From The Desk Of Rich Buckler: Part V - Deathlok
If you enjoy reading these articles, and if you like the art you're looking at, then feel free to contact Rich directly and arrange a commission. Rich's schedule is fairly open right at the moment and Rich is more than capable of doing some stunning work. Give it some serious consideration and spread the word.
In the meantime, sit back and enjoy Rich Buckler's life story, exclusive to this blog.
In creating Deathlok, what I came up with was so surreal and "out of left field" that I wondered if it even fit in with Marvel's universe of super-heroes. Actually, I strongly suspected that he wouldn't. He wasn't a hero, that's for sure.
The concept would have elements of mind control, military black ops, terrorism, science gone mad, and a dark apocalyptic future scenario with a main character who was a computer-programmed assassin gone rogue. As the idea developed it began to take shape and form as a wild paranoid fantasy that I thought fit perfectly with the times we were living in.
It seemed to be a time for the creation of a new archetype - one that would reflect the technological age we all were headed into (or, rather, the future that our world leaders seem to be making sure we are heading into). Maybe not exactly a new Superman - or maybe something even beyond the "superman" concept! - a character who would encounter much of the insanity of the modern world that I perceived even in my early twenties.
I had worked up all the "bare bones" of it, wrote it all down, but I decided that I needed a writer to put some flesh on it. Not that I couldn't write. It was fresh, new, bold, and dynamic - but I just needed to step back from it. Since it was so personal and I was so close to it, I felt I needed a collaborator to "rein it in" and make it more accessible and intelligible.
I approached Editor-I-Chief Roy Thomas with the idea, which he liked, and he invited me to work up a written proposal. That's when I knew I was in trouble. I had to pitch the idea - and while what I had so far all made sense to me, and I knew what I was doing - a proposal?! That meant a visual and written presentation to make it make sense to somebody else! I definitely needed a collaborator. And it had to be the right one!
Along came a young writer from Chicago named Doug Moench who had just moved to New York and did a lot of horror writing for Warren Publishing that I was already familiar with. I think it was initially Roy's suggestion that we work together.
I first met Doug Moench at the Marvel offices. We hit it off immediately and I told him about my idea. We went out to lunch and sized each other up. It turned out that we were ideologically compatible and we were both mavericks. We had read the same sci-fi authors and shared a rather "surreal" - and even paranoid - take on the so-called real world.
We talked about everything under the sun - not just comic books. Doug was, to me, sort of an older brother (artistically and intellectually speaking). We were only one year apart in age, but he seemed more mature and level-headed than I was - which was definitely a good thing. Also, he was quick-witted, sarcastic and cynical and quite skeptical (more so than I was), but not in a negative way.
So I made somewhat of a pest of myself to Roy and whenever there was an opportunity (usually meeting him in the halls or interrupting him on the way in or out of his offices) I reminded him of what we were working on. Then the unexpected happened.
Roy told me Marvel was putting in a bid for the rights to Six Million Dollar Man (which was a hit television series at the time). My concept had some similarities to it, he said. The television series was a known commodity, commercially viable, and so if Marvel got the property, he explained, they would run with that and I would be out of luck.
That wasn't too encouraging, to say the least! But undaunted, I decided to pick up a copy of Martin Caidin's novel "Cyborg" - which the TV series was based on - and give it a critical read. Nothing beats going to the source. If my concept had similarities, that couldn't be helped (both characters were cyborgs) - but I could certainly enlarge the differences! Besides, I thought the television version of it, The Six Million Dollar Man, was lame anyway (you know you're in for some watered-down Hollywood fluff whenever they incorporate a dollar sign into the concept). So departing from what they came up with (which was shamelessly uncritical and pro-establishment) wasn't going to be too difficult.
Next came a series of brainstorming sessions between Doug and me. Doug suggested that when Luther Manning "woke up" in his newly created cyborg/monster form, he would not only remember who he was (and be angry as hell that the mad scientists had stolen his life!), but the computer he was connected to would not go away.
