Ask Chris #184: A Brief History Of The Metal Men
Q: Let's say I know nothing about the Metal Men except some of their names. Should I care about those guys? -- @_lexifab
A: On the off chance that you're wondering why this is the week that people are asking about a relatively obscure team of disposable superhero robots now, I'm going to go ahead and guess that it has something to do with their return in the pages of the brand-new Justice League #28. That's a book that I approached with a whole lot of cautious optimism, because I've been a fan of those characters ever since I was a kid. One of the very first comics I ever read was that John Byrne issue where Chemo absorbed Superman and became a giant lime green Superman that shot toxic waste out of his eyes and straight up killed one of the heroes. When you see that at five years old, that's the imagery that's going to stick with you.
So yeah, I'd say you should definitely care about the Metal Men, even beyond just my childhood affection for 'em. Not only are they one of the most perfect concepts in superhero comics, but they're also one of the most interesting, on the page and behind the scenes.
If you really want to care about the Metal Men, you pretty much have to start with Robert Kanigher, who co-created the team in 1962 alongside Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. Kanigher is, without question, one of the most fascinating dudes in comics history, because he's been a part of so many strange things. Before he got into comics in the Golden Age as a writer and editor, he came up writing for pulp novels and radio shows, and during his extensive career at DC, he wrote the story that kicked off the Silver Age, revamped Wonder Woman for the Silver Age, and had a hand in co-creating characters like Black Canary, Poison Ivy, and, of course, Sgt. Rock. He even wrote a book on how to make money as a freelance writer called, appropriately enough, How to Make Money Writing.
If you're curious as to what his advice was, I'll save you the cover price on that one: VOLUME. Kanigher is known to this day as one of the most prolific writers in comics, and part of the reason he was involved with so much notable stuff in his tenure is that he was just cranking out story after story after story. When you're doing that much work, it's going to eventually add up to a pretty significant payday, and Kanigher was a writer who honed his craft to become an efficient storytelling machine.
How efficient? Well, you've probably heard this one before, but since it's one of my all-time favorite behind-the-scenes stories in the entirety of comics history, I'm going to tell it again. When Kanigher was working on the war titles as an editor, a piece of cover art came in that he wanted to make a slight change to before it was printed. To give more room for the logo on the cover, he attached a note to it reading "drop an inch," and then sent it off to be lettered. When the cover came back, the letterer had mistaken the production note for a cover blurb and added a caption box reading "Featuring DROP AN INCH! and other exciting battle action stories!"
This, needless to say, presented a problem, but rather than have the cover blurb covered up or retitling a story they already had, Kanigher just took his lunch hour to bang out a nine page story about hunkering down to avoid enemy fire.
That's pretty amazing, but the downside to that -- along with what Wikipedia calls "his unstable personality and violent temper" -- was that for Kanigher, a job grinding out stories was often just that: a job. He was fully capable of writing a genuinely great story, and actually did pretty often, but the majority of his work tends to read like it was cranked out on an assembly line. Even with the wild premises that became his trademark, they're usually formulaic, repetitive and reductive. For every fatalistic Sgt. Rock story about the pointlessness of war or ambitious and fatally flawed shot at modernizing Wonder Woman, there are a dozen paint-by-numbers genre stories that are about as surprising as a pair of old shoes.
There's a vast gulf between his highs and lows, but I think there's a reason for it that's readily apparent. It's hard to speak about what was actually going on in Kanigher's mind as he wrote, but as a reader, it's pretty clear that the good stories, the best ones, are the ones where Kanigher actually cared. Read enough of his work and you can see the pattern like clockwork. The ones that were just a job are the ones that are boring, but on those occasions when Kanigher got invested in a project, the ones where he actually cared about telling a story, that's where he took risks, crafted twists, built characters and situations that are completely unforgettable.
They're also the books where he gets downright weird about things, and the prime example of that is Creature Commandos, a horror-flavored twist on his usual war comic formula. If you haven't read it, it's about a World War II task force made up of classic monsters -- or at least, vaguely science-based equivalents that could skirt around the comics code. There was a vampire, a werewolf, a Medusa and a Frankenstein, all bossed around by a super-aggro military man who basically called them worthless freaks in every other panel. They fought Nazis, and appeared in a comic that advertised HITLER WOULD FREAK OUT.
