There are thousands of comic-book characters out there, many of them with publication histories going back decades. And while there are plenty of must-read or best-of lists for characters like Batman or Spider-Man, it’s not easy knowing where to start when tackling those characters who are slightly less famous than the reigning box-office champs.
Recommended Reads is my attempt to shed some light on those lesser luminaries — not with a list of their “best” stories, but with a sampling of books that cover the high and low points in their careers, and show how the characters have evolved over the years. In this edition: DC’s original heavy-metal band, the Metal Men.
1. “The Flaming Doom,” Showcase #37 (04/62)
Never one of DC’s big-name super-teams, the Metal Men have nonetheless proven to be a resilient concept, which should count as a minor miracle given the extremely slapdash nature of their origin. As the story goes, DC writer Robert Kanigher was presented with a problem one Friday afternoon. Thanks to a scheduling snafu, Showcase (the company’s try-out magazine for new features) was short a story for the next issue, which was due to hit the stands a mere two weeks away. (Deadlines were a serious matter in those days, with mailing privileges for subscription copies based upon maintaining a pre-set publication schedule.) The following Monday, Kanigher dropped off a script to artist Ross Andru, who burned through 24 pages in four days. By the time inker Mike Esposito finished the art, a grand total of 10 days had elapsed, probably a record for a story that size. And what a story — faced with a prehistoric flying menace that can freeze fighter jets and set skyscrapers aflame with its “radio-active” eyes, the U.S. military takes the only logical course of action: it hires an eccentric inventor to hurl a bunch of element-based, shape-shifting robots at the manta-like creature. Part chemistry lesson (“I am Gold! Symbol: Au, for aurum! Atomic no. 79! Atomic weight 197.2! I melt at 1063 degrees Centigrade!”) and part “you gotta be kiddin’ me,” the issue went out on schedule… and was a sales smash. After two more Showcase appearances (probably just to make sure that first issue’s sales numbers weren’t some weird fluke), the Metal Men were given the “brass ring” in the form of their own ongoing series.
2. “Robots of Terror,” Metal Men #2 (06-07/63)
So why did readers respond so warmly to the offbeat group of artificial adventurers? Was it the top-notch characterization? The inventive artwork? The non-stop chemistry fun
facts? The weird sexual tension between the standoffish Dr. Magnus and the hot-to-trot female-shaped Platinum? Probably a bit of “all of the above.” But never underestimate the drawing power of a good “robots smash” story. Those early years saw the Metal Men typecast as DC’s resident robot-thumpers, with stories pitting them against alien robots, underwater robots and just plain old evil robots. This latter category included the “new” Metal Men, created by an evil robotic Dr. Magnus who in turn was created by a heartbroken Platinum when the flesh-and-blood doc wouldn’t return her affections (which is twisted in and of itself, considering it was Magnus who programmed those emotions in her in the first place). No, let’s not dwell on the philosophical and ethical implications of a robot so intelligent that she can invent another robot that in turn invents a bunch of other robots; instead, let’s just enjoy watching the gang pummel Barium, Zirconium, Sodium and the rest of the -iums.
3. “The Metal Men vs. the Plastic Perils,” Metal Men #21 (08-09/66)
For over-the-top Silver Age silliness, it’s hard to top 20’s “Birthday Cake for a Cannibal Robot,” which delivers exactly what the title promises (with a horribly racist guest-villain and mindless American jingoism to boot). But the following issue is a better example of the campy self-awareness that permeated most DC titles at the time. Inspired to break out of their “all robots, all the time” rut by an actual letter sent in by a fan, our heroes make a conscious effort to seek out flesh-and-blood super-villains to subdue… only to get beaten to the punch by the Flash, Wonder Woman, and Batman and Robin, in that order (with Batman, the famewhore, taking time out from punching villains to plug his new TV show). Finally, they find Professor Bravo, a perpetually smirking thief… but before they can capture him, they have to defeat — yep — more robots. But at least these robots are made of different types of plastic, not metal, so that should make them feel better.