'Puter, as Doug called it, would be an artificial intelligence that would always be there, stuck inside his head, to guide him and/or try to interfere with influence his actions. Perfect! And they can argue back and forth! Which would make for some lively dialogue and also intensify the "internal action" of the story.
So we worked up the story proposal and I drew a couple of sample story pages and some character profiles and schematics. One day Roy interrupted me outside his office and said: "Good news! Well, good news for you, anyway. Charlton got the Six Million Dollar Man, so we can go with your idea. We just have to find a publishing slot that's open. Have you worked up a proposal yet?" "I'll have it for you tomorrow!" I said.
Well, there was no time for changes anyway and I would worry about that later (and besides, he was right - I did get used to the name, and it was a much better than my original one anyway). We submitted everything to Roy and waited for the decision from "the powers that be". Would they go for it? Would they understand it? Would they let us have the freedom to do what we wanted with it?
Word came back from Roy in the affirmative. The only open publishing slot was the bi-monthly Astonishing Tales, he offered, and explained: "There is an opening coming up in a month or so. Would you be interested? It won't be a new Marvel title and it won't be a number one. Or, wait for something to open up later?" "No time like the present!" I said. "Let's run with it!"
One more change happened, a minor one - but I never liked it. "They want to call him Deathlok The Demolisher," Roy said, almost apologetically. "Why?" I asked. "Well, Deathlok is a little obscure for a name." I said, "And Demolisher isn't?" So, dumb or not, "Demolisher" got stuck into the logo.
I integrated those sample pages I had drawn into Astonishing Tales #25 as the first two story pages. I plotted the first story with Doug supplying the brilliant narration and dialogue. Did anybody notice how innovative and totally brilliant we were?
Well, here's what a Marvel promo page had to say about Deathlok's premiere:
"He's DEATHLOK, THE DEMOLISHER - and he's part cyborg, part superhero, and maybe just a touch of monster, all rolled into one pulsating package by RICH (Swash) BUCKLER, who conceived and drew the awesome original tale, and Devil-May-Care DOUG MOENCH, who supplied some of the most unique scripting we've seen in a month of Mondays! Quite frankly, we think Deathlok's gonna take the waiting world by storm - and that's no hype!"
And of course that was all hype. Readers, and Doug and myself, could take that with a grain of salt. My take on this assessment? For "unique" read "nobody understood it." For "awesome" and "original" read "why did he draw it like that?" and "definitely doesn't fit in with any of the rest of Marvel." Whoever wrote those promotional paragraphs didn't actually read the story, I figured - or if they did they didn't exactly understand it.
And I doubt that Stan Lee actually read the book, but I'm just guessing - I never asked him about it. Considering how hectic it was at Marvel at the time, I suspect that everybody was so busy in those days that most of the time the only one who read the scripts before they were published were the ones who wrote them. Which was not a bad thing, not really.
Looking back, I think that probably a lot of original and fresh ideas happened because of that lack of oversight. Even Stan, in an earlier hype page, had stated that Deathlok would either be the biggest hit of the century - or the biggest flop. I doubt if anybody then knew what to expect.
We were apparently ahead of our time with this one - but that was okay. We knew what we had, even if editorial people didn't have a clue. And comic book readers were in for a treat. I remember, after a couple of issues saw print, Roy Thomas "hooked" me for a moment and asked: "Rich, is Deathlok black?" And I said, "No, but his wife is." He nodded, thought that one over, and then commented: "He's not exactly a super-hero, is he? The computer voice was confusing. I had a little trouble following it, but it's interesting and I like what you're doing. Keep it up."
Wow, I thought. He actually said he liked it! Great. That meant nobody would bother us - at least for a while. Roy kind of let me off lightly, I thought. He could have gone into a micro-managing point-by-point analysis (he was certainly capable of it), but that wasn't how he handled things as "The Chief."
