This past year, I have delved into comics more than I ever have in my life. This journey, ignited by some work I have done recently and the upcoming Black Panther film, has introduced me to various writers, artists, and characters that I had never heard of before. These texts approach topics such as race in nuanced ways that echo the “literary” texts that I have studied my entire professional career. I place literary in quotation marks because, as others have noted, I consider comics to be literature right up there with other cultural texts.
Before watching Robert Kirkman’s The Secret History of Comics, I had heard about Milestone Comics; however, I had never read any of the company’s works because every time I tried to find a book in a store, no dice. Even though I have not had the opportunity to read Icon, Static Shock, Hardwire, or others yet, I was able to pick up Dwayne McDuffie’s Deatlhlok. Even though Deathlok has been around since 1974 in various iterations, McDuffie brought discussions of race to the character with his story arcs starting in the four-part miniseries in 1990 then in the 34 solo issue run that began in 1991. For the next couple of posts, I want to focus on some elements of the first few issues of the solo run which were entitled “The Souls of Cyberfolk.”
Through Michael Collins, McDuffie challenges popular assumptions about Black life in America. Rather than focusing on the ghetto or crime-infested areas, McDuffie crafts the Black engineer Michael Collins as a devoted family man who is a pacifist. After learning that the company he works for runs a cyber program called Deathlok, Harlan Ryker, his boss, knocks him unconscious, and in this state, Ryker has Michael Collins’ brain removed from his body and placed into the cybernetic body of Deathlok. The four-part miniseries focuses on this origin story, and the first issue of the solo run relates this information as well.
Issue #2 begins the four-issue arc of “The Souls of Cyberfolk,” an arc that sees Deathlok, Misty Knight, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four fight Mechadoom, a Doombot seeking to gain independence from Dr. Doom. For the next couple of posts, I want to focus on a couple of moments from this arc, specifically on some of the conversations between Michael Collins and Misty Knight, a black private detective with a cybernetic arm. These conversations carry on a Black Intellectual Tradition for readers in the same way that Hip Hop artists do for listeners.
Misty Knight recruits Deathlok to help her figure out why some superheroes have disappeared. At first, he is apprehensive, but once he finds out that Misty Knight is a cyborg as well, he finds a kinship with her and opens up to the idea of assisting. Informing Deathlok that others refer to him and hers as “cybernets,” the conversation moves to the power of language and its ability to control and subjugate. According to Misty Knight, “Cybernet refers to anybody who is either a cyborg or a sentient robot. Cybernetic organism or cybernetwork”; thus, both Deathlok and Misty Knight are cybernets.
Even though their Blackness shows, the movement towards cybernets allows McDuffie to address issues of language while maintaining reader investment, specifically white reader investment. It becomes clear, as the conversation moves forward, that the underlying subtext is that McDuffie is commenting on other terms such as the N-word. Misty Knight elaborates by saying, “It’s a term of derision. Co-opted by some of the more politically minded members of our little demographic. If we make it our own, it takes the sting out of anyone using it to describe us.”
The term “cybernet” highlights the power that language has to shape, control, and oppress. While initially “a term of derision,” some “cybernets” have taken it and have tried to make it their own. Following Misty Knight’s comments, Deathlok makes drives the point home that language is power when he states, “Control the language control the terms of the debate.” This is nothing new. Linda Thuhiwai Smith notes that “indigenous peoples, people ‘of colour,’ the Other, however we are named, have a presence in the Western imagination, in its fiber and texture, in its sense of itself, in its language, in its silences and shadows, its margins and intersections.”
Language works as a spoke in the wheel of in regard to cultural projection. The language constructs images and ideas to support a viewpoint, and as James Baldwin pointed out in 1963, language, while being able to create and subjugate, can be countered. Answer the question, “Who is the Nigger?,” Baldwin states that he did not invent the term and the idea, “white people invented it.” Baldwin goes on to show that he knows the term does not describe him; rather, it was a white creation birthed out of fear. The term “cybernets” works in the same manner. Those afraid of Michael Collins, Misty Knight, and other cyborgs created the term to label their fears and to position “cybernets” as the Other and thus less than themselves.
Part of McDuffie’s narrative device in Deathlok is having Collins write letters to his wife Tracy, and these letters serve as a one-sided conversation because we do not see Tracy respond. As he continues his conversation with Misty Knight, Collins moves into one of these letters and tells Tracy that he does not feel afraid of Misty Knight, and ultimately, “the prospect of meeting other cyborgs of talking to people who have already been through the same things I’m going through now . . . well, that’s just too good an opportunity to pass on.” In this moment, Collins comments on the importance of representation and community. He feels connected to Misty Knight, even though they come from different backgrounds, due to their shared experiences as cyborgs.
Collins’ connection to Misty Knight can be read in two ways. One, it can be read literally as Collins connecting with the private detective because they are both cyborgs. On another level, and one that McDuffie explores at other moments in “The Souls of Cyberfolk,” it can be read as a commentary on race and class. No matter what class status Collins obtains as a professor and engineer, society will treat him differently because of his skin color. No matter where Misty Knight hails from, the hegemonic society treats her differently for the same reason.
The conversation concludes with Collins telling Misty Knight that he does not want her to call him Deathlok. Rather, he says, “My name is Michael,” and Misty Knight obliges by calling him Michael from here on out. This assertion of his identity also serves as his assertion on language and the power that it yields. Instead of succumbing to the label Deathlok, Collins places his humanity at the forefront through his insistence that Misty Knight refer to him as Michael. He will not let others define him or label him because if he does then those people will “control the terms of the debate” and the power.
This is not all that I want o say about Deathlok. In the next post, I will focus more on a conversation that Michael Collins and Misty Knight have where he directly quotes W.E.B. DuBois and talks about Double Consciousness. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.