Metal Men | The Showcase Stories | The Metal Man Comic Book
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These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number. They were edited by Robert Kanigher.
The Metal Men stories were written and edited by Robert Kanigher, and drawn by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, who also did the covers for the tales. All were book length stories, usually in several chapters. The Metal Men were a team of heroes, and it was customary at DC for teams to appear in longer stories which gave each of the members a chance to shine: see The Justice League of America stories, or later, The Legion of Super-Heroes.
The Flaming Doom (1962). The origin of the Metal Men. Inventor Dr. Will Magnus creates the Metal Men, and they battle against a prehistoric winged creature that is terrorizing New York. The early Metal Men stories rarely have an intelligent villain. Instead, they tend to fight a relatively mindless creature, robot or being. This being is large, physically powerful, and usually has some special power such as destructive rays, murderous chemicals or whatever. It tends to rampage around New York City, like the creatures in 1950's monster movies, such as Godzilla. The creature itself is not that fascinating. Instead, the focus is on the efforts of the Metal Men to capture and subdue it. Here is where Kanigher shows his ingenuity. The attempts are also very rich in displaying the personalities of the heroes. Every attempt they make shows their personality to the full.
The creature in the opening story is a left over prehistoric monster. We see its life history, which closely resembles that in the movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). It is frozen in a glacier, makes its way South, attacks lonely outposts, makes it to New York City, etc. Once again, Kanigher poses the question: what would it like to be inside a famous movie? Here, he shows us what it might be to actually fight the beast of that film. As is usual for Kanigher, his story is a lot more upbeat, joyous and optimistic than the original film. Kanigher concentrates on fun ideas. His heroes tend to exuberant, and full of special abilities.
The personalities of the Metal Men emphasize their stand-in capability for ordinary people. Ordinary people are often barred from participating in meaningful or exciting things; the Metal Men have similar limitations. Tina is a woman, and all the sexist barriers erected against women are braved by her, trying to keep her from taking part in the Metal Men's missions. Tin is mild mannered, and eager to take part even though other people find him ordinary. He is a stand-in for all the not wanted people of the universe. The Metal Men as a whole are robots, and each face prejudices about what robots are not supposed to do. It is difficult for any reader not to respond to these characters, especially if the reader feels himself or herself to be an outsider.
The Metal Men are also criticized by others for having too much personality. People want them to behave as pure robots, and reject them when they show human traits or emotion. This too is easy for ordinary people to identify with. Society often demands that ordinary people behave almost like robots, with rigid fixed behavior. The Metal Men's problems here are an allegory of people's problems with regimentation, dehumanization and conformity.
There is an army officer in the background, Col. Casper. He is very similar to the officers in Beast and other monster movies. He is decent, manly, 40ish and always dressed in a spit and polished uniform, just like the army officers in the movies. He and the Army are always completely helpless to defeat the monster however, just as in the films. He always needs the Metal Men to take over. He represents the conventional Authorities. All these officers are ambiguous. In one sense, they give society's blessing to the heroes, making them approved instruments. On the other hand, audiences clearly enjoy seeing authority figures helpless, and begging ordinary people for help: also an appeal of these movies.
This story takes place in many real places in New York City. We see the monster attacking at the Brooklyn Bridge, here called the Mid City Bridge. DC Comics were not supposed to contain real people or places, for legal reasons; many of their stories took place in disguised versions of New York City such as Metropolis (Superman) or Gotham City (Batman). The Metal Men tales are especially brassy at setting themselves at what are obvious NYC landmarks. This latitude is partly allowed by the comic tone of the tales. It also reflects Kanigher's approach of taking readers into fantasy versions of familiar events and settings.
The Nightmare Menace (1962). Dr. Magnus creates duplicates of the original Metal Men, but they have robot like personalities. This story concentrates on what makes the Metal Men different from standard robots of fiction. Many of the differences were implicit in the first story. But here these differences are highlighted by the actual structure of the tale itself, with its "duplicate" looking robots who lack the Metal Men's wonderful personalities. Such a tale highlights science fiction's ability to construct stories that give unique insight into things.
In this tale the Metal Men fight a giant robot. Behind the robot stands its inventor, an escaped Nazi scientist. This vicious figure is one of the few actual villains in the early Metal Men books. Kanigher had written other stories of Nazis evading capture at the end of World War II, such as the King Faraday tale "Hunters of the Whispering Gallery" (Danger Trail #1, July-August 1950). Kanigher clearly loathed Nazis. Other DC writers, such as Otto Binder and Bill Finger, often wrote stories in which the heroes fight Nazi-like villains on other planets. Kanigher's Nazi villains tend to be literally that: not allegorical figures, but actual escaped Nazi criminals left over from World War II.
The Deathless Doom (1962). The Metal Men battle first a giant hand emerging from underground, then Chemo, a large human shaped figure filled with deadly chemicals.
The Day the Metal Men Melted (1962). Chemo returns, and Dr. Magnus becomes a giant figure of radioactive metal.
Kanigher loved to put his characters in entirely new situations, ones they had never experienced before. He is fascinated by their reactions to these situations, reactions that are usually quite revealing of their personalities. He also loved to tell these stories for their own sakes: just to give the reader a chance to experience a brand new set of events. The book length format of the Metal Men tales allowed for plenty of surprises. Unlike short tales, which regularly set forth their central situation in splash pages and on the cover, the reader rarely has any clear idea what is coming in a Metal Men comic book. The covers often show only a small and not necessarily most interesting part of the tale. This is very different from most Weisinger or Schwartz comic books, most of which tend to feature a strong central situation on the splash, around which the whole story is built. In their tales, the central theme is always present in the reader's mind from the start, like an ancient Greek drama on a myth everybody knew. By contrast, the Metal Men tend to surprise readers.
It is hard to write about Kanigher's stories without giving away their plots. One is tempted to summarize this delightful event or that: but such summaries would give away too much and spoil a reader's pleasure.
Rain of the Missile Men (1962). An army of identical robots rains from the sky; flashbacks reveal how Doc Magnus once sent Tina in exile to the science museum, as he had long threatened.
This is one of the most famous covers of the Silver Age. Its repeated figures in the sky echo Magritte, in a unique fusion of surrealism and the comics.
This tale has a flashback within a flashback. Kanigher is not trying for any film noir fatalism here. Instead, he is using a story telling technique in a free wheeling fashion. The second flashback shows how an interesting situation occurred. The first allows the tale to open with an exciting scene.
Robots of Terror (1962). Tina creates a robot Doc Magnus, who turns out to be evil. This is one of many evil doubles in Kanigher stories. It also shows a recursive quality; just as Tina was created by Doc Magnus, so can Tina proceed to create new robots of her own.
Kanigher tends to construct his pieces as unified stories. They are less episodic than say Otto Binder's. The invention is apparently free flowing. Unlike the Superman family writers, he tends not to work within a fixed mythos and fixed powers for his characters. Instead, each new story tends to get his heroes involved in some new adventure.
The Metal Men Vs the Plastic Perils (1966). Sinister Prof. Bravo leads his army of plastic robots in theft. Kanigher's work has always been full of doubles, both good and evil. Here the plastic robots are evil mirror images of the Metal Men themselves. Each kind of robot is made out of a different plastic, just as each Metal Man comes from a kind of metal. And the properties of the plastic or metal determines the abilities of the robot. This material is clearly meant to be educational for young people, designed to teach them chemistry. It also triggers Kanