Comics ‘N Coffee: April 21st 2013

Published on April 21st, 2013

(or How X-51 Got His 01100111 01110010 01101111 01101111 01110110 01100101 Back)

We’ve seen it played out in many different ways: the concept of machines becoming sentient. We can’t help but imagine how things will be once our technology reaches human-like potential. If sentient, will we shackle machines as subservient tools or will we grant them the freedoms that we enjoy? If a machine possesses independent thought, can it dream? When a robot knows fear, love, hate and despair, does that mean that it has a soul? Such ideas have been explored in literature (I, Robot), television (Star Trek) and movies (The Terminator), but they have all centered on a singular notion: humanity. The question isn’t a matter of machines becoming human, for that day seems closer all the time … but what does it mean to BE human?

CnC10Jack Kirby was no stranger to science fiction and fantastic characters. The man who would become known in the comics world as “The King” created and rendered many bizarre individuals and phenomena over the course of his legendary career. At the risk of speaking blasphemy to my peers, I must admit that I never felt the wonder of Kirby’s work as did other readers. That’s not to say that I don’t revere the man’s accomplishments and contributions, but the magic of his style eluded my appreciation for many years. The iconic Kirby-drawn image is of a hero (of any sort) stretching his hand toward the reader using forced perspective to make the reader feel three-dimensional depth from a two-dimensional page. Nowadays, this technique is second nature to comic artists, but my younger self had always taken such innovations in comics for granted.

That said, I’ve been catching up on my reading of Jack’s work as of late, and one of the best examples I’ve come across is Machine Man #1. This book contains some of the most polished art I have yet to see by The King. Machine Man is a “living robot”, known as X-51 by his creators and Aaron Stack during his private moments. He represents the 51st attempt to make a sentient automaton which could explore and perform vital tasks in environments too inhospitable for men. He’s the only one of his kind who didn’t go mad and turn into a killing machine (it never occurred to them to stop trying until the 51st model, apparently). Raised in the home of psychologist Abel Stack, X-51 took the name “Aaron” and became, in effect, Abel’s son, learning all about what it means to be human from a kind, moral and decent man.

With the premise in hand, the story proceeds rather simply: X-51 roams the countryside helping random people in various states of distress, ranging from a hiker slipping off a cliff to a driver stranded on a forest road with a fallen tree blocking the path. Machine Man displays his power and gadgetry to both us readers and to the other characters during his labors. Thus, we are shown that he is a robot in every sense, but essentially a good guy. The bad guys come from our demonstrably obtuse (based on their behavior) leaders: the federal government and military. They see him as a potential threat to national security and so order X-51’s destruction, hunting him down using a homing device implanted in his head!

Many demonstrations of his robotic gadgetry come throughout the issue, such as jet-propelled skateboard feet, a flamethrower finger and tank treads within his arms. They all become essential tools in Machine Man’s attempt to find shelter and escape his pursuers, namely Colonel Kragg. This one-eyed tyrant commands a battalion of troops armed with sonic blasters designed to disrupt X-51’s circuits once they find him. Despite the protestations of X-series designer Doctor Oliver Broadhurst, Kragg hunts down X-51 and launches an attack right as Machine Man approaches a small community where he hopes to find acceptance and explore his humanity. It comes to a head as Kragg’s assault force corners their prey and aims their sonic rifles, all while X-51 prepares to fight back with his technological arsenal.

The action is great and Kirby makes this a visually enjoyable experience. What surprised me the most, however (keeping in mind that I haven’t read a lot by the gent), was the solid writing by ol’ Jolly Jack. Sure, it’s a pretty pedestrian plot, but the scripting is top notch. In fact, I find myself filled with concern over X-51’s welfare in this story, not to mention empathizing with his plight as a robot who thinks like a man, feels like a man, but is treated as a machine by the powers that be. But how could I feel otherwise? If there were a real sentient robot who went around doing good deeds, went to a psychiatrist for his troubles, and desired nothing else but to live an average life, I’d wish nothing but the best for him. After all, I’m only a highly caffeinated human. Fare Thee Well!

Machine Man Vol 1. No. 1 was published by Marvel Comics Group in April 1978 and was edited, written and penciled by Jack Kirby (The King), lettered and inked by Mike Royer (Mister Miracle), and colored by Petra Goodwin (Rawhide Kid).

Rick “Smash” Hansen