Monday, November 26, 2012

Return of the King: Machine Man 1

Machine Man #1 (April 1978)
"Machine Man"
Jack Kirby-Kirby/Mike Royer

Doug:  Welcome back to the end of our Jack Kirby retrospective.  In case you're happening by for the first time (welcome! if you are), we've spent the past three Mondays looking in on the King's return to Marvel and his first issues in control of Captain America, the Eternals, and Devil Dinosaur and Moon Boy.  Aside from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the other "major" character/title Kirby created is today's fare:  Machine Man.  Thus far Karen and I (and most of our commenters) have been in agreement that Cap's adventures would have been best served with a writer other than Kirby, but the Eternals and Devil Dinosaur seemed to land more in Jack's mid-'70's wheelhouse.  Let's see what's between the covers today.

Doug: Kirby wastes no time in plunging us into the action.  The first four pages are dedicated to the rescue of a wayward hiker -- or, to our education concerning Machine Man's powers.  We find that he has an arm that extends, with pegs that protrude as a ladder, he is fearless, he can fly, his arm retracts in such a fashion that it appears as if nothing could have happened in the first place, and he can walk down the face of a mountain with his magnetized boots.  We're in the dark about his origins, but he intimates that his personality isn't the greatest.  Oh, he's not rude -- but certainly seems to be a man of mystery!

Karen: I just chalked up Machine Man's behavior to Kirby's writing - once again we have some really awkward phrasings. And Machine Man's  use of words like "chum," "fella," and "gang" seem out of place. But then, I don't really know what this character is about yet. I'll also admit that my exposure to Machine Man has been fairly limited, so at this stage, I'm not sure what to make of him. Just a side comment: notice one of the female hikers has those funny hairbands like Crystal of the Inhumans? 

Doug:  I'm thinking Jack wasn't always one to be up on contemporary fashion.  Our next scene is in a "top-secret division of governmental research" -- whatever that means.  And Jack pulls no stops in giving us a man in the ugliest suit in comicdom, in conversation with a scientist sporting the ugliest eyeglasses in all of comicdom.  Sheesh -- Kirby could have at least consulted a clothing catalog or something for a reference.  Anyway, the scientist is Dr. Broadhurst and he's been in charge of the X-Model program.  The project was funded to create robot with sentient minds; each ended up going mad and had to be destroyed.  Broadhurst had succeeded to the point that the machines actually believed themselves to be men.  In effect, they died from not knowing if they were man or machine.  I thought this was a shaky premise, given the Vision had been floating around the Marvel Universe for around 10 years by this time -- he was surely conflicted about his humanity, but for the most part seemed rather well-adjusted.  Anyway, the final X-Model was the 51st version, and in a twist of fate he'd been "adopted" by a psychologist and raised as a son.  He'd even been given a name -- Aaron Stack.  But the government agent informs Broadhurst that X-51 is active and needs to be brought down.  And Broadhurst is no longer in charge of the X-Model project.

Karen: I don't know about you, but those two pages felt extremely disjointed to me. It didn't seem like Broadhurst or the bureaucrat were actually listening to each other. It was just strange. So we're to believe that they went through 50 of these robots running wild and causing "what amounted to a small war!"? That was the impression I got. What was the ultimate point of the project, anyway? Just confusing. Maybe it would be revealed in future issues. That pin-striped suit does take the award for most hideous outfit in a comic though.

Doug:  We head back to the woods and we find X-51 (as we now know him) walking toward a road where he hopes he'll be able to hitchhike to the nearest town.  Suddenly he finds a driver stymied by a large tree across the pavement.  Machine Man approaches the guy and gives him a bit of a start once our new friend lays eyes on our hero.  X-51 ends up lifting the tree almost effortlessly and depositing it off the side of the road.  As payment, the driver,Peter Spalding, offers to give him a lift.  I'd have to say that, whether intentional or not, Kirby writes X-51 as if he were a robot trying to be human.  Now I'd say that's great -- it should be what he's going for -- if I hadn't seen Jack write Captain America and Henry Kissinger as if they were robots trying to be human!  But I'll add that this Machine Man has a rather abrasive, socially-awkward personality.  Anyway, the two men hop into what looks like a VW van and get cruising.  Jack's a little inconsistent with the art on the next page, though, as the van seems to morph into one of those tiny smart cars.  While driving, X-51 is asked to make some small talk.  He does, and proclaims himself a "Johnny Average" just wanting to live the American dream.  Spalding presses him on that, and on his fantastic abilities, which ticks off his now quite-defensive passenger.  In the course of the conversation Spalding reveals that he is a psychiatrist -- further upsetting the robot.  Machine Man exits the vehicle right in the middle of a traffic jam.

Karen: The conversation between Spalding and Machine Man is just flat-out weird. I understand what Kirby is going for here, but again, it just comes out badly. "Johnny Average" and the reference to the Constitution were bizarre. And Machine Man does seem oddly aggressive - no surprise I guess, when his 50 predecessors all went nuts! Also, the morphing VW van bothered me as well. 

