by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "M" page 1

Machine Man - cover Barry Windsor-SmithMachine Man  1988 (TPB), 96 pgs.

Written by Tom DeFalco. Illustrated & coloured by Barry Windsor-Smith (layouts Herb Trimpe).
Letters: Higgins/Albers/Chiang/Novak. Editor: Larry Hama.

Reprinting:  Machine Man #1-4 (1984 mini-series) - minus covers; subsequently re-publisheed as Machine Man 2020 (a two issue mini-series)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Published by Marvel Comics

I read n' reviewed this a few years ago, at a point when I hadn't read much of the old Machine Man comics. Then I re-read it again recently, now more familiar with the old series, intending to re-consider my review...only to discover that pretty much everything I was going to write, I already had in my original review! My opinion hadn't changed! Still, I've embellished a bit, here and there, but I just thought it was funny to realize that even read a few years apart, I had basically the same reaction.

This follow-up to the late-'70s comic book series has Machine Man, the "living robot", being reassembled in the year 2020 -- a cyberpunkish reality almost 40 yearrs from when he last remembers. He hooks up with some black market rebels at odds with a power-onto-itself mega-corporation...a corporation run by his old enemy, Sunset Bain.

Sometimes, when reviewing graphic novels, I use the phrase "comic booky" as a compliment, meaning there's lots of colourful adventure and a kind of earnestness-devoid-of-pretension. But sometimes the phrase can have negative connotations, denoting a story that seems kind of superficial. This Machine Man TPB (also known as Machine Man 2020) is comic booky in the latter sense.

Don't get me wrong: it's reasonably entertaining and likeable and I wasn't bored. But it never really becomes more than just an action story -- or a recycling of standard scenes and ideas from a dozen sci-fi cyberpunk movies and stories. The plot seems a little half-baked (at one point they go to an underworld contact for help in escaping the city...then, when that doesn't work, they escape the city anyway!) and the future reality is not entirely thought out. Tom DeFalco and company emphasize fight scenes, and short change some of the emotion and human drama the premise promises -- in a scene where Machine Man learns an old friend was murdered, he doesn't react at all. And Machine Man at times seems like a supporting character in his own book! Indeed, reading the old comics, written variously by Jack Kirby, Marv Wolfman, and DeFalco one gets the impression a big problem with it was they were all having a bit of trouble really settling on who Machine Man was. While the rebels Machine Man hooks up with have personalities that are cleverly established within the first few panels...but maybe that's the problem. They are kind of easily established as archetypes, and don't have anywhere to go from there (even a subtext of romantic infatuation never really develops into anything).

As well, it's not clear what the story's about. I don't mean: what happens or why (although it's vague here and there). What I mean is -- what's the point, the themes, the subtext?

The mega-corporation manufactures robots, so one might infer that the story's about technology-out-of-control...except the good guy rebels also manufacture robots. The whole robot-with-a-soul idea that was at the core of the original series, of Machine Man seeking acceptance and identity in a hostile world, is here kind of muted (until a climactic fight). Frankly, it's not even entirely clear why the villains are so obsessed with Machine Man, or why they fear him so much. In a way, it comes across as though DeFalco is trying to evoke a sense of epic, dramatic resonance...for, let's face it, rather limited run characters. Sunset Bain, here positioned as Machine Man's arch-foe, only made her first appearance in the old comics about three issues before its cancelation. Not exactly making her some ubiquitous adversary!

Conversely there are some cute touches, like the black marketeers holing up in an abandoned McDonald's restaurant. And there's imaginative future extrapolation, like future slang, and hints of socially acceptable polygamy. And the scene where the characters first view Sanctuary is memorable.

The art by Barry Windsor-Smith is, as always, incredible to look at, in its detailed line-work. Though I'll admit I sometimes quibble with his work. He's a truly great artist, no doubt about it, but there are better comic book artists. His intricate style's a little busy in spots, and aloof. Still, it's always striking. Indeed, Machine Man, despite his limited runs, boasts an eclectic art line-up, with such seminal, distinctive artists as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko having drawn his old series.

