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

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

25 Greatest Robots in Comics: Counting Down #15-11

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

Continuing our ongoing celebration of the best robots to grace the pages of comic books, here is our third entry in the series.

15 - Amazo

First appearance: Brave and the Bold #30 (June 1960)

Created by Gardner Fox in 1960, Amazo is one of those rare Justice League villains who predates the actual Justice League of America comic. Created by Professor Ivo, Amazo has the omega-level power of being able to duplicate any hero he comes in contact with. In his first appearance, he defeats the League from the onset, but by the end of the issue, he’s beaten and becomes an addition to the JLA’s trophy room. During the Silver and Bronze Age, he’ll make several appearances (often as a tool to help the heroes regain their lost superpowers), but as time moves on, he proves to be less popular with writers.

Check this out. Despite being a perfect villain to bring out for a DC team comic, here’s a list of comics that NEVER featured Amazo:

  • Giffen/Dematies JLA
  • Grant Morrison JLA (though he does show up on Aztek! And Mark Millar uses him in JLA 27)
  • Batman and the Outsiders
  • Teen Titans
  • JL Europe
  • Byrne’s run on Superman
  • Legion of Superheroes
  • All-Star Comics
  • Infinity Inc.
It’s a bit surprising to me that a character with such powers never gets used in any of the above titles. All I can think is that older writers had a hard time wrapping their minds around how to tell a proper superhero fight! comic with Amazo. Prior to the modern age, villains were typically defeated by the heroes out thinking them (or rather whatever gimmick they happened to be using at the time.) When a writer creates said gimmick (like say, Captain Cold’s new Igloo Prison) then the writer most likely has a built in solution to the new gimmick. However, with villains like Amazo, the Super-Skrull and the Super-Adaptoid, the writer has to do a lot more work to come up with a solution that allows the heroes to out think their opponent.

Now, the heroes could have just overpowered Amazo in an battle royale, but you don’t really start seeing that type of storytelling come into vogue until the late 1990s. It’s really not until the advent of Warren Ellis’ The Authority and Mark Millar’s Ultimates that modern writers start using a more cinematic approach to superhero comics and the battles become more widescreen in nature. As it would so happen, Amazo has made almost as many appearances since 1999 as he had in the entire Bronze Age.

Most recently, he’s appeared in the pages of Geoff Johns’ New 52 Justice League in the Amazo Virus storyline (though I think that storyline is about a computer virus that infects people than an actual epic throwdown with Amazo).

Will we ever get a real event level storyline with Amazo? Only time will tell.

— Jim

14 - NoMan

First appearance: T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 (November 1965)

NoMan even managed to score his
own mini-series spin-off.  In the '60s,
that sort of thing didn't happen.
The Velvet Underground's first album suffered poor distribution and lousy sales upon its initial release but went on to become one of the most influential albums in pop music. Grappling with this irony, Brian Eno famously said in 1982, "I think everyone who bought one ... started a band!" You could almost say the same for the short-lived mid-'60s independent super-hero title The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. Mind you, no one would have called it an "independent" book back then. The Marvel-DC super-hero oligopoly didn't yet exist. In fact, those publishers bringing back super-heroes after a period of relative absence with Justice League of America and Fantastic Four is what inspired Tower Comics to launch T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. Well, that, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and the James Bond film Thunderball. Though it may sound like an opportunist cash-in, the brief 20-issue run of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents written by Len Brown and drawn by Wally Wood went on to become one of the most influential titles of the Silver Age.

Most of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents are equipped with high-tech gadgets left behind by a deceased U.N. scientist, Professor Jennings. NoMan, however, stands out from the rest of the team. The only T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent responsible for his own powers, he IS both a high-tech gadget and a deceased U.N. scientist. To cheat death, Dr. Anthony Dunn had invented an android body into which he could transfer his consciousness. When his physical body dies, he lives on in the android form of NoMan. If T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents were a Marvel or DC title, that might be the sum of NoMan's super-hero high concept. Brown and Wood, however, extend the conceit to its natural next step, surmising that any scientist with the knowledge and resources to build one android body would have the knowledge and resources to mass-produce them — which Dunn does. As NoMan, he sheds bodies with an abandon that almost qualifies as its own super power. The in-story effect is a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent who "dies" again and again, often just to escape traps.

Government waste, super-hero style.
Although the original 20-issue run is beloved, keeping up with the dozen or so abortive attempts to resurrect the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents since the '60s can be exhausting. In most incarnations, though, it's NoMan — still alive and keeping the flame of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves burning, who drives the action of recruiting new agents and assembling new teams.

