A Deathlok Retrospective

Writer Gregory Wright looks back at his classic collaboration with the late Dwayne McDuffie.

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By Ben Morse

A little over two years ago, comics and animation lost a great innovator and many said goodbye to a wonderful friend when Dwayne McDuffie passed away at the age of 49.

McDuffie became perhaps best known for his work bringing a blend of action, humor and morals to animated television with his writing and producing. He also wrote critically acclaimed, groundbreaking comics, including a run on FANTASTIC FOUR in 2007 and 2008.

However, in 1990, shortly after coming on staff at Marvel as an assistant editor, McDuffie collaborated with Gregory Wright—a fellow member of editorial as well as writer and colorist—as well as artists Jackson “Butch” Guice and Denys Cowan to breathe new life into the cult favorite character Deathlok.

The original Deathlok, Luther Manning, debuted in the pages of 1974’s ASTONISHING TALES under the stewardship of writer Dough Moench and artist Rich Buckler. A fatally injured soldier, Manning had his mind implanted into the body of a cyborg warrior in order to continue the fight for freedom in his post-apocalyptic future.

McDuffie and Wright not only transplanted the Deathlok concept to the present day Marvel Universe, but created a distinctly different protagonist in Michael Collins, a pacifist killed railing against corporate corruption who struggles to maintain his ideals while also seeking revenge after receiving his own weapons-stocked new form.

Following an initial four-issue limited series, DEATHLOOK ran 34 issues plus two Annuals, with McDuffie and Wright at the helm all the way through.

We caught up with Wright to get a retrospective look at Michael Collins, one of Marvel’s most unique heroes, plus talk about the legacy of Deathlok, working with McDuffie and more.

Marvel.com: What was your relationship like with Dwayne McDuffie before DEATHLOK?

Gregory Wright: Dwayne and I were very good friends before DEATHLOK. We had met at NYU and became fast friends. He was our dorm's resident advisor during my senior year. Of course most people became friends with Dwayne quickly; he was that kind of guy. After college, I went to work at Marvel in the Epic division and we began collaborating on a screenplay we never finished. We began [working] on comic stories when I was an assistant editor under Mark Gruenwald. I was having trouble getting the story to mean something, so I asked Dwayne to work with me on them. We worked easily and well together, balancing strengths and weaknesses, so we decided maybe we should keep doing it. The first story we sold was a Black Knight story Alan Davis drew for SOLO AVENGERS. We followed that up with a Wonder Man story drawn by Jackson Guice. I helped to open the door for Dwayne to get a job at Marvel. I let him know there was an opening in Bob Budiansky's office and put in a good word. Dwayne got an interview and was hired immediately. I eventually wound up working with Bob as well, so Dwayne and I worked together on staff pretty closely, as well as collaborating on comic stories. Plus we just hung out a lot, eating David's Sticky Fingers chicken and listening to a bunch of cool Motown music.  

Marvel.com: Where did you guys come up with the idea to do a new take on Deathlok?

Gregory Wright: Marvel had decided they wanted to produce a new version of Deathlok. There was some legal snafu that prevented them from just re-launching the Luther Manning version so they wanted a different take.  We were fans of the original Deathlok and thought we might be able to use some of [a] Robocop proposal [we’d worked on] for it. We didn't really use much of it, but the discussions we'd had about cyborgs really gave us a huge head start. The original idea was "What if the guy inside that cyborg armor was the least likely person?" "What if he was not a willing participant?" "What is he was a pacifist trapped inside the ultimate war machine?" This generated lots of excitement for us. Dwayne also suggested that perhaps the person going to be put into the armor was black, because he felt the original maybe was supposed to be black. He suggested that it would also allow us to explore the character’s duality as a man/cyborg as well as African American duality. Dwayne actually explored that in his first solo story arc in the regular series, "The Souls of Cyber-Folk." Dwayne was deep and always looked for ways to enrich the characters and give them heart.

Marvel.com: What to you were the defining characteristics of Michael Collins? What set him apart?

Gregory Wright: Unlike many heroes, Michael Collins was a reluctant hero, someone who abhorred violence. He is man of high moral values. A father desperate to teach his son what a true hero is. He's a pacifist, who will fight for what is right, without violence. So when faced with the reality that he has unknowingly been creating the ultimate war machine, betrayed by those he thought were is closest friends, essentially murdered and placed inside the cyborg body to be used as wetware storage with no control over the body, he is severely tested. In the first issue he wakes up inside the armor while it's going through its program killing people and he's got no control of this body he now lives in. This is the worst nightmare possible for him. He doesn't take the easy way out. He's got the power to devastate and looks for the more peaceful solution. At the time, most "heroes" seemed to revel in violence and make jokes about it. We set out to have the character utilize his intellect over his firepower. And his primary goal was to get back to being in his human body and go back to his family. Being a hero was something he felt he had a responsibility to be, since he had the power to make a positive difference.