4. “To Walk Among Men,” Metal Men #37 (04-05/69)
Fans of whimsy and Silver Age-style goofiness were well served by the Metal Men, but those fans were harder to find as the ’60s came to a close. A new generation of DC writers, eager to tackle “real” issues in the comics, left the campiness behind and sent the superheroes in new directions. For their part, the Metal Men ended up on the run and captured by the police after their inventor slipped into a coma; they were then “executed” for their crimes against humanity. Ah, but their demise was just a ruse cooked up by the mysterious Mr. Conan, who offered them a chance to continue fighting evil in secret. “Everywhere I see chaos — worthy institutions and governments breaking down,” the billionaire explains. “I formed a worldwide organization dedicated to erasing those forces which threaten all that is best in humanity.” He uses his resources to give the Metal Men new identities as they battled those forces of chaos — Gold became a jet-setting tycoon; Platinum, a fashion model; Mercury, an eccentric artist; Lead and Tin, a folk-singing duet; and Iron, a structural engineer. Their first case? Dismantling a coven of witches in New York City. Not everyone liked the change — one dissatisfied reader wrote in saying “the new Metal Men are clinkers and stinkers” — but the editors readily admitted it was a Hail Mary pass made to save one of DC’s worst-selling books from cancellation. Mission not accomplished; the new direction lasted just four issues before DC pulled the plug.
5. “The Chemo Conspiracy,” Metal Men #46 (04-05/76)
In 1973, about three years after the Metal Men title folded, someone at DC decided to give them another chance, continuing the title’s numbering for three more issues by presenting reprints of the team’s earlier adventures. The numbers for those issues must have been encouraging, because DC then commissioned all-new adventures, most of them written by Gerry Conway and initially drawn by Walt Simonson (with Joe Staton later stepping in). The stories in these issues were excuses to send the team on globetrotting adventures with stops in places like Venice, Antarctica, and Germany; the real treat for readers was Simonson’s visual interpretation of the Metal Men, especially Tina (see accompanying image). The creators kept the book going with generally enjoyable fare until issue #56, when it and many others fell victim to the same “DC Implosion” that saw dozens of other titles get the axe.
6. “Sun-Stroke!” DC Comics Presents #4 (12/78)
Following their book’s cancellation, the Metal Men hit the guest-star circuit, teaming up with any marquee hero who needed an artificial hand defeating the bad guys. Superman was flying high in the late ’70s thanks to his film career, and DC ordered up this new team-up book to capitalize on his profile. Of the team’s two DC Comics Presents appearances, this issue is the more entertaining, thanks to Len Wein’s slightly daft script and José Luis García-López’s always-reliable art. In a nutshell, the super-smart criminal known as I.Q. discovers sunlight makes him smarter (um, OK), and so he builds a magnetic cannon to send an energy beam into the sun that will create “solar prominences” and boost his super-intellect. Only — d’oh! — he got his math wrong and accidentally mucked up the sun, and so he tries to undo his nova-in-the-making by hurling one of the Metal Men’s regular sparring partners into the sun. I think as a general rule, any plan that involves firing beams or hurling things into the sun is by definition a bad plan (see also: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). At least we got to see the (metaphorical) Man of Steel blush as he fends off Platinum’s amorous advances; it’s nice to see she isn’t tied down to any one carbon-based life form.
7. “Whatever Happened to What’s’ername?” The Brave and the Bold #187 (06/82)
Though it took a while for the Metal Men and Superman to team up, they guest-starred in this team-up title no less than nine times over the course of its run, including seven outings with Batman. (This was back in the days when Batman cheerily teamed up with damn near everyone, and wasn’t nearly as driven, aloof and borderline psychopathic as he’s made out to be in the current comics.) In this issue, readers learned the final fate of Nameless, a stuttering, gangly female robot created by a lonely Tin back in Metal Men #13. She was thought destroyed in an explosion… only not so much, it turned out (the Metal Men, if nothing else, are really hard to kill). And when Batman starts investigating the “murder” of Iron, Tin and Lead, he finds a message that indicates the robots were attacked to avenge Nameless; only problem is, the surviving Metal Men have idea who that is. Come for the murder mystery and Batman’s outrage on behalf of oppressed robots everywhere; stay for the cameo appearances by a gaggle of the Metal Men’s greatest and goofiest foes.
