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

1 comment:

Trey said...

Good roundup, once again. I like getting these little bit-size nuggets of continuity, too.


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