Machine Man #1 (April 1978)
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!
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Karen and Doug met on the Avengers Assemble! message board back in September 2006. On June 16 2009 they went live with the Bronze Age Babies blog, sharing their love for 1970s and '80s pop culture with readers who happen by each day. You'll find conversations on comics, TV, music, movies, toys, food... just about anything that evokes memories of our beloved pasts!
Doug is a high school social science teacher and department chairman living south of Chicago; he also does contract work for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He is married with two adult sons and a daughter-in-law.
Karen originally hails from California and now works in scientific research/writing in the Phoenix area. She often contributes articles to Back Issue magazine. She is married. She hangs out with Joe Biden occasionally.
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