8. “Better Dying Through Chemistry,” Action Comics #590 (06/87)
Personal note: this comic was my first introduction to the Metal Men, and while I don’t remember what my 13-year-old self thought of them, I’m pretty sure I remember what I thought when I first saw Chemo: “Awesome!” Come on, this is classic comic-book stuff: some scientist pours all his failed experiments into a human-shaped plastic shell as a way of motivating himself to do better, then one day watches in horror as his creation comes to life and turns into an unstoppable juggernaut of rampaging goo. Though destroyed many times by the Metal Men over the years, he’s back with a new gimmick: chemically imitating Superman’s appearance and powers thanks to Clark Kent’s accidental dip in a vat of chemicals containing Chemo’s secret sauce. And do you think writer/artist John Byrne had a certain line of transforming toy robots in mind when he had the Metal Men assume “formation number twenty-one” for battle? Why yes, I do believe he did. All that, plus the tantalizing mystery of what Doc Magnus was hiding down in Sub-Level Nine of his lab.
9. “The Great Gotham Switcheroo!” Silver Age: The Brave and the Bold #1 (07/2000)
In 2000, DC paid homage to the Silver Age with a dozen one-shot issues that mimicked the art, narrative style and even physical appearance (larger page count, half-page ads, etc.) of books from the 1960s. The plot is nothing more than a grand excuse to pull off a classic body-swap tale in which the villains “steal” the bodies of the heroes and imprison them while the villains head off to collect items for a world-conquering alien. Of course, the heroes escape and try to save the day in the villains’ bodies while also dodging other heroes who don’t believe these “villains” really are who they say they are. Trust me, this kind of thing happened all the time in the old days. This issue, one of the last scripted by Silver Age scribe Bob Haney, finds Penguin/Batman working with the Metal Men to apprehend an on-the-run Felix Faust (actually Green Arrow) and Catwoman (actually Black Canary). All goes well until Faust/Arrow uses a magic spell that turns the Metal Men into humans, which thrills the lovestruck Platinum to no end. But the team soon returns to normal, as well they should, because being made of metal is what they’re all about. Overall, it was a nice reminder of the classic Metal Men during a time when DC was taking them in a new, not-entirely-improved direction (see below).
10. “We, Robots,” Superman/Batman #34 (05/2007 – 08/2007)
“We’re not normal. Even in a world of supermen and wonder women and aliens… We still scare people.” The Metal Men’s inhumanity (in the literal sense) is often used as a plot device, nowhere more so than this three-issue story that re-introduces them to the DC universe (with the addition of a second female Metal Man, Copper, to the mix). Magnus is still a brilliant inventor, but without the whiz-bang super-secret lab and major funding he needs to finish his work (specifically Gold, who appears here only as a disembodied head due to the preciousness of his material). Hired by Bruce Wayne’s right-hand man to provide security for a Waynetech facility, the Metal Men fight not just the story’s designated super-villain, but also the prejudices of flesh-and-blood folks unnerved by the sight of robotic security guards clanking through the hallways. Heck, it’s enough to almost make the Metal Men throw in their lot with their robotic nemesis, who tells them they will never find acceptance among humans. Magnus feels differently, though he admits it will be a long road to travel. “The world wasn’t ready for Copernicus or Galileo. It’s always been slow to embrace the new,” he tells Tin at one point. “But we should prepare ourselves for it to be particularly slow for us.” Too true.