Machine Man (originally called Mr. Machine) was created by Jack Kirby in the pages of Marvel's problematic movie tie-in, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and was sort of comicdoms answer to Adam Link. But whether he was essentially just a man, who happened to be made of metal (and given to wisecracks and emotional outbursts) or a more austere, computer personality (or a Silver Surfer-lite) was part of what I mean about it hard to get a grip on his personality. But he never really managed to be more than an also-ran, a character with more potential than actual success. Even so, some of those old issues strike me as slightly more ambitious than this story line. I'll confess, I'm not necessarily a big fan of what I've read by DeFalco in general over the years, DeFalco often seeming as though he wanted to evoke the gee-whiz fun of the comics of his youth, and Stan Lee inparticular...but more often just resulting in clumsy plots and heavy handed dialogue (indeed, the one issue of Machine Man I read by him struck me as the weakest...though it was just one issue). Though with that said, this mini-series is certainly competent work in terms of dialogue and pacing. And returning to the character after a few years as he was, it might suggest this attempt at rebooting the character may have been a labour of love...but it feels kind of workmanlike.

And whether this was intended as simply a one off apocryphal experiment, or was intended as a re-boot for a monthly series set in the future, I'm not sure. The story itself doesn't really build to a particularly satisfying climax...even as there doesn't seem enough here to really encourage future tales. Still, whatever the intent -- no subsequent series followed.

In the end, Machine Man is moderately enjoyable, on a non-think level, but it could've been -- it should've been -- much more. Still, you've got to love any story where "Sanctuary" is in Canada.

Original cover price: $9.25 CDN./$6.95 USA

Magnus, Robot Fighter: 4000 AD, vol. 1 2004/2010 (HC & SC TPB) 200 pages

cover by ManningWritten by Russ Manning, Kermit Schaeffer, Don Friewald. Illustrated by Russ Manning (with Mike Royer).
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Magnus, Robot Fighter #1-7 (1963-1964)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Mar. 2015

Published by Dark Horse

Magnus, Robot Fighter arguably stands as an unusual property in comics. Created in 1963 by artist Russ Manning, the character wasn't published by one of the two "big" companies, but instead by Western Publishing (or Gold Key as it was also known). A rare example of an original property for that company which I think tended more to publish characters licensed from others and things like funny animal series.

cover by ManningWhen Magnus came along there were a few companies trying to muscle in on the adventure genre dominated by Marvel and DC, from Towers' T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents to Charlton's action hero line. But Magnus was still being published by the mid/late 1970s -- although I'm not sure what the actual publishing schedule was (given it only mustered some 46 issues -- and even then, most of the second half were simply reprints of the first 20 or so issues).

The point being Magnus was never really a major comic -- and yet it seemed to be punching above its weight. Certainly it's significant that when Jim Shooter was starting the Valiant Comics line in the 1990s, optioning Magnus for a revival (along with Turok and Solar, Man of the Atom) was the centre piece of the "hip" new company. And Magnus has enjoyed sporadic (if often short-lived) subsequent revivals.

And the reason for that is because if you'd read the original Magnus as a kid -- it's hard to forget. Part of that is because of the setting. According to one thing I read part of the idea behind Magnus was to create a series that would break a TV series budget. So the setting is a far future of flying cars, robots, and lean mile high skyscrapers, where people zip around on jet packs or float through anti-gravity elevators -- all rendered with a clean, elegant simplicity by Manning. The comic essentially embodying a kind of archetypal pulp magazine SF that is sometimes called Gernsbackian -- a visual style that is seen as cliched even as it's actually hard to point to true examples of it. In comics Flash Gordon and The Legion of Super Heroes being the most obvious contenders. But this is where Manning's uncluttered, bright art comes in, because he captured the feel of such a milieu, not just the technical appearance.

Magnus' adventures take place in the far, far future of 4000 AD (or, technically, AD 4000 -- or what we'd now label 4000 CE). It's an idealized future of seeming endless relaxation, with robots to do all the menial chores from preparing meals to driving your car to policing the streets. But Magnus is an Old School advocate of greater self-reliance -- though ironically raised and trained by an artificially intelligent robot, 1-A -- and makes it his mission to protect people from their own over-reliance on robots, and especially from rogue robots that threaten civilization.

