Tuesday, May 26, 2015

25 Greatest Robots in Comics: Honorable Mentions

25 Greatest Robots in Comics: #25-21 | #20-16 | #15-11 | #10-6 | #5-1 | Honorable Mentions

Relax.  This post isn't really about RoboCop 3.
When I was a student at university, a professor of mine, Dr. John Ower, opened a class by announcing he'd been to the theater to see RoboCop 3 over the weekend and asking if any of us had. The room was predictably silent, given that many students hadn't been to see it and those who had were either too embarrassed or perplexed to admit to it. After a moment, a well-spoken but thoroughly unimaginative peer of mine, a fixture in many of my classes, spoke up, asking with trepidation, "Why do you ask? Is it actually — worth seeing?"

Ower, a glint in his eye, popped a piece of chewing gum and began to talk. The chewing gum was a context clue; Ower had suffered partial paralysis in his face and used gum to keep the saliva flowing as he held court in the classroom. Him unwrapping a piece before his answer told us there was going to be more to this than a capsule review.

Over the next ten minutes he leapt excitedly from the pervasive anxiety over industrialization in 19th-century literature to the idealization and fetishization of efficiency in Germany, explicating how these impulses had sidelined the rhythms of birth of theretofore traditional femininity, putting labor and child-bearing on a schedule. He talked about how these impulses toward mechanization, born of hope for a better future, had instead led to desensitization and images of the masculine and feminine that retained all their fetishized ideals but none of their humanity. (Notice how Robotman and Jocasta have idealized secondary sexual characteristics but no primary ones.) In Germany, they led to a mechanized breeding ground for the S.S.

These were important ideas, Ower explained, that defined our modern world and our place in it. They were no less important when our pop culture grappled with them. Perhaps they're especially important when the movies recognize policework as the battlefield of robopathy and sympathy and action movies as the genre where the tension between machismo and reality is as its greatest. He made an eloquent case, one the increasing cyberneticism of our lives has made more eloquent over time.

It was lost on the guy who asked the question.

But it hasn't been lost on me. I share that story here to make the point there are many different ways to look at stories of robots in our culture. Even the most trivial or cliché-ridden can reveal our anxieties and aspirations. On some level, I doubt there's any insignificant robot story.

With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the automatons who didn't make our recent countdown of the "25 Greatest Robots in Comics." To come up with our countdown, we each rated a list of dozens of 'bots from the comics. These are the ones who scored highest with individual voters but not high enough to break the top 25.

— Scott

First appearance: Scud the Disposable Assassin #1
(February 1994)

Scud the Disposable Assassin

Before Rob Schrab was making sardonic, ironic TV for the Millennial generation, he was making awkwardly sincere indie comics for Generation X.  Scud is the missing link between Ambush Bug and Deadpool — or, to put it in '90s terms, he's Lobo's emo cousin.

First appearance: Atomic Robo #1 (October 2007)

Atomic Robo

Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener, and company's Atomic Robo will always hold a special place in this blog's heart for proving you can release comics in a digital format and actually make money at it.  From unexpected iPhone smash in 2007-'08 to going digital-first in 2015, Atomic Robo has put the future back into robot comics.

First appearance: Richie Rich #100 (December 1970)


When we first discussed doing a countdown of the top robots in comics, the Netflix Richie Rich show wasn't on our radar.  Little did we know that by the time we were considering Rosie Irona for our countdown, a Google Image Search on her name would return a plethora of images of actress Brooke Wexler.

First appearance: New Mutants #18 (August 1984)

(& Magus & the Technarchy)

Sometimes a hulking, screaming impressionist painting; sometimes a zany living cartoon — Warlock joined the New Mutants as the embodiment of teen angst and isolation married to technology.  He was the perfect harbinger of a generation raised on, inseparable from, and perhaps even infected by technology.

First appearance: Amazing Spider-Man #8 (January 1964)

The Living Brain

Though rarely counted among Spider-Man's most memorable foes (and the Spider-Slayers made our list, guys!), the Living Brain nonetheless has staying power.  With an unforgettable visual that's part Lost in Space and all Steve Ditko, he's hard to leave in mothballs — but maybe it's the '60s-era design that keeps him from coming back in stories as more than a nostalgia trip.

First appearance: Strange Tales #135 (August 1965)

S.H.I.E.L.D. Life Model Decoys

When it comes to plot fodder, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s "life model decoys" (or LMDs) put Superman's and Doctor Doom's stand-in robots to shame.  You'd think a spy organization that had perfected robot duplicates so indistinguishable from the people they supplant would be unbeatable — but the LMDs' realism and undetectability have been a greater liability than they've ever been an asset.  (See, for example, Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D.)

- Scott

Monday, May 18, 2015

Ten Thoughts About Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow

Last week was a good week for fans of DC television shows with not one, but two previews of upcoming fall super-hero series.

Supergirl (from CBS):

And Legends of Tomorrow (a CW Arrow/Flash spinoff featuring the Atom (or A.T.O.M. if you prefer), White Canary, Firestorm, Hawkgirl, and Flash Rogues Captain Cold and Heatwave as a team brought together by contractual convenience Rip Hunter, Time Master:

Here are my thoughts, in completely random order.

Starting with Legends of Tomorrow:

1. I'm hep to the concept. This sounds like it's going to be a sort of Doctor Who's Suicide Squad, and you know what? I think that's an awesome premise with a lot of room to do cool episodes set in historical locales. I eagerly await the second season Titanic-based episode. ;)

2. Am I the only one who finds the Iron Man-ization of the Atom a bit annoying? I mean, I get it — people love them some Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man, and it's not like Ray Palmer's personality (as represented in the comics) has a lot of hooks, but every time Brandon Routh makes one of his Billionaire Software genius jokes, I sort of cringe. On the flipside, he also has this awkward tech geek thing going on which helps a bit (though that's a trope that's getting old as well...)

