That's not to say there aren't some good reviews of this mini-series (written by Tom DeFalco, art by Herb Trimpe and Barry Windsor-Smith) out there - such as this one, my go-to for all quoted material in this post - but it's relatively off-the-radar. It was at the time, too. And that's further not to say I don't emphatically recommend pressing play on the link above and viewing the pics to come as a slideshow. If Machine Mani s ever turned into a film - and I'm almost positive it never will be but hey, who knows - I hope its producers realize that the soundtrack already exists. At the very least, the title track should play over the end credits, a la Black Sabbath at the end of Iron Man.
(Maybe White Zombie's "More Human Than Human." Maybe.)
Some background on the character should you not be familiar: "The product of a military program to create thinking robotic soldiers with some form of sentience, X-51 was the only one to not go mad. This was accomplished by his creator Aaron Stack providing him with a humanoid face and the identity of his son. After his creator was killed, X-51 was on the run. Meeting up with all manner of superheroes and villains, he adopted the name Machine Man and also the alter ego Aaron Stack (after his ‘father.’). A one-time Avenger and compatriot of several superheroes, X-51 was a minor hit of the the comic book world of the late 1970s."
The mini-series takes place in the dystopian future of 2020. Sunset Bain (whom I understand is still quite active in current Marvel continuity, though obviously a different version than the one we see here; heck, she could show up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. without skipping a beat) heads Baintronics, the corporation with a monopoly on robot production. When a group of cyberpunk marauders raid one of Bain's garbage dumps, they unearth a disassembled Aaron Stack.
|Who quickly proves his worth as a comrade.|
|The Midnight Wreckers are on the boiler-plate side, but they "scream cyberpunk which is interesting because the genre was in its infancy at the time."|
This and the Deathlok saga from Captain America were my OMG-the-future-is-intense stories from the mid-80s. Keep in mind - I hadn't seen Blade Runner or even The Terminator at that point, nor read any of the what-is-human / man vs. robot sci-fi classics of the genre. I read this thing many times between 1985 and 1988, so as I got to all the above, Machine Man's place in the grand scheme of thing was reshuffled, but it always stuck with me as one of my sci-fi gateway drugs.
The "What is Human?" theme permeates everything.
Sometimes clumsily, sure. It belongs to the Bronze/ Copper Age of storytelling and makes no bold leaps out of Bronze/ Copper Age conventions. Yet it's "one of the most unusual mini-series you will ever read (...) not because the comic is so wild and bizarre and outlandish but more because it is so stripped down and basic that the modern intricate artwork may throw you."
Herb Trimpe provided breakdowns, with finishes by Barry Windsor-Smith. By issue 4, BWS is not only the sole artist but also the co-plotter. He poured a lot of himself into these 4 issues, to be sure.
The transition allows for a fun progression.
|As previously noted in these pages, Trimpe had an affinity for big pop-art sound fx.|
|As BWS gradually takes over the art, he keeps these.|
|But they are consumed by his singular style.|
Anyway, like many Rip Van Winkles in fiction, Aaron is disheartened by the state of disrepair into which humanity has fallen. Thanks to anti-robot riots that Machine Man missed while he was offline, and subsequent legislation granting Baintronics broad privileges and "personhood" status (ahem), the real work of the world is done by programs and robots, while humanity wastes away plugged into its various distractions.
|That's Gears Garvin on the right, leader of the anti-Bain Marauders and old pal of Machine Man's from his original series in the 70s.|
The robot who thinks of himself as a human and struggles with Organic Privilege is of course nothing new, then or now. But hell, it was new to me. Even reading it in 2015, I can access the reactions of my younger self, who was very moved by Aaron's out-of-place-ness, both as a man from the past thrust in the future and also the "Hath Not a Robot Organs and Dimensions" aspect of it all.
This being a Marvel comic, this all comes to a head with a slugfest with the main baddie of the series:
|He introduces himself at least twice as "the Iron Man of 2020," which made me chuckle each time.|
Like the Daily Pop reviewer, I figured Arno would turn sides and become Machine Man's ally by the end. But not at all - the man who dresses up in high-tech armor and designs programs becomes fixated on destroying this man from the past who is high-tech armor and programs.
The big finish in the last issue (the Marauders assault on Baintronics, riding flying motorcycles, dodging robots and stormtroopers and flak, all in the rain, while Iron Man and Machine Man duke it out inside) is very cinematic. It even comes with the Senator on Baintronics' payroll who is convinced Machine Man has risen from the grave to punish him for his lifetime of sins. When Machine Man finally beats Iron Man:
The Senator says goodbye.
Another aspect of the series is Jocasta:
|Machine Man's girlfriend from the first series, now embedded in Baintronics as a captive/ servant of Sunset.|
And of course, they don't reunite and live happily ever after, so that adds that touch of angst that Marvel was so great at in the 80s.
Not sure whatever happened to Machine Man after I stopped reading Marvel regularly - I know X-51 had a memorable role in Earth X but that's all I've got. I probably could have looked it up for you, it's true. My apologies. Regardless, I wanted to tip my cap to this mini-series that meant a great deal to me in my formative years. I still think it'd make a fine little movie or pilot for an ongoing show. (I think post-BSG, though, an ongoing show might struggle to distinguish itself, so I'd recommend setting it in the past instead of the future. Or the present - definitely the past. I offer this free of charge, Disney/ Marvel.)