Wednesday, April 29, 2015

25 Greatest Robots in Comics: Counting Down #20-16

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

Welcome back to our ongoing celebration of the best robots to grace the pages of comic books. You can catch the beginning of our list in yesterday's post. Now let's get to #20 on our countdown.

20 - G.I. Robot

First appearance: Star Spangled War Stories #101 (February/March 1962)

World War II was a strange era in the DC Universe, as evidenced by the blurb on the cover of Star Spangled War Stories #101: "The G.I. Robot and the Dinosaur!" With cover copy like that, it's hard to tell which is the fantastic element in the story that awaits within.

If you thought you were anxious to get
to the 20th century in your grade-school

history class, imagine living in the DC
I'll help you out a little: It's the robot. For the previous two years, Robert Kanigher had been spinning tales in Star Spangled that have come to be known as "The War That Time Forgot." These stories centered around an island in the South Pacific theater coveted and feared by Axis and Allies alike, where dinosaurs and mythological beasts roamed. Stories set on Dinosaur Island — what did you expect them to call it? — were popular and paved the way for ever stranger tales. One of the first escalations in that war of weirdness came when the U.S. Army Rangers partnered a lone corporal with an artificial soldier for combat testing. The cover may have called him the G.I. Robot, but the corporal nicknamed him Joe. On their first mission, they found themselves knocked off course and stranded on Dinosaur Island, where Joe proved to be every bit as capable and loyal as a human soldier for his brief three-issue run in Star Spangled, despite his lack of personality and emotion.

The "G.I. Robot" feature returned four years later, in SSWS #125, but with a new robot — this one named Mac, after the human corporal partnered with Joe in the original stories. In his single appearance, Mac the robot proved himself the equal of Joe and sacrificed himself to save his human partner.

The next 15 years were devoid of G.I. Robot stories, but that doesn't mean DC's WWII stopped being strange. It became so strange, in fact, that DC launched a title called Weird War Tales during the '70s. That's where the G.I. Robot returned in 1981. Essentially rehashing the original concept, Kanigher reinvented Joe and Mac as J.A.K.E. (Jungle Automated Killer - Experimental). Like his predecessors, J.A.K.E.-1 fought in "The War That Time Forgot," tangling with dinosaurs as often as Nazi soldiers or Japanese Zero pilots. And, like Joe before him, he earned the trust of his human handler and eventually got smashed up and replaced with a newer model, J.A.K.E.-2, who went on to fight alongside the Creature Commandos, an elite unit of Universal film monsters. (Weird. War. Tales. Don't act surprised.) Heck, J.A.K.E.'s debut in Weird War #101 is a poetic numerical parallel to Joe's in the same issue number of Star Spangled.  (As Jim observed, Joe and J.A.K.E. would probably insist they debuted in issue #5, since that's the decimal equivalent of the binary 101.)

Easily "the most incredible warrior of
World War II."
Other G.I. Robots have since shown up in the comics, including a J.A.K.E. 6.1 in Checkmate. But outside the World War II setting, they've never captured imaginations. I suspect this is because Joe, Mac, and J.A.K.E. have more to say about war and its capacity for both reducing and elevating human beings to automatons than they do about adventure-story heroics. Try as I might, I can't quite bring myself to call any of the G.I. Robots "heroes." I must admit, they're so emotionless I have trouble using the pronoun he. Of all the robots on this list, the G.I. Robots are closest to its in my mind, and that's why they hold a special place in my heart. Unlike many fictional robots, their personalities (complete with bravery, heroism, and loyalty) are mostly projected onto them by the humans working alongside them. Not to be confused with Star Trek's Lt. Cmdr. Data, who pines humanly for a humanity he doesn't realize he possesses, these are proper robots: machines; tools. It's in their contrast to flesh-and-blood soldiers they achieve a degree of humanity.

Given the current state of drone warfare, we're overdue another good run of G.I. Robot stories.

— Scott

19 - Skeets

First appearance: Booster Gold #1 (February 1986)

Before Booster Gold's name was inseparable from Blue Beetle's, it was tied to another: that of Skeets, Booster's floating majordomo. Skeets was everything a hero could want in a sidekick — smart, loyal, a bit cheeky, and able to keep a secret. When Dan Jurgens introduced the pair in 1986, they were an enigma. Showing up out of nowhere to protect Metropolis (horning in on Superman's home turf!), Booster took on various villains as Skeets analyzed their weaknesses, helped Booster plot strategy, and always knew where the next disaster would occur.  Each time Booster saved the day, Skeets was there to spin his success into a public-relations coup. Over the course of the series, we learned Skeets was a "BX9 security droid" from 25th Century, stolen by disgraced football player Michael "Booster" Carter as part of a plan to travel back in time to the 20th century and establish himself as a super-hero. Skeets's uncanny clairvoyance was the result of having 500 years' worth of news stories stored in his databanks.

The cartoons Justice League
Unlimited and Batman: The
Brave and the Bold like their
Skeets upright for some reason.
As essential as Skeets was to Booster's stories in his own title, he didn't appear alongside Booster in Justice League #4, when the hero fought the Royal Flush Gang and earned a spot in the League. Nor did he show up in any issues of JL (or, as it soon became, JLI). Perhaps he was redundant — in the same way Alfred Pennyworth never shows up alongside Batman in Justice League stories. By the time Booster's own title was canceled at #25 (in the midst of Millennium), Skeets hadn't even been mentioned in JLI. Booster was too busy buddying around with Blue Beetle by then, anyway, and the JLI had picked up its own endearingly polite robot mascot, who likely rendered Skeets narratively obsolete.

Anybody seen Skeets?
I want to show him my
new threads!
Skeets resurfaced a few years later, in Extreme Justice, where Booster revealed he'd deactivated him and placed him in storage. (Robot loyalty to humans is apparently a one-way street.) Booster and Beetle promptly dismantled Skeets and made his mind the artificial intelligence driving Booster's bulky, presumably extreme, '90s battlesuit. When Booster ditched that suit, Skeets was forgotten again — until 2005's Countdown (to Infinite Crisis) one-shot featured Beetle and Booster wondering aloud whatever became of Skeets, completely forgetting they'd torn him up and made him into a suit when last they shared a title. Too bad they didn't have Skeets around to ask continuity questions — although by 2005, they could have searched Google on their Palm Pilots. Countdown retconned Skeets's fate to having been dismantled behind the scenes by Maxwell Lord as part of an evil scheme no one would have seen coming — except perhaps readers who remembered Lord becoming evil (and a robot himself!) around the time Skeets had last been seen.

Selective-amnesia shenanigans continued throughout Infinite Crisis, with Booster and a hastily-explained reconstructed Skeets taking center stage in the weekly follow-up series 52, where it turned out Skeets had been a (literal) vehicle for a diabolical plot by Captain Marvel villain Mr. Mind.

Not since Renfield has so loyal a servant been treated so shabbily. In the end, they both end up with insects in their bellies, abandoned by their respective masters.

— Scott

18 - Brainiac

First Appearance: Action Comics #242 (July 1958)

Currently causing chaos as the big bad behind Convergence, Brainiac has evolved from Superman’s robot nemesis to become an event level villain. This is similar to how every Ultron story in the modern age is a world (or Universe!) threatening event.  The reason for this in both cases has been the evolutionary rise of computer technology in day to day life. Just as our understanding and dependence of new technologies has grown over the years, so has the infamy of Brainiac. So, whereas in the Silver Age, he was just sort of a green, force field wielding Lex Luthor knockoff, in the 80s/90s he’s a Darkseid level villain in the "Panic In The Sky" storyline.

Unfortunately, as Scott pointed out to me, comics writers don’t always utilize the ideas behind technology very well, so often we get stories where Brainiac (or Ultron) *magically* control every single electronic device on the planet, be it a Tandy computer, a microwave oven or a can opener.

Brainiac totally controls your TRS-80!
Can we all just agree that we don’t need any more stories where either robot takes over the entire internet! and/or The Vision/The Red Tornado?

Along with this rise in importance has come a change in the design of Brainiac. However, whereas Ultron went from a primitive vacuum cleaner looking design to become a more humanoid looking robot, Brainiac has done just the reverse. Check out how he’s evolved over the years.

Key: Anything that looks decent is from an era of comics you loved. Everything else is from modern comics.

At one time, I would have pegged Brainiac as the perfect villain for a Justice League movie. Now, with Age of Ultron on everyone's mind, I don't see Time Warner going that way.

— Jim

17 - The Transformers

It's not that I dislike the Transformers.  I unabashedly love them.  I was just the right age to be fascinated by Hasbro's two-in-one toys and Sunbow's half-hour sales-pitch cartoon melodrama.  Unfortunately, I was also the right age to recognize the shocking dip in quality Marvel's Transformers #1 represented for its licensed properties.  Even as Rom's war against the Dire Wraiths was ramping up and the Micronauts getting a second lease on life, Transformers trotted out incomprehensible art from Silver Age great Frank Springer and a meandering, pointless plot first from Bill Mantlo, then from Bob Budiansky.

