Tag Archives: comic books

Its Title Speaks for Itself: Magnus, Robot Fighter by Emily Scott

Sometimes, you hear the name of a comic book title, and it piques you interest, even if it doesn’t give you many clues what the comic is actually about. Maybe specifically because it doesn’t give you a lot of clues. Sometimes it’s an enigma. Sometimes it’s a comic literally called Enigma. And then sometimes, just sometimes, you get asked to write about a comic called Magnus, Robot Fighter, and you don’t need to know anything else about it. Why would you? It’s called Magnus, Robot Fighter. Even if you, dear Legions of the Unspoken, have never heard of this comic before this moment, I’m guessing you are more inclined to read about this unfamiliar title than if it were called, well, just about anything else.

And if this comic contained nothing of value but a man named Magnus fighting robots, I would not have been the slightest bit disappointed. I would have felt I received exactly what I was promised.

Mangus Chop
Well, that was cool — oh, there’s more?

Magnus fighting robots, though, is not all you get in his comic. Far from. Sometimes Magnus doesn’t fight robots. Sometimes Magnus feels conflicted about fighting robots. Sometimes Magnus refuses to fight robots. Sometimes Magnus talks to robots instead of fighting them. Sometimes Magnus fights people who want him to fight robots. And it’s terrific. Seriously, it’s really terrific reading about Magnus both fighting and not fighting robots. I cannot speak for the other incarnations of the character, but Jim Shooter and the folks at Valiant Comics do a bang up job of paying homage to the character’s origins with its retro futuristic look and feel while crafting conflicts and ideas and questions that we still wrestle with today.

Magnus, created by Russ Manning, first appeared in 1963 in a title from Gold Key Comics, which was published until 1977. Shooter obtained the rights to Magnus in 1991, along with two other Gold Key characters, Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom and Turok, Son of Stone, both of whom make appearances in Valiant’s Magnus and received their own Valiant titles. The character would later have titles published by Acclaim Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and Dynamite Entertainment, all with their own takes on Magnus with one very important consistency: dude fights robots.

Valiant_Magnus_01-00fc
Look at that. He is so good at fighting robots, he can karate chop one of their heads off, without looking at it, as an afterthought on his way to fighting the next one.

At the start of the first issue, Shooter quickly catches up readers not already familiar with Magnus, who is relatively new to the hero business. 1-A, the robot who raised Magnus as a foundling, recounts the story of how and why he decided to mold the human into a robot killing machine (not an actual machine, of course, although it does make one wonder why 1-A wouldn’t just make one of those instead of dealing with diapers and puberty). 1-A gains sentience some 400 years before the events of the comic, due to a power surge during a battle in the Martian uprising. (Every part of that sentence is cool.) The same surge causes one of his fellow robots to become violent and murder their human commander. 1-A has a good, long think about the possibility of another robot gaining free will and turning on humanity, and so he decides to make Magnus to be the savior of his people.

An inquisitive reader might wonder what 1-A does for the rest of those 375 or so years, whether Magnus was his first attempt to create a robot fighter, whether his motives might be more than they seem, and so on. These issues will be addressed later on in the comic, but for now all we know is that 1-A trained Magnus to fight and destroy robots, but he does not consider the act to be murder, nor does he consider himself or other robots to be alive, despite his many centuries as a sentient being acting of his own free will.

Magnus Leg
An inquisitive reader might also wonder how 1-A can build a giant underwater house and train a human meat bag to karate chop steel but can’t, say, FIX HIS OWN LEG.

 

 

We also learn from Magnus that an ever increasing number of robots have been gaining free will due to repeated power surges from a malfunctioning “tech-rob,” and their numbers could be as many as ten million. All of these rogue robots have kept Magnus’ punchin’ hands busy, but they have also given his brain a workout, causing him to speculate that with so many robots now having free will, they surely couldn’t all be hellbent on murdering humans. Of course, a robot name 0-1X chooses this moment of introspection to send out a message to all the robots who now have free will to tell them that they could easily succeed if they joined together to become hellbent on murdering humans. (“Blood rivers crushed from human meat will flow through the streets” are his exact words, a sort of beautifully poetic description for robots massacring people, which, if you ask me, just lends credence to 0-1X’s assertion that robots deserve to be treated like the sentient beings they are.)

