Mr. Silver Age's recent re-posting of his article of the New Metal Men reminded me that, back in June of 2007, I ran two consecutive Deck Log entries on Doc Magnus' merry robot band. Since you can never have too much perspective on events from past comics eras---especially the "What were they thinking? ones---I decided to bump up those two entries from the normal order of my archive posts and run them back to back, again.
This one covers the . . . ahem . . . elements of the classic Metal Men series, to give those of you who came in late a better idea of what got tossed out when DC decided to revamp the series. The second entry, which I'll post in a day or so, examines the folly that was the New Metal Men. Between Mr. S.A.'s review and my own, you'll know all you'll ever want to about it. We've spared you the pain and suffering of reading those issues yourselves. Call it a public service.
Here at the Captain Comics site, you get two heaping helpings of Silver-Age discussion for the price of one!
The story has it that, one Friday afternoon in 1961, DC exec Irwin Donenfeld approached editor Robert Kanigher and told him that, as of yet, no script or art had been produced for the next issue of Showcase---number 37. This was a problem, you see, because Showcase # 37 was due at the printers in two weeks. Donenfeld asked Kanigher if he could whip something up in time to meet the deadline.
Kanigher went home, and over the week-end, came up with the concept of the Metal Men and wrote the story. Monday morning he turned the script over to the workhorses of his stable, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. Andru and Esposito had a reputation for being fast, and they proved it, returning the finished product to Kanigher in plenty of time to meet the printing date. To be sure, that first Metal Men tale was no Kingdom Come. In fact, as far as Kanigher expected, it would be the only Metal Men story---just a throwaway script to fill twenty-six pages in a crisis.
The basic premise was a staple of science fiction, with a bit of a twist. Doctor William Magnus, a brilliant innovator in the fields of metallurgy and robotics, had created a band of robots. However, these were not the generic Robby-the-Robot brand of mechanical men. Applying his knowledge of metals, “Doc” Magnus had created visually distinctive robots, each possessing the physical properties of the base metal of its construction.
Gold was extremely malleable, capable of stretching into a thin wire miles long or flattening to a sheet four-millionths of an inch in thickness.
Lead could turn himself into a variety of shields, useful for protection from radioactivity and other forms of radiation.
Iron was the “strongman”, who could configure himself into any manner of constructs capable of withstanding tremendous stresses and deliver an impressive punch of his own.
Mercury, like the metal from which he was fashioned, could liquefy at room temperature.
Tin could form himself into cutting edges and protective surfaces, both lightweight and durable.
Platimum, also known as Tina, was the “female” Metal Man, ductile and capable of conducting electricity.
But as distinctive as their respective abilities were, what really made the Metal Men stand out were their individual personalities. More than mere programmed machines, they were capable of independent thought---this was the real genius in Doc Magnus’ creations. As a result of their sentience, each robot developed a personality, also reflective of the metal of his construction.
Gold was noble, intelligent, and analytical, essentially the standard “super-hero” type. Lead was a bit slow-witted, but dependable. Iron, much like the strength of his metal, was quiet and resolute, letting his great sturdiness speak for itself.
Mercury was a hot-head, confrontational and egotistical; his opposite, Tin, was humble, eager to please.
And Tina was in a class by herself. She refused to accept that she was a robot and, in a knock-off from Pygmalion, she carried a torch for her creator.
Tina was, technically, the first Metal Man, created by Magnus as a research project, to see how lifelike a robot could be fashioned. Doc is ready to move on to other projects when the events of “The Flaming Doom”, from Showcase # 37 (Mar.-Apr., 1962), intervene. A giant, winged, prehistoric creature is released from its glacial tomb and it works its way southward to North America. Having absorbed a tremendous amount of radioactivity during its long slumber, the creature is capable of discharging blasts of heat and cold, and is terrorising the cities in its path.
Colonel Henry Caspar, of Military Intelligence, decides that the best man to create a weapon that will destroy the monster is Doc Magnus. He seeks out Doc at his laboratory complex and pleads his case. Doc agrees to help, and to battle the winged menace, builds the other five Metal Men.
Led by Doc, the Metal Men engage the giant radioactive creature in a pitched combat that showcases both the robots’ individual properties and their characterisations. Ultimately, the monster is defeated, but the cost of victory is terrible, as the Metal Men are destroyed, one after the other, leaving Doc and Colonel Caspar to remember their sacrifice for humanity.
