Friday, July 17, 2009

Metal Men #45-#56 (1970s series)

As I chronicled in the pages of OWARI many years ago (in an article I should reprint here someday), the comic book that sealed the deal to make me a fan for life was Metal Men #48. The funny part is that I only owned TWO issues of the series - #48 and #50. I did manage to eventually read the run from #45-#49 in the criminally obscure DC trade paperback Art of Walt Simonson. Still, the remaining issues had proven elusive all these years. That is, until I took advantage of one of Lone Star Comics' recent sales, and put together the entire run of the 1970s revival of the title.

By way of explanation, the Metal Men are a band of robots with very sharply defined personality traits. They were decently successful for a portion of the 1960s before their book ran out of gas and was cancelled with #41. #42-#44 were all reprint collections from the early 1970s, during a period when DC experimented with a number of titles in this format. About three years later, it was decided to try again with new material, and a one-shot story originally slotted for the beautifully awful tryout/inventory dumping ground series First Issue Special instead launched Metal Men #45.

And the results? Well, they are mixed. I have a lot of affection for comic books from this period, and this series in particular, given its impact on my life. However, I'm not blinded by nostalgia into thinking they're all top-notch works. Everything in the 1970s industry was entirely too scattershot, and it only rarely made books that were consistent. In some ways, Metal Men is an example of how random comics could be.

It's hard to argue with the pedigree of the creators that got the ball rolling. Steve Gerber was arguably one of the hottest writers in comics in the 1970s, and his script for the debut issue hits the right notes. It's not as "out there" as his Marvel scripts, but it's still quite quirky and idiosyncratic. The art duties are handled by Walt Simonson (if you hadn't guessed from the opening paragraph), and this turned out to be his first regular series since the Manhunter strip from Detective Comics. It's offbeat and stylish work, and is more flamboyant than the gritty action called for in the Manhunter feature.

With #46, we get our first hint that Metal Men will not be a stable book. Gerber is out as writer (in fairness, the debut tale was originally commissioned as a one-shot, with no guarantee of a series). His replacement is Gerry Conway, the title's editor. This is not a bad choice, though there is no way even an experienced writer like Conway can ever hope to replicate Gerber's unique sensibilities. Simonson's artwork keeps a sense of continuity, as does Conway dutifully following the threads of Gerber's story through #46 and #47.

We arrive at #48, and yet another writer change. Gerry Conway departed for the sandy shores of Marvel (in fact, I think this was his two week stint as editor-in-chief there) and Marty Pasko was drafted to write the book from Conway's plot. Pasko quickly took his turn making his "mark" on the book, as it began to drift into even more flippancy than before. Recall, this is a revival engineered by STEVE GERBER'S scripting. This is the storyline that won over my tender young mind, and it's not hard to see why at this late date. Simonson's art and storytelling are simply magnificent, and he's at the top of his game.

...So naturally, it follows that he left the book right afterward. He hung around for a few more covers, but the interior artist became Joe Staton. There are, in my experience, comics fans who are down on Staton's artwork. I'm not one of them. His style is not "realistic", but then again, neither is Walt Simonson's. Staton has a pleasant, cartoony style, and he gets the points across dynamically. I don't think it's an accident that a ton of the comics I bought as a kid featured his pencilling and/or inking.

Pasko and Staton's presence in #50 are minimal, however, because Metal Men fell victim to the Dreaded Deadline Doom. So beyond a framing sequence, the bulk of that issue is given over to an excerpt of Metal Men #6 by Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru, and Mike Esposito. This bit of 1960s awesomeness is pretty far out, even if a number of captions have been re-written (whether by Pasko, new editor Paul Levitz, or someone else, I don't know). Also of note in this issue's new material is a rather odd implication of a budding romance between MM creator Doc Magnus and his female shrink!

I don't have to explain the fundamental wrongness of breaching medical ethics that way, do I? To say this idea is summarily dismissed is to not go far enough. Not only is it never mentioned again, but the CHARACTER never appears again. Though I find myself wondering if it was the ethical implications of the matter that kiboshed the idea, or other concerns. Because, you see, Doc's doc happened to be an African-American woman.

At any rate, Staton takes over full art chores with #51, and retains those duties for the rest of this title's existence. The writing, on the other hand, is another matter entirely. That issue is a collaboration between Pasko and Jack C. Harris. It has enough distinctly Pasko earmarks to show his involvement. But it's #52 and #53 that are the issues that epitomize Pasko's direction for Metal Men.

