And as savvy DC fans of the Silver Age understood, “New” was not a good thing.
As most of you know, I use the year 1968 to demark the end of the Silver Age. For a variety of reasons resulting from behind-the-scenes events too detailed to go into now. But the tinkering was clear. Artists with long tenures on the same series were being removed or switched around. The same thing with writers, except, in those pre-credits days, those changes weren’t as apparent. Suddenly, the heroes weren’t losing sleep over what nefarious schemes their arch-enemies were planning; now, there was more and more “screen time” given to pollution, race relations, evil big business, and social schisms. You know, the kind of stuff we were facing in the real world.
And whenever the adjective “New” appeared in the title of a series, that was a big, honkin’ red flag, informing the readers that the old premise was being given the heave-ho, and a “daringly different” approach being launched. Readers had learnt not to trust a “New” title. The New Blackhawk Era had been an embarrassment, while the New Teen Titans were just a bunch of boring kids in grey jumpsuits. So far, “new” had not been a good thing, and as far as the Metal Men were concerned, it wasn't about to get any better.
Loyal Metal Men fans knew something was in the wind when the long-running Metal Men art team of Andru and Esposito, who had been with the series since its inception, was replaced; first for two issues by Gil Kane, then in issue # 32 (Jun.-Jul., 1968), by Mike Sekowsky.
That first Sekwosky-drawn Metal Men tale---“The ‘Metal Woman Blues!’”---didn’t deviate from the fan-tested, fan-approved formula for Doc Magnus and his metal crew. The hardest thing about issue # 32 to swallow was Sekowsky’s rendition of the robots. Andru and Esposito’s Metal Men may have been stiff, but they were reasonably proportioned. Sekowsky’s version, on the other hand, showed plenty of oversized heads and undersized hands and feet; and his composition, which had been put to good effect over in Justice League of America, was chaotic and awkward in Metal Men.
As part of the general editor/writer/artist shuffles of 1968, Jack Miller had been assigned to replace Robert Kanigher as the editor of Metal Men. Kanigher did, though, stay on as the writer of the series. So I’m guessing that it was Miller who ordered the radical change in format.
Somebody has to take the blame.
The opening pages of “Recipe to Kill a Robot” shows the Metal Men on the run from the police, who aren’t messing around. They’re conducting a dogged search for the robots and carrying sub-machine guns and grenades, while their radios blare out the order, “Shoot to kill!” Showing surprisingly little of the resourcefulness they had brought to bear in some thirty-odd stories previous, the Metal Men hot-foot it to an alleyway, hiding in the shadows while police units scan the streets for them.
As the Metal Men cower like a half-dozen rabbits (for Nameless is no longer with them; she’ll not be seen again in the title, nor will her disappearance be explained for decades), a gigantic alien fly-creature appears and makes short work of the police, despite their heavy armament. In the confusion, the Metal Men are rescued by a U.S. Army officer in fatigues, whom the readers learn---thanks to some awkward expositional dialogue---is Colonel David Magnus, heretofore-unmentioned brother to Doctor William Magnus.
Colonel Magnus transports the Metal Men to a hidden sub-sub-basement in Army Special Services Headquarters and deactivates the robots with a special remote-control wrist watch given to the colonel by his brother.
“I’ve given them new responsometers to make them react more like robots!” Doc explained. “This special electrical current CX will super-charge them to a degree they’ve never before experienced!”
However, a loose connexion caused a power surge and Doc absorbed the brunt of the electrical feedback, lapsing into a coma. As the Metal Men rushed to their stricken creator, an alarm reported an out-of-control fire at a chemical plant, threatening to turn the city into an inferno. Colonel Magnus ordered the robots to deal with the fire.
Unfortunately, the Metal Men discovered that they could not control their increased powers, which seemed primarily to be a newfound super-strength. Their actions worsened the fire, instead of extinguishing it. Driven off by the firemen, the robots then attempted to halt some fleeing bank robbers, only to wind up injuring the police officers in pursuit. The rest of their day went pretty much like that, and in no time, the public railed against the robots like torch-bearing villagers assailing Castle Frankenstein, and the robots fled for their existences, as we saw on page one.
End of flashback.
The Metal Men remain dormant for several hours, until re-animated by Colonel Magnus. He alerts them that the city is being laid to waste by a horde of gigantic fly creatures like the one that appeared earlier. The situation is so desperate that the authorities are willing to take the risk of sending the out-of-control robots against the alien monsters.
The Metal Men manage to hold it together long enough to soundly destroy the giant fly-creatures. But is the city grateful? Nooooooooooooooo!!! No sooner are the aliens and their ship so many piles of smouldering dust, then the cops turn their guns on the Metal Men and start blasting away, sending them scurrying, again.
That sets the pattern for the next couple of issues. Despite Colonel Magnus’ efforts to restore the Metal Men’s good name by sending them into action against threats too terrible for humans to combat, the robots generally make a botch of it and the pissed-off public cries for their heads. Finally, the Metal Men take it on the lam, leaving Colonel Magnus and the still-comatose Doc behind.