3. The White Canary - I'm not familiar with this relatively new DC character, so I can't say much about other than the name will help viewers connect the character to the Black Canary. God help them if they try to unravel the connection past the name though. Still, it will be great to see Caity Lotz back on a weekly series. She was one of the outstanding players on Season 2 of Arrow.

4. Hawkgirl. Well, I would have rather scene Black Orchid or Zatanna here, but I'm glad they included another woman on the team. Who wants to bet they'll upgrade her powers in some fashion as the show goes on?

5. Captain Cold/Heat Wave - like Caity Lotz, Wentworth Miller is one of those actors who can save almost any show for me (except Dinotopia, which I suspect he no longer puts on his resume.) Pairing him with Dominic Purcell (his television brother from Prison Break) was a cute gimmick on the Flash.

And while the Heatwave character hasn't given Purcell much to work with, Miller's Captain Cold has been a blast to watch on the Flash. Even in this trailer, he manages to steal a few scenes.

Now on to Supergirl:

6. As tonally different as the Flash was from Arrow, so is this show from either of those two. This definitely has a "television show aimed at women - as produced by CBS" feel to it. Someone called it Ally McBeal with a cape, and while they meant that as an insult, I'd have to say that sounds like a combo that would make a lot of people happy. In my household, both my wife and 9-year-old daughter liked the preview.

7. I also think the show will appeal to those disenfranchised Superman fans who felt Man of Steel betrayed their hero. As to me, I think the preview made it look like a fun show, so count me in. :)

8. Nice to see both Helen Slater and Dean Cain will have a role in the pilot (as the Kara's adoptive parents.) I guess we've reached a point where in fandom, if you've ever played a role in a DC television series, there may be an opportunity for you to play another role in a DC television series. So, how long before we see Smallville's Tom Welling in a DC series? (Wouldn't it be cool if he did a cameo as Superman in this Supergirl series?!)

9. Is Vartox going to be in the Pilot?  Screenrant has a nice Easter Eggs round-up that suggests the first villain of the series will be the Sean Connery-inspired Bronze Age Superman foe. They also have a screenshot that alludes to other extraterrestrial threats. I think that if the show goes for a ET Freak of the Week vibe (initially) that will help viewers get grounded in the show. Then they can branch out from there.

10. Will either show be a hit? That will depend on ratings and how much stock each network puts into those ratings. One of the things that has constantly plagued ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is that ABC has higher ratings expectations than the CW. Will CBS have similar expectations for Supergirl? How have such shows fared on the big three networks in the past? Heroes did quite well initially. And going back further, so did Lois and Clark. Still, CBS earned its reputation as the "old people's network" the hard way, and I don't see them shaking that anytime soon. Supergirl might not be what the viewers of CSI or NCIS are looking for.

— Jim

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Books: The Superhero Genre continues to grow!

I've mentioned the new wave of Superhero novels that have popped up on kindle in previous posts. It seems to me that this genre is growing in a few interesting ways.

First we are seeing a significant number of sequels to some of the more successful novels:

Jim Bernheimer (a great guy who I interviewed about this time last year ) has released a sequel to his Origins of a D-List Super-villain called Secrets of a D-List Supervillain.

Here's the description from Amazon:

Cal Stringel may be dead to the world at large, but a select few know that he's still alive and in control of the most powerful suit of battle armor ever created. He's part of a rogue super team taking the world by storm and changing the dynamic for both heroes and villains alike. With change comes resistance and those holding control and power are not ready to just hand it over without a fight.
For the former D-List Supervillain, it’s time to break out the spare synthmuscle, charge the massive railgun pistol, and bring the pain. With his new team, he thinks he can take on the world, but is Cal biting off more than he can chew? He must deal with sanctioned hero teams and power mad bureaucrats on one side and the major supervillains of his world on the other.

As Cal and his allies ready themselves to face friend and foe, he will also have to deal with his relationship with Stacy Mitchell, also known as the Olympian, Aphrodite. Separated for over a year, they’ve only just reunited and are faced with the prospect of being on opposite sides of the coming conflict. Can they find enough common ground between the secrets and half-truths to sustain their fledgling relationship, or are they doomed like the last time to crash and burn?

Find out in Secrets of a D-List Supervillain. 

Brandon Sanderson, whose Steelheart I throughly enjoyed has released a new entry in his Reckoner's series (of which Steelheart was the first.)

The quick synopsis of this series is a world where a mysterious force is imbuing humans with superpowers, with the unfortunate side effect of corrupting those gifted individuals. It's basically taking the "Power Corrupts" motif and reinforcing it to see how humanity would endure such a predicament. Coming to society's rescue is a rag-tag group of freedom fighters known as the Reckoner's. Using nothing but salvaged technology and their own quick wits, the Reckoners take on various Epics (superheroes) and bring them down in interesting ways.

The newest book in the series is Firefight

Here's the description from Amazon:

Brandon Sanderson, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Words of Radiance, coauthor of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, and creator of the internationally bestselling Mistborn trilogy, presents the second book in the Reckoners series: Firefight, the sequel to the #1 bestseller Steelheart.   
- Newcago is free.

 They told David it was impossible, that even the Reckoners had never killed a High Epic. Yet 

Steelheart--invincible, immortal, unconquerable--is dead. And he died by David's hand.
 Eliminating Steelheart was supposed to make life simpler. Instead, it only made David realize he has questions. Big ones. And no one in Newcago can give him answers.