— Scott

13 - Spider-Slayer(s)

First appearance: Amazing Spider-Man #25 (June 1965)

The first robotic Spider-Slayer was created by Spencer Smythe with financial support by J. Jonah Jameson. While this robot would fail in its task, Jameson would commission Smythe to build several more Spider-Slayers, all with the promise of being an improvement over the last version. Alas, each of these new models would fail as well. Eventually, after years of working with highly unstable materials to build his robots, Smythe would succumb to the effects of radiation poisoning, a fate he blamed on Jameson. In 1976 (Amazing Spider-Man 162), Jameson would enlist another scientist, Dr. Marla Madison to build new Spider-Slayers. While her Slayer was no more effective than its predecessors, but the project wasn't a total failure for Jameson as he fell in love with Marla and would eventually marry her.

Dr. Marla Madison, future wife of J. Jonah Jameson
The Spider-Slayer concept sat dormant for years after this until Alistair Smythe, the son of Spencer, arrived on the scene in 1985 (Amazing Spider-Man annual).  Smythe's approach was quite a bit different from his fathers and led to interesting variations on the theme in a six-part storyline called Invasion of the Spider-Slayers:

Most recently, Alistair's designs favored a more exo-suit approach with him controlling the Spider-Slayer. Combining Spider-Slayer technology with Mandroid suits, Alistair created an Anti-Spider Squad.  Unfortunately, despite these fresh new approaches, Alistair was no more successful than his father and was killed by Superior Spider-man in Superior Spider-Man 13.

Overall, comic readers have been treated to a wide variation of Spider-Slayers (about 20 in all):

While considered an antiquated gimmick by some readers, I actually like the Spider-Slayers as I think they have a huge advantage over other opponents for Spider-man. For one thing, they constantly change and improve. Let’s face it, the first dozen or so battles with the Scorpion are pretty much all the same. He, like a lot of villains, has one shtick and he sticks to it. Not so for the Spider-Slayers. They can be revamped to look and behave any way the writer/artist wants them to. Didn’t like the mecha-Spider version? No problem! Here’s a giant robot version!

Though, I must confess a fondness for the classic Steve Ditko Spider-Slayer. Some things never go out of style.

— Jim

12 - Superman Robots

First appearance: World’s Finest #42 (1949)

Pinning down the first appearance of a Superman robot is a bit tough. The DC Wikia page suggests the first one was a robot created by Superboy named Friday (after the character in Robinson Crusoe.) Whereas Supermanica Wikia points to World's Finest 42 as the first appearance of a Superman robot. Because the DC Wikia page doesn’t specify which issue of Superboy the robot named Friday shows up, I can’t really verify that claim, but I was able to read the World’s Finest, which first appeared September 1949.

During the 50s, due to the restrictions placed on comics by the Comics Code Authority and shrinking comic sales, DC Comics tended to publish stories that emphasized fantastic and sensational situations involving their heroes.

It was in such stories that the Superman Robots really found their niche. Initially, they were used to trick villains, as in World’s Finest 42, when a Superman Robot (SR) is used to convince aliens from Uranus into believing all earthlings are robots. Sometimes they were substitutes for the Man of Steel when he was away in space as in Jimmy Olsen 55, where Superman gives Jimmy Olsen a SR to divert a runaway planet on a crash course with Earth.

As the years continued, the robots would be relegated to more mundane duties such as scanning visitors in the Fortress of Solitude, filling in for Clark Kent to fool Lois Lane, or picking up stray Kryptonite when necessary. During this time, the robots tended to reside either in Clark’s closet or the Fortress of Solitude. Also, they grow in power with each appearance to the point by 1960, Superman declares they possess all his powers. (Except they are not invulnerable.)


By 1961, Superman Robots are shown acting on their own volition using sophisticated artificial intelligence and self-awareness. This brings about some interesting conundrums:
  • The robots often address Superman as Master. Yet if they truly possess self-awareness, doesn’t this put Superman in oppressive role as a robot-slave owner?
  • Because the robots are programmed to only do good deeds, would they recognize this suppression of free will?
  • When Superman turns them off, do they resent this time in isolation? Are they even aware of it?
Unfortunately, such questions were never explored and as a result, by the 70’s, the robots came to be seen as a story cop out. So much so, that in 1971, Superman retires all robots because air pollution is causing them to act erratically in World’s Finest 202, Vengeance of the Tomb-Thing! There is one final story from 1985 with a Superman robot who was reprogrammed to act as a host to visitors in the Fortress of Solitude, but he ends up getting destroyed by the Superman Revenge Squad in Superman 414.

With that, the Superman Robots were shuffled off into the realm of the Pre-Crisis universe. (Along with a lot of other cool stuff, but that’s a rant for another day.)

— Jim

11 - Red Tornado

First appearance: Justice League of America #64 (August 1968) ... and (sorta) Mystery in Space #61 (August 1960)

Remember what we said about the massive influence of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents a couple of entries back? Well, three years after NoMan debuted, both Marvel and DC elected to have android members join their premier super-teams — at almost exactly the same time. The Red Tornado first appeared in the August 1968 issue of Justice League of America with the Vision following hot on his trail in the October issue of Avengers. The similarities between the two could fill an interesting blog post on their own. (In fact, here's one.) Rather than puzzle over the yin-yang nature of the Big Two's team-player androids, let's look at what makes the Red Tornado unique.