In short order, the fugitive robots wind up fighting off the invasion of a super-being exiled from the planet Astra Maxima, a creature who for no reason---other than the script demanded it---had fallen in love with the "female" Metal Man, Tina. This is followed up by an adventure involving---I kid you not---“cruel clowns from outer space”.
Long-time readers didn’t know what to think. The series had undergone a complete turnabout, from its original theme of the offbeat adventures of a scientist and his “pet” robots---to one of grim, angst-filled moodiness.
Gradually, the Metal Men come to resent humans and bitterly wonder if they just shouldn’t wash their hands of the whole “super-hero” business and actually become the menaces people think they are.
In Metal Men # 37 (Apr.-May, 1969), the antagonism between man and machine comes to a head. The authorities finally capture the Metal Men and sentence them to immediate destruction in a junkyard compactor. Submitting to their “executions”, the Metal Men are amazed to find, somewhat later, that they are still alive.
Their rescuer calls himself Mister Conan, and through his machinations, the robots escaped destruction in the compactor, though the public doesn’t know that.
Conan explains his motivations: “The authorities were convinced you had outlived your usefulness to humanity---and I confess that I agree! With the whole of the civilized world against you, it was becoming impossible for you to function! But I know Doctor Magnus---know his genius! I am certain the Metal Men can still serve!
“I can place you in positions where you can make full use of your powers! I am a billionaire . . . but contrary to the usual image of a rich man as selfish, I am deeply concerned with man’s fate. I own much of the world’s goods . . . I operate everything from atomic reactors to tattoo parlors in every sector of the globe . . . and everywhere I see chaos . . . worthy institutions and governments breaking down. Recently I decided to use my wealth to combat that chaos . . . I formed a worldwide organization dedicated to erasing those forces which theaten all that is best in humanity . . . .”
In order to prevent the public from learning that the Metal Men still live and hunting them down again, Mr. Conan calls in a scientist, Dr. Peter Pygmalion, to fashion human secret identities for the robots. Leading a team of experts in metallurgy, electronics, cybernetics, and bionics, Dr. Pygmalion remoulds the robots into forms resembling human beings, and Mr. Conan's wealth and influence establish human identities for them.
Gold, becomes financier "Guy Gilden"; Iron, construction man "Jon 'Iron' Mann"; Mercury, the temperamental artist "Mercurio". Lead and Tin become folk singers "Leadby Hand" and "Tinker". And the platinum female Metal Man, Tina? Well, of course, she is now fashion model "Tina Platt".
Falling by the wayside was the sub-plot of the Metal Men struggling to control their super-energised powers. That was probably for the best. However, not for the best, was the fact that the trademark personalities which the Metal Men had always displayed---Mercury's hot-headedness and arrogance, Lead's slow-wittedness, Tin's stammering shyness---were also jettisoned. Personality-wise, the new Metal Men were as indistinguishable as the old 1950's Blackhawks had been.
The premise now was that the disguised robots had to operate in secret lest it become known that the Metal Men still existed.
This development, and the notion of giving the Metal Men human appearances, destroyed the most inviting aspect of the series. One of its strengths had always been that, in action, the Metal Men provided remarkable visuals for the reader---Gold stretching into lengths of micrometre-thin wire; Mercury turning into globs of fluid; Iron and Lead changing into massive walls or constructions. Even at repose, they had been striking in terms of colour---gold, red, blue, grey, silver, white.
By making them human in appearance and minimising the use of their transformation skills to an occasional finger turned into a key or a hand converted into a mallet, the visual impact of the series was removed.
In short, editor Miller and writer Kanigher had removed everything which made the Metal Men distinctive. DC had the market on human-looking characters with the standard super-hero personalities. It scarcely needed another example.
The next two issues presented the New Metal Men's first missions undertaken on behalf of Mr. Conan. The first was a tale of witches and covens, and would have been more at home in the pages of The Phantom Stranger. The second involved a hunchback and murder on a movie set. Batman would have handled it with more aplomb. So little of the Metal Men's robotic abilities were seen that they might as well have really been ordinary humans. Not surprisingly, neither story inspired much reader interest.
DC had bled all of the fun out of the Metal Men, and sales tumbled toward the basement.
As the series was winding down toward cancellation, Miller tried one last trick to save it. In issue # 40 (Oct.-Nov., 1969), the Metal Men learn that Doc Magnus had been kidnapped from his hospital bed by operatives of a foreign dictator, Karnak, and subjected to a brain operation. The operation releases Doc from his coma, but turns him evil. This issue and the next---the last of the series---shows the Metal Men attempting to recapture Doc, who in turn, does his damndest to destroy them. Thus was erased the last remnant of what had made the old Metal Men so enjoyable---the obvious loyalty and affection the robots and their creator had for each other.
The title was cancelled before any resolution was made to the situation. Sometime later, a story appearing in The Brave and the Bold # 103 (Sep.-Oct., 1972) explained why the Metal Men returned to their original appearances. And when the series was revived in the mid-1970's, all of the plot points involving Doc’s brainwashing were tied up and Magnus was cured, putting him and his Metal Men back at their old stand.
Until the post-Crisis era screwed it all up, again.