Showcase Presents Metal Men volume 2

By Robert Kanigher, Otto Binder, Mike Sekowsky, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Gil Kane & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1559-0 (TPB)

The metamorphic Metal Men first appeared in four consecutive issues of National-DC’s prestigious try-out vehicle Showcase. Legendarily the concept and first issue script were created over a weekend by veteran author/editor Robert Kanigher after the intended feature blew its press deadline, then rapidly-but-inspirationally rendered by the iconic art-team of Ross Andru & Mike Esposito.

This last-minute filler attracted a large, avid readership’s eager attention and within months of their fourth and final exploit, the gleaming gladiatorial gadgets were stars of their own title.

This iteration of the sterling squad is sadly neglected these days and their earliest adventures are egregiously unavailable in modern collections or digital formats but can be re-enjoyed of discovered in a previous collection and this follow-up mammoth monochrome tome. It collects the solid gold stories from Metal Men #16-35 and the second of their nine guest appearances in Brave and the Bold (#66).

Once upon a time, brilliant young polymath Will Magnus constructed a doomsday-duelling suicide squad of self-regulating, intelligent automatons, governed by astounding microcomputers dubbed “Responsometers”. These miracles of nano-engineering not only simulate – or perhaps originate – thought processes and emotional character for the robots, but also constantly reprogram their basic forms – allowing them to instantaneously change shapes.

Magnus patterned his handmade heroes on pure metals, with regal leading-man Gold commanding a tight knit team of Iron, Lead, Mercury, Platinum and Tin warriors. Thanks to their responsometers, each robot specialised in physical changes based on its elemental properties, but due to some quirk of programming the robots developed personality traits mimicking the metaphorical attributes of their base metal.

This compendium takes the manmade myrmidons through the best and worst of the 1960s “Camp Craze” and solidly into the bizarrely experimental phase that presaged a temporary decline of costumed heroes and rise of mystery and supernatural comics: a fascinating period of social and emotional experimentation that allowed comics to finally start “growing up”…

Metal Men #16 (October/November 1966) opens proceedings as Kanigher, Andru & Esposito pull out all the stops for the spectacularly whacky ‘Robots for Sale!’

Platinum or “Tina” believes herself passionately in love with Magnus and his constant rebuffs regularly drive her crazy. Here, his latest rejection makes her so mad she flees into space. When the Metal Men chase her, everyone ends up doll-sized on a derelict planet where ravenous mechanical termites have almost eradicated native wooden robots living there…

Issue #17 depicts Tina’s worst nightmare as Magnus and his motley metal crew investigate cosmic cobwebs fallen across Earth. The inventor is bizarrely bewitched by a horrifying mechanical Black Widow in ‘I Married a Robot!’, before the team tackle a terrifying technological tyrannosaur in #18’s ‘The Dinosaur Who Stayed for Dinner!’

‘The Man-Horse of Hades!’ features a mythic menace who has waited centuries for his true love to return, and promptly mistakes Tina for his missing “centaurette”, after which the Alloyed Avengers meet Metamorpho, the Element Man in Brave and the Bold #66 (June/July 1966).

‘Wreck the Renegade Robots’ (by Bob Haney & Mike Sekowsky) sees the reluctant heroic freak beg Magnus to remedy his unwelcome elemental condition, just as utterly mad scientist Kurt Borian resurfaces from years of self-imposed obscurity. He’s got his own Metal Men, and is extremely distressed that somebody else has already patented his idea. Tragically, the only way to stop Borian’s rampage involves reversing Metamorpho’s cure…

‘Birthday Cake for a Cannibal Robot!’ offers a second appearance for Kanigher’s craziest – not to say incredibly racist – creation. Egg Fu is a colossal, ovoid Chinese Communist constructed robot programmed to “Destloy Amelica” (I know, I know: deeply unsuitable but tolerated under the “different times” rule, OK?).

The mechanical mastermind had first battled Wonder Woman, but resurfaces here to crush the West’s greatest homemade heroes with a giant automaton of his own, after which ‘The Metal Men vs the Plastic Perils!’ plays it all slightly more seriously in a guest-star-stuffed romp (Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and Flash) pitting the team against criminal genius Professor Bravo and his synthetic stalwarts Ethylene, Styrene, Polythene, Silicone and Methacrylate

Soviet scientist Professor Snakelocks then unleashes an unpredictable synthetic life-form against the heroes in #22’s ‘Attack of the Sizzler!’ before launching an invasion of America. Although the canny constructs can handle hordes of mechanical Cossacks, they are completely outgunned when the sparkling synthezoid transforms Magnus into a robot and the Metal Men into flesh and blood humans…