Amazingly, this was not the most successful comic of all time, and when the series got the axe, it ended with a Kanigher-scripted one-page sequence where the Creature Commandos were berated for being useless and unmarketable by their commanders, and then shot out into space to die with the equally berated and betrayed "R.K."
I mentioned the volatile temper, right? Right.
Of course, the other side of that pattern is that it's a cycle -- even on the books that Kanigher was clearly putting his effort into, it gets to a point where you can see him lose interest and grow bored with the concept, reverting back into the same sort of formulaic grind that he used on everything else. It happens with virtually every comic he wrote, even the ones that start off hot with enough forward momentum to break through any rote storytelling that might hold them back. It even eventually happens to the Metal Men, sadly.
That said, there's a long, amazing stretch that kicks off in 1962 where everyone involved is putting everything they've got into it.
When you get right down to it, there's a purely monetary reason for the creation of the Metal Men that's not that hard to suss out. I always make the mistake of thinking it's Kanigher, Andru and Esposito riffing on what Bob Haney and Ramona Fradon were doing in Metamorpho, but I have that backwards since I read Metamorpho first -- Rex Mason & Co. didn't show up 'til 1965. It doesn't take the World's Greatest Detective to figure out what the real influence was, though.
I mean, it's a team book rooted in slightly dubious comic book science where the members constantly bicker with each other and are led by a pipe-smoking scientist who is constantly frustrated by the advances of a platinum-haired woman getting in the way of his science. If this sounds like a familiar setup, there's a pretty good reason for that.
There's no way Kanigher wouldn't have been aware of what Lee and Kirby were doing down the street, and there's even less of a chance that he wouldn't have wanted to jump on the early success by riffing on that formula in his own book. That doesn't mean Metal Men was a direct ripoff of Fantastic Four by any means -- this kind of exchange of ideas was pretty common at the time, as evidenced by the similarities in the Doom Patrol and the X-Men. Haney and Fradon would even do an amazing satire of Lee and Kirby's Galactus trilogy a year after the original hit the stands in a three-part story where Metamorpho battled the Thunderer, an intergalactic conqueror preceded by a herald who was two feet tall and defeated by a guitar that shot laser beams. It's still one of the best parodies in comics history, to the point where they referred to Metamorpho as "The World's Second Greatest Comics Magazine (But He Tries Harder)" in those issues.
Point being, it was clearly a new idea that Kanigher (and Andru and Esposito) were excited about, and they went in full force with it. Kanigher always had a gift for bizarre plots (see also: the aforementioned Creature Commandos and "The War That Time Forgot," the War Comic that pit soldiers against dinosaurs), but when the Metal Men debuted in Showcase, he ratcheted things up to a truly bonkers level. Seriously, page one, panel one of that comic? Radioactive dinosaurs. That's where he starts, and it gets even weirder from there.
It wasn't just the setups, though, it was the characters themselves.
I've always wondered whether it was Kanigher's experience living through Seduction of the Innocent and the senate hearings that led to the Comics Code that motivated him to attempt to give these comics an "educational" bent (something I've also wondered about Metamorpho), but whatever the motivation was, the result was magic. The combination of factual science trivia being doled out between stuff like radioactive dinosaurs and walking toxic waste tanks is just endlessly entertaining.
The Metal Men may have been given one-note personalities -- Gold is self-important, Mercury's hot-headed (and liquid at room temperature), Iron's strong, Platinum is lovestruck -- but basing those personalities on the actual physical properties of the metals they were based on, however loosely, is a great idea. Lead's dense, get it? And when you drop those one-note personalities into the same story and let them bounce off of each other, the results can be pretty compelling. Especially when we're looking at it from the point of view of Dr. Magnus himself.
Will Magnus is one of the best parts of the story, if only because he's just so fascinatingly weird. He's not the adventuring scientist that you get with Reed Richards or the two-fisted genius like Doc Savage he's just this uptight '50s dad in the middle of the craziest stories you've ever read, perfectly calm about everything going on around him except his frustrations with his creations -- frustrations that stem from the idea that he made them too perfect.
His relationship with Platinum alone is something that could fill entire books with analysis of just what exactly is supposed to be going on there. If you've never read it, the short version is that Platinum is extremely vocal about being in love with Doc, which he always responds to by telling her that she's a robot, not a woman, and that he's going to give her to the science museum if she doesn't shut up about it. It's crazy, and the question that keeps coming up if you read these stories is why did he make a lady robot in a sexy nurse costume that's in love with him if he's just going to be a jerk to her? It's like some bizarre sociopathic BDSM thing that plays out in the most literal possible manner in the pages of a superhero comic from the '60s.