Babylon Restored, the city formerly known as the borough of Manhattan, has possibilities, though. Ruled by the mysterious High Epic Regalia, Babylon Restored is flooded and miserable, but David is sure it's the path that will lead him to what he needs to find. Entering a city oppressed by a High Epic despot is risky, but David's willing to take the gamble. Because killing Steelheart left a hole in David's heart. A hole where his thirst for vengeance once lived. Somehow, he filled that hole with another Epic--Firefight. And now he will go on a quest darker and even more dangerous than the fight against Steelheart to find her, and to get his answers.

Finally, one of my favorite series in this genre (Peter Cline's Ex- series) returns with a intriguing new chapter in the series; Ex-Isles

Here's the description from Amazon:

The heroes are overjoyed when they discover another group of survivors, living on a man-made island in the middle of the Pacific ocean. But there’s something very, very wrong with this isolated community and its mysterious leader—a secret that could put every survivor in the world at risk.

I would strongly suggest that if you find yourself tiring of the Constant Meaningless Events that seem to be plaguing comics these days to check out one of these books (or at least the first in the series) All of them provide an interesting alternative to your superhero-fix. The 3 I've picked out are all written not by comic writers, but by traditional authors, so their approach to storytelling is a good bit different (in a good way!)

If you have discovered the joys of prose superhero novels, I invite you to share your favorites in the comments below!

- Jim

Friday, May 1, 2015

25 Greatest Robots in Comics: Counting Down the Top Five!

25 Greatest Robots in Comics: #25-21 | #20-16 | #15-11 | #10-6 | #5-1 | Honorable Mentions

All week, we've sung the body electric in anticipation of today's U.S. release of Avengers: Age of Ultron.  Now, at last, it's time to see whom the Flashback Universe contributors have selected the five greatest robots in comics.

5 - Vision

First appearance: Avengers #57 (1969)

Oh Vision, you started out so cool and simple. You were built from the body of the original Human Torch and your mind was based off of the recorded brainwaves of Wonder Man. (Okay, maybe simple is a stretch, but it was sort of cool.)

However, over the years, your origin has become such a jumbled mess of retcons and revamps that an entire mini-series (Avengers Forever) had to be written to explain who you are. And while Avengers Forever contains some very fine parsing of the Marvel Universe and history by Kurt Busiek, its ultimate resolution for the Vision’s origins is less than satisfying. The quick version is this:
Immortus, the Absolute Master of Time, used the Forever Crystal to create a split in the timestream which allowed there to be TWO Human Torch androids in Professor Horton’s lab. One that Ultron took to build the Vision and one that was buried (and eventually revived by the West Coast Avengers.)
As explanations that try to meld two conflicting origins go, I would put this one in the Warm Milkshake category. It’s not insulting, but it won’t make anyone very happy either.

Honestly, fictional history aside, I’m a bit more interested in the Red Tornado/Vision connection. As well covered by the site ComicCoverage.typepad.com, there are a number of similarities between the two that make one wonder if they have a common inspiration.

Gardner Fox created the Red Tornado. Fox was no stranger to Android characters (having created Amazo years before) but one wonders what inspired him to include such a character in the JSA?

Over at Marvel, Roy Thomas wanted to revive the Golden Age Vision into the Avengers but Stan Lee wanted the new Avenger to be an android. What made Stan so adamant about adding an android character?

Going by the date (1968) here are some possible candidates:

Androids on Star Trek
  • Dr Roger Korby, Andrea, Dr Brown, Ruk and the Kirk android in the episode "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" (1966) [This is my high favorite as the android characters struggle with emotions in this episode.]
  • The Norman, Alice, Herman, Barbara, Maizie, Annabelle and Trudy series androids and the Stella Mudd androids in the episode "I, Mudd" (1967)
Androids on Lost in Space
  • Verda, a gynoid in the episodes "The Android Machine" (1966) and "Revolt of the Androids" (1967)  
  • Raddion, a male android in the episode "The Dream Monster" (1966)  
  • The IDAK Super Androids in the episode "Revolt of the Androids" (1967)  
  • The Industro Mini Robots in the episode "The Mechanical Men" (1967)  
  • The Xenian Androids in the episode "Kidnapped in Space" (1967)

I picked these shows as the robotic characters were specifically called Androids on the show AND they both were somewhat popular at the time. The term android had been around for a long time, but I feel some specific pop culture reference got Fox and Lee thinking on the same frequency at the same time. Another possibility, given the emphasis on cold, emotionless personality in both characters, is Spock as ComicsBeat.com suggests. That would point the finger at Star Trek as the inspiration for the character type.

If anyone has any further insights to this mystery, please feel free to chime in in the comments section down below!

— Jim

4 - Astro Boy

First appearance: Shonen Kobunsha Magazine (April 1952)

Astro Boy was originally a Japanese manga series created by Osamu Tezuka from 1952 to 1968. In 1963, the manga was adapted as an animated television series. It was this series that, when imported by NBC in 1963 brought the character to the attention of American fans.

In the series, Astro Boy is created by Doctor Tenma (or Dr. Astor Boyton in the English version), sold to a circus then rescued by the head of Ministry of Science by kindly Professor Ochanomizu. At the MoS, Astro Boy’s full superpowers are discovered: Super-strength, flight, laser eyes, super hearing, high IQ and a retractable machine gun. He uses his powers to fight crime and evil human hating robots.
While maybe not as popular now, the series has an enduring appeal. Over the course of time, the manga has sold 100 million copies and IGN named the 1960s series as the 86th best animated series, and called it the first popular anime TV series.

