Captain America #286 “One Man in Search of... Himself!” The Deathlok saga (part 1 of 4)

With the Halloween holiday upon us, I was wondering what comic I should review. I’ve already looked at Swamp Thing, and Man-Thing seemed a little obvious. I was never a fan of Marvel’s Dracula, and never read Werewolf by Night. I considered the modern Vampirella comic, but the current story isn’t finished yet, and then I considered classic Vampirella, but I never read a story that I would consider memorable. Momentarily at a loss, I then remembered the genre known as “body horror”. And then the subject of my next article became obvious.

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These days, people predict the end of mankind and humanity as we know it. But back in the ’70s, there were predictions of us all either dying in a new ice age or thermonuclear war or some other catastrophe, and you saw this in movies like Mad Max, Damnation Alley, Escape from New York, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, and A Boy and His Dog. And there was also a similar theme going on in comics as well. Marvel Comics had Killraven appearing in Amazing Adventures, and the origin of the original Guardians of the Galaxy had Vance Astro coming from a near future where things went to hell. And then there was this guy: Deathlok, who showed up in Astonishing Tales.

My first exposure to Deathlok was in The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe back in early 1983, and I thought this dude was so bad-ass. He had a great look and a unique backstory, which happened in the far-flung year of 1991, where Colonel Luther Manning was killed and his brain and parts of his body were harvested in order to be rebuilt as a cyborg. If that sounds a bit like The Six-Million Dollar Man, I can only assume Marvel writer Doug Moenich might have been inspired by the Michael Caidin novel Cyborg, which was released in 1972. Manning was initially a weapon of death, controlled by his military-industrial complex masters, but ultimately he broke free of their control. He’s got a pretty convoluted timeline, and it doesn’t help that there have been several Deathloks who all look exactly the same. Although, that might be because people’s brains keep being put in the same body. At the time, I thought Deathlok was pretty cool, but I figured that unless I spent a lot of money and time hunting for back issues, I’d never see him in action again. Then a few months later, Captain America #286 hit the stands of my local comic book store.

We open in the far-flung year of 1991. A person narrates, talking about how great things are, and when you look at the ruins that are New York City, you can see some things have changed (although to be fair, when you look at the images of wrecked buildings and refuse, to a non-New Yorker, I really couldn’t tell what had changed. Then again, my exposure to NYC had mostly been movies, and back then it seemed directors loved showing the Big Apple as a burnt-out wasteland). Our host zooms in on a guy sitting by a camp fire on a city sidewalk, and when it comes to talking about food, it’s strongly implied civilization has collapsed so badly that some have been reduced to cannibalism, which makes me wonder what this guy is cooking. We never find out though, because someone takes a pipe to his head.

It turns out it’s a bunch of Road Warrior rejects who proceed to chow down on the man’s meal. Our narration is interrupted by a computerized voice (you can tell it’s computerized by the retro-digital font) who wonders who the hell the guy was talking to, and what’s the point of this internal dialogue. It’s exposition, duh! It turns out the computerized voice is a part of the guy, meaning he’s either got some hardware in his skull, or he’s schizophrenic. Or both. Or the hardware is schizophrenic. We journey down to the subway system, where we find…

…what appears to be a pre-Deathlok Manning talking to a blonde Tarzan. Seriously, dude, you couldn’t find a pair of pants anywhere? I mean, really, when you think about it, in graveyards there are literally hundreds of suits just waiting to be dug up. Blonde Tarzan’s name is “Godwulf”, and apparently these guys don’t like each other much, but they’re both looking for the same person. Godwulf presses a button and Manning is catapulted through time to what looks like a modern New York subway platform. So apparently he’s been thrown through time but winds up in the same space, which is just Time Travel 101.

Manning freaks out and we get to see who our staff is: JM DeMatties is the writer, Mike Zeck and John Beatty provide pencils and inks, and the immortal Mark Gruenwald is our editor. Personally, this was my favorite era of Captain America, culminating in the epic issue #300 where an aged Cap fought an equally ancient Red Skull in an awesome old man fight the likes of which we wouldn’t see again until Family Guy.