In an attempt to keep the peace, Magnus heads back to North Am, the dystopia he inhabits where the upper crusts live softly and obliviously in huge, vertical “milespires.” He and his girlfriend Leeja Clane, a senator’s daughter with a touch of telepathy, are immediately attacked by a kamikaze robot, and Magnus momentarily and understandably forgets about the idea that not all free will robots are out to get them.

Magnus Squee
I like that dying robots make the same sound effect as tween girls when their ship becomes canon.

The president of North Am wants to negotiate with 0-1X and the other free will robots, but Senator Clane and Magnus have other ideas. Senator Clane receives a visit from 0-1X, who approaches him because the president is losing the support of his people and Clane’s popularity is on the rise after speaking out against negotiations. 0-1X pleads with Clane to work with him because many will die if they fight, and unlike humans, who can reproduce, each robot life is irreplaceable. While this is an interesting perspective on the value of the individual life and the opposite of what we tend to hear in the man vs. machine debate, Clane gives the response to negotiating that you would expect from the politician gaining popularity for coming out against negotiation. 0-1X returns to his fellow rebels and tells them that, “Human leaders are careless with the lives of their kind,” a notion I’m sure not going to argue with.

Meanwhile, with Leeja tagging along, Magnus decides to search for the rebels in the part of North Am where the dregs of society live, the Goph Lands, otherwise known as the ground. They find the rebel meeting, and Magnus confronts 0-1X and asks if he genuinely believes himself to be alive. 0-1X senses that Magnus is sincerely struggling with the choice between starting or preventing a war, but before their conversation can productively progress, the soldiers accompanying Magnus for back up prematurely burst in and start shooting up the place, as the goon squad so often does. Leeja is badly hurt in the ensuing struggle, and with no further adieu, the robot war is underway!

Magnus Damn It Timbuc
Damn it, Timbuc.

Magnus very quickly becomes very busy fighting robots as they engage in guerilla tactics to take down North Am, but even if he is able to burn through them like a hot robo-knife through whatever they eat instead of butter in the year 4001, it is still ugly, dirty, and unpleasant work, as the header image to this article demonstrates. The robots don’t particularly care for being punched to death, nor do they particularly care for being dissected while still sentient to figure out what gives them free will. Magnus demands that one such robot be released from such treatment, still struggling with the morality of his profession. Another free will robot gives his comrade the gift of mercy and attempts to flee, but when he realizes Magnus is present, he destroys himself rather than be destroyed.

Magnus Torch
Seriously, what is up with these robots being so graphically poetic about humans dying?

The incident clearly leaves a sour taste in the mouth of Magnus, who is unable to muster any enthusiasm for the war at a dinner Senator Clane holds to celebrate Leeja’s recovery. After telling off his fellow diners, Magnus hesitates long enough for a rogue robot, who had just attempted an attack on them, to escape. That robot, W-23, shows up at his apartment because of a common trait: they both dislike that it is their duty to kill the other. During their conversation, Magnus notices that W-23 has a slight vibration, the lone trait that differentiates a free will robot from those still under human control and the key to robot genocide. Magnus has no desire to report his discovery but correctly surmises both that other humans will notice and that 0-1X will launch an all-out offensive once he figures it out himself.

On cue, a metric fuck ton of robots show up, and Magnus is attacked. He fights his way to 0-1X and attempts another conversation, but 0-1X believes it is too late for talk since the longer they wait, the more likely it is that humans will discover the vibration. Clane shows up with some North Am soldier robots and orders Magnus arrested for letting 0-1X escape. Magnus is all like, “Nah, bro,” and heads off to the Goph Lands, where they again try to arrest him. W-23 helps Magnus escape, and the human tells the robot he must convince 0-1X to stop his attack.

