Tuesday, August 31, 2010

When you've been made up, how do you even know you're alive?

MACHINE MAN by Jack Kirby

A machine that thinks it’s a man! The drama aspect trumps discussions of complex technology; as with most comics, it’s not very hard science.

Flirtations with the life of artificial intelligence reach back to Asimov’s I, Robot. In the mass media, the thinking machine-as-character populates science fiction in many forms since, with Bladerunner following in 1982 and Star Trek: Next Generation’s Data in 1988. In 1939, one of the first two superheroes in Marvel’s history (in their Timely days) was the Human Torch---an android who runs amuck when he spontaneously catches flame (stop, drop, and roll wasn’t the answer this time). DC Comics started Robot Man’s adventures with the Doom Patrol three months before the X-Men debuted in 1963; in that case, you start with the human brain of Cliff Steele, so while the troubles resemble, at least he knew his intelligence started life organically. Even the android Vision, a “synthezoid,” had made his appearance during Jack Kirby’s Marvel hay day, in a title Kirby helped begin, The Avengers (too bad---no Emma Peel). His particular brain patterns, however, were copied from a one-shot character named Simon Williams, from 1964’s issue nine, before his return from the dead in 1975---so again, the artificial intelligence proceeded from human life. From whence springs the life of the Machine Man? That is a mystery of intense interest to our electrode-eyed protagonist.

This time out, in 1978, the King of Comics tries the thinking-machine-as-superhero. As super heroes go, however, this one’s conditioned to be a civilian; the robot wants to be what some might call a “secret identity,” a regular guy. In every way, he’s so far from it.

Machine Man’s an ultimate computer, a super-powerful robotic infantryman, but the quest to program him with intelligence leaves him with a yearning to exist as an individual---even dreams! His debut as Mister Machine came in a comic inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey , a property licensed from Stanley Kubrik at the time, which featured the Monolith and a handful of “out-there” Kirby ideas. In the story, his creator, Abel Stack, gives him a face and conditions him like a son. He removes a destruct device at the cost of his own life, leaving Machine Man “orphaned” with the greatest gift of all: his love for his son. On his way to a normal life, he must overcome the fears and anxieties he sparks in humanity, expressed in the Army manhunt by Col. Stagg, ordered to destroy all x model androids after losing men and an eye in battle with the ones that went mad. The existential crisis of being a thinking entity inside a robotic war machine, it seems, is one to handle with care, and is nearly impossible to face alone.

So what happens now?

You can play with the analogies and get many interesting thoughts. Why do I like him so much? It could be Jack Kirby’s intention shining through; while he makes a cool super hero, which was a standard requirement for being in a 1970’s comic, his story’s really centered on a thoughtful search for identity. As Jack draws, he says in one of his wonderful text pages to the reader, he thinks of him as “a nice young man of twenty-six, with good scholastic credentials and a person of positive and constructive qualities. The thoughts of cold, hard steel and finger weapons system and electronic units are far from my mind until the action starts.”

Why I like him---even though he would hardly seem unique in the years to follow---is tied to Kirby’s unusual characterization. His unsmiling face (not entirely devoid of expression) accompanies a defensive demeanor; his gadgetry----and as gadget heroes go, he’s classic---generates wonder in people, yet “Aaron Stack” or X-51 is not charming or charismatic. He takes some of the befuddlement in stride, but the attempts to invalidate his existence or destroy him or even analyze him set off a personal resentment you might term “human.” Without a human body, his pleasures are of a more intellectual stripe, as he’s hardly equipped to be a hedonist (as he’s not a “Hedonism ‘Bot” oh no!). His values---his truthfulness, even bluntness, courage, reflectiveness, and the willingness to help those in need---are strong ones, but a defining part of being an individual is choice making, so while he doesn’t set out to be unpleasant, he can be impatient, cynical, moody, disagreeable. While he tends to grasp what is right, even if he wrestles with it, Aaron Stack is no Mr. Spock!

I suppose, as Jack Kirby had so many opposing his return run at Marvel, he may have related some of these feelings as the mechanical marvel with hardly a friend took his impending date with the scrap heap with resentment and self-defense. Kirby kept delivering like a pro but he was not always appreciated for his unique displays of talent. His style of scripting, his story pacing, even the drawings were criticized by fan and pro alike---and realize, the decade before, every artist at Marvel was being taught how to emulate Kirby’s bag of tricks.

He retained his fans and much of his autonomy, but Kirby often felt out of place in the very creative field he’d done so much to establish. I mean, he helped bring us Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, the original X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer and Doctor Doom and Magneto---he had some hand in nearly everything the fledgling company did! But this time out, after getting his new heroes started, Jack decided to go into animation and keep his career alive while enjoying the rest of his life in California, which I’d recommend to anyone.

Personally, I appreciate the way he kept finding something different to do, rather than wearing out one-note characters. Maybe it’s just the time in my life when I found this obscure character, but since I didn’t get to read about him for some time, I went home with that cover image in my mind and promptly began inventing his adventures and powers. He inspired me to plant a memory deep in my brain: after so many lessons learned, my real joy lay in the power of creativity to intensify one’s spirit.
So, here I am, in the future world of 2010, revisiting a happy evasion of boredom from my own “wonder years”: our childhood concept of the Uglies and the summer spent at Brenda’s Place, waiting to mop up after closing time, writing and drawing a humorous homage to Kirby’s quandary with my own invented pseudo men. Before I get ever so busy with the numerous other ideas at work “off-stage”, here at the gate of eternal summer, let me tell you all about it.

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