Magnus has super strength (not wholly explained, admittedly) that allows him to literally beat up Robs (robots) with his bare hands. It's an unusual example where the very lack of an identifiable gimmick (no signature super weapon, or even a batarang) becomes it's identifying gimmick. There just aren't too many sci-fi stories involving a bare-handed hero karate chopping robots! As well he had a secret weapon: an illegal implant that allows him to monitor robot communications. The first issue sets things up as more explicitly a Dystopia, with Magnus actually an outlaw in this world. But very quickly he becomes a publicly embraced hero, dating a Senator's daughter, and called upon by the government in times of crisis.

And there are a lot of crises: from malevolent robots, to others that are simply malfunctioning, to occasional human (and alien) villains (though usually still manipulating robots).

These issues are simple and goofy at times, with no great emphasis on deep characterization or anything. Yet they are surprisingly enjoyable, weathering the test of time. Part of that is because whatever they may lack in nuanced characters or emotional undercurrents, they make up for in sheer storytelling. Each issue is a tell-it-in-one issue adventure that can seem like it would work as the blue-print for a Hollywood summer movie. Presumably that's thanks to the far future milieu, allowing for a greater scope to the adventures and crises, with Magnus investigating undersea bases or going to distant planets or simply battling robots in the midst of the continent-spanning city, North Am.

Take the first issue, for instance which, admittedly, has the advantage of being the introductory tale. But with its introduction of Magnus, his first foray into the city (and meeting girl friend, Leeja) and uncovering a sinister conspiracy among the robs and building to a dramatic climax, you could easily see taking it verbatim as the script for a movie (padding scenes here and there just to boost the running time).

And a lot of the fun is supplied by Manning's art (aided and embellished sometimes by Mike Royer, apparently). At first glance, some modern readers might wonder what the fuss is about. Compared to the hyper detailed art of many modern artists, Manning's linework is quite simple. His figures can be a bit stiff, his faces not exactly three dimensional. But there's a classical elegance to Manning's style (younger readers might see his influence in someone like Steve Rude) and a straight forward but nonetheless dramatic eye for composition. The scenes are well presented, the action scenes deceptive in their subtle dynamism. And, as I suggested earlier, there's a spirit Manning brings to the towering buildings, the deliberately quirky robots (with their big heads and spindly limbs) and even Magnus with his unorthodox red tunic and bare legs. For all the danger of rogue robots -- this is a future you certainly don't mind visiting!

Perhaps the best illustration of Manning's under-stated style is that despite subsequent revivals of the character in supposedly more sophisticated comics eras -- later-day artists have rarely matched (let alone surpassed) Manning!

Another thing that maybe adds to the comics' long lasting appeal is a feeling that, despite its Silver Age simplicity and naivety, it had something a lot of comics of its era didn't -- a socio-political theme. The comic was about the dangers of over-reliance on technology, with Magnus warning -- not just about rogue robots, but about over-reliance on robots period. And of course it sets up a kind of on going ambiguity because no matter Magnus' warnings (and no matter how many times other characters agree with) the society doesn't really seem to change much! Indeed, this theme was expanded upon in Valiant's version -- albeit, maybe too much so, as Valiant's series was rather more cynical and jaded, with Magnus himself overtly contemptuous of humans and with even formerly sympathetic characters (like Leeja's father) re-imagined as more corrupt.

Admittedly, the anti-rob theme could also be uncomfortable if you expanded the metaphor. It becomes more awkward if you think of the robs as an underclass, and Magnus arguing they must be kept in their place!

Speaking of racial issues, there's a little insight maybe into 1960s mores. Magnus' far future reality is pretty white -- but not in a way that was unusual for stories of the time (who am I kidding? Even today!) But then in issue #8 (which I believe isn't included in this collection -- but is in the next volume) Magnus befriends a group of kids, The Outsiders, who've modeled themselves after him (and would be recurring characters in the series) and Manning draws them as multi-racial. So Manning clearly wanted to make the series more inclusive, but for some reason it seemed easier to have multi-racial kids than multi-racial adults!