As to the series legacy, it’s hard not to see a some of Astro Boy’s influence in Big Hero Six.

— Jim

3 - Silver Age Robotman

First appearance: My Greatest Adventure #80 (June 1963)

Earlier in the countdown, we talked about the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents (and their resident robot) reaching a smaller audience than the super-heroes published by Marvel and DC but having an enormous impact. It's something we could also say about the Doom Patrol, despite their adventures coming from within staid, conservative DC Comics itself. Sure, the DP graduated from a starring role in My Greatest Adventure to having that title renamed after them — but, by 1967, it had slowed to bi-monthly, then it became a reprint title after the main characters were killed off, and finally the series was canceled in 1968. The Doom Patrol appeared largely forgotten except for the valiant efforts of Paul Kupperberg to resurrect them in various forms. By the mid-'80s, Kupperberg managed to get a new version of the team into their own series for the first time in 20 years. DC has canceled and relaunched them numerous times since then, but rarely have they stayed gone long. The one constant in the Doom Patrol, whatever their form, is Cliff Steele — the Silver Age Robotman.

Let's not call him that, though. For one thing, he doesn't seem to like it. In Grant Morrison's game-changing run on Doom Patrol, asking people not to call him Robotman is Cliff's most often repeated line of dialogue. For another, it's rarely used in his Silver Age appearances. Brian Cronin of Comic Book Legends Revealed seems to think his original alias was Automaton, though I'm skeptical. As Cronin points out, he's called "Robot Man" or "Robotman" about as frequently as he is "Automaton," starting from the beginning of the DP stories. The main characters almost never use each other's super-heroic names, a point the plot of Doom Patrol #90 (September 1964) hinges on. My guess is writer Arnold Drake was merely giving characters something descriptive to call Cliff, especially those characters who didn't know him personally. Shouting "Robotman" or "Automaton" at him would be a bit like blurting out, "Hey, cripple!" or, "It's that gimp!"

Which brings us to the best reason of all not to call Cliff "Robotman": It's a bit of a slur. And that's saying something when you consider the Doom Patrol routinely describe themselves as "freaks."

Self-image is a big part of the Doom Patrol in all its incarnations, especially for Cliff. Over the years, his robot body changes frequently enough — usually with every relaunch — that he's become a stranger in his own metal skin. During the original 1960s run, he often finds himself losing limbs and torn apart (as do many robot characters in the name of shocking readers).  For Cliff, it doesn't stop there.  He also undergoes more unsettling transformations, from being rolled flat to melted down to having his legs twisted into a drill. He even has his physical identity usurped by Madame Rouge (a shape-shifting impostor) and by the Chief himself when he dons a Robotman-like suit. Grant Morrison has called him a whole-body amputee, a succinct appraisal that puts the focus back on the Doom Patrol members as representatives of the handicapped. In Morrison's first issue of Doom Patrol, February 1989's #19, artist Richard Case memorably depicts Cliff smashing his face against a brick wall as he explains that he doesn't experience touch or smell. That demonstration drives home the body issues that have always lurked in the subtext of Cliff's "freakishness" and establishes his robot body as less blessing-or-curse than prosthesis-or-prison.

Despite his internal struggles to hold onto an identity without a body to anchor it (or perhaps because of it), Cliff Steele remains one of the best-liked characters in the DC Universe, both in-story and by readers. We can attribute much of that to his everyman qualities. He's often the viewpoint character for the strange and confusing challenges the Doom Patrol face, and his lack of a fixed physical identity may make it easier for readers to imagine themselves in his place in the story. Though he was once white and male (and still is, in many ways), the physical elements that defined him thus are long gone, leaving behind a robotic shell any of us can project ourselves into as readers. Without skin, without sex organs, would those parts of our identity even matter any more? They certainly matter less to Cliff Steele (however much that may trouble him), and that allows us to imagine ourselves in his place, to identify with his unimaginable tragedy.

— Scott

2 - Golden Age Robotman

First appearance: Star Spangled Comics #7 (April 1942)

There have been many heroes to bear the name Robotman, but the first was Robert Crane, a character created by Jerry Siegel and Leo Nowak in 1942. While working with Chuck Grayson, his assistant, Crane is attacked and killed by bandits trying to steal his inventions. In an attempt to save Crane’s life, Chuck transplanted Crane’s brain into the body of a new robotic prototype they were working on. This surgery was successful, and Crane was able to live on in the body he called Robotman.

Two things of note here:

First, Robotman isn’t technically a robot. He’s a cyborg. However, that term wasn’t coined until 1960 by real life scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline.

Second, Robotman was not the first cyborg character in comics. He is predated by the Centaur character Iron Skull, who appeared in Amazing Man Comics 5 in 1939.

Be that as it may, I believe the reason Robotman is ranked so high here on our survey beating out other Golden Age robots like Bozo, Mr. Atom and Dynamic Man (all personal favorites of mine) is because he appeared in the 50’s in the pages of Detective Comics and then again during the Bronze Age in a few 100 Page Giants.

On top of all that, Golden Age salvage expert Roy Thomas brought the character back in the pages of All-Star Squadron where he served as a team member for many issues.

He was even involved in the first meeting of what would one day become the Justice League of America…

…but this first meeting/mission was suppressed from public knowledge. (Justice League of America 144).

As I mentioned, Roy Thomas makes great use of the character all during his All-Star Squadron run during the 80’s starting with issue 1 (1982) and culminating in a full issue origin story in issue 63 (1985).

At the same time, the current status of Robotman is revealed in DC Comics Presents 31 (1981) in a backup feature Whatever Happened to Robotman? It’s revealed that Robotman has been trapped underground for 20 years, in suspended animation. A sudden boost of energy awakens him into the modern era.