In all fairness to Roy, though, he was so busy all of the time that the only way to have a meeting with him was to interrupt him when he was having a meeting. "Excuse me, Roy? Sorry to interrupt you, but - " "That's okay," he would say, "it's usually the only way to get to talk to me!"
I greatly appreciated Roy's thumbs up! Apparently he was one of the few people at the office who had actually read the book. And his approval would keep others from interfering. I was always guarded about that. Paranoid, actually.
That symbolic gesture, just to clear things up a bit, was not meant to be a desecration of the flag and to disparage "all things American" - what it meant for him was a rejection of his military programming.
By the way, now in the 21st Century, in our so-called real world, our soldiers' uniforms still have the American flag sewn into them - but has anybody noticed that now it's backwards? I wonder what that means. It's an important symbol - why would they get it wrong? - even more foreboding, what if it was done this way on purpose (which I think it was)?
The asymmetric design look of the character was different. And the half-metallic face, decaying and scarred face with the big red electronic eye - that was unprecedented. Also entirely new for a comic book character, he was a re-animated dead body kept "alive" by a fluid that was pumped into his system by a cable attached to his computerized "back pack".
A lot of "firsts," as I already stated. Now these ideas sound like pretty standard comic book fare - but there was nothing "standard" about it then. Deathlok was portrayed as somewhat of a "Christ" figure - what with being "crucified" on the cross of modern technology - and then "resurrected" in the form of an inhuman monster. There were lots of messianic allusions and symbolism (which was daring for the time).
He was a desperate and unrepentant killer - even after he ditched his super-soldier "assassin programming." In fact he was a guy with more serious problems than all of the other Marvel characters put together! He was cynical, abrasive, rebellious, violent, mean-tempered, sarcastic and always on the edge of desperation.
The cyborg edition of Luther Manning made the Punisher look like a pacifist! And in Deathlok's future world nobody in the higher ranks of the military or the establishment had any redeeming qualities - which is what, if anything, made Deathlok look anything like a "good guy." And yet, all he wanted was to become normal again and get his life back (the way it was before). Different? I'll say. Thought-provoking? I hoped so!
Of course, new and different would not insure its popularity - we knew that. Not that I cared, really. I just wanted to get it done. The comic book fans could sort it out later.
Did anybody get it? Well, after a few more issues they started to catch on. He wasn't a super-hero, he wasn't all that likable, but he was interesting - and original. Only one problem (well, it was a problem for Marvel, not for me and Doug).
The stories for Deathlok existed outside the "Marvel universe." This was done on purpose by me and it was crucial, I thought - but the "powers that be" at Marvel would not agree. So eventually I had to come up with a way to take him out of the future and bring him into "now." Which I knew would be a mistake.
Keep in mind that all of this stuff came before Terminator, RoboCop, Universal Soldier, or even "Escape From New York." I have a sneaking suspicion that Hollywood screenwriters do read the comic books and sometimes "mine" for ideas (and definitely that goes for just about all science-fiction writing).
So, this was before there was a computer typeface (thank you Annette Kawecki for bravely designing a computer lettering "font" just for this book) - or even a graphics interface for viewing pictures on a computer. It's easy to take all of the concepts and visuals in Deathlok for granted now, but it was way ahead of it's time and even ahead of the technology that was available at the time of its creation.
The "stream of consciousness" narration that Doug used was an innovation (for comic books, anyway). The stories unfolded in a flowing narrative much like movie storytelling that was rarely seen in the comic books then. Yes, Deathlok was a little harder to read than most comic books - it demanded more from the reader, as anything new or original always does.
One day at the Marvel offices I happened to meet Jim Starlin as he arrived to hand in some pages on Captain Marvel. He took a moment and showed me his work, and as I poured over the pages (which were stunning) he pointed to his work and remarked proudly, "Now, that's storytelling!" And you know what? He was right! He was doing some of what I was doing with experimental panels and sequential action and such - only he was pulling out all the stops! "Very cool stuff!" I said. And it was at that moment that I decided to do the same - to continue as I was already doing but sort of turn the volume up to "11".