Ultimately Magnus won't be mistaken for great literature, or functioning even on the level of a lot of Marvel Comics from its time. But equally, it was decently written (no glaringly stupid lines or characters) and as just escapist fair of flying cars and robots, presented against a striking future vista rendered elegantly by Manning -- it's enjoyable.

This review is based on the comics.

Cover price: __.

Magnus Robot Fighter: Invasion 1994 (SC TPB) 120 pgs.

Magnus: Invasion - cover by Rags MoralesWritten by Jim Shooter, with Laura Hitchcock. Pencils by David Lapham, Mark Moretti, Paul Creddick. Inks by various. Colours/Letters: various. Editors: Janet Jackson, Don Perlin.

Reprinting: Magnus, Robot Fighter (Valiant series) #5-8 (1991) plus covers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Published by Valiant Comics

For more Magnus see Predator vs. Magnus

The initial Valiant publishing line came and went during the time I had fallen out of reading comics, but I was curious about what they had done with their revival of Russ Manning's clean-cut far future hero, Magnus. Curious, but also cynical, I picked up this out-of-print TPB with reservation. Between buying it and reading it, though, by chance I came across references to Valiant's (early) Magnus. Good references. Approving references. Maybe not gushing, but certainly contented.

After all, this was Jim Shooter, a man who acquired a troubled reputation as Marvel's editor-in-chief, but also a man who had cranked out some fine stories years before as a writer on the Legion of Super-Heroes (a similar milieu to Magnus) and the Avengers.

The end result is that Magnus, Robot Fighter, is, well, kind of fun.

Shooter updates the old squeaky clean future by throwing in a ghetto and political machinations, but he hasn't updated it too much. There's a retro look and feel to the thing in spots. The year 4001 is still pretty cool looking, and Magnus is still a stand-up kind of guy.

The story is a team-up, introducing Magnus' Japanese counterpart, Rai -- and the idea that Japan is one giant city, ruled over by a computer, Grandmother (think of it as a more benign version of the city-intelligence in Frank Miller's Ronin). Anti-granny rebels want to destroy Grandmother, feeling she has robbed her people of the desire for free will...unaware that Grandmother is the only thing standing between earth and an alien invasion fleet.

On one hand:

Invasion fails to be more than just a romp. There's character stuff, self-sacrifice, and moral dilemmas, but they're devoid of real passion. Rai struggles with a heart wrenching dilemma near the end but, once he's made his decision, doesn't seem to give it a second thought. Like of lot of these Shooter-era Valiant comics, the appeal is the no nonsense, straight ahead story telling, and lots of talking heads and character stuff...even as it can seem a bit perfunctory, the emotions rushed through in a few lines of dialogue. Curiously, though the story has twists and turns, it can seem a bit simple and straightforward. And the alien invasion thing is a bit...unconvincing. The aliens are ill-defined and Magnus learns about it in the most perfunctory manner (partly that's because Valiant was already establishing itself as an interconnected "universe" of titles and these aliens were supposed to be familiar from other Valiant series). The art is unspectacular, delivering few panels that make your mouth drop open, or exquisitely rendered faces conveying subtle nuances. This is more craftsmanship than artistic expression.

On the other hand:

The story trundles along briskly, boasting some interesting ideas and is devoid of pretension -- while also being talky and plot driven, not just an excuse for fight scenes (though there are plenty of those). There are twists and turns and even if some are perfunctory, it lends the saga a sense of scope -- the action starting in NorthAm before moving to Japan, being about the anti-Granny movement, then shifting gears to the invasion plot, etc. The climax, when we discover just why this outer space fleet fears the city-intelligence, is kind of imaginative. Even minor things like future slang or the idea that, in the ghetto, the women tend not to shave, is off-beat (not to mention gutsy, given the way the mainstream media tends to freak at the idea of female body hair). The art boasts an openness and a pleasing...clarity. It doesn't get lost in stylized contortions and muddy, incomprehensible panels. There's a no-nonsense storytelling style at work here that, frankly, went out of vogue a long time ago, and is missed. In writing and art, one gets the feeling the creators saw themselves as subservient to the needs of the story, not the other way around. As I said, it's all refreshingly unpretentious, delivered with clarity. The vivid colours are particularly striking, yet likewise unobtrusive, and enhance the vision of this far-future of clean streets and towering buildings.

