‘Mega Man': An All-Ages Comic That Deals With War and the Nature of Humanity. Seriously.
When I was growing up, Capcom's Mega Man titles were my favorite video games. There was a time in my life where I had fifty Robot Masters and their weaknesses committed to memory in case I ever found myself separated from the stack of Nintendo Power magazines I'd set aside for reference, and I have lasting friendships to this day I made in elementary school based on the fact that I heard someone had Mega Man 2 so I could go over to his house and play it. So when Archie Comics kicked off their new Mega Man comic, I jumped on. And while I expected it to offer up some nostalgia-fueled fun, what surprised me was that it's actually one of the best all-ages comics coming out right now, and one that deals with some pretty intense issues of guilt, death and humanity. Seriously.Archie's new ongoing certainly isn't the first time that Mega Man's been brought to comics. In addition to a few manga series, including Hitoshi Ariga's Mega Man Megamix, Dreamwave produced a comic back in 2003 written by Brian Augustyn.
The premise of that one -- which I loved -- saw Mega Man taking a secret identity and attending Junior High as a test of his advanced AI software. This, of course, led to your standard issue teen super-hero problems like trying to make friends and find a date to the dance without revealing that he was actually an android tasked with blowing up renegade robots after school. Basically, it was Spider-Man starring a teenage robot, with the added bonus that his battles were against all-new Robot Masters rather than characters lifted from the games. Unfortunately, the series was pretty short-lived and only made it four issues before Dreamwave collapsed earning its status as the only comic book company I can think of that couldn't make money off the Transformers.
Eight years later, Mega Man would finally make his way back to American comics with Archie, and while that might sound like an odd fit for a company best known for publishing the teen-age hijinx of Riverdalean Youth, it actually makes a lot of sense. One of Archie's most successful comics over the past two decades has been their Sonic the Hedgehog line, and if 225 issues, two ongoing spin-offs and 15 volumes worth of paperbacks has shown anything, it's that Archie knows how to put out a video game comic that kids like.
This series, written by Sonic writer Ian Flynn with art by Patrick "Spaz" Spaziante -- and lettering by the legendary John Workman! -- has so far followed the plot of the first NES game, but with a little more depth than to the original conceit of "these robots are bad and you should probably shoot them and take their stuff," incorporating plot elements that have built in the series over its dozens of installments.
For those of you who had better things to do with your childhood, the plot goes like this: In the year 200X -- which is so far in the future that they've looped around to throwing the raddest of all letters into the date in place of a number -- robots are frigging everywhere. This is largely thanks to Dr. Thomas Light (who seems inspired by equal parts Thomas Edison and Santa Claus) and his partner Dr. Albert Wily (a villainous version of Einstein), who have just completed work on their crowning achievements: A set of advanced Robot Masters designed to perform dangerous labor in service of humanity:
Of course, thanks to a combination of jealousy and the pressure of maintaning such an amazing hair/moustache combination, Wily turns to evil, reprogramming the Robot Masters to serve as his personal army and setting out to take over the world.
With all the robot masters under Wily's control, things are looking pretty grim until Rock, a household robot designed for doing chores that was Dr. Light's first creation (but who is actually -- Spoiler Warning! -- his second), volunteers to go out and stop them. Thus, Dr. Light rebuilds Rock into the heroic Mega Man and sends him out to blow things up with a laser cannon.
That basic premise combined with the fact that the Robot Masters are all built around gimmicks and powers that make for some pretty great visuals lends itself perfectly to a big, fun adventure story with plenty of explosive action, and Flynn runs with it, doing exactly that. But along the way, his script also delves into some pretty surprising stuff.
For one thing, he casts Dr. Light as a repentant scientist who designed weapons in order to finance his company, then swore it off out of guilt over what he'd unleashed on the world:
That's not exactly an unfamiliar concept for comics -- it's essentially Iron Man's motivation spread over tow characters -- but seeing a character's guilt over being a high-tech arms dealer and compromising his beliefs expressed by a dude who looks just like Santa being used as a major plot point in an Archie book was definitely a surprise. Especially when his pacifism became a major source of conflict for the lead character.
And in the second issue, the ideas of Light's pacifism and Mega Man's role as a warrior comes to the forefront. Flynn examines the character in a way that I've never thought about, even as a lifelong fan, showing him as someone caught between a desire to help people by defeating the enemies that threaten him and the guilt that comes from killing other robots. There's a scene where he realizes that the robots he's fighting and destroying have been reprogrammed -- the robotic equivalent of being forced to act against their will, and the guilt of what he's doing stops him cold.
Spaz does an incredible job with the art, drawing Mega Man's face to reflect the increasing horror and apprehension he feels at what he's having to do. Even the scene where he takes the weapon of a defeated Robot Master -- the goal and most triumphant moment of the games -- and gives it the sinister spin of Mega Man realizing that with each robot he destroys and each weapon he takes, he's becoming more and more like the robots he's been sent to fight:
It keeps building throughout the issue until it finally gets to a moment that's genuinely chilling:
With this scene, Flynn is doing for Mega Man what Naoki Urasawa did for Astro Boy in Pluto: viewing something created for kids through a lens that highlights the darker, more serious aspects of it. He makes the conflict between Mega Man and the Robot Masters -- in which Mega Man's victory has been a foregone conclusion for 24 years -- secondary to an internal conflict between Mega Man himself. And it's fantastic.
But the best thing about it, and the thing that makes it such a great All-Ages book, is that Flynn and Spaz are actually able to strike a balance. They realize something that a lot of people miss when they think about comics for kids: Lighthearted adventure stories can still have serious moments and deal with intense mental conflicts without ever talking down to their audience. They blend the intense, serious moments with action and comedy -- there's a great line where Guts Man berates Mega Man for not being strong, and a confused Mega Man replies by asking him if he can punch lasers -- and come up with something with far more depth than I'd ever expected.
By the end of the issue, Mega Man is more or less back to normal thanks to Roll talking him through his crisis of conscience, but it feels like there's a real change in the character from the experiences, and in a kids' book -- especially one that's licensed from video games -- that's a pretty hard feeling to pull off.
And the best part? They make it tie in. Mega Man's abhorrance of violence inspires him to get rid of his additional weapons as soon as he doesn't need them, providing the perfect storyline reason for one of the more notable quirks of the game. Of course he doesn't keep the Hyper Bombs after he beats Dr. Wily. Those belong to "Mega Man," and he just wants to be Rock again.
Creating a connection that actually elevates an aspect of the source material is the best thing an adaptation can hope for, and Flynn and Spaz pull it off with an ease that makes it seamless, while still telling a great all-ages action story.