Where he discovers his old lab assistant Chuck Grayson, who was suffering from an incurable brain disease, bequeathed his body to Crane so he could regain his humanity. With his humanity restored, he doesn’t make many more appearances in the modern DC Universe aside from a few cameos in Geoff Johns’ Stars and STRIPE (which was in itself a tip of the hat to the old Star Spangled Comics both heroes used to appear in).

One of the cooler things about Robotman was how often he was getting dismantled or blown apart in his stories, and yet would keep on working. It was nothing to see him separated from his arms or legs and still kicking crime’s ass.

I suppose it's unlikely that we will ever see a modern day revival of the Robert Crane Robotman (as more readers today are familiar with the Doom Patrol character with the same name), but comics (and comics writers) are unpredictable when it comes to nostalgia. There might be a few more Golden Age Robotman stories still to be revealed.

— Jim

1 - Ultron

Yes, Ultron.

Go ahead and call us biased by the imminent premiere of Avengers: Age of Ultron if you must, but when we passed around our list of candidates for this countdown, his name kept coming up. Everyone ranked him near the top of their personal lists. Talk to anyone who reads comics, and you'll find they have an Ultron story. Or at least an Ultron moment. Jim's mentioned mine as one reason he asked me join his blogging collective, so I'm going to share it with you.

Before I do, let me point you to this great recap of Ultron's evolution through the years and to Trey Causey's indispensable short list of the best Ultron stories and where to find them reprinted.

When I was a kid, before there were comics stores in area and a couple of years out from discovering conventions and mail order, back issues may well have not existed. Comics were a rolling target, a perpetual now — the way television used to work. If you missed an issue and weren't lucky enough to have a friend who'd picked it up, you were never going to read it. (That's why Marvel Comics did so much recapping, kids! It's not just that Matt Murdock loves to tell the story of how he was blinded as a child.) In that world, stories published before you started reading a title were a bit exotic. With no internet and few fanzines, you couldn't even read synopses, so you had to glean what you could from footnotes and in-story references. Some things you got the gist of and didn't worry much about. The Hulk had been an Avenger briefly, the FF didn't always wear costumes — that sort of thing. Other things came up frequently enough, in such reverent tones, even a child could tell they were significant. Ultron was one of those things. Like the great blizzard before you were born or when you lived in a different city as a baby. You knew these things happened (in an academic way, at least) and were always fascinated by them, but you never expected them to happen to you in the present day.

I was nine years old when I read my first Ultron story in Marvel Two-in-One #92 (featuring two other robots who made our countdown!). I'd been reading Marvel Super Action sporadically, absorbing its classic '60s and '70s Avengers tales, but I'd never read an actual Ultron story. I knew Hank Pym had created him, knew he'd picked up an adamantium body along the way, and knew he was a top-tier Avengers baddie who grinned like a murderous jack-o-lantern through his various schemes. I also knew he'd been destroyed. Gone, done, in the past. Not coming back. Because that's how you think comics work when you're nine.

When I saw Ultron staring out at me from the drug-store rack on that Two-in-One cover, I was hypnotized by him, as surely Tony Stark and Jarvis had been. I bought that issue and devoured it one page at a time, not flipping ahead lest I spoil the suspense. Ultron had programmed Jocasta to resurrect him! He was back, and the Avengers had no idea, because it had happened in Marvel Two-in-One! Even the FF didn't know, because, you know, it had happened in Marvel Two-in-One! The only heroes standing in his way at the end of this issue were the Thing, Machine Man, and Jocasta. No Thor! No Iron Man!

As the weeks ticked by, I became increasingly convinced the Thing would die in Marvel Two-in-One #93. My kid-brain couldn't see any way around it. "Well," I thought, "at least I'll be here for the death of one of the Fantastic Four. I won't have to read idly along as Reed Richards recalls that significant event happening 'some months ago' and follow the asterisk down to the footnote. I'll know. I'll have been there." (At 41, I've lived through the deaths of too many of the Fantastic Four.)

Four weeks passed. Or maybe it was five. Either way, I knew it was time for the second part of that Ultron story, and I was determined not to miss it. The church in my small town was having a youth program that week, so I spent the morning in a Bible class, my heart filled with dread and anticipation. I'd looked at the situation from every possible angle, and still I saw no way out for the heroes. My mom picked me up and took me to the local drug store, where the new issue of Two-in-One waited to relieve me of my anxiety. I read it as carefully as I had the first part, taking in Ultron's villainous majesty, reassured that I was indeed reading a real, true, authentic, canonical story of one of the Avengers' greatest foes of yesteryear. (He recalled past plots. With footnotes! You can't get any more legit than that.) When I reached the climax and Machine Man (!) defeated Ultron by reaching into his mouth and yanking out his robotic innards (!!), I was floored. I hadn't seen that coming. His iconic open maw had been his undoing. His defeat had been staring me in the face the whole month — honestly, since before I was born!

Even at nine, I knew he wouldn't be defeated that way again. I was also starting to get the feeling he'd be back, that I'd get to read more Ultron stories — that he could be recurring for me, just as he had been for those older readers who wrote in to letters pages and occasionally mentioned him. But even if he didn't come back, the way Ultron was defeated satisfied me. It paid off on the visual I'd found so compelling and powerful since I'd first seen him in flashback. What might have been an anticlimax ended up as a resolution.

Let's hope Avengers: Age of Ultron pays off on our collective anticipation, even if that pay-off isn't as bombastic as our imaginations have built it up to be. I'm confident it will, if only because it features Ultron.