I was the uncredited editor of my own book (which was stipulated in my contract for Deathlok with Marvel), so why not get bold and take full advantage creatively? I had an editorial meeting with myself and made an executive decision - go for it!
But not everyone was on board with me when I decided to do some trail blazing "Jim Starlin-style". Jim and I happened to share one peculiar advantage. We both had creative control of our respective books - but an even bigger advantage was that almost nobody had a clue what we were up to or what we would do next!
Another minor first, as the book progressed, was the introduction of several sideways pages. Not a big deal, right? But it was then! I'm sure it wasn't the first attempt at such a thing.
It seemed to me like something Jim Steranko or Will Eisner would do, or probably already did, and I was sure that it totally worked. I remember handing in the artwork on that and just before doing so I showed the pages to Marie Severin in her office to get some artistic feedback.
When we got to the two sideways pages Marie, looking pleasantly surprised, remarked: "Hmm. That's interesting." And a certain editorial person in charge (who shall remain nameless) walked in at that moment and glanced at it and said: "You can't do that!" And I answered, stubbornly. "Why not?" He said: "Because it's never been done before." I said, "Well, that's not true, is it? I just did it."
Somebody else in the room, trying to be helpful, suggested photocopying the pages and pasting them up again to read "right side up." "I'm not going to do that. That's how I visualized it, and it stays as is." And that's how it was printed when the book came out.
At the time I couldn't believe my ears. "Because it's never been done before." "What," I remember saying, "The reader won't turn the book sideways to read it and then move on? I'm sure comic book readers can figure that one out on their own!" Years later I think it was John Byrne who would do an entire book with sideways pages. Funny that it took my two-page experiment to set the precedent for that. Unbelievable.
That was just the beginning of a stubborn editorial resistance that I would encounter during my entire run on Astonishing Tales. Is it any wonder that I was getting exasperated by this nonsense? If Jim Steranko or Jack Kirby would try it, I guess everything would have been fine - maybe. But me - who did I think I was?
Everything I did on Deathlok now seemed to set off a red flag. I would have a chapter break in the middle of the book and then start a new story arc (why? - because I could!). Nope! Can't do that! (I did it anyway)
I decided to color my own cover. Can't do that either! Hey, next thing you know, he'll want to color his own work inside the book too (which I did - and I got a lot of flak for that too)!
My creative involvement in the book was intensifying, whether anybody in charge liked it or not. Was I really doing anything to significantly "rock the boat" or cause any problems that actually amounted to anything? My commitment had been unwavering from the beginning - and I wasn't going to let up now just because others perceived that my work was starting to "make waves."
I had inked the first few issues, but after a brief stint with the very capable Pablo Marcos I finally got Klaus Janson back on my work. I decided to get involved also in the coloring, which began with an idea for the cover of Astonishing Tales #26. The background of that cover was essentially all white - which I thought looked cool and would stand out from the usual Marvel cover (where every possible nook and cranny was colored in). Again I was told "You can't do that!"
Who would have thought? I was sure that Jim Steranko had done something like it before. And I idly wondered if anybody had ever given Jim such a hard time when he was working on Nick Fury. Or Steve Gerber, for that matter, with his ultra-surreal cigar smoking duck who was "trapped in a world he never made" (I know the feeling!).
More struggles and editorial power plays would happen when further along I decided to color some interior art. What was I thinking?! Color my own work?! Well, yeah, that did seem reasonable to me at the time. I was told, unequivocally, that I could not do it. I wondered where exactly in my contract did it state that that was forbidden? I decided to take it to the top.
I visited Stan Lee's office and I told him rather embarrassingly that I had run into a problem. He asked me to explain. I said "I was told that I can't color my own work on Deathlok." And he replied: "Rich, there's no problem. Whatever makes you happy! You can do whatever you want!"