I think when you trot out a villain named "Dr. Strangeglove" and give him a typewriter hand, you're signalling that you're playing matters tongue-in-cheek. Nothing wrong with that, and the Metal Men lend themselves well to humor. It just never seems like there's a strong enough commitment to the idea (and oh, was there some backlash from a few letter hacks!), and so it doesn't feel like it's given enough opportunity to develop. Pasko and Staton did better remembered humor in the Plastic Man feature that started in Adventure Comics a couple of years later and then bounced around (pun intended) after that book changed formats for the umpteenth time. But the seeds for that collaboration are planted here.

Then comes such an abrupt change of direction that it would give an Atlas/Seaboard comic a run for its money. Gerry Conway, of all people, is drafted back onto the title, and promptly begins playing the whole thing with an almost totally straight face. He takes a humorous Pasko ending and somehow manages to play it into a Very Serious change in direction. I'm not even sure the 60 day gap between issues for a bi-monthly series was enough time to lessen the shock of such a turn.

What happened? One can only guess it was done at the behest of editor Levitz in an attempt to boost sales. Ditto for that Green Lantern guest appearance, with his logo emblazoned on the cover. Those last three issues are by no means poorly done, but they're so different from what had gone before that they stick out like a sore thumb. Even compared to Conway's earlier scripts, it just isn't the same. And really - portraying the Missile Men as an unstoppable juggernaut across the universea, akin to Galactus? Really?

In the end, all of what was done in those last few issues didn't matter one iota, sales-wise. The book was cancelled with #56, with the Metal Men declared "citizens of the world" by the U.N. at the conclusion. It was an upbeat ending for the series, and then the Metal Men returned to their utility duty as potential guest stars.

One of the most striking things about the 1970s Metal Men as I read it was the hidden subplot you probably noticed during this overview. Namely, wow, that is a lot of creative team turnover for a book that only ran for two years and 12 issues. And since artists always take the rap for being flakes, it's worth noting that the book only had TWO during its abbreviated run. Simonson hung around for 5 issues, and Staton did the last six, and even contributed art to the fill-in issue. Both of those guys did full pencils and inks, so they did their jobs the best they could on the title.

There were four writers on the 1970s Metal Men during its 12 issues. FOUR. Five if you count Kanigher's story reprinted in #50, and six if you count Conway's second stint as a different writer. The latter sounds kind of ridiculous, but it's such a departure from his first run that I think it's almost plausible. There are at least three distinct directions for the book, and one fill-in issue that is essentially just wheel-spinning. Remember, this is a book that only ran for two years, and only racked up 12 issues.

That, in a nutshell, was one of the biggest problems with comic books in the 1970s. The creative team merry-go-round that plagued many books meant that they never could find a clear direction for the reader to get behind. If Joe Q. Comixfan liked an issue of something, the odds were better than average that either the writer or artist of this favored issue would soon be gone, or the book would be off into a new direction not to his liking. Possibly all of the above. In that respect, Metal Men was no different from dozens of comic books published during that decade.

My take on this series is that the Simonson-drawn issues have a unity of style and creativity that allows them to rise above any shortcomings they might have. There is a bravura in his work that makes you sit up and notice them. Plus, it didn't hurt that he is credited with co-plotting, thus having more input in what is on the page. The fill-in issue is nice in that recalls the glory days of the team, when their book was still fresh and distinct. The Staton-drawn run is perfectly fine, but there is less vitality to them. I don't think that's even a function of his art, but more due to the fact that there is less "bigness" in Pasko's issues, and Conway's second run feels all wrong for the book. They aren't BAD comics, just ordinary.

I still have a lot of fondness for this title, and this particular run of issues. There are some great comics, some good comics, and some passably readable comics. There was a lot of potential, but it frustratingly never got realized before sales spelled the end.

Read more about it?

Cover gallery @ GCD

DarkMark's Index for the entire series

3 comments:

Xenorama said...

well done! and completely different than the one I just started writing, so I think they will be an interesting compliment to each other.

Anonymous said...

You've got me reconsidering the second run....

I was thinking of unloading 42-56 of my full run

but I guess I'll have another look

thanks for the insights

C. Elam said...

@Xenorama - I kinda figured it might be, yeah. :) It was an angle I felt that run sort of demanded. I'm not too big on doing recaps, but this was something I could my teeth into.

@Anonymous - Wow, I don't think I could ask for a higher compliment on an essay.