From a Magnus-fan point of view, Invasion is a bit disappointing. He has to share the limelight with Rai (being prepped for his own series) not to mention Solar (another '60s character revived by Valiant, who appears in a couple of scenes) and seems a bit out of his element in the climax -- and out of his local (NorthAm) for the body of the story. Rai's a perfectly acceptable character...but it is called Magnus, after all. And Magnus is, after all, still front and centre for much of it. And all that maybe lends the saga its sense of being a unique story and not just any old generic Magnus adventure -- which is maybe partly why I think this is a slightly more enjoyable tale than the arc collected in the first Magnus TPB, Steel Nation (which I read sometime later).

Overall, Magnus, Robot Fighter: Invasion Even as we get into the climax, and the good guys cavalierly incinerate alien ships like something out of "Star Wars" (where death and destruction has no accompanying moral consequences), I found myself reading it with a relaxed, easy-going grin on my face. It may not be high art, but it encouraged me to track down a few other early Magnus stories (including Steel Nation, reviewed below) and other Valiant comics. Shooter was shortly given the boot, and some reviews suggested the whole line went downhill after that.

Cover price: $13.65 CDN./$9.95 USA.

Magnus Robot Fighter: Steel Nation 1994 (SC TPB) 128 pgs.

coverWritten by Jim Shooter. Pencils by Art Nichols. Inks by Bon Layton, Kathryn Bolinger.
Colours: Janet Jackson, Karen Merbaum. Letters: Jade Moede. Editor: Don Perlin.

Reprinting: Magnus, Robot Fighter (Valiant series) 1-4 (1992)

Additional notes: intro by Tony Bedard; covers

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Valiant Comics

For more Magnus see Predator vs. Magnus

When the Valiant Publishing line started up, it mixed brand new creations with a few established -- but long defunct -- properties, presumably to give it a "name" recognition while it built up its own brand. So the flagship of the Valiant line was its revival of Russ Manning's sci-fi comic, Magnus, Robot Fighter.

It's an interesting reflection on brand name popularity that Valiant would see Magnus as such a key acquisition for its 1990s readership...when the original comics (excluding the reprints) only ran about twenty or so issues!

And their Magnus was basically a continuation of the original series -- even the visuals and costumes maintained. That doesn't mean this first TPB doesn't provide a decent jumping on point for new readers -- the premise is explained and we even begin with a deliberate recapping of Magnus' origin. But it certainly isn't meant to feel like the introduction of a brand new property.

Perhaps one interesting change is that in the original Magnus stories, North America was one huge city -- North Am. This maintains that...but Magnus and his adventures seem to take place in "Ottawa sector"...implying that, in a sense, Magnus is Canadian! (Okay, it's not that interesting...except to a Canadian like me!)

But this is a revisionist spin on the clean cut tales of a hero who fought rogue robots (and other villains) in a sparkling clean far future Utopia of towering buildings and flying cars. It's a grittier deconstruction of the premise. So while in the original stories, there was an undercurrent of Magnus feeling his future civilization was relying too much on automation, here that's developed even more, the characters themselves are depicted with greater feet of clay, as well as throwing in the idea that beneath the clean cities lies an underworld ghetto (which might have been in the old comics). And this opening saga kicks off questioning the very foundations of this society, as it's in the middle of seeing a rise in dangerous "free will" robots that are rebelling against humanity's control. At first they're are dismissed as simply malfunctioning robs (ie: robots) but then Magnus himself begins to question whether he's a robot fighter, destroying malfunctioning machines...or a robot killer, oppressing a disenfranchised minority?