That was it - end of problem, right? Or so I thought. I walked away satisfied and just had to hope I didn't put myself in more hot water by going "over the heads" of my stubborn editorial opposition. This was getting silly and unnecessarily complicating. All I wanted was to create comic books, not fight with everybody almost every step of the way.
So Astonishing Tales #36 was my very first (and only) comic book coloring. When I started work on it, under the tutelage and guidance of the incredibly talented and skilful Marie Severin. I was in the coloring department busily working and was suddenly interrupted with: "Rich, what do you think you're doing?"
"Um," I answered, "coloring my work on Deathlok, I think." "No you're not!" To which I replied stubbornly: "Yes, I am." "But you don't know what you're doing!" And I added: "Well, Marie is backing me up - so I'm not going to screw anything up. And I checked with Stan and he said I could do it. That's good enough for me, and it should be good enough for you."
So off I was on a creative coloring adventure - and it proved to be quite a bumpy ride too. Marie and George Russos generously taught me some of the "ins and outs" and how to mark up the color guides with the printer's codes, and everything ultimately worked out well - but it was a helluva lot more work than I thought it would be (which Marie had warned me about).
My respect for Marie and all color artists increased by at least 1000%! I vowed never to complain again about "coloring mistakes" - and I decided time-wise that it was better for all future efforts if I just leave it to the experts. How Klaus Janson managed to both ink and color on many of the stories is beyond me.
My one-time colorist credit line on the book read: Colors: "The Swash" (see above - that was my nickname, Rich "The Swash" Buckler - you know, Swashbuckler? Okay, not overly clever - and I didn't think it up - I think Stan did). Anyway, I was bordering on "overkill" with my credit line being all over the place already - with "Concept, Story, & Art: Rich Buckler", and sometimes a "Produced By Rich Buckler" added credit (because I was the uncredited editor of the book too).
Those credits were starting to read like some kind of elaborate ego trip or Dino DeLaurentis production - what I should have done was what Jim Starlin did and just put "Rich Buckler, Everything Else!"
I used other rarely seen techniques too, like photo montage for computer-type graphics and added gritty realism. I was remembering those early Fantastic Four and Thor experiments with photo montage that Jack Kirby did - those were amazing, I thought! Being friends with the guys in the photostat department came in handy for that. For one cover, I recall, I was temporarily stuck for an idea for a background. It was issue #35 of Astonishing Tales, with Deathlok and a naked (well, almost naked) Ryker facing off.
Being somewhat of a surrealist/Dadaist, I saw immediately that if I took the cup apart and flattened it I would have a perfectly curved ready-made panorama of New York. Shades of Marcel Duchamp! So I had it photostatted and I pasted that onto the cover artwork. And you know what? Sometimes the quickest and simplest solutions are the best. It was brilliant - not exactly high-tech, but it did work!
With Roy no longer in charge at Marvel and Stan was at the time preparing for a move to the West Coast, it was like "revolving editors" around Marvel - almost not knowing who would be in charge from week to week. I was beginning to feel the "tightening of the vise" - as were other creators, I am sure.
Now I had nobody looking out for me. There was only Sol Brodsky, who had been the liaison with Marvel's legal department when I did my contract - but Sol was in charge of Marvel's black & white comic books at the time (which was a whole different department). Those in editorial control (or, rather, "editorial chaos," as I viewed it) were apparently doing everything they could to get even more control. I suppose was inevitable. But it was also a comic book creator's worst nightmare.
Some time during the middle of my run on Deathlok (and I was still doing Fantastic Four and covers for other books in addition to this) I had managed a daring move back to my home town of Detroit. I settled there again for only a few short months, and it was good to see all of my old friends again and to be with family. Many of them commented that I had not lost my mid-western accent. At least some things never change.
All of my artist buddies would pitch in to help me out from time to time - Arvell Jones, Desmond Jones, Keith Pollard and Aubrey Bradford. I continued to contribute art for the fanzines now and then. For a while there I had the best of both worlds. I was back in my home town, and I was still drawing comic books for a living. My nerves were mending a bit.
