Quick Review: Machine Man (1984)
Jack Kirby had an amazing gift for shorthand. You would think that his comic book adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey was fueled by extensive research into the Kubrick film and novel by Arthur C. Clarke but just a glance would convince you that it was based entirely on a single viewing of the trailer. He may have seen the first half of the movie but my impression is that as soon as he felt that he had enough creative fuel to go on, he was out the door and at his drawing table. As such, the comic book series 2001: A Space Odyssey has little to nothing to do with anything, even itself. Mid-way through the series it deviated from stories about the ascension of space children and instead examined the plight of X-51, the Machine Man. No kidding. One issue it’s all about space children, the next it’s something entirely different. It all works out in the end because Jack had so many wild and wonderful ideas but it’s interesting to see how no one at the time dared to edit him, resulting in creations like this.
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 1970′s.
In 1984, Tom DeFalco decided to bring him back in style with one of the most unusual mini-series you will ever read. This is 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.
The script of the 1984 Machine Man series is a bit retro and almost Kirby-esque in its style with characters telling each other who they are and what they are all about in each issue. The writing has its charm but it is the artwork that really leaves an impression. Breakdowns by legendary Hulk artist Herb Trimpe are laid over by the stunning art of Barry Windsor Smith, creating a lovely mesh of the old and the new. Each spaghetti-like trail of circuitry and grime-smeared piece of metal seems like a part of a beautiful stained glass window. It’s a very very pretty book.
Set in the far future of 2020, the story sees X-51 awoken from a long sleep by a gang of outlaw scavengers known as the Midnight Wreckers. The spirited punks scream cyberpunk which is interesting because the genre was in its infancy at the time. Teaming up with the Midnight Wreckers, X-51 attempts to solve problems without resorting to violence even as killer robots attempt to tear him limb from limb. From her penthouse suite, the cruel Sunset Baine plans for his intervention by hiring the mercenary Arno Stark, AKA Iron Man, to destroy Machine Man before it can kill her.
As a reader, I kept waiting for Arno Stark to turn out to be a good guy, but it never happened. He’s just a mean hombre interesting only in himself. The character later starred in a solo comic and later still appeared as one of the ‘heralds’ of Paradise X, but largely he’s an oddity. A really cool looking oddity.
The comic flows much like a movie or TV mini-series scheduled to set up a weekly series that never came after it. The world is wonderfully portrayed and the character of X-51 (or Machine Man) so sympathetically developed that it is almost shocking that so little has been done with him. Even this story remains only available in an out of print softcover collection!
Since 1984, Machine Man has appeared in Marvel Zombies, Nextwave and even Ms. Marvel, gaining more of a cult status with each appearance. Many hope that Machine Man will make a major comeback and I hope that it does happen if only for a decent hardcover reprint is made available!