Doug:  X-51 bends down to his boots and flips a few switches -- and instantly a skateboard forms on his feet.  He sidewalk surfs through traffic, occasionally using his anti-grav abilities to get through some tight spots.  But, in doing so, he is spied by some policemen who decide to give chase.  This is unwanted attention, and Machine Man hits the supersonic speed button and vanishes.  However, we next look in on Dr. Broadhurst, apparently now in the custody of the United States Army.  He's at the "quarters" (what, like in his bunk?) of Colonel Kragg, a fellow who looks and sounds like the a mash-up of Nick Fury and "Thunderbolt" Ross.  Broadhurst begs Kragg not to destroy X-51, but we find that Kragg is a man bent on revenge -- vengeance for men lost trying to contain the previous X-Models, and for his own left eye.  As Kragg and his men leave, using a homing device built in to X-51, Broadhurst prays to God for forgiveness for creating X-51... Aaron Stack.

Karen: "Colonel Kragg"?? Really? And yup, I thought of ol' Nick Fury too. Broadhurst's silent prayer was another oddity. Asking forgiveness for creating X-51, yet previously he stated his pride and almost admiration for him. I just don't know...

Doug:  X-51 has emerged near a well-to-do subdivision in an unknown town.  He muses that perhaps he will find people who will tolerate and not fear him.  As he begins to traverse the expanse between the woods and the nicely manicured lawns, he is startled by a military helicopter.  Attacked with sonic rifles, Machine Man does all he can to evade them and seek refuge.  Disabled by the first round of blasts, X-51 resorts to his finger weapons.  It appears that he has a smorgasbord within his digits akin to anything the Mandarin would come up with.  Using fire to keep his enemies at bay, the soldiers do break through and Machine Man is dropped.  In one last effort to remain free, he fires on a man's rifle, exploding it in his hands.  As the remaining troops encirlce their target, they note that he's disappeared!  In one of Kirby's strangest images, we see X-51 rumbling out of the brush, tank treads having emerged from his triceps!  Attempting to pick himself up, he sees a roadside sign -- Central City, 2 mi.  Thinking back to earlier in his day, he recalls that this is the home of Peter Spalding; perhaps the only man who can now help him!

Karen: Not even Iron Man had arm treads! That was certainly one of Kirby's 'wildest ideas'. Machine Man is  not the first Marvel hero to be chased by the military, but his method of escape is definitely the most unique. The finger weapons also reminded me of the Mandarin - it seems like there are a number of things in this story that remind me of other stories or characters.

Doug:  Well, I have to say that somewhere between the Eternals and Devil Dinosaur Kirby peaked.  This story is just clunky.  The dialog is awful, and although he attempts to build up the suspense of X-51 on a sort of "The Fugitive" journey, I'm not sure the character is likeable enough at first blush to make me care about him any further.  I'll admit -- I've not read any of the later issues, nor have I read the mini-series that came later from Barry Windsor-Smith.  So I'm left with this as my first and only impression.  If I had my druthers, I don't think I'd seek out any more of these stories.  I'll leave it to our commenters to convince me otherwise.

Karen: I'm with you, partner. I didn't enjoy this one and I'm not compelled to read more. But I was thinking while I read it, what might it have been like if perhaps Steve Gerber had scripted it (for example). The basic premise of the sentient android seeking an identity is not bad, but too much of the story is hampered with terrible dialog and cliched characters. So for me, Kirby batted 2 for 4 - I enjoyed Eternals and Devil Dinosaur (surprisingly), loathed Captain America, and didn't care for Machine Man. At some point I want to get ahold of his Black Panther - although I fear it will lower his batting average even more in my eyes!


Anonymous said...

I’m struggling to remember if MM made any sense (continuity) with his origins in the 2001 comic. I think he was brought to life by the Monolith, which is completely non-canonical with the rest of Marvel, so I guess all that was conveniently overlooked. Obviously, the Monolith was crowbarred in to give Kirby a (very thin) excuse to do whatever he felt like and call it 2001 related, so the actual MM comic is more the real intention.

You are correct about not reading on Karen, it didn’t get any better. Then they cancelled it and resurrected it with Wolfman & Ditko and it got worse still. At least Kirby’s highly reflective and blocky style look mechanistic.

I believe however, Doug, that the Smith mini-series is much, much better. I have it, but haven’t read it yet. At this rate it, it will probably be a few years. I just completed Am Adv’s so I’m over my head in tripods at the moment.


Edo Bosnar said...

Like Richard, I have the '80s mini-series (in TPB), but have yet to read it.
Unlike Richard, I kind of liked the resumed series with Ditko doing the art. Granted, it's been ages since I read any of it, but I recall it being a pretty solid series - nothing like the choppy, off-kilter storytelling you've described here.
Anyway, based on your description, I doubt I'll being going out of my way to seek out any of this earlier Machine Man material by Kirby.

david_b said...

