Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Cheese Stands Alone: Deathlok #11

The Cheese Stands Alone is a semi-regular column featuring examinations of single issues that can be understood and appreciated on their own, without reading any of the preceding or following issues of the series. 

Most of the time, a successful standalone issue requires a narrowed focus and tightened pacing. With only 20-30 pages in which to tell a complete story, there's not a lot of room for enormous action sequences or too many different ideas, be they new or old or both. It's about zeroing in on a character or concept for the length of an issue and filling in the details. In Deathlok #11, Dwayne McDuffie goes the opposite route, cramming into a single issue enough new material for a much longer arc, on top of reexplaining the core concept of the series' protagonist and anchoring the whole thing with an extended fight scene against a giant robot. And while are there sections where I think this story might actually have benefited from some decompression, it is a well-done one-shot with just enough ambition to be impressively full without bursting at the seams.
     The issue begins confusingly by design, not exactly in medias res but not properly at the beginning of the story, either. An unknown and unnamed character in a strange robotic suit of armor narrates as he breaks into "the main complex of Magnum Munitions." His reasons for doing so are ignored for the time being so that the details of both the complex's defense systems and the trespasser's suit can be explained. It makes for a fun and rich heist/action scene with very little background information but a lot of present-tense info and personality. The whys and wherefores can be filled in later; for now McDuffie wants the reader to have questions, to be hooked by the confusion itself. From there, he begins to rather quickly provide answers, keeping the audience engaged by satisfying the initial curiosities while at the same time promising bigger, more death-defying action to come. And, just in case this is anyone's first time with the title, there is a retelling of Deathlok's origin story, as well as a new character introduced (or, more accurately, an old character repurposed) to be a sort of inverse or mirrored version of that story.
     Deathlok is the brain of pacifistic scientist Michael Collins implanted into the body of a cyborg killing machine. Collins' mind was stolen for this purpose by Cybertek, the company he worked for, when he discovered what they were up to with the Deathlok program. Able to overcome Deathlok's central programming with the strength of his mental resolve, Collins refused to kill for Cybertek, and fought against them until the company went under. Now, he works to keep their tech out of evil hands while seeking his original body so his brain can be returned to its proper home. He is pulled into the robbery at Magnum Munitions because they are the current owners of Cybertek's work, and it is Cybertek information that the unknown armored thief takes in the issue's opening scene. Deathlok's computer brain, which acts as a sort of second, uncontrollable internal monologue for the character, alerts him to the developing situation, and so the grumpy anti-hero sets out to ensure that Cybertek technology is not misused again.
     However, what Deathlok finds isn't some maniacal criminal bent on usurping Cybertek's work to meet maleficent ends. On the contrary, the thief is High-Tech, real name Curtis Carr, a reformed supervillain-turned-legitimate-scientist who wants to develop more advanced prosthetics with the stolen information. This goal lines up quite nicely with the work Collins did before his brain was taken from him, so rather than battle Carr or try to retrieve what he took, Deathlok decides to defend him against the inevitable retribution from Magnum.
     And it's one hell of a retribution, too. The Terrordome is like a gigantic, flying, robotic jellyfish covered in guns that is sent after Carr with every intention of killing him once it gets back everything he stole. Piloted by Mr. Lawson, the man who Carr violently incapacitated during the initial heist, the Terrordome bursts right through the wall at Stark Prosthetics (where Carr works) and the fight which ensues makes up most of the issue's third act. Deathlok wins the day without too terribly much difficulty, becuase by the time Terrordome shows up there isn't really space left to have the good guys be on the ropes for very long. But it's still a lot of fun, with some choice explosions and consistently clear action and tons of Deathlok responding snarkily to the warnings his computer brain gives him. This closing combat alone is entertaining and bombastic enough to make Deathlok #11 a worthwhile read, even if it's just a straightforward shootout between mechanical warriors of different shapes and sizes. But a well-crafted fight scene alone won't make a single issue stand out. It is the work McDuffie does leading up to the finale battle that really fleshes out this story and helps it leave a longer-lasting impression on its readers.
     Deathlok and High-Tech have interestingly similar yet significantly distinct origin stories. Michael Collins was a good man trying to help the world who was pushed into the role of violent vigilante by external forces. He now uses a body designed for war and murder to instead protect others. Curtis Carr, on the other hand, started out as the villain Chemistro, and it was only after an accident claimed one of his legs that he had a change of heart and began working in prosthetics. Even then, he relies on illegal methods to further his research, building the High-Tech suit specifically to steal from Magnum Munitions. So while they begin on opposite ends of the morality spectrum, ultimately they land in similar realms, each of them using robotic bodies to try and do good, but with methods that are questionable at best. Yes, Deathlok uses a "no-killing parameter" to keep himself in check, but he's still toting massive firearms and engaging in fights that endanger innocent lives. And while Carr's day-to-day work is clearly noble and important, it does not necessarily justify trespassing, theft, and assault.