Gradually things became more and more of a tug-of-war with Marvel and the creative difficulties on Deathlok kept building. When I did finally move back to New York (which I decided to do because of personal reasons also, which I won't go into) I noticed that things at Marvel had started to change drastically.
I lost my office space at Marvel, which wasn't unexpected - it was only a temporary arrangement. I was back to working at home in an apartment in the South Bronx, but at least it wasn't a long commute to Manhattan and I did manage to regain some order and sanity with my work situation. One-on-one, up close and personal, that's how I liked it - get the job done on time with no complaints and with nobody trying to "second guess" me or "edit" my editing. But then came the writers' meetings.
My status, much to my surprise, had changed and I was now considered an actual writer as well as artist. Most of the writing on the Deathlok series was done by me, with other writers sometimes filling in the final dialogue and narration under my instruction and guidance. But I was always the main writer - and, as such, I was now considered a Marvel writer and subject to the actual process.
At the first meeting I was invited to attend I was told that Deathlok had to be put into Marvel's time line - in other words, plug him into the "Marvel universe." Well, I sort of expected it. But what bothered me most was that the character would now be "up for grabs" by anyone who wanted to use him - which would definitely affect my own plans for the character, and not in a good way.
That was the beginning of the end of Deathlok...at least my version of the character. I could do it, yeah - come up with a story device to "bring Deathlok into the present"...but what would it mean? Deathlok guest appearances in other Marvel books, Deathlok toys and action figures, "Deathlok Twinkies" and merchandising and god-knows-what.
I didn't care about any of that. I had conceived the whole thing originally as a novel and a movie (both of which were beyond my creative capacities at the time, so that never happened). This was beginning to become overwhelming.
My whole experience with creating this character for Marvel was, business-wise, developing into a huge pain where I didn't need one. Comic book fans and readers of course had no idea of the difficulties I was going through. "Smilin' Stan" was still smiling (even though he was no longer writing anything and was now "presenting" every Marvel title), it was still the Marvel Age Of Comics, and all was well as far as the comic book-reading public knew.
On the upside, actual work on the book was great - I learned just about every creative aspect of producing comic books - but the business politics and nonsense that took shape around me began to take its toll and wear me down. This period has rarely been talked about in the fan press. It was a time at Marvel of shake-ups and disenchantment for many artists and writers - not only for me. The way I saw it none of that was conducive to anybody's creativity.
The concept was actually a parallel of Deathlok's situation - only this time we would be dealing with magic and the supernatural (esoteric science) instead of computers and modern technology gone mad. Yep, here was another paranoid fantasy where ego-crazed lunatics were trying to take over the world - not by using technology and cyborgs, but this time by attempting to bring about Xenogenesis (the supernatural birth of a demon race into our human physical world).
Unfortunately we only got one issue out of Atlas before they folded. I think I was hired on initially because I was a Marvel artist - but, creatively, I wasn't interested in doing a "Marvel-style" book at Atlas (if that was Chip Goodman's intention - and I don't know if it was or wasn't). It was quite a disappointment to find out that my idea wasn't even going to get a decent chance, though.
I thought the character had unexplored depth and potential so I collaborated again with David Anthony Craft (who had written the dialogue and narration for Demon Hunter #1) and we brought him back again at Marvel in a new incarnation as Devil-Slayer (just to keep him in print).
The publisher had decided to shift his attention to Swank Magazine and so the comic book end of things went south. At best Atlas had been a creative detour for all the writers and artists involved.
Check back sooner than you expect for Part VI, when Rich moves further into his life and into the '80s!
Rich Buckler's web-site can be found here. Rich is avaliable for commissions and recreations, and, as you're clearly reading, has a long history in the field of comic book art, spanning over 40 years. Visit his site, check out his art and treat yourself!
Now, a sneak peek at Part VI...