— Scott

So there you have 'em — our picks for the greatest robots ever to grace the pages of comic books, stretching from an era when the term robot had barely been invented to the present day, where robots are a fact of everyday life.  Did we leave anyone out?  Rank anyone too high (or too low)?

Thursday, April 30, 2015

25 Greatest Robots in Comics: Counting Down #10-6

25 Greatest Robots in Comics: #25-21 | #20-16 | #15-11 | #10-6 | #5-1 | Honorable Mentions

Welcome to day four of our continuing countdown of the best robots to grace the pages of comic books, where we break into the top ten.

10 - The Metal Men

First appearance: Showcase #37 (April 1962)

I believe, if we discount analogues, the Metal Men are the first theme-based superheroes to ever appear in comics. Today, some people might call them Toyetic, but I think that term is both vague and inexact whereas thematic is a better description of the Metal Men’s defining affinity to each other.

Created by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru, the Metal Men used the metal-themed gimmick to give the team a bond that made them instantly identifiable to new readers as belonging to a team. With their similar uniforms and color coded bodies, any reader could look at a Metal Men comic and grasp the underlying structure of the team. This plays on a little quirk comic book readers have: we like to categorize things. The beauty of the Metal Men is they are already categorized for us!

With their introduction, theme-based teams have appeared many times in comics (several times in the Metal Men’s own comic.) Some are physical in nature, like The Gas Gang from Metal Men 6, while some  some have a more abstract theme (Zodiac, Fathom Five, The Elementals, Serpent Society, etc. …)

The other thing that made the Metal Men unique (at DC as least) was that they were a team with members with very distinct personalities. Whereas the Justice League members all tended to act pretty much the same, the Metal Men gave us DC’s real first Marvel-like characters. Tin was cowardly, Mercury was a hothead, Lead was the lovable lunk head, Platinum was the girl (hey – it was the sixties, y’know?)

These two aspects proved so successful that the Metal Men got their own title in 1963 and ran bi-monthly until 1969. After that, their published presence would be spotty with a brief resurgence in 1976 which lasted until 1978 when their title became a victim of the DC Implosion.

Why didn’t the Metal Men fare better in the Bronze Age? I suspect partly because their original comic was a bit more campy or sublime than what readers were looking for in the 70s. A reading of their later Bronze Age stories gives us more serious stories (as did their spots in Brave and the Bold.)

Since the Bronze Age, they’ve had even less luck finding steady work. They had a 4 issue mini-series in the 90’s, some brief walk-ons in other comics, a stand-alone story in Wednesday Comics and a back up feature in the 2009 incarnation of Doom Patrol.

As of this writing, they were most recently retconned (for the third time) in the pages of New 52 Justice League 28. Still, I think attempts to “serious up” the Metal Men miss something. They aren’t really that type of team. I remember hearing a story about how Darwyn Cooke tried to sell DC on the idea of a Metal Men series he would write and draw but for whatever reason DC just wasn’t interested.

Now that the New 52 era is over and DC is looking around the publishing landscape for new projects, will we see the return for a light-hearted, comical Metal Men series? I sure hope so!

— Jim

9 - The Original Human Torch

First appearance: Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939)

Created by writer/artist Carl Burgos for Timely Comics (what would one day become Marvel), The Human Torch was one of the first super heroes to be dubbed an Android. The term Android had been become popular through it’s introduction via pulp science fiction, starting with Jack Williamson’s The Cometeers in 1936.

With his fiery frame and easy to grasp powers, The Human Torch became one of Timely’s most popular characters alongside Captain America and The Sub-mariner. This popularity lasted all through the Golden Age of comics, but dissipated by the 1950’s (when most superhero comics ceased publication). Unlike Cap or Namor, the original Human Torch was not seen in a Timely/Marvel comic again until he was revived in Fantastic Four Annual 4 in 1966.

Unfortunately, the original Human Torch would sacrifice himself in that FF Annual and vanish into the annals of Marvel history. Readers would have to wait until 1975 when Jim Hammond would come roaring back in not one, but two Marvel Comics: The Avengers and The Invaders.

In The Avengers, his return is limited to a mention of his android body being used by Ultron in the creation of the Vision. This plot point was developed by Neal Adams and Steve Englehart in Avengers 133-135, but I suspect that storyline ran counter to the plans of Roy Thomas as he plants the seeds for its undoing in What If...? 4 where he suggests that the Torch’s creator Professor Horton made a second android named Adam who was used for the construction of the Vision. However, John Byrne would later reaffirm the idea that at least some parts of the Human Torch were used to create the Vision in West Coast Avengers. In WCA 50, Jim Hammond is revived for good and becomes a permanent fixture in the Marvel Universe.

In The Invaders, The Human Torch fights in World War II alongside Captain America, Bucky, Sub-Mariner and Toro. I’ve written about my appreciation for this series numerous times. I consider it the best use of the character not only in the Bronze Age, but in any age of comics. To me, the original Human Torch works best in the era he was created. In the modern age, for better or worse, he’s a second rate Johnny Storm.

Which brings me to a point – in a way, the original Human Torch is essentially the lone member of the Marvel Universe’s answer to the Justice Society of America. He’s a legacy hero in a universe that doesn’t really have any others. I know what you’re thinking – “What about Captain American and the Sub-mariner?” I would say they don’t really count because they were both fully borne into the new age of Marvel at the very beginning. Unaged and unfazed by the passage of time, both Namor and Cap dive right into the new era of the Marvel Universe. Poor Human Torch wakes up to find himself replaced by a younger, cooler version and dies in his 60s reintroductory tale. There is no Earth 2 All Winners Squad there to welcome him back to reality…

…instead, he just gets dismantled physically and metaphysically. What an unjust fate for such an historical character.