Marvel.com: Were you surprised that the character received an ongoing series?

Gregory Wright: No, Marvel wanted to do a series with him. The limited series was a test, but they always wanted a series. We were surprised that we actually got the book to write. There were other more experienced writers who were up for the job as well. But our take on the character was so different, that we got it. I believe Chuck Dixon had a proposal as well as Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy. When we got the book it was a shock to us as well as some of the editors on staff. We beat out Moench and Dixon? Wow. We knew we really had to live up to it.

Marvel.com: What was the collaboration like between you and Dwayne as well as with Denys Cowan once DEATHLOK got rolling as a series?

Gregory Wright: Working with Dwayne was amazing. See, despite his being way smarter than everyone you'll ever meet, he was also more talented. But he would never, ever hold that over you. In fact he was more generous with ideas than anyone. He'd happily work from your ideas, or give you ideas on top of what you came up with and hand you the credit. We were both pretty new at writing for comics so we were both learning from each other about the process. And no idea was a bad idea. All ideas were ripe for discussion. We'd spend hours throwing ideas back and forth until it worked. At that time, I was better at coming up with action scenes and Dwayne was better at putting heart into the story. Dwayne made sure that the stories were really about something and had depth. He wouldn't ever just say "Ahhh, that's good enough." It was always, "What if we tried this…" which would lead down another path of discussion. So that became my mantra as well. I became a much better writer because of our collaboration. We developed a pretty detailed bible for the series together. And we wanted to have a character that would grow as the series progressed and not just show up out of the blue being a great hero. There needed to be a journey.  

We started the art collaboration with Butch Guice, who also did a lot of design work for the series during "preproduction." Unfortunately, after the second issue of the limited series Butch left and we really had to scramble to replace him. Originally we were trying to find an artist whose style would match Butch's. No one we were looking at was available or wanted to follow Butch.  Denys had wanted the job right away, but we were concerned that his style just wouldn't match with Butch's. Dwayne kept talking to Denys and felt that we should go with him because he really seemed to get what we wanted to do and had the most passion for it. And, despite his style not really matching Butch's, we were all huge fans of his work, and had enjoyed working with him on a Black Panther series recently. So we got Denys on board and he totally saved the limited series. He totally hit it out of the park and we couldn't have been happier. Maybe it doesn't get said enough, but Denys was and is a superior talent.

Once the book went to a regular series things changed somewhat. Dwayne and I didn't collaborate on individual stories after the first issue due to my moving out of NYC to Virginia. It wound up just not being cost effective and way too frustrating trying to collaborate long distance. You have to remember that this was before the Internet took off like now and we either had to talk on expensive long distance, or try to work our way through Compuserve message boards.  So the decision was made for us to do separate story arcs.  Tom Brevoort was assigned to be our editor, but he was under the watchful eye of Bob Budiansky.  So, I have to admit the book became uneven. Dwayne's style and my style were not identical and we even wrote the character just different enough to cause the fans to notice.  And having two editors on the book with two writers—really just a case of too many cooks in the kitchen and no one being as in sync as the series really needed. 

Dwayne had more collaboration with Denys than I did as they were in the same city, and had become very good friends. I only got to work with Denys on four issues. But we did begin to write the stories in a different way to suit Denys' strengths and art style.  What was great for me was that I was the color artist on the book, so I got to color all the issues and work over Denys' art. 

Marvel.com: What memories of working on the book and which storylines stand out to you the most?

Gregory Wright: My favorite memories are when we did the limited series because Dwayne and I really worked intensively side by side on it. We put so much effort into creating the character and the world he would inhabit. We kind of took a film preproduction approach to it. And Bob Budiansky wouldn't let us take any shortcuts with the character or story.  He really made us work hard on that, and I think it really shows when you read that first issue of the limited series. So often you hear people ragging on their editors because they asked for changes or ruined their work. Bob really made us put our best work on the page with that first issue of the limited series and it needs to be acknowledged.

DEATHLOK was really a huge learning experience. Anything that could go wrong behind the scenes generally did. Between having to use two very different artists on the limited series, with a schedule that was excruciating, to having two editors and two writers writing different stories on the regular series—it was pretty chaotic.  

As far as my stories go, I really enjoyed “Cyberwar,” because I got to create the cyborg Siege, utilizing a copy of the original John Kelly Deathlok's memory that was stored in the cyborg’s memory banks. Philosophically, he was interesting for me because he was a collection of memories, not necessarily alive. And that bothered him. He couldn't physically feel anything, and had limited emotion; so he was constantly wondering what he was. 

And I real had a blast with the last story arc, because we were finally allowed to utilize the original Deathlok, Luther Manning, and artist Kevin Kobasic and I had gotten into a really cool groove.  It was really exciting to get Kevin's pages, because he really just put it all on the page. To me, using time travel and various versions of the same character and getting to play with that old Demolisher continuity was what really fun comics were about. 

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