     Both men are aware of the gray areas they slide into, and they understand and even respect one another because of that. Deahtlok has no problem with ripping off corporations like Cybertek and Magnum if it means creating something helpful/healing instead of just more advanced weaponry. And Carr certainly isn't going to turn down assistance from a battle-ready cyborg who also has scientific knowledge that can assist him in his prosthetics work. So after a brief, obligatory clash between the two men when they first meet (which ends in Deathlok absolutely demolishing the High-Tech armor), they learn each other's backgrounds and decide to work together for as long as they have before the Terrordome attacks. This decision is reached somewhat hurriedly, McDuffie giving Carr a single page to tell his story and Deathlok only half that. But the obvious parallels in their histories and hopes for the future make them naturally fast allies, and McDuffie takes the time to return to Deathlok's internal monologue once the two of them get to work so the reader can understand how gratifying it is for him to participate in something other than violence. And it's not as if the brevity of the origin tales detracts from them or makes them harder to understand. They are exactly as detailed as needed to get the information across and provide insight into each of the characters' personalities. And they're about as detailed as anyone could be expected to be when relating a summary of their entire life to a stranger with whom they'd just finished fighting.
     McDuffie's script is oddly structured, but always in the service of telling a complete story while maintaining a certain level of action and fun. The beginning is confounding but fast-paced, skipping over the unimportant beats to get to the meat of Carr breaking in and then breaking back out. It's a smart hook, giving the reader something exciting right at the top that raises enough questions to carry them through the rest of the narrative. Then the middle gets even faster, to the point of feeling almost rushed, with Deathlok going after Carr, the birth of their friendship, and their subsequent collaboration all being squeezed into a handful of pages. Yet upon close examination, one can find in those pages a deliberate exploration of what makes Deathlok who he is as a man, a cyborg, and a reluctant hero, all through the lens of his interactions with Carr. Finally, we get the high-octane resolution, a typical but stimulating fight where the bad guys have more firepower but the good guys beat 'em anyway. It's a predictable ending, perhaps, but still a blast. Terrordome gets more than its share of good shots in, but Deathlok's never really down, and it's refreshing in a way to watch the hero achieve victory without first being put through the ringer.
     If your script is going to race to the finish line, you'd better hope the art can keep up, and overall I think it does so deftly here. Denys Cowan provides the pencils for the issue, inked by Mike Manley with colors from Gregory Wright. The art is smartly done, with generally looser lines to fit the looser story. That style also helps to underline Deathlok's human side, and the human elements of the issue as a whole, rather than playing up the robotic aspects. When Terrordome shows up, there is a real sense of motion to each of its dangling metal limbs, and that adds tremendously to the effectiveness of the fight scene that follows. What Cowan and Manley's linework does best, though, is to bring out Deathlok's personality. His gruffness and sarcasm are beefed up by his detailed-yet-rough expressions, as are the underlying sadness and loneliness that drive him. Not just a tough guy cyborg action hero, Deathlok is also a broken man trying to reassemble himself, and both of those sides of his character are given equal weight by the art.
     Wright's coloring is never spectacular, though it certainly never messes up any of the visuals, either. There is one page where he makes his mark more definitively, though, when Deathlok is relating his history to Carr. Wright does the flashback sequence in a wash of pale blue, which not only helps distinguish it from the present-tense action on the second half of the page, but also deepens the sadness and hopelessness of the scene itself. It is a story of a good man made worse by an evil corporation, suddenly and perhaps permanently, so highlighting the dismal nature of that tale is a strong and intelligent choice. None of the rest of the issue is quite so soft or dark, which means the main character's origin is particularly noticeable and memorable. A good move for a standalone issue, especially.
      I have to assume that letterer Ken Lopez provides the many sound effects found in this issue, though I suppose it's always possible they were a part of Cowan's original artwork. Whoever is responsible, the effects add a lot of energy and life to the story. They are used rather often, arguably too often, and in a different title or with a different story they might feel overpowering. But because of the breakneck speed of this narrative and the extended action sequence that wraps it up, having bold and attention-grabbing sounds fits perfectly with the overall feel. They amp up the fights, match the rough and ragged style of the pencils, and help to fill the few empty spaces in a jam-packed issue.
     McDuffie, Cowan, and crew approach this one-off a bit strangely, setting things up quickly so that the final fight can have all the room it needs to be as big and badass as it wants. But they're careful not to omit any necessary pieces; they maintain clarity and even reintroduce the series' central character just in case. It may not be as tightly crafted as other standalone issues, but it's certainly as much fun and as complete as any of them. Two strong action scenes, exploration and development of the protagonist, a full narrative (there is a cliffhanger ending but it comes in the epilogue and isn't really a threat for the immediate future), and a surprising amount of humor and heart. It may not be the perfect issue, but it leaves little to be desired, either, hitting all the beats it needs to for the story it wants to tell, and having a damn good time doing it.

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