It's easy to berate the Transformers' first foray into comics, and many have, but I don't think the title's failings arise from incompetence.  Instead, it's a different kind of licensed book than what had come before.  Rom and Micronauts had been based on fairly limited toy lines.  The primary source material for Star Wars was a mere three movies, around which the comics team could build their own newsprint mythos.  The Transformers, however, were a never-ending barrage of new characters and concepts, with toys being released faster than the comic's creative time could could make sense of them, much less turn them into fully realized parts of the story and integrate them into the narrative.  Stories and characters fell by the wayside to make room for this season's toys.  Even the backgrounds were hastily drawn and barely colored.  (Who knows if Nel Yomtov was pressed for time or just had no idea what color plastic all the new Transformers were going to be cast in!)  Writing The Transformers must have been like trying to make Kool-Aid from a fire hydrant.

But it stuck around for a good 80 issues, illuminating the back story of these robots who turned into cars, taking on the thankless task, month after month, of inventing reasons an alien robot named for a car part would wage war against three jets, a pistol, and a tape deck.  A generation of kids like me grew up on its stories and fixated on its rare moments of inspiration, imbuing the instruments of crass commercialism created to target our parents' wallets with mythic power.

When the comic introduced Primus as a counterbalance to Transformers: The Movie's Unicron, we began to see the Transformers as more than mere automatons.  Unicron and Primus were elder gods trapped in asteroids near the beginning of the universe.  Over time, Unicron exerted his will to transform his prison first into an eating machine that could devour worlds (not unlike Galactus) and then into a robot form that gave him humanoid mobility.  By contrast, Primus exerted his godly will to give birth to an entire race of robots, the Transformers, who dwelt on his surface and evolved to have their own personalities and motivations.  He was the demiurge of Transformers cosmogony, Unicron the great destroyer.  Primus stood for the infinite variety of creation (so evident in the non-stop flood of new Transformers toys every few months); Unicron (who didn't even get his own action figure) stood for creative stagnation.

By the end, the Marvel series was pitting selflessless, individualism, and diversity against cloying sameness and bottomless appetite.  Its toy-based heroes had outgrown fighting among themselves (Autobots vs. Decepticons) to battle against Unicron.  Characters who existed to sell toys stood united against a force representing unbridled consumption.  Some days, when I'm feeling generous, I like to imagine that being weened on a sales pitch passing for art was an effective inoculation against the unchecked advertising saturation I have to navigate in the adult world of the 21st century.

There was more to the Transformers than met the eye.  Maybe that's why Dreamwave brought them back to comics in 2001 and IDW continues to publish new installments of their constantly changing saga today.

— Scott

16 - The Manhunters

First Appearance: Justice League of America #140-141 (March-April 1977)

The Manhunters' origin, going back to the original Golden Age character with the name, is something I could devote an entire blog post to, so for the sake of brevity, I’m going to just skip ahead to Justice League of America 140 and 141.
Two Bronze Age classic covers by Dick Dillin.
In those classic Bronze Age issues it was revealed that the Manhunters were the robotic, proto-police force the Guardians created prior to the creating the Green Lanterns Corps. The Guardians deemed the Manhunters too obsessive so they destroyed most of the robots. The renegade survivors spread to different planets, assimilated into the population and rebuilt their forces with both human and robotic reinforcements. With the help of rebellious human Manhunter named Mark Shaw, the JLA defeated the robotic faction, unaware that more lurked on Earth.
After Justice League, they would sort of disappear until they returned with a vengeance in the pages of the 80s event series Millennium. In this series, it was revealed that many long-cherished side characters were actually Manhunter robots. (A theme Brian Bendis would later use in his Invasion event at Marvel.)

Captain Atom gets pegged as a villain a lot during the '80s and '90s.
Most recently, Geoff Johns and other Green Lantern writers have revived the Manhunters to become one of the major threats of the GL Corps with mentions in Blackest Night, Brightest Day and The New 52.

To be honest, I’m not a fan of the Manhunters. To me, they represent the beginning of a trope that has been used in comics and movies ever since — the faceless footsoldiers. Chris Claremont used the idea in X-Men (both the Sentinels and the Brood fall into this category) but it was the Manhunters who did it first. In movies, I don’t actually know what the first movie instance was (Aliens 2?) but you’ll notice it a lot in Summer tentpole movies (like the Avengers’ Chitauri). It’s probably a bit unfair to hate the Manhunters for this horrible trend. Still, even if I discount that, the whole Laurel Kent is a Manhunter thing still bothers me, so I’ll probably never warm up to them.

— Jim

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