W-23 may have a tough time reasoning with 0-1X, though, since the free will robots are doing a pretty splendid job taking over North Am. While they engage in their final push to take over the mainbrain, North Am’s super computer, and with it control of North Am’s thirty-two billion robots, the human leadership gets a status report detailing just how dire the situation has become: over three million defense robots have been destroyed, two human commanders slightly injured, and four human commanders fainted! The horror! With defeat looming as an ever increasing inevitability, Clane tells the president he should gives the robots what they want, but the president tells him that it’s too late. He gives Clane his job and says he plans to fuck off to the moon to wait the whole thing out. His retirement, unfortunately, is short lived.

Magnus Bugger Off
Hasn’t he ever seen a cop movie? He’s supposed to get shot in the face right BEFORE he retires, not after.

The humans use every robot they’ve got to stop the free wills, and they are able to stave off defeat with the help of Magnus, who reenters the fray to prevent humanity’s destruction. He still refuses Leeja’s pleas to help weed out the rest of the free will robots and says he would rather go live in the Goph Lands than kill again. Shockingly, she refuses to join him.

During the final battle, W-23 helps 0-1X escape to a wildlife preserve that the free wills have been using as a base. He tells W-23 that they will be hunted one by one till no free will robots remain and shows him the hidden remains of T-1, a think-rob who became the first free will robot, powerful enough to override any human command. 0-1X wants to use circuitry from T-1 to improve his own mind and avert their demise, but it is a risky endeavor, since tampering with the mind of a free will robot has previously resulted in their losing their autonomy.

The procedure seems to be unsuccessful (or, as we later learn, was intentionally sabotaged by W-23), and W-23 moves on with a new makeover courtesy of a passing scavenger named Elzy. He renames himself Tekla and models his new form after Leeja, believing humans (and, let’s be honest here, Tekla, Magnus in particular) will find it pleasing. Tekla intends to become the new leader of the free will robots and hopefully prevent their extinction, but just as Magnus, done with fighting for North Am, pledges his help, they receive an unexpected surprise:

Magnus Swerve
I sure hope those are just the four humans who fainted…

Turns out Elzy, with no knowledge of who she was helping, gave 0-1X a jolt to revive him, after which he has no trouble taking over the mainbrain and all of North Am’s billions of robots. With humanity now basically helpless, Tekla makes the case to allow the humans to live. 0-1X agrees, but only on the condition that Magnus surrender. If he does not, he will put a billion humans to death, a thousand for every robot killed. Clane sends out a plea to Magnus to turn himself, and even though he claims to no longer care for his own species, he decides to see things through at the request of someone he does still care about: 1-A.

Magnus What is Love
I will never be able to hear that question and not immediately think, “Baby, don’t hurt me.”

Magnus fights some more robots, but in the end he is able to dispatch 0-1X pretty easily with a decapitating karate chop. He destroys the mainbrain for good measure, prevents Timbuc from killing any more rogues, and once again offers Tekla his assistance with the other free will robots, but Tekla does not think the others will so readily accept help from 01-X’s killer. Magnus also gets a message from 1-A, instructing him to continue his hunt of the free will robots, on a device 1-A implanted in his head so that he could receive and understand robot transmissions, but it seems Magnus has developed some free will of his own.

Magnus Metal
Wow, Magnus, that’s really (pun completely intended) metal.
Magnus Man
Magnus….Robot Adjacent

OK, now the story’s really over, right? I mean, what is Magnus, Robot Fighter without a guy named Magnus fighting robots? Fear not, Legions! Just because Magnus is done being North Am’s resident robot killing thug, it does not mean there are no more robots to fight. And humans to fight. And robots and humans to prevent from fighting each other. You get the idea.

In all seriousness, this was a comic I wanted to continue long after I’d read enough to write about it, which isn’t always the case, even for comics I really enjoyed. The art is beautiful, and the writing is sharp. The subject matter doesn’t feel tired, even though a lot of its content has been told in different ways in different formats many times over. The comic is far from brainless but also contains a plethora of the simple pleasure of seeing a guy repeatedly put his fists through robots’ faces. What more could you want?

A robot named Grandmother who contains and nurtures the entirety of the nation of Japan and later turns into a fire breathing, alien fighting lizard spaceship? Well, Magnus got you covered.

