Monday, July 23, 2007

Comic Book Robot Design in the 60s

The 60s was a tumultuous time, and the realm of robot design was no exception. The only real rule about robot design was that there were no rules. We had everything from the (pretty clunky for the 30th century) Computo to the “I can’t believe that’s not Nick Fury” LMDs from SHIELD. Although the decade began with remnants of 50s robots spilling over into the 60s, robot design started going off in a variety of directions. From Iron Man’s armor to Doc Ock’s arms, many human characters also took on somewhat robotic aspects. We also saw robots (sorry – I am not going to get fussy about android or synthezoid categories here) such as the Vision and Red Tornado searching for their humanity. We were also bombarded with robots designed to replace their human counterparts (the aforementioned LMDs, the Doombots etc…).

Although it seemed as though a robot revolution was underway, many artists maintain the status quo, as there are plenty of straight-laced 50s robots in the 60s (see Strange Adventures #136). This lack of design consistency makes it hard to pinpoint a specific theme, but I thought it would be fun to put a few designs in the spotlight to see what sets them apart. If I could only use one word to describe some of the new robot designs introduced in that decade, I would have to use a terribly dated word from that era: ‘Trippy’.

The Metal Men are an interesting example of a 60s robot, as they are essentially an LSD laced version of a 50s robot. They've got the humanoid features, but the fluidity of movement (especially in Mercury and Tin) and their individual temperaments sets them apart from their brethren from the 50s. Many of their foes also have a looks that is a slightly warped version of what we have seen with 50s robots. Although this is mostly known as a fun and silly series, there are some fairly sophisticated sci-fi themes (Tina’s unrequited love for Doc Magus, Tin’s desire for a mate). This cover to Metal Men #7 demonstrates what a vivid imagination, such as that possessed by Ross Andru, can do to a 50s robot.

One of my all-time favourite robots is J. Jonah Jameson’s personal troublemaker, the Spider Slayer. While this particular robot has gone through more than a few changes (I don’t see them as upgrades) over the years, Steve Ditko's original version, as showcased on the classic cover to Amazing Spider-Man #25, represents a giant step beyond the typical robot design of the past. Spidey would likely make mincemeat out of a slower, less agile 40s or 50s robot, but the almost elastic Spider Slayer gives him all sorts of trouble. I’ve always preferred the Ditko designed Slayer, as Romita’s version later in the decade has always brought to mind a metal teddy bear. Ditko’s robot pushed the boundaries of what a comic book robot can be, as we'd see more of this 'loose' robot style when he took over the pencilling chores on Rom.

In the not-too-distant future, mankind will rely heavily on Magnus’ judo chop to fend off unruly, but very stylish robots. There is no real pattern to the robot designs in Magnus’ world, as it seems that Russ Manning & company were given carte blanche to come up with as many looks as possible. It would be hard to name a more consistently awesome cover gallery than the one from this Gold Key series. Magnus’ foes sometimes can fly, sometimes swim (like these guys from Magnus #27) and sometimes use their giant buzz saw hands. Like the Metal Men, many of the robots featured in this title are similar to those of the 50s, but the ‘loosed limbed’ effect Manning creates makes them even more threatening, even the robots that look like flying vacuum cleaners.

My final selection is the Mad Thinker’s Awesome Android (is that the longest robot name ever?), first introduced in Fantastic Four #15 who appears to be nothing more than a sculptor’s half finished masterpiece. He has a much more ‘organic’ look that his predecessors from the 40s and 50s as there is nary a right angle anywhere in the design. He has always seemed a little out of place in the realm of Marvel Silver Age villains. When compared to the likes of Doctor Doom and Galactus, he looks downright silly. That’s not to say that I don’t like the old hammerhead, it’s just that he’s proof that Stan and Jack weren’t taking robots too serious in the 60s.

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