How best to judge an unfinished work? Is it fair to contemplate what might have been and fill in what you can imagine the artist would have done next, or is that too presumptuous? Is it better only to discuss the parts that actually have been finished, even to the ultimate detriment of that work?
These are the questions I wrestled with while planning out this article on Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Hero the Newmatic Man, and I never really came to a satisfying decision. Sure, I went on some mental tangents about how da Vinci maybe meant to paint some eyebrows on the Mona Lisa and never got around to it, but as far as figuring out the best way to analyze art that never got the chance to fulfill its potential, I was torn.
It can be tricky to apply the concept of completeness to a comic book, which, by its very nature is usually meant to be ongoing, but Mr. Hero, published in 1995 by the short-lived Tekno Comix, has to be one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had reading anything because of just how incomplete it is versus how much potential it had. This book posed so many questions, set so many mysteries in motion, and it stopped having resolved exactly zero of them. Of course, reading it 20 years after it was first published and facing an ever dwindling number of issues, I knew it would end before I found out everything, but what made me want to punch a wall instead of just shake my fist, was how close to some of those answers it came.
Seriously, if the whole company hadn’t stopped putting out comics, I would be convinced Mr. Hero stopped when it did just to aggravate me as much as possible. Like me personally. That’s how it felt. The last issue even says The End, even though it ends in the most cliffhanger-y way possible.
Of course, the reason it bothers me so much that I’ll never find out what happens is that I was genuinely invested in the comic and intrigued by its premise and characters. If it were terrible, I wouldn’t have spent several paragraphs ranting about how there isn’t more of it. In that light, I suppose I could tell you more about the things that actually happen in this comic rather than the things that never will. Let’s cleanse the palate with a page of a moustachioed robot beating people up and then dive right on in, shall we?
Meet Mr. Hero, the robot best friend you and I and every other person in the world have always wanted. (If you say you’ve never wanted a robot best friend, you are either lying or a self-hating robot.) Mr. Hero was one of a line of comics conceptualized by some very big names in science fiction, including Gene Roddenberry, Isaac Asimov, and Leonard Nimoy, for Tekno Comix, which, this being a 90s comic website, I feel compelled to point out is the most 90s sounding name a company could possibly have. Neil Gaiman created Mr. Hero, and the book definitely has some Gaiman-y trappings to it, but it was Eisner Award winning writer James Vance who entertainingly brought the metal man to life and built something unique around him.
From the very first page, it’s obvious that Mr. Hero the Newmatic Man will defy easy categorization, as we are introduced to a hellscape called Kalighoul run by a giant evil lizard named the Teknophage, who seems to be building an army of Victorian-era robots powered by melted souls. Or something. The specifics on how the automatons are created are a little fuzzy, one of many aspects of this world I was disappointed not to see fully explored. So right away, we get a little science fiction, a little steam punk, and some metaphysics, which will soon be joined by healthy doses of action, adventure, and comedy, all rolled in a shiny metal package.
Mr. Hero is shipped off by the Teknophage to Earth to be of future use to in taking it over, but in the meantime he becomes a part of a magician’s act, learns boxing, accidentally punches a punter, gets boxed up, and does not reemerge until he is discovered decades later, sans head and one hand, by our human protagonist, a young mime/aspiring magician/museum worker named Jennifer Hale. Credit where it’s due to artist Ted Slampyak (pencils), both for having an amazing last name and for being insanely prescient in drawing the location of the missing head, a piece of artwork that doubles as a bike any modern hipster would trade a significant portion of his vinyl collection for.
When Jennifer puts the head back on Mr. Hero and essentially brings him back to life, a whole host of the Teknophage’s baddies come to reclaim him, but, as evidenced in the page above, Mr. Hero is more than adept at giving some rapscallions what for. Much of the earlier issues is devoted to such skirmishes and the schemes of these minions, but the specifics aren’t particularly important, not because they are bad, but without resolution, much of the meat and potatoes of the plot seems random, and a “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” vibe is pervasive. I attempted to lay out just the basic plot points for my own use, but it sounded so convoluted that I abandoned any notion of describing the comic that way. If I found myself muttering, “Why exactly is this happening?” to myself while actually reading it, I can only imagine how erratic it would sound to someone who didn’t.
What is important are the antagonistic characters themselves, a very motley crew working in various capacities for the Teknophage, everything from genetically modified men who can camouflage themselves with any background to actual monsters to sniveling bureaucrats. One of my favorites is a man named Mr. Kingman who is sent to Earth to oversee the capture of Mr. Hero. He does exactly what I would do if I were sent away from a hellscape to a relatively cushy planet, which is not give a shit about anything I was supposed to be doing and enjoy some earthly comforts for a while. Did I mention he thinks dressing like Elvis will help him fit in?