— Jim

8 - Shōgun Warriors

First appearance: Shōgun Warriors #1 (February 1979)

Go big or go home.  Home, in this case, being Japan.

Mazinger Z.
Kiyoshi Nagai was ten years old when the comic Tetsujin 28-go debuted in Japan in 1956.  Just like the hero of the story, who commanded a 30-foot tall robot named Tetsujin 28 built by his father using a remote control.  (The name translates roughly to "Iron Man 28" in English, though we know him by his Western name, Gigantor.)  Ten years later, Nagai began working as a manga artist under the pen name Go Nagai.  Tetsujin loomed large in his mind, but he was reluctant to do his own giant robot story for fear of it being a pale imitation.  Then, one day as he was sitting in traffic, it occurred to him that a giant robot might be more interesting if it were piloted from within, driven like an automobile.  So Mazinger Z was born in Nagai's imagination, finding its way to comics and animation both in 1972.  Mazinger Z inspired a dozen or more imitators, and the Super Robot genre took Japanese manga and anime by storm, with toys following hot on the heels of every successful piloted-robot debut.

Bandai subsidiary Popy made most of these toys, and they sold well, attracting the attention of American toymaker Mattel, who licensed as many as they could snap up for American distribution.  Despite the various manga and anime these Super Robot toys were based on having no connection, Mattel marketed their American versions together under a single brand, one evocative of their Japanese origins:  Shōgun Warriors.

The stars of Shōgun Warriors as two-foot tall Jumbo Machinder toys.

To promote the toys, Mattel enlisted Marvel Comics to create a Shōgun Warriors series.  The "more-characters-more-More-MORE" approach that would dominate Transformers and G.I. Joe licensing lay in a few years in the future, so Mattel lent out only three of the robots to Marvel:  Dangard Ace, Raydeen, and Combatra.  In the comic, these giant robots were created by an alien religious order who enlisted an international team of human pilots to operate them: stuntman Richard Carson from the U.S. for Raydeen, test pilot Genji Odashu from Japan for Combatra, and ocean researcher Ilongo Savage for Dangard Ace.

Featuring the final fate of three
unexpected guest stars.
For 20 issues, the Shōguns fought giant monsters and defended Earth-616 as "invincible guardians of world freedom," their run coming abruptly to an end when the toys' marketshare faltered.  Penciler Herb Trimpe went on to other licensed properties, among other projects, and writer Doug Moench leapt straight from giant robots into what would become one of the decade's most influential titles, Moon Knight.  Moench did, however, take time to tie up loose ends from Shōgun Warriors with his Moon Knight collaborator Bill Sienkiewicz during their brief run on Fantastic Four, destroying Raydeen, Dangard Ace, and Combatra off-panel (without naming them, since Marvel no longer had the license) and retiring Richard, Ilongo, and Genji from the robot-piloting business.

Curiously enough, Moench and Trimpe were putting out Marvel's other Japanese licensed book concurrently with Shōgun Warriors: Godzilla.  While the Shōguns never met Godzilla, that title did introduce a giant robot much like them whom Marvel owned outright, Red Ronin.  And Trimpe gave us this undeniably awesome iron-on patch, which is made all the more mind-blowing when you realize the characters America tossed together cavalierly would be all-star line-up of individual heavy-hitters in their native Japan:

— Scott

7 - The Sentinels

First appearance: X-Men #14 (November 1965)

Hulking, but not yet giant.
Inflation is as big a problem in the U.S. as it is in Japan.  I'm not talking about currency here but the tendency of giant robots to get bigger and bigger over the years.  Whereas Tetsujin 28/Gigantor stood about 30 feet tall, Marvel's Red Ronin is over 100 feet tall.  Likewise, the Sentinels started out as 10- or 12-foot tall imposing figures (on par with most modern depictions of the Hulk) who evolved over the years into towering, Gigantor-sized figures.  With the Sentinels, size isn't the only threat; like the Manhunters, there's a seemingly endless army of them to overpower the heroes they oppose.

Bigger: The Master Mold.
Designed by Bolivar Trask to hunt (and presumably kill) mutants, the Sentinels have been recurring threats to the X-Men since their first appearance.  Their simple premise has proven elastic enough to stretch in many directions over the years.  We've seen Sentinels who've developed sentience and genuine hatred for mutants, Sentinels sent back from the future to change the past a la The Terminator, Sentinels as tabula-rasa pets reminiscent of the movie version of The Iron Giant, Sentinels piloted like Japanese Super Robots, Sentinels who've become partly human, Sentinels with a conscience, and microscopic nanite Sentinels.  Marvel's upcoming X-Men '92 even promises "free-range Sentinels."  Like the Spider-Slayers, writers and artists are free to redesign and re-think the Sentinels as the story leads them — although they usually hew much closer to their typical body type and color scheme than Smythe's creations.

Sentinels rarely survive more than one encounter with the X-Men, with two notable exceptions.

Worse than a zombie: a robot zombie.
The Master Mold is a walking Sentinel factory, creating new Sentinels within himself that issue forth from his chest cavity.  As you might imagine, he's considerably larger than the garden-variety Sentinel — likely the reason subsequent Sentinels were drawn larger, as artists confused the Master Mold with ordinary Sentinels.  For the most part, these later-generation Sentinels were not built by ever-more-enormous Master Molds, though Grant Morrison does give us a gigantic, previously unseen Master Mold in his New X-Men story "E Is for Extinction."  The most frightening Master Mold remains the original, whom Walt Simonson depicted as a horrifying mechanical zombie in X-Factor #14 (March 1987).