Good plan, Tommy O.  Solid.
There's no more retconned character in the DC stable (excepting, of course, Hawkman). Reddy's back story began shifting the moment we met him, when he showed up on the Justice Society's doorstep claiming to be the original, Golden Age Red Tornado. This claim doesn't wash with the JSA, who show him an image of the original hero, a non-powered woman named "Ma" Hunkel who wore a pail on her head. This new Tornado is puzzled and upset, even moreso when he removes his helmet/mask to discover there's no face beneath it. This being a Silver Age JLA/JSA team-up, no one gets a chance to spend much time on the mystery of the Red Tornado before both teams are drawn into a universes-spanning battle with scientist Thomas Oscar Morrow ("T. O. Morrow," see) and the predictive supercomputer he uses to spy on future technology and replicate it in the present day. It turns out the new Red Tornado is a creation of Morrow's, built using future technology and intended to infiltrate the JSA. (It's an odd plan, to say the the least, given that the JSA know the original Red Tornado. Morrow may have come out better if he'd shown up on their doorstep himself claiming to be Dr. Mid-Nite. Dressed as Batman.) After betraying Morrow and saving both teams, the Red Tornado joins the Justice Society, giving them a proper Silver Age Red Tornado.

The Overeager Tornado.
For a while, anyway. The new character proved popular enough in the annual JLA/JSA crossovers that JLA writer Len Wein finally brought him over to Earth-1 in 1973 to join the League. On Earth-2, Reddy had been a perpetual outcast, feeling ostracized and untrusted by a team whose acceptance he was too eager to earn. Perhaps his was a consequence of making only a couple of appearances a year and being crowded out in those by the massive cast of two super-teams. Revisiting them today, it's tempting to see a generational difference between the treatment Red Tornado receives from the 1940s heroes of the Justice Society and the (then late-)1960s heroes of the Justice League. Are the older, more traditional JSAers less willing to embrace an android than the younger, hipper JLAers? Red Tornado is certainly a stand-in for outsiders of any kind, and it's not hard to imagine, say, a black newcomer getting different treatment from different generations of heroes in the 1960s. Or a gay or transgender hire at a young company fitting in more easily than at a grayer company in the real world of today.

For a while, Red Tornado enjoyed something akin to a status quo. He was a member of the JLA in good standing who adopted a human identity, complete with a face, and used it to meet a nice single mom with whom he embarked on a relationship. That all fell apart in the '80s, beginning with an ambitious retcon of the Tornado's origins by Gerry Conway. T. O. Morrow returns — a sure sign you'll end the story scratching your head over his motivations, powers, and sometimes how many of him there actually are — to kick off a story revealing that the Red Tornado android is actually inhabited by the spirit of an Adam Strange villain named Ulthoon, the Tornado Tyrant from a 1960 issue of Mystery in Space — who went on to reform and appear as the Tornado Champion in an early issue of JLA, #17 (February 1963).

The first appearances of the Tornado Tyrant and the Tornado Champion.
Not especially robotic.
By the mid-'80s, DC was toying with the idea of turning Red Tornado into a villain, enlisting Kurt Busiek to lay the groundwork in a four-issue mini-series before changing their mind and destroying him (twice, inexplicably) during Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Without a robot body, Red Tornado went on to become a wind spirit, a living tornado who threatened environmental vengeance whenever he showed up in DC titles of the late '80s and early '90s. Leveraging the Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot, Cary Bates in Captain Atom and John Ostrander in Firestorm recast him as a wind elemental of the planet Earth, doing away with his Ranagarian back story. Professor Ivo replaces T. O. Morrow as Reddy's creator in the new history. I suspect T. O. Morrow stories were too painfully nonsensical for post-Crisis writers to bear. He eventually got a new robotic body and spent time alongside Primal Force and Young Justice before finally settling in as a background placeholder in various modern incarnations of the Justice League.

During his occasional absences, Red Tornado inspired a couple of legacy characters who joined the Justice League in quick succession.  The first, Tomorrow Woman, was built by T. O. Morrow to infiltrate the League in 1997's JLA #5 by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter.  Unlike Reddy, she didn't survive her betrayal of Morrow.  The second, a new version of Hourman from the 853rd century, made his debut in the Morrison-driven DC One Million and spun out into a tragically brief ongoing series in the early 2000s.  Like Reddy, Hourman wrestled with issues of loneliness and alienation as he learned what it meant to be human.  Since Hourman's demise, Red Tornado himself has returned to headline his own ongoing series, even picking up a family of sorts in the form of robotic siblings Red Torpedo and Red Volcano.

— Scott

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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