11. The Metal Men #1-8 (10/2007-07/2008)
Now, this story by Duncan Rouleau (“based on ideas by Grant Morrison”) has a little more time travel, mysticism and science-y mumbo-jumbo than I like to see in my usual rock ’em-sock ’em robot fare (and let’s not even talk about the very clichéd brother-against-brother subplot), but there’s still plenty of fun stuff to recommend it. For starters, we get a glimpse into Magnus’s early years and learn how a young genius out to communicate with the very atoms of the universe came to invent the Metal Men. There’s U.N.I.O.N., a massive artificial intelligence given form by millions of electronic household gadgets infected by its hive-like mentality. There’s the return of L-Ron — L-Ron! — as part of a team of robot revolutionaries. And of course, what could be more awesome than the debut of the Death Metal Men? Uranium! Strontium! Thorium! Radium! Personally, I think they shouldn’t stop until there’s a Metal Man representing every element on the periodic table. Behold the power of Cobalt! Sulfur! Xenon! Boron! Magnesium! Not to be confused with Manganese! Who says chemistry has to be boring?
12. “The Coming of the Clique,” Doom Patrol #4 (01/2010)
Back in the ’80s, Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire teamed up to present the lighter side of the Justice League; they’re back and up to their old hijinks here. The strip incongruously places the Metal Men and their creator in a quiet Illinois suburb where the neighbors are (understandably) nervous about robots made of lead and mercury living next door; Magnus funds his experiments by hiring out the team for mercenary work (but not the shooting kind, more like the “retrieve lost artifacts and beat up giant bad guys” kind). This issue finds an academic rival of Magnus unwittingly creating his own artificial life forms in the shape of statuesque mannequins, who decide their superior intelligence, firepower and fashion sense make them ideal world conquerors… but not before they make a short stop at the mall first. It’s as gloriously insane as it sounds. “I did not sign on for your war on humanity.”/ “I’m telling you — it’s a terrific idea.”/ “I thought we were gonna think it over while we went shopping and got makeovers.”/ “Sigh. If we do that — can we please overthrow humanity when we’re done?”
13. “Clash of the Metal Men!” Batman: The Brave and the Bold (original airdate 01/29/2010)
The team hasn’t seen much action outside the comics and has almost zero exposure among most non-comic fans, which makes recent reports about
director Barry Sonnenfeld’s intentions all the more surprising. After all, with Hollywood demanding a bit of gravitas in its superheroes these days, is the world ready for a movie in which one of the stars constantly reminds everyone he’s the only metal who’s liquid at room temperature? We may find out soon enough. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy “Clash of the Metal Men!”, to date the team’s biggest excursion off the comic page. The plot has the Metal Men team up with Batman to defeat Chemo and then save Doc Magnus from the clutches of the evil Gas Gang — but never mind that, because the real treats here are, in no particular order: (1) the bang-on characterizations of the team; (2) the inventive shapes demonstrated by each team member (never before has a chair looked so eager to support a superhero’s ass) and (3) hilariously deadpan delivery of such lines as, “Bad guys like you come in many forms, but liquid, gas or solid, they always wind up in the same state: inert!” If Sonnenfeld is looking for inspiration, he could do a lot worse than start here.
14. Metal Men (1993 four-issue miniseries)
“From the team that killed Superman!” the cover of the first issue (sporting a metallic foil finish that was all the rage at the time) cheekily announces. Perhaps this was considered a good thing back then. This mini-series answered the question posed in Action Comics #590 about what Doc Magnus was hiding down in his sub-basement lab. It seems the reason Magnus worked so hard at rebuilding his Metal Men and berated them for putting themselves in danger was plain and simple guilt. In this story, the retconned robots are revealed to have once been Magnus’s human colleagues; when a lab accident traps their minds inside his experimental robot shells, Magnus commands them to forget their identities to spare them the trauma of knowing what happened. But they soon remember and he decides being a robot wouldn’t be so bad, and so he places his memories inside the Veridium Man (veridium being a fictional element that arrived to Earth on a meteor) and allows his human body to die. It was an unfortunate attempt at inserting some ’90s-era angst-and-shoulder-pads attitude into the Metal Men, and about as clear an example of “missing the bloody point” as you’re likely to find in a comic book. The next few years saw uninspired stories about the robots coming to grips with their human origins and getting all “why was I programmed to feel pain” blah blah blah… Let’s just say no one was upset when DC took advantage of one of its cosmic events to bring the Metal Men back to their, um, elemental state.