The saga starts out well, re-introducing us to this world (even if, as noted, it maybe feels like merely resuming a series after a hiatus) and deliberately playing around with our expectations. By having it be that Magnus initially regards the free wills as simply malfunctioning machines, it can create a certain ambiguity (particularly by having Magnus' doubts about his righteousness quelled by his own free will rob mentor, 1-A). After all, it probably shouldn't take much for the audience to assume we are ultimately meant to sympathize with the free wills (though, I'm sometimes surprised reading comments about other such stories about "human" machines, where some fans will steadfastly insist that a machine can never be considered "alive", even if demonstrating emotions). The opening issue nicely captures a sense of paranoia with no way to tell a potentially murderous free will from a normal, obedient rob.

The leader of the free wills, 01X, is perfectly willing to kill millions of humans in the name of his people...but is also still open to a truce and discussing peaceful terms. He (it?) is not a misunderstood hero...yet neither is he a straight black hat.

As such, though certainly a comic book/super hero action series -- with lots of running about and fighting -- it's equally a thoughtful science fiction saga, exploring its singular vision of the future.

Valiant clearly went for a house style, visually -- avoiding the bravura style of comic book artists who drew cool splash pages and ended up overwhelming the scripts. So there can be a certain sameness to the visuals from series to series, and with a decidedly straight forward, matter-of-fact style. It tells the story. Period. Art Nichols supplies the art for all four issues, and he does a solid job. And in a science fiction series, the backgrounds and environment are a necessary part of the mood. But the art can be a bit stiff and undynamic. Looking at Russ Manning's original Magnus art from almost three decades before, it was more compelling -- boasting a cleaner, more aesthetic style, greater use of shadow and composition to create compelling panels and dramatic scenes.

Of course the old Magnus comics were decidedly simplistic. There was precious little attempt to even consider the moral (or metaphorical) implication of Magnus smashing rogue robs -- they were a symbol for rampant technology, not an allegory for an oppressed people.

As such, writer Jim Shooter definitely tries to jazz it up in the sophistication department, to the point that Magnus himself begins to express disgust for the pampered "cloud cloddies" he has been charged with protecting.

Yet if there's a problem, it's that Shooter maybe goes too far in his deconstructionism. Partly because Shooter doesn't really tackle it with subtlety -- which, admittedly, can be a strength...that he just barrels ahead with a no nonsense hard boiled prose-style. But we don't especially like anyone. Senator Clane -- a long time Magnus ally -- is rendered as a self-serving politician, who when he learns his daughter may've been killed by freewills muses it will probably help his election campaign. Pretty heavy handed (even if we assume it's partly meant as satire). While Leeja Clane, Magnus' long time girlfriend, is here reduced to a bubble headed princess. Shooter intends it as a dig at the old comics, because by the end of this story arc, Leeja decides she needs to change her attitude. In later Valiant issues she would be reinvented as a cliched '90s tough gal. But either extreme still tends to render her as more a caricature, and not one that is necessarily endearing.

And Magnus is, by nature of the story, a more cynical, more belligerent hero. Not merely frustrated by the idle culture he is defending...but contemptuous of people themselves.

Don't get me wrong -- it's not so extreme that you can't enjoy it. But you enjoy it because the story carries you along, more than because you necessarily just like hanging with the heroes...which is often the key to a good series. Among the most endearing character is a freewill rob named W-23.

But Shooter offers up the ruling elite as duplicitous and callow...and then contrasts it with the ghetto of lawless outsiders that is supposed to seem, in a way, healthier (at least Magnus gravitates to that culture) even as it is completely nihilistic, brutal and anarchistic. The result is they've taken an old comic that was appealling in its idealized squeaky clean-ness...and replaced it with a future where all of the cultural options are unsavoury!

And the plot itself is stronger in the first half than the second. I suppose that's inevitable. But it does feel as though the twists and turns aren't as many, in favour of more just setting up the action.

Still, like a lot of the early Valiant, it clips along well, with a nice mix of talking heads and dialogue (just to assure us this is a thinking man's comic) with plenty of action and smashing robots. And there's quirky humour throughout, like the interaction among the robs, or like human police officers who are essentially just diletantes, so used to robots handling the tough stuff that they literally run away from trouble. And, interestingly, though a number of the Valiant series saw their early issues collected as TPBs -- Magnus was one of the few to actually produce two collections -- this and the next collection, Invasion (reviewed above).

Cover price: $13.65 CDN./$9.95 USA.

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