Manning, not used to so many live bodies in one space, freaks the hell out and runs like hell for the street, all the while his inner robot noting that Manning “remembering” how things were are not, in fact, his memories. But before we can find out what all that’s about, Manning threatens to blow both their brains out if his internal computer voice doesn’t shut up, and Robo-Voice complies. Cut to Avengers Mansion, where Captain America is having a good old-fashioned workout in the gym with Nomad, AKA Jack Monroe.

For those of you who don’t know, Jack Monroe was the Bucky of the 1950s era Captain America, and I love the first sentence in his Wikipedia article: “A character with a complicated history, Jack Monroe’s origin involves a complex series of retcons.” Yeah, so I think I’ll just say Cap has a new sidekick who was another Captain America’s sidekick, and leave it at that. But hey, if you have a free afternoon, go ahead and read his Wiki entry. Just be prepared to keep lots of notes to keep track of the twists and turns. Jack is nervous as hell at being a non-crazy Cap’s partner and Steve senses it. Cap tries some tough love, trash-talking Jack, and telling him that without Captain America he’s nothing. Jack freaks out and he winds up stepping up his game, and he’s able to judo-flip Cap, knocking the veteran hero on his ass. Jack realizes that Cap set him up, and starts to figure out that when he’s not being terrified, he’s got it in him to be bad-ass all on his own. Steve cuts the session short, since he’s got a four o’clock train to catch.

Back with Manning, he’s now above ground and using some sort of high-tech scanning device. A conversation with his computerized alter-ego reveals this isn’t the real Manning but a clone, and he’s searching for the original. Wow, talk about convoluted origins; this guy is a clone of a cyborg soldier from the future? The only thing that would make this more complex is if he travels farther back in time, meets Manning’s mom, has sex with her, and winds up being Deathlok’s dad. Manning wonders why he’s looking for Deathlok in the first place, but his ruminations are interrupted by a pair of cops. They tell Manning to freeze, and he starts to try and talk his way out of it, but the cops unload on him immediately. I’d say they were a little trigger-happy, but if you live in the Big Apple and see a guy walking around in tights, he’s either a superhero on patrol or a supervillain, and maybe it’s just common sense to shoot first and hope the dude isn’t bullet proof.

Manning dives for cover and we get some flashback exposition explaining who and what Deathlok is: a soldier whose brain was harvested by some guy named Ryker and put into a cyborg body. Only, Deathlok wasn’t a good little soldier and he went rogue. Later, the CIA cloned Manning and tried transferring his mind into the duplicate, but all it did was make a copy. Godwulf sent Deathlok into the past for… reasons, and now here we are, with Manning 2.0 blowing up a cop car and managing not to kill two innocent men. Manning bails to renew his search.

Back with Cap, now in his Steve Rogers persona, he’s taking the train because he’s got a date. Who’s the date with? Bernie Rosenthal.

Oh, God, how I missed you, Bernie. Just a normal New York City girl who fell in love with the living embodiment of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. You have no idea how much I cherish this era of Captain America, back when he was a professional artist with a secret identity, with a normal woman as a girlfriend. Steve felt so… grounded and normal back then. And then when he became an artist for Marvel Comics, that just made him more awesome. No, I’m not making that up. Steve became the artist on the Captain America comic. As Bernie drives Steve to her parents’ house and rambles on, Rogers thinks about how, in a way, he and Jack Monroe aren’t too different, in that the persona of Captain America defines who they are. But he notes how Steve Rogers has a profession and the love of a good woman and he’s his own man at last—isn’t he? It’s nice seeing that a guy who projects such tremendous confidence is deep inside a basket case just like the rest of us.

We find Manning 2.0 staggering through the woods, and it turns out he’s not doing too good. His computer sidekick… and it just occurred to me that if he’s a clone of the original, why does Manning 2.0 have a computer implant at all? Does he in fact have one, or is he truly schizophrenic now, and a man who got so used to the voice in his head he couldn’t imagine being without it? Hmm. We cut to Steve and Bernie driving past a Brand Corporation facility, and Steve exposits that Brand was like an evil factory, churning out multiple threats for the Avengers to fight. Bernie notes how Steve has finally started talking, and tries to get him to open up, but Rogers is an old school male and has trouble articulating feelings. But before he can make more excuses, Bernie almost runs someone over, and it’s Manning.

