Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Man Who Could Walk Through Bad Comics: Machine Man by Wolfman and Ditko

Rated: Comically Bad
I loved Machine Man. I found him some years after his initial turn on the Marvel stage, just in time for his very cool early cyber punk limited series. A couple of years later, I got my hands on a few of first wildy-imaginative Kirby issues. Yes, Jack wrote the same offbeat slang for all his characters, apropos of nothing, and sometimes forgot which of the many powers he packed into his robotic super man. But his angle- “social issue of the century”- compelled me; his design, resonates.

I like his central dilemma, his somewhat disagreeable and sometimes cynical persona. But if I hadn’t found him originally in childhood, as created, written and drawn by Jack Kirby, I doubt I’d have been hooked by his continued series by Marv Wolfman and Steve Ditko. With #14 (April, 1980) we hit the wall with what a busy writer/editor can credibly do each month. This is one of four titles Wolfman wrote and edited, and it so happens, by cover date, we’re reaching the end of his tenure. This is, in fact, his last issue of Machine Man. That might explain some things.
Some comically bad things.

The storytelling’s credible enough: from page to page, panel to panel, you can follow the story in Steve Ditko’s art. The problem is, the story told by the art makes no sense in so many, many places. The simplicity of his faces, though, is grating. His villain, Senator Brickman, is SO melodramatic! He’s played up here as a J. Jonah Jameson type, persecuting Machine Man for his political hopes, to stoke fears that only he can stymie, as our President. They don’t even have to tell you he’s a Republican. His women have nice figures and uniformly butter faces. Roger Slifer’s colors are pretty much the best thing about the finished art.

“The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls” - if you want a compelling character...look much further. He’s a remote-controlled victim of an experiment to infuse a human being with extra-dimensional density, which, as a practical plan, makes about no sense. His family’s glimpsed at the beginning and end, conveniently enough; we get to see how the experiment worries his wife. What’s she doing at the laboratory? It’s a quick way to get everyone into seventeen pages. Granted, they do tell plenty of story at that rate- possibly, this plot would stretch a couple of issues of modern comics. But that would just double the tedium. (Wait, that’s Oliver Broadhurst’s lab in the last scene. At least he has a connection to Machine Man, originally.)

This title, and others of its time, were editorially crafted to appeal to younger readers. I don’t think it especially did. The over-simplifying dialogue not only explain clearly what the art’s already saying, but get lines like “there’s my impersonator- the person who is dressing up to look like me!”

You have Senator Brickman, in a bit of forced humor, taking a cue from an aide to tie Machine Man to automation destroying jobs. So he’s a U.S. Senator, and he couldn’t think of this himself. Said aides then go by a brother’s laboratory, where the results yield a man with super strength and density and, for no reason whatsoever, no control over his own mind. A “barrage of extra-dimensional mass” causes his mind to go blank. It must’ve hit Marv Wolfman, too. One day, this will work into the explanation for Giant-Man and other size-changing characters, so perhaps this is assistant Mark Gruenwald’s.

They have the perfect dupe to frame Machine Man. The good doctor provides them with- I quote- “Here...these aren’t merely earphones- they’re sonic amplifiers” that allow them to project a voice into the subject’s head only he can hear, which he must obey. OK, I know writers were still figuring out how to dream up stories with computer technology, but someone’s not paying attention.

I’m not sure Mr. Slifer was clear on what the fuhh? Machine Man’s doing with this girder during his public demonstration, organized by his psychiatrist friend Dr. Spaulding. Something about putting it down on a curtain on stage in the last panel? That’s not as bad as the table drawn out of perspective two pages later, where we see three standing figures and the entire table top’s flipped towards us to show us the stolen money.

Possibly the worst character in the entire mix is the crazy lady who works with Machine Man, as Aaron Stack, at Del Mar Insurance. Maggie’s heated pass at him is legit sexual harassment. Her infuriation (like my made-up word?) over his cold fish brush-off leads her not only to rant about his doom to a laughing colleague, but leads her to stalk Aaron’s apartment, providing some old-fashioned secret identity hijinks when he gets wind of the accusations following the impersonations. It’s obvious gay people don’t exist in the Marvel Universe really, at this point, because there’s a very rational reason Aaron wouldn’t respond to her heated passion. But if they were going for the funny, awkward confusion’s an acceptable response from any person mugged by Maggie.

The bad guys decide, well one of them does, the Man Who Walks Through Walls is the ideal meal ticket. You turn the page for an advertisement for a Hulk utility belt, just like, one imagines, the one the Incredible Hulk uses, himself, on TV and in comics. Complete with gamma radiation detector, Hulk voice modulator, and wrist gauntlets, at $5.99 you cannot find a more ludicrous way to play superheroes and waste more money. Not even with a Spider-Mobile from Hong mine.

Over the phone, Machine Man overhears the police picking Dr. Spaulding up for questioning, since he’s a known friend of Machine Man and hey, someone’s eye-witnessed a person in the dark, dressing up like him and smashing walls and stealing things, so fire up a warrant. He escapes the police after- wait a minute, he happens upon an impersonation robbery on his way to the police precinct, because there are no accidents in life, especially in hastily-crafted comic books. Whenever he fights this guy, he keeps saying “I have no leverage” when he’s picked up, even though we see multiple panels where Machine Man can telescope his feet out of his legs and catch his balance.

We get an interlude with Senator Brickman crowing with a shockingly large and open mouth, and an unnamed aide thinking “you’re crazy- and you need to be stopped!” only to vanish from the plot as soon as he’s introduced. Machine Man is photographed by the reporter, Mrs. Mayson, who decided at the earlier demonstration she will report screeds against our mechanized hero. He’s floating around outside Spaulding’s cell, committing no crime. This goes nowhere. He does, however, turn himself in long enough for another copycat crime to occur, which suits the flimsy evidence against him as though he couldn’t very easily work with a copycat and set up his apparent innocence.

Final battle, more off-balance Machine Man, who thinks to himself he weighs two thousand pounds- talk about heavy metal! High frequency signal- which interferes with Machine Man’s mechanisms-funky microphone, hapless dupe, bad guys gushing with self-congratulations all-too-near-by. Our hero wins the day. Without one further ounce of characterization, the dupe’s reunited with his conveniently-reappearing family. What more could anyone want, asks Dr. Spaulding. This might be the writer still struggling to throw in a bit of characterization for Machine Man, who has no family save for the coffee maker, toaster and fridge- none of which he needs, actually, he might want to skip letting anyone come over if they’re supposed to buy his secret identity. So, a bit of irony not supported by any reaction. Who cares. They canceled NOVA. Let’s quit Marvel and start work at something good over at DC.

It’s just not hard to see this whole thing as a last-minute job done by a disgruntled employee who’s lost all concern for his dual role as editor. Consulting editor Jim Shooter should’ve consulted and edited a little bit more. I’ve found out how much thought and effort can go into a single issue. Everyone deserves credit for getting another issue of Machine Man out the door. And if you really, really don’t think about any of what’s actually going on much, it even holds together.