Continuing our series on the rebellious comics by the vastly underrated Mike Sekowsky (part one appeared here), we look at his radically strange run on Metal Men.
The second title assigned to Mike Sekowsky to edit in the late 1960s was Metal Men, a second-line DC title, which was also previously edited by Robert Kanigher and which also had been presented a long string of rather juvenile stories. Kanigher had tried to revive the title as the "New Hunted Metal Men", with Sekowsky art, but dropped off the series before sales reports were available in order to give the book to his artist.
Sekowsky's first issue at the writing helm was issue 37, featuring a striking cover. "Here lie the Metal Men, R.I.P." reads the blurb on the cover, with the R.I.P. in enormous letters. In the foreground the six robots of the Metal Men are memorialized on a tombstone, while in the background a set of mourners are visiting the grave. It's a really striking image, the sort of cover that immediately begs for attention upon its glimpse. Thankfully, the story within the issue is worthy of the cover.
The story begins about an alien space ship hurtling towards New York City. The six Metal Men are on board the ship but are helpless to control it. When the ship crash-lands in the city, the Metal Men are immediately arrested. The public is furious over the destruction the Metal Men have caused, and want the robots destroyed. The Metal Men's creator Doc Magnus is comatose, so instead of turning the team over to him, they are brought to jail, and after an amazingly quick trial are sentenced to be destroyed.
Now, this was a pretty amazing change in the way that DC created their stories at the time. Ordinarily it was clear early on that heroes were never in any real danger. This was certainly the case in earlier Metal Men stories, where the robots would be destroyed at the end of one issue and then revived in the next. In Metal Men #37, however, the group gets hauled off to a junkyard to be destroyed. We even see Lead get smashed into a cube, and then four of the other robots are destroyed off-panel. Finally Tina, the Platinum robot, meets her apparent doom in the compactor as tears flood her eyes.
It’s actually rather striking how readily the robots allow themselves to be destroyed. They were always subservient to Doc Magnus in the stories he appeared in, so maybe they were programmed to be obedient. But it's surprising that the Metal Men don't try to escape their fate or plead for mercy.
Regardless, mercy is provided to them anyway. It turns out, after 2½ agonizing pages of ads, that the judge at their trial is actually an eccentric millionaire called Mr. Conan who wants to rescue the robots in order for them to help him with some sort of clandestine effort to protect the world. The robots being subservient, they readily agree to follow the bizarre plans of the man who had recently ordered them destroyed, and learn of the new life they are about to lead. See, Mr. Conan has a scientist in his employ who can create synthetic flesh, which will allow the robots to take on new lives as seemingly-ordinary humans. But these are no ordinary lives. Gold becomes Guy Gilden, Wall Street genius; Tina becomes a high fashion model; Lead and Tin become Leadby Hand and Tinker, folksingers; Mercury becomes the artist Mercurio; and Iron becomes Jon "Iron" Mann, famous industrial architect. Each off in their own world, Mr. Conan promises to keep in touch with the group to help them find their pernicious evil-doers. Most importantly, the robots will no longer work openly as robots, instead always wearing their special synthetic skin so that they will appear human.
As origin stories go, this is about as bizarre and enigmatic as they come. Reading it as an adult, I got swept up in the drama and fun of the story, but it leaves so many questions. Who is Mr. Conan and why does he want human robots? Why in the world are the robots so trusting? And how can anyone explain these six people appearing out of nowhere to take prominent roles on society? Today such a setup would be the basis for a government conspiracy comic; in 1969 it was all fun.
Metal Men #38 and 39 show he team working together in their new guises to fight first a cabal of witches (yes, witches again – Sekowsky seemed to love witches) and then a monster that was haunting Hollywood soundstages. They're nice comics, featuring terribly daft Sekowsky stories, but really are nothing special. Issues 40 and 41, however, deliver a powerhouse story.
Doc Magnus, believed to be in a coma, is actually wide awake and somehow has become a friend to the leader of the rogue nation Karnia. To find him, the Metal Men need to journey to that remote country, battle their way into the kind's hideout, and abduct Magnus.
More importantly, they need to battle their conflicted feelings about their mission. How do they attack the man who brought them to life, the man they revered and who loved them? Sekowsky does everything possible in those two issues to emphasize the drama of the characters' situations. It's a surprisingly mature theme for such a light series, and shows the potential of the book.
Unfortunately, the run of human Metal Men ended with a nice cliffhanger in issue 41. Apparently Sekowsky's transformation of the characters never caught the readers' attention, and this series ended right there. The human Metal Men represent a bizarre chapter in the four-color lives of some bizarre characters.
Next week: Supergirl gets very, very weird