The man is delirious and struggles over a fence, mumbling about Deathlok. Steve latches on to any excuse to get out of having dinner with Bernie’s folks and dashes off, leaving her with the unenviable task of explaining things to her parents. Manning’s computer voice tells him that Brand was a subsidiary of Roxxon, which was pretty much Marvel’s answer to DC’s Sunderland Corporation, i.e., an industrial entity that produced Evil. Manning looks for a way in, but his search is interrupted.

Manning geeks out and Cap takes this in stride. Once he hears Manning’s story, he decides to give the man the benefit of the doubt. Because really, after you’ve fought Kang the Conquerer and the “mad god” Korvac, time traveling clones sounds almost passé. Cap lets Manning take the lead, because when you’re the Sentinel of Liberty, you don’t always have to lead, and can be comfortable following. At Manning’s direction, Cap punches a hole in the door and the pair steal inside Brand. Manning explains the reason seeing Cap freaked him out so much was that by his era, there aren’t any superheroes any more. But before Cap can ask Manning to elaborate, the clone’s computer warns him they’ve got eight bogies coming in, meaning either the man really does have an onboard computer, or he subconsciously spotted the guys and his alter-ego is telling him what he already knows. Cap and Manning proceed to kick ass as Brand goons take shots at him. The pair prove to be too much for the minions, and Cap throws one of them through a door, revealing:

I love the look on that guy’s face, like he’s seeing a year in the hospital and a lifetime of physical rehab in his future. I hope Roxxon has a great medical program, ya stupid bastich. Manning’s robot sidekick tells him this is a genetic research facility, and he assures the man that Deathlok is there. But before Manning can start asking the technicians for answers, someone shoots him from behind. Cap, horrified, finds the man is still breathing, but before Rogers can begin to work up a way to get him to a hospital, the shooter reveals himself.

Next issue: It’s a super-soldier from the future in deadly combat with a super-soldier from the past, taking place in the present.

Tag: Captain America: The Deathlok Saga

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  • GreenLuthor

    Honestly, circa 1983 (when this issue was released), a lot of New York City wasn’t too far removed from the burned out wasteland that TV and movies showed it as; it wouldn’t be until the 90s that real efforts were made to drastically clean up the city. (It’s actually kind of funny how Netflix’ Daredevil series had to use the Chitauri invasion to explain why Hell’s Kitchen was such a mess; the series was obviously using Frank Miller’s version of Hell’s Kitchen, which wasn’t inaccurate for the 1980s when it came out, but in the present, that area is pretty well gentrified.) (Also amusing: when Luke Cage premiered as Hero For Hire in 1972, he rented an office above a movie theater in a shabby run-down building… in Times Square. Because it was affordable. Today? Probably not so much.)

    One could probably argue whether J.M. Dematteis or Mark Gruenwald was the better Captain America writer, but they both had some excellent stories in there. (Although some of Gruenwald’s later run was… not up to his earlier quality.) But (and no offense to Jack Kirby) I think Mike Zeck might be the Captain America artist.

    I forgot how convoluted Jack Monroe’s history was. Yikes. (And all because Roy Thomas wanted to keep all the old Timely and Atlas issues in continuity.)

    “Wow, talk about convoluted origins; this guy is a clone of a cyborg soldier from the future? The only thing that would make this more complex is if he travels farther back in time, meets Manning’s mom, has sex with her, and winds up being Deathlok’s dad.” Sadly, that origin is already taken. Really. By (of all people) Shatterstar. Shatterstar is the son of Longshot and Dazzler, but Longshot is a clone of Shatterstar. Because comics.

  • John

    For some reason I always thought the original Deathlok was a black man, and I’m not sure why I thought that. I didn’t even know his full origin story until now

    • Thomas Stockel

      Well there’s the unhealthy gray skin tone that implies it I guess. Honestly until I started reading this comic again I thought he was black as well. A later incarnation is a black man whose brain gets implanted on the Deathlok body.

      I think.

      • GreenLuthor

        Yeah, the 90s Deathlok was black. As is the Agents of SHIELD version, though they really didn’t make him look anything like the comics Deathlok (probably for budgetary reasons).