Since it was to be a simple, one-shot filler, Robert Kanigher had wanted to conclude it with a tragic ending that would leave an impact on the readers. Unknowingly, though, Kanigher had painted himself into a corner. Sales of Showcase # 37 soared. Fans loved the idea of sentient, emotion-laden robots.
Bring ‘em back, ordered Donenfeld.
So Kanigher did. In “The Nightmare Menace”, appearing in Showcase # 38 (May-Jun., 1962), the public demands to meet the Metal Men and reward them for defeating the winged creature. With the originals destroyed, Doc Mangus opts to simply build a new set of Metal Men. Yet, even though he uses the same process and technology, the second version of his six robots lack the independence and the spark of personality that the originals possessed.
At the awards ceremony, a gigantic robot calling itself the Nightmare Menace strikes, and it becomes painfully evident that the quality of the Metal Men, Mark II, does not match that of the prototypes. Unable to think for themselves, the new robots have to be directed by Doc in every tactic. This causes the second versions to respond too slowly and to work at cross-purposes. In the confusion, the Nightmare Menace easily escapes.
Doc realises that he has to restore the original Metal Men. He returns to the site where they fell, collects the remnants of their shattered forms, and brings them back to his complex. After destroying the inferior second set of Metal Men in the smelter, Doc turns to rebuilding the originals. Attempting to recreate the exact conditions that existed when he first built them, the scientist discovers that, during the original construction, there was “intense Aurora Borealis activity”. He surmises that this was the “X factor” which affected the mechanisms of the original Metal Men and gave them their human-like qualities.
Doc succeeds, and the old Metal Men are back in business, right down to Tin’s stammer. In due time, they take on the Nightmare Menace, and while it is no stroll on the beach, the robots manage to defeat the threat without losing any of their own this time.
Nevertheless, this story establishes one of the recurring elements of the Metal Men mythos. Throughout the rest of the Metal Men’s existence as DC characters, they are constantly crushed, melted, corroded, exploded, and demolished---only to be resurrected at the hands of Doc Magnus’ scientific genius. This rapidly becomes one of the charms of the series.
“The Nightmare Menace”, too, proved to be a hit with the readers. Two more Metal Men adventures were cranked out for Showcase # 39 and 40. Then, the robot band graduated to its own series.
“Rain of the Missile Men”, from Metal Men # 1 (Apr.-May, 1963), established another item of significance in the Metal Men mythos. For the first time, the fans discover that the crucial factor in the existence of the Metal Men is Doc’s invention of the responsometer. This device is the core element that powers his robots and enables them to transform their bodies into various shapes. According to this story, it is also responsible for their sentience and unique personalities. It was not stated so, but presumably, it was their responsometers that were affected by the intense Aurora Borealis radiation. It’s best not to dwell on that too much, since future tales would see Doc inventing yet other robots which would also prove to be able to think and feel for themselves with nary an outside explanation for that.
Outside of the pseudo-science involved with the responsometer and “Aurora Borealis radiation”, the series was remarkably accurate with scientific fact and relied heavily on it. Fans were constantly being informed of the properties of the various metals that composed the Metal Men. We were told their boiling points, stress points, how thin Gold could flatten himself, how far Tina could stretch, how cold it had to be for Mercury to freeze solid, what tin pest was and how Tin could convert to it.
This was especially true in the early days. Readers were shown that Lead could not expand his body as much as the others unless Iron were to apply enough friction to his leaden form, melting it just enough for Lead to shape himself into a large wall or dome. If Iron had to operate on or near water, Tin would cover his form to prevent the iron robot from rusting. Virtually any issue of Metal Men was a lesson in basic physics.
Yet, it never seemed like school because the Metal Men adventures were so much off-the-wall fun.
Much of it came from the interaction of the Metal Men themselves. The series had no supporting characters. Occasionally, someone we had seen before would pop up, and there were regular villains. Colonel Caspar appeared in the first half-dozen tales, then was dropped. (He came back when the Metal Men series was revived in the ‘70’s, having been promoted to general.) But outside of that, Doc and the robots carried the drama.