Like the other Kirby offerings upon returning to Marvel, he distinctively worked 'outside the groove' of the then-current continuity. Almost like that loveable kid who's in his own groove, ignorant of all around him, almost 'Kramer-esque' from 'Seinfeld'.

I can't wait to read the 'Untold Story' book to find out more scoop on his ultimate release from Marvel.

Imagine for a spell if they would have given him other properties Marvel was soon to acquire, like.., hmmm:

'Star Wars'

What a trip THAT would have been.

Bruce B said...

Another great in-depth review, guys. I don't comment very often, but I really enjoy reading your posts.

Like Edo said, I liked the Ditko/Wolfman take on Machine Man better than Kirby's version. In Kirby's version, the central question was "Am I man or machine?" The Ditko/Wolfman version asked "How does a man of principle fit into society?" They dropped Kirby's sci fi trappings and made Machine Man more of a traditional superhero.

Doug said...

Thanks for the note, Bruce -- and be sure to come back tomorrow for a special announcement. You may want to leave lurkerville more often!


William said...

So, Kirby invented Inspector Gadget? "Go go, Machine Man legs!"

Seriously though, I have always liked Machine Man myself. But I liked the Doom Patrol's Robot Man as well. Hmmm, I seem to have a soft spot for sentient robot characters.

I never read the Jack Kirby series though. I mostly was exposed to the character through his guest appearances in other comics. I did read the BWS mini when it came out, and I must not have liked it all that much because I don't really remember any details of it. If I'm not mistaken, it takes place in the future, (and I'm not a fan "future" stories all that much). However, I think it involves Machine Man being reactivated and features sort of an evil future version of Iron Man as well. Don't hold me to any of this, as I'm going off memory because I no longer own the comics themselves.

As for Jack's version of Machine Man, it looks like something I might have actually liked, at least in concept. Again, Kirby draws metal objects very well, so the character was right up his alley. But let's face it folks, as much as we all have a fondness for "The King", he really should have just stuck to drawing. Writing was definitely not his thing. I mean, the man wrote worse dialogue than George Lucas. (And that's saying something). "Meesa tinks so, anyway."

For example:

"I suppose this MUST be the fate of all innovations that jolt and threaten the security of the IGNORANT!"


Oh BTW, you guys didn't mention that the character Dr. Broadhurst also had the funkiest eyebrows in comics history as well. They looked like Namor's ankle wings.

Inkstained Wretch said...

The only issue I read of Machine Man was the final one, which had him facing off against Jack O'Lantern, a typically fun Ditko villain who later became a regular in Amazing Spider-Man (ironic, given Ditko's estrangement from the title).

Ditko's version of Kirby's character was pretty good. He was able to convey the loneliness and angst of the hero fairly without overdoing it either.

Then, of course, Marvel up and canceled the series. I remember that particular issue had a banner that said something to the effect of: "A Complete Your Collection Classic! (Or Guess Which Mag Won't Have a 20th Issue)"

Anonymous said...

That's funny, I just posted on the AA boards about how I picked up a random new comic, Red She-Hulk #49, because the cover featured Machine Man AND it also had WORD BUBBLES on the cover. Yes, X-51 was SPEAKING on the cover, giving insight to the content of that very comic book. I really miss old-school covers, not the "posing" covers they churn out nowadays.

I always thought X-51 made a pretty good Avenger, kind of a Plastic Man, goofy type, but a useful member. But having him on a line-up with the Vision might be one too many robots, IMO.

Also, it was a great comic, with an Avengers appearance to boot!


William Preston said...

I know I had this issue; I can't recall if I had some subsequent ones. I will say that the Kirby/Royer combo looked much better on this character than on Cap. (Kirby couldn't even get the eyes right on cap. He looked ridiculous. Only Black Panther looked worse.)

Mario said...

"Karen: At some point I want to get ahold of his Black Panther Although I fear it will lower his batting average even more in my eyes!"

Karen read the Black Panther is fun! Read it, but don't read it hoping to find continuity, racial tensions or political messages, is virtually Indiana Jones 5 years in advance. It's nice also the first book but my favorites are the ones with the "cousins Pantera".

Fantastic Four Fan 4ever said...

It was because of Kirby's 2001 Tresury Edition that I finally understood the final scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I didn't understand that the astronaut, Dave Bowman, was experiencing an environment that was manufactured by the aliens. When he "evolved" into a higher form of life ..all that went over my way of understanding things as a 12 year old child. The Kirby book spelled it out for me in a way I could understand.

But I digress, Machine Man was one of my favorites, as a far as Kirby's art was concerned. Again, if you ignore the writing, the art is astounding. It was never duplicated by Ditko or Winsor Smith. I did read the graphic novel MM mini series in paperback long ago. It was good and I was hoping the art would be in the Kirby style. However Windsor Smith has a differnt version of the character. It's ironic that Kirby's books were labeled "failures", yet Marvel went back to his source material to develop more comics......

Related Posts with Thumbnails