”
“Deathlok” is a seven issue mini-series, but if readers take to Huston’s vision of the future, the writer wouldn’t mind revisiting the character. “The original pitch I gave Axel had an ending, and he liked it, but he asked if I could make things a little more ambiguous,” Huston said. “Up until I was scripting about issue five or six, I was pretty sure I was going to keep the ending that I had in mind, which put a real period at the end of things, but there was enough wiggle room that if somebody wanted to come back in, they could do more.
“Then, somewhere in there, a twist occurred to me, and the story shot off in a new direction,” Huston continued. “I had to go back and rewrite some pages in the earlier issues to make it all hang together. Once I did that, ‘Deathlok’ ended up a complete story in seven issues that could easily be the launching point for more stories with the character. So, I’m doing other things right now, but we’ll see what happens.”