Nimrod at left, Bastion at right.
Nimrod is an advanced Sentinel from the dystopian future of "Days of Future Past" who eventually pursued Rachel Summers to the present.  His ability to adapt, so that he can never be beaten the same way twice, and his sheer unstoppability are reminiscent of the super-hero-hunting Fury from Captain Britain.  Alas, Nimrod got lost in a sea of Claremontian plot threads, and his looming menace didn't come to fruition until 1997's "Operation: Zero Tolerance" reinvented him as a part-human cyborg Sentinel calling himself Bastion.

Time will tell what future forms the Sentinels take, but one assumption seems safe:  They'll always return to form as implacable enforcers of prejudice, carrying out their terrifying orders long after their human masters are gone.

— Scott

6 - Machine Man

First appearance: 2001: A Space Odyssey #8 (July 1977)

The robot known as Machine Man has been in every corner of the Marvel Universe — and a few outside of it.

In the late 1970s, Jack Kirby returned to Marvel after jumpstarting the Bronze Age at DC with titles such as The New Gods, KamandiThe Demon, and The Sandman.  Creatively, he was on fire — pumping out new concepts in rapid succession and absorbing, digesting, and putting the zeitgeist to paper with uncanny potency.  Like a shaman reading entrails, he recombined words and concepts from Popular Science and popular paranoia into surprising prophecies about the future, little realizing many of them would come to pass (in less bombastic form) over the next couple of decades.

Not really set in the Marvel Universe.
From this fertile ground came two of Kirby's best, though usually overlooked, series:  The Eternals and 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Eternals is a Kirbified version of Erich von Däniken's widely mocked 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? (ground zero for the modern notion of ancient astronauts) and 2001 a Kirbified version of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's widely lauded 1968 film.  Neither series is set in the Marvel Universe proper — at first.

When 2001 #8 introduces a robot soldier program, your first instinct as a reader is to assume it's in the near future of the 21st century, where so much of 2001 the comic takes place.  It's a world of super-technology, where the government is in the midst of shutting down a project to turn thinking computers into soldiers.  (For Kirby, Captain America seems the next logical step from the HAL-9000.)  They're rounding up and shutting down the X series of robots they've created, but one isn't at the facility.  Dr. Abel Stack has taken it home with him, where's he given it a prosthetic human face and ignored its serial number designation "X-51"; he's calling it "Aaron" — and "son."  Rather than see Aaron destroyed, Dr. Stack removes the explosive failsafe within his body and sacrifices himself to give Aaron a head start running from government forces.  When Aaron finds his way into the outside world and meets ordinary people from different walks of life, it becomes evident the world of this issue is not the world of the near future but of the then-present.  Aaron (or "Mister Machine," as he takes to calling himself) encounters the monolith once or twice before 2001 is unceremoniously canceled — and replaced with a new title, Machine Man, starring the erstwhile Mr. Machine.

Set squarely in the Marvel Universe.
Although Machine Man picked up where 2001 left off, it (like The Eternals) inched ever closer to the mainstream Marvel Universe.  When Marvel canceled the title at #9, Roger Stern picked up the threads and wrapped up Machine Man's story in a three-part tale in Incredible Hulk #235-237.  Those Marvel Universe appearances must have gone well, because Machine Man resumed publication with #10 shortly afterward, despite having been off the shelves for nearly a year.  Kirby did not return, however; instead, Steve Ditko took over as penciler with Marv Wolfman and then Tom DeFalco writing a few issues until the series shut down permanently at #19.

DeFalco returned to Machine Man in 1984, once Marvel had begun publishing short-run limited series, with a four-issue mini set in the far future of 2020.  An early cyberpunk comic, this incarnation of Machine Man featured artwork from Herb Trimpe and Barry Windsor Smith.

Since then, Machine Man has been Marvel's robot ronin — tied to no book or direction in particular, wandering wherever trends and publishing strategies take him.  He spent time pining over Jocasta, then fought alongside and against the Avengers before being made over as a Sentinel and ending the 20th Century with own title in the X-Men extended family.

For that, of course, he returned to using the monicker X-51.  Although the title was short-lived (as part of the equally short-lived M-Tech line), writer Karl Bollers used it to explore issues of personhood and agency in a science-fiction setting Machine Man hadn't enjoyed since his 2001 days.  An overlooked gem, X-51 even reconnects Machine Man to the monolith, which Bollers deftly ties to the Celestials, characters who originated in — drumroll please — Kirby's Eternals.

More sidelong déjà vu awaited Machine Man in his next starring role.  Ditching both his serial number and his super-heroic identity in favor of a long coat and being called simply "Aaron," Machine Man became an anchor of Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen's Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.  Relentlessly cheeky and subversive, Nextwave took place outside the mainstream Marvel Universe, or at least that's what Ellis said at the time.  The claim was consistent with the company's fractured publishing strategy of introducing new, different, and often contradictory visions of the Marvel Universe, from the Ultimate Universe to various Max titles to Marville to Megalomanical Spider-Man and Incorrigible Hulk to the notorious Trouble.  When "Civil War" repositioned line-wide continuity as a priority at Marvel, Aaron's extra-Marvelous adventures in Nextwave became canonized, and the updated version of Machine Man found himself working with the 50-State Initiative.

In recent years, he's reunited with Jocasta and found a new role as a fighter of Marvel Zombies (the variant-cover kind, not the fanboy kind).  It's a curious about-face from the snark of Nextwave, a pivot from deep ironic distance to fighting nihilism.  But, as we see from a quick glance over his history, it's hardly the most drastic turn Aaron/X-51 has taken.  He's even reclaimed the name "Machine Man."

— Scott


Related Posts with Thumbnails