As a team, the Metal Men were nothing like DC readers had ever seen. While the Justice League and the Blackhawks and the Challengers were always slapping each other on the back and smiling, the Metal Men were as likely to be squabbling. The other robots would roll their eyes over Lead’s slowness or found Tin’s constant whining wearisome. Mercury’s constant bragging and harping got on everybody’s nerves. Tina mooned over Doc, who had to constantly remind her that he was human and she wasn’t. Magnus was often tempted to just shove them all into the smelter and go back to designing mechanical rice-pickers or something.
In Metal Men # 13 (Apr.-May, 1965), another complication was added when Tin built his own robot from a mail-order do-it-yourself kit and one of Magnus’ spare responsometers. She joined the metal band as “Nameless”, since DC opened up a contest to give her a name. But it never got around to picking any of the submissions. Tin called her “Beautiful”, and they were ga-ga for each other like a couple of love-struck puppies.
Nice for Tin, but it made Mercury jealous and Tina resentful, because she couldn’t get to first base with Doc. Lead was too dumb to care, Iron stood by stoically, and the noble Gold was above the whole thing.
It was like a ‘60’s version of the Ewing family.
But when it hit the fan, all the petty conflicts were forgotten, as the Metal Men and Doc would go into action as a tightly knit team.
Speaking of the menaces, not surprisingly, the Metal Men tended to tackle more than the usual super-hero’s share of robotic threats. They ran up against robot Amazons (Metal Men # 3 and # 32), juggernaut robots (# 9), skyscraper robots (# 13), the robotic army B.O.L.T.S. (# 15 and # 20), termite robots (# 17), robot black-widow spiders (# 17), a robot dinosaur (# 18), and the giant egg-shaped robot Doctor Yes (# 20),
Then, there were evil variations on the Metal Men elemental theme. The Metal Men squared off against Barium, Aluminum, Calcium, Zirconium, Sodium, and Plutonium (in Metal Men # 2); the Gas Gang---Oxygen, Helium, Chloroform, Carbon Monoxide, and Carbon Dioxide (in issues # 6 and # 10), and the Plastic Perils---Ethylene, Styrene, Silicone, Methacrylate, and Polyethylene (in # 21).
That’s not to mention other groups of robots invented by Doc that would always, somehow, go haywire, such as an emergency replacement set of Metal Men (# 28), a back-up “second team” of Silver, Cobalt, Zinc, Osmium, Gallium, and Iridium (# 31), and “female” counterparts (# 32).
It became formula. The Metal Men would lose the first go-round with these counterpart collexions, then retreat to the Magnus complex, where Doc would offer some techno-babble. Newly inspired, Gold, Iron, and the gang would then track down rogues and defeat them using with tricks based upon the scientific properties of the elements in the bad guys’ composition.
Kanigher realised that the steady diet of robots and counterparts was getting boring, so he changed gears. That’s when the series took a plunge into the surreal. More and more, the Metal Men dealt with invasions from outer space and missions to bizarre dimensions. They were shrunk by aliens and sold as toys. They were stuck as candles on the giant birthday cake of a cannibal robot. Doc Magnus was changed into a mechanical man no less than three times, while the Metal Men themselves became human once. The “fourth wall” was broken, as the Metal Men spoke directly to the readers, asking them to hurry up with their suggestions for a name for Nameless, or to remind the fans to watch Batman on television.
Metal Men # 21 had the robots reading some of the actual mail sent to DC and worrying about how to respond to them throughout the entire story. When their battle with the Plastic Perils left the Metal Men with egg on their faces, Tin moaned, “What are we going to tell Irene Vartanoff [a frequent DC critic of the day]?”
“My globules freeze up at the thought of it!” replied Mercury.
It was kookiness unlike anything else DC was putting out at the time. Clearly, Kanigher and Andru and Esposito were having fun, and it transferred to their readership. If you were the kind of comic-book fan who liked the more serious tone of, say, Superman or Justice League of America, or the Legion over in Adventure Comics, then you probably never looked at more than an issue or two of Metal Men. It wasn’t grounded enough for you.
But if you liked your stories off-kilter, with just enough absurdity to keep you from taking things too seriously, then you were a Metal Man fan. That’s where your twelve cents went every other month.
Next time, I’ll talk about how the ride came to an end, like it did for many DC series, in 1968.