Issue #23 sees the robots restored, but Doc still steel-shod as they face ‘The Rage of the Lizard!’ – another sinister spy attacking the Free World – but before the inevitable end, Magnus too, regains mortal form. Unfortunately, now Tina and Sizzler are rivals for his non-existent affections…

Metal Men #24 pits the expanded team against a monstrous marauding inflatable alien in ‘The Balloon Man Hangs High!’ after which the ‘Return of Chemo…the Chemical Menace!’ sees tragedy strike as Sizzler is destroyed and Doc grievously injured just before the toxic terror attacks. Mercifully, the Shiny Sentinels prove equal to the task even without their mentor-inventor and it’s back to tried-and-true zaniness for #26’s ‘Menace of the Metal Mods!’ wherein mechanical fashion icons go on a robbing rampage. ‘The Startling Origin of the Metal Men!’ rehashes their first mission as a modern Mongol Genghis Khan launches an anti-American assault.

‘You Can’t Trust a Robot!’ finds a fugitive gang-boss taking control of the Metal Men’s spare bodies, resulting in a spectacular “evil-twin” battle between good and bad mechanoids, before it’s back into outer space to battle ‘The Robot Eater of Metalas 5!’ and his resource-hungry masters: a staggeringly spectacular romp marking an end to Kanigher, Andru & Esposito’s connection with the series.

Metal Men #30 (February/March 1968) featured the first of 2 fill-in issues by Otto Binder and Gil Kane – with Esposito hanging on to provide inks – after which a highly radical retooling began.

Following a laboratory accident that leaves Magnus in a coma, ‘Terrors of the Forbidden Dimension!’ finds metal marvels exploring other realms in search of a cure. No sooner do they defeat a host of hazards to fix him than he insults them by building another team! Issue #31’s ‘The Amazing School for Robots!’ introduces Silver, Cobalt, Osmium, Gallium, Zincand Iridium – although she prefers “Iridia”…

It’s all barely manageable until disembodied alien intelligence Darzz the Dictator possesses the newcomers and civil war breaks out…

By1968, superhero comics were in steep and rapid decline. Panicked publishers sought new ways to keep audiences as tastes changed. Back then, the entire industry depended on newsstand sales, so if you weren’t mass-popular, you died.

Editors Jack Miller and George Kashdan tapped veteran Mike Sekowsky to stop the metal fatigue, and he had a radical solution: the same nuts and bolts overhaul he was also helming with Denny O’Neil on the de-powered Diana Prince: Wonder Woman.

The enchantingly eccentric art of Sekowsky was a DC mainstay for decades and his unique take on the Justice League of America had cemented its overwhelming success. He had also scored big with Gold Key’s Man from Uncle and Tower Comics’ T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Fight the Enemy!

Now he was creatively stretching himself with a number of experimental, youth-targeted projects; tapping into the teen zeitgeist with the Easy Rider-inspired drama Jason’s Quest, sci-fi reboot Manhunter 2070, the (at that time) hopelessly moribund Amazon and eventually Supergirl.

Sekowsky began conservatively enough in MM #32 as illustrator, with Binder scripting ‘The Metal Women Blues!’wherein Doc builds counterparts and companions for his valiant crew – with disastrous results – after which the boldly innovative “relevancy” direction kicked in with The New Hunted Metal Men #33 (cover-dated August/September 1968).

Kanigher resumes as scripter with Sekowsky & George Roussos crafting a darkly paranoic tone for ‘Recipe to Kill a Robot!’ wherein the once-celebrated team go on the run from humanity. The problems start when Magnus increases their power-levels exponentially, causing them to constantly endanger the very people they are trying to help. The tension is compounded after their creator is injured: plunged into yet another coma.

Pilloried by an unforgiving public and only stopping briefly to defeat an invasion by voracious giant alien insects, the misunderstood mechanoids flee, finding sanctuary with Doc’s brother David – a high-ranking military spook.

Issue #33’s ‘Death Comes Calling!’ sees them encountering a ghastly extraterrestrial force which murderously animates America’s shop mannequins after Tina rejects its amorous advances. The concomitant carnage and highly visible collateral damage are exacerbated in #35 – the last tale in this rousing tome – which adds to humanity’s collective woes when a vast, love-starved Volcano Man joins the chase in ‘Danger… Doom Dummies!’

Kanigher’s unmatched ability to dream up outlandish visual situations and bizarre emotive twists might have dropped out of vogue, but this simply opened the door for more evocative and viscerally emotive content more in keeping with the series’ now teen-aged audience, and the best was still to come…

It’s long past time we saw those tales – as well as these lost comics classics – again in suitable archival editions and all modern formats: ASAP, please!
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