Considering Mr. Kingman’s fascination with Elvis and video games and the fact that one of the main antagonist plots revolves around subjugating Earth’s population through their TVs, I assume that there was much more pop culture satirization planned for future Mr. Hero issues. As it stands, in addition to all the other genres intermingling in these comics, Vance finds some room for comics’ favorite genre, the superhero. Two of the Teknophage’s genetically modified goons are introduced to Kingman’s comic, and they do pretty much what anyone with superpowers and a newfound knowledge of superheroes would do: demand costumes and cool names:
If the letters pages of these issues can be taken as an accurate representation of how readers felt about these characters, fans were decidedly split over whether Deadbolt and Bloodboil were great additions to an already great comic or bad enough alone to ruin them outright. For my part, they were a great injection of humor at a point in the story that could have easily been bogged down by exposition leading to no satisfying resolution. (Something to do with a group of rich guys who are against technology and a plan to take over the world using a Sasquatch-y looking character, who seems neither to be human or one of the Teknophage’s experiments, as a mouthpiece. I’m not sure how this storyline would have fit into an overarching plot, but it does give me an excuse to mention of my favorite classic Dr. Who stories, which it reminded me of, Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Watch it and thank me later.) I enjoy how they ably demonstrate that superpowers alone doth not a superhero make, and I appreciate how they add yet another layer to an already complex universe, but their most valuable asset is the amount of just plain fun they bring.
Some of the best genre-mashing Vance pulls off in Mr. Hero combines the grotesque with a dash of humor, particularly when it comes to satirizing corporate culture. A revolving door of terrified cronies come to cower before their big boss man, and the slightest infraction or failure is met with swift and horrific retribution. The Teknophage maintains an air of etiquette and refinement, all while committing unspeakable acts, and I’m sure the conspiracy theorists who believe the upper echelons of society are lizard people would read this and think that there isn’t even any satire involved.
The Teknophage is a tricky character for me because a big dinosaur who has conquered countless worlds, subjugated untold numbers of people, and harnessed pure soul power is an antagonist who sounds downright terrifying on paper. The problem is that I see the big toothy smile and the proper suit, and it just looks a bit, well, silly. Almost, dare I say…cute? He’s handing out man cubes, and I’m having a hard time not going, “Tee hee!” Is it my fault dinosaurs wearing clothes are adorable? (side note: so are snakes wearing hats).
I do not intend that comment to be a criticism of the character itself so much as a criticism of my own ability to sometimes take things seriously. The Teknophage is a fascinating specimen, juggling many schemes and machinations at once, always one step ahead of his adversaries. Any time they think they have gained an advantage over him, he reveals they have been playing into his hand all along, and you get the impression you have yet to see the limits of his power. He is formidable. It is one of my biggest disappointments in the premature end of this title that we don’t find out more about his plans and motivations, though some of the answers I seek might be found in the solo title I’m thoroughly unsurprised the Teknophage received.
There are so many things I could say about this ad, but it so thoroughly speaks for itself that it would feel almost disrespectful to add anything. Just bask; just take it all in.
Some of the Teknophage’s plans are more well thought out than others, and one that doesn’t lead the places I thought it might is a plot to corrupt Jennifer Hale. The basic idea is that they will give her a lot of money, let it corrupt her, and then take it all away. I like that the Teknophage is convinced the best way to take over the Earth is through corruption, but using her as a trial run doesn’t make much sense since he already seems well aware of the corrupting influence of wealth. He also doesn’t let her keep the money long enough for it to have much of a corrosive influence on her, but they still consider the plan a success, even though the worst thing she does is use a grade school insult on a boss who’s being a bit of a prick.
While we don’t delve deeply into the Teknophage’s corruption and subjugation of Earth, later scenes on Kalighoul give us a frightening glimpse into what centuries of his dominion look like. More disheartening than his sadistic tyranny itself is the affects it has on his subjects, many of whom would rather worship old revolutionary legends than be their own heroes. The ease with which people will accept, and then come to depend on, being ruled is not one of the more flattering sides of humanity, but it is well worth exploring.
Many stories examine what exactly it is that makes us human, and some of those stories contain robots, but Mr. Hero may be the first I’ve encountered that does so without using the robot as the vehicle for that philosophizing. For as many aspects of this comic as I have touched upon, the one part of Mr. Hero you may have noticed conspicuously absent is, well, Mr. Hero. The biggest reason for his absence in my retelling of his own story is that his role in it is mostly reactionary. He fights because he is attacked; he seeks answers because those around him pose questions. Even when he discovers that he was once a flesh and blood man, with a wife and children and a rebellion to lead, there is not time for even a moment of introspection. He just kind of goes, “Blimey!” and everyone goes on with their day in a hell world.
Just because he is not given the opportunity to develop a great deal of emotional complexity, though, does not mean he is a shallow character. For starters, this is one automaton with not one, but TWO heads, one for ol’ timey boxing and one for thinky times:
Granted, the heads aren’t normally on his body at the same time, but we still get some nice Jekyll/Hyde by way of the Odd Couple bickering between the two even when we only get them one at a time. The pipeless head is the one you want to show up to your party, quick to defend his friends, endearing in his simplicity, an all around good bloke. The head with the pipe, who goes by the Ratiocinator, is the one who will come to your party only to recite poetry, then insult you when you ask if he could just not. I think it goes without saying that this is a character who is easy to like and to want to know more about (I mean, did you look at that picture?), but the only time he takes initiative is setting out to find his missing hand, which we never find out the story behind!
I know I have sounded like a broken record about all the things that don’t happen in this comic, but I’m no less torn at the end of this article than I was at the beginning when it comes to how to discuss it. How do you assess, critique, recommend, etc. something that promised so much but never made good? On the one hand, I think it would be yet more tragic if this comic were to be forgotten, but on the other, can I really suggest anyone should read something that will ultimately lead to frustration? (I mean, to be fair, I do still recommend Firefly…screw it, read the comic.)
Perhaps if you do read Mr. Hero, it will wet your whistle for later this year when we take a closer look at Tekno Comix!