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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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!