Magnus Japan
Pictured: Japan.

A female lead who fakes her own death during the robot uprising and uses her family’s political background to help a newly liberated robot society establish itself? And also become a badass and save her ex-boyfriend and the world? All while wearing one of the least practical outfits I’ve ever seen a lady in a comic book wear, which is really saying something? Magnus got you covered.

Magnus Impractical
It would legitimately be more practical to just be topless.

There are dinosaurs and samurai and lasers and I don’t even know what else because eventually I had to pick a stopping point so that I could tell you about the cool things in this comic. Just make a list of cool stuff. It’s probably in here. Unless your list contains Jason Voorhees or Leatherface, who may not be in Magnus but who are in Jason vs. Leatherface, which you can soon read all about in Dean Compton’s much anticipated return to The Unspoken Decade. Until then, Legions!

Advertisements

New Beginnings at the End of All Things: Man-Thing Vol. 3 by Emily Scott

Greetings, Legions of the Unspoken! Emily Scott here to be your guide through the weirdness that is Man-Thing. And it is weird. Look at that thing up there. It looks like the yip yip aliens from Sesame Street and the Jolly Green Giant had a demonic love child. And that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface, nor is Man-Thing even the weirdest looking character in the comic. Some characters even look strange relative to their usual strange selves, like Doctor Strange here, looking like an alien vampire:

Man-Thing_V3-2-01
The Google Image search for “alien vampire” is disappointingly mundane.

As someone who did not grow up reading many comics, I had only really ever heard of Man-Thing peripherally as a cult figure and usually just to differentiate him from Swamp Thing, who would debut a few months after Man-Thing in 1971.  And while I will be conducting a search of this article when I’m finished to make sure I never typed Swamp Thing by accident, the characters’ similarities don’t much extend beyond the gist of their origin stories (scientist working on some super special formula ends up fused with a swamp).

When you sum it up, it does sound pretty darn specifically similar, but the idea of the muck monster has been expanded in many directions, as further evidenced by the fact that the same guy can do very different things with characters who bear more than a passing resemblance to each other. Steve Gerber, who created Man-Thing’s pal Howard the Duck (yes, pals, really) and wrote a beloved and definitive 39-issue Man-Thing run, also created the Ultraverse’s Sludge, a character who shares a thing or two with Man-Thing (a man-thing or two?), including a destructive touch and a less than pleasant odor, but Gerber takes that story to such a different place that drawing too many comparisons is unfair. (A story you can hear all about on the podcast Dean Compton and I did on Sludge!)

The biggest difference between Man-Thing and characters like Swamp Thing or Sludge is that Man-Thing isn’t really a character at all. He is basically non-sentient, and other characters often think immediately upon meeting him that there’s not a whole lot going on upstairs. He’s almost completely reactionary, so the characters surrounding him must by needs drive the action. At the start of our tale (Man-Thing Volume 3, which ran from December 1997 to July 1998), however, Man-Thing does something unexpected: he leaves the swamp due to an urge within himself. He is then promptly hit by a car.

Man-Thing_V3-1-06
“Let’s get out of here before he IDs us!”

And what is it that makes this walking bag of weird act of its own volition? An echo, a psychic reverberation from the end point of all things, the nexus of oblivion, a place for which this creature serves as a guardian. It looks like this:

Man-Thing_V3-1-03
The terminus of reality always seems to have two things in it: clocks and checkerboards.

J. M. Dematteis does some great writing on this book, but Liam Sharp frequently steals the show with his art, which often resemble what I assume an acid trip would look like if I had a better imagination. This comic often delves into some cosmic, mystical stuff, so a lot is asked of Sharp, but he delivers every time with images that are beautiful and grotesque, mesmerizingly abstract and all too real. At times when I didn’t know what exactly was going on, I was more than happy to stare at Sharp’s work till I figured it out.

And there are definitely times when I was not sure what was going on. A lot of the sentences in the notes I was taking while reading end in question marks instead of periods. For instance: “So and so happened?” as opposed to “so and so happened.” Answers were often forthcoming, but for all the things that happen(?) in this comic, it usually seems more interested in why characters do rather than what they do. While the specifics of the plot aren’t paramount (and become somewhat moot as the story progresses, as it never got its planned, published ending), some groundwork is, of course, necessary.