Later creators have attempted to justify this, along with the rest of the Metal Men's personalities, and one of my least favorite retcons of all time was that Magnus had actually given them the digitized personalities of real people that he knew who were killed. For me, that's both depressing and way too limiting. I much prefer the idea that Magnus was just too good at what he did. He accidentally created sentient beings when he wasn't trying, and his frustrations come from the fact that they're too much like their creator, full of life and emotion.
I mean, don't get me wrong, that doesn't really make the stuff with Platinum any better, but I'm way more comfortable with that than I am with Magnus threatening to give his dead ex-girlfriend's soul to the science museum.
Anyway, as much as I've talked about Kanigher, you cannot overstate how much Andru and Esposito brought to the table. Like Bruno Premiani's work in Doom Patrol, their work on Metal Men is astonishingly dynamic. It holds up even today, and back in 1962, I can only imagine how turning a page and seeing this would've blown someone's mind:
It's their contribution that really makes the Metal Men one of the most perfect ideas in comics. They're just so strikingly visual, unified by a design that makes them clearly identifiable as a team, but distinctive enough that they maintain their signature shapes even when they're shape-shifting. Lead's always blocky, Mercury always flows (he's liquid at room temperature), Platinum coils and springs, Gold is always a little more elaborate than anyone else. Their stark, monochromatic designs make them pop on the page, and now that I think of it, when you combine that with their one-note personalities, you're basically looking at the formula for a Power Rangers series years before super sentai became a going concern.
I'm harping pretty hard on those original stories when the question was about caring about them now, but what Kanigher, Andru and Esposito did in that initial run -- reprinted in an Archive Edition that you can get cheap that's worth every penny -- but every story that followed really did build on that foundation, and very few did it as well as the originals, even if they did run out of steam after a year or two. It's a book that's years -- decades -- ahead of its time, and they introduced so much that was revolutionary and different that they're really hard to top without feeling like you're just a cover band.
And one of the most important concepts they introduced was that the Metal Men were disposable heroes.
Not to spoil anything about a comic that came out 52 years ago, but the Metal Men were destroyed in their first appearance. They were destroyed in almost every Metal Men story, in fact -- it's kind of their deal. It's actually really shocking to see them get blasted apart and torn limb from limb, and I've wondered if that was Kanigher, Andru and Esposito sneaking around the comics code's rules about violence by having it all happen to robots who always get rebuilt at the beginning of the next story. Or maybe it was just an easy way to ratchet up the drama. They were, after all, the same team that created the original Suicide Squad.
Either way, it gives Andru and Esposito the opportunity to do some amazing visuals, and also underscores the theme of the robots' humanity. They're characters that sacrifice their lives to protect people in every single story, or at least get as close as you can in DC Comics in the Silver Age. There's an eager resilience to them, but that just means that they have to face these threats that end up being weirder and more brutal than you'd ever see in Superman. They're out there on the fringes, where things get bizarre and the consequences are being torn to bits. Doom Patrol did that, too, with Robot Man, and it works beautifully there.
So, skipping ahead half a century, that brings us to where we're at now, with Justice League. I think it's pretty clear by this point that I have a lot of affection for these characters, and I went into their reappearance with what were probably the lowest possible expectations. Having a favorite character come back in a Forever Evil tie-in is worse than never seeing them again, and with the hilariously awkward references to the Doom Patrol that cropped up last month, it wasn't looking good. But after reading it -- and being reminded that Mercury is the only metal that's liquid at room temperature -- I really liked what I read.
Sure, Will Magnus is a pathos-ridden sad sack in an army jacket -- which, to be fair, is definitely not inherently worse than the 50 Shades of Platinum weirdo seen above -- but the core idea is there, spelled out in an explicit mission statement. The Metal Men protect people even when it means their own destruction; they won't be forced to be weapons because they've chosen to be heroes, and there's a clear difference there. It's exactly what I want to see from those characters. I do miss Copper from the Duncan Rouleau run, though, but since her entire deal was "nobody remembers Copper exists," it's probably appropriate that she didn't show up here.
So that's the Metal Men. If you were wondering why they're back now, or why they keep coming back even though they've never quite caught on to the level that they should, the answer in the real world is the same as it is in the comics. You can't keep a good idea down.