One thing Man-Thing’s wife (or should I say the wife of Ted Sallis, the man Man-Thing used to be) does a lot of is punish herself. Having lived for years under the burden of the guilt of betraying her husband and a face scarred beyond recognition by Man-Thing (whom she doesn’t yet know used to be her husband) Ellen Brandt exists in what appears to be a constant state of turmoil, unable to find a moment’s peace and receptive to the idea of letting oblivion consume her. No small wonder, then, when she puts herself in the path of bullets intended for Man-Thing, who has inevitably attracted an angry mob as he shambled through town.

Man-Thing_V3-1-22
Talk about a bullet with butterfly wings. (Yes, I included this page just so I could make that reference.)

The magic comes courtesy of Stephen Strange, who has foreseen that Man-Thing has a critical part to play in the repair of the crack running through all realities. Strange takes them back to his sanctuary and then into what Ellen assumes is the very soul of the Man-Thing, a putrid and oppressive place. There she sees her past with Ted play out, all the way from her attempting to work through her father issues by marrying Ted through her disenchantment due to his neglecting her for work to her eventual betrayal, when she joins those attempting to steal the Super-Soldier Serum he is working to replicate. When she relives Man-Thing scarring her face and realizes that this creature used to be her husband, it becomes overwhelming, and when she must make the decision not to surrender to oblivion, she finally understands that it’s not the muck and grime and desolation of Man-Thing’s soul she is trapped in – it is her own.

Info dumps are never easy to do without feeling clunky, but this issue goes about it cleverly by giving us a pretty thorough outline of Man-Thing’s origins, which would have obviously been helpful to a new reader in 1997 who didn’t have access to Wikipedia, while at the same time using that story to tell us things in the present about Ellen, who for all intents and purposes is the main character Man-Thing could never really be. Something Dematteis does very well in general is make the comic accessible, even when fairly esoteric things are being discussed. So when Ellen accepts that it is her fate to help Man-Thing collect the fragmented shards of the nexus, we might not know exactly what that entails or why it’s happening, but we damn sure understand why she’s doing it.

Man-Thing_V3-2-19
I think 90s comic book artists must have been contractually obligated to include at least one page of art with writing you can only half read over it.

The first stop on their quest is the Roswell Sanitarium in Massachusetts, former residence of Ellen and current residence of Mr. Eric Payne, formerly known as Devil-Slayer. You can probably guess from his name that the guy didn’t sell insurance or anything before he was institutionalized. Having lost his wife and his cosmic cloak through his own actions, Payne has surrendered to his own personal demons, both figuratively and then literally when a mysterious figure known as Mr. Termineus shows up in a Santa suit to deliver them personally. (Did I mention this is a Christmas issue, since it wasn’t already odd enough?)

Termineus, who is humanoid except for the fact that he has a censor bar for a mouth, also delivers a Christmas gift to Ellen, a staff that allows her to journey to the places the nexus fragments have been scattered. On the one hand, his actions certainly aid Ellen and Man-Thing in the moment, but on the other, they cause the nexus fragment inside Payne  to amplify his pain, drawing the reality around him into it and oblivion. Further obscuring his true motives, Termineus has been visiting Job, the child of the couple who hit Man-Thing with their car when he first came out of the swamp. (We’ll later discover this child is actually Ellen and Ted’s, born after Ted’s transformation and put up for adoption. This probably seems an odd piece of information to mention as an aside, but the payoff of this storyline happens after the eight-issue run.)

Man-Thing_V3-4-21
He dresses like the trumpet player in a ska band; he obviously can’t be trusted.

The expression “Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!” comes into play in a big way when Payne starts to rip Man-Thing apart, and Man-Thing’s not having it. Man-Thing burns the living hell out of Payne, both sort of literally and figuratively, restoring his sanity and extracting the fragment. Termineus tries to take it for himself, but Sorrow, the enigmatic lady seen cradling Payne up there, has her Glenda the Good Witch moment and turns it into a gem on a necklace only Ellen can wear. Then we all hear the quest completion video game music, and it’s off to the races for the next fragment!

That fragment is found in a delightful place, that being the insides of one Howard the Duck. Howard is brought to the swamp by a creature who promptly cuts Man-Thing to ribbons. That creature turns out to be a man going by the name Mahapralaya, who has a cult devoted to entropy. They have heard about the crack in the nexus from Termineus and believe they can speed up the destruction of the universe by destroying the nexus’ protector. If that doesn’t work, they can always cut out the fragment inside Howard and destroy it, preventing it from ever being repaired.  Man-Thing’s solution, once he re-forms, is also delightful.

Man-Thing_V3-6-17
Seeing Howard the Duck vomit up Man-Thing isn’t even close to the most disturbing visual I have of Howard the Duck. Not. Even. Close.

The last fragment recovered in this run is one that belongs to both land and sea, and as such can only be accessed by one person….Namor the Submariner. (Whatever else someone might think of this comic, they’d have to appreciate the strange bedfellows this comic creates. Though now that I think about it, ducks also belong to both land and water, so maybe it’s not quite as strange as it seems on the surface…and now I’ve arrived at the terminus of all types of analytical writing: the overthink, where you get so in the habit of looking for connections that you start seeing them everywhere.)

Man-Thing_V3-7-08

Man-Thing_V3-7-02
No jokey captions, just some really lovely art.

Namor follows Man-Thing (excuse me, Mer-Thing) down to the bottom of the oceans, to the lost former crown jewel of Atlantis, the City of the Golden Gate, where Ellen awaits with Evenor, its guardian, to tell them they can’t take the fragment because it’s embedded in the shroud of the goddess Cleito, and to disturb it would be desecration. Namor decides he wants no part in any desecration. They all end up back in time, when the City of the Golden Gate was still a utopia, and get the gem from Cleito herself. (This is a part of my notes when I used a lot of question marks, so you’ll excuse me if I’m vague on the specifics.)

Man-Thing_V3-8-09
I mean, you tell me.

They witness the beginning of the end of the city, and that’s about where we run out of story. The tale was continued in Strange Tales Vol. 4, but the third and fourth issue were never published. From what I can tell from various wikis, the story was summed up in a Spider-Man book and came to a rather satisfying end where you learn the fate of the Sallises and the nexus, as well as some answers to the identity and motives of characters like Sorrow and Mr. Termineus. I would feel weird summarizing a summary of something I haven’t actually read, so I’ll leave that link for the curious.

So what does it all mean? I really can’t say. Not because I don’t have my own ideas about the comic’s ideas but because they feel personal and specific to me. As I mentioned, when you read something with the intent of writing about it, you start looking for the meaning in everything, trying to hear as much as you can of what it’s trying to tell you, but the more answers I asked for, the more questions I was asked. So much of this story deals with personal demons, with the thin line between reality and invention, with having to exist inside your own head or not at all, that I’m not sure I could tell someone else what they would get out of it. I don’t know that the comic has anything especially profound to say, but the ability to make a reader ask his or herself questions that lead to profound personal truths might be the bigger compliment to bestow on a work of art.

And a work of art it certainly is. Of light and shadow. Of order and chaos. Of endings and beginnings. Of redemption and fear. There’s a saying (that I couldn’t find the origin of to save my life) that all fear is the fear of death, and another thing this comic did especially well was examine if, for many of these characters, there is truth to that notion, from the entropy cult preferring sweet oblivion to mere death to Namor deciding the end of all things was preferable to the violation of his own sacred beliefs to Ellen, having to face life beyond that fear once it’s all been burned away. And what can happen when your fear is burned away and you can embrace your fate and allow yourself a chance at redemption?

Man-Thing_V3-8-22.jpg
Oh. : /

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Man-Thing! If no fragments of reality set up shop in your psyche before next week (or even if they do), be sure to come for another exciting round of Super Blog Team-Up! Dean Compton will be back to bring you War Machine Vs. Cable, and I know you don’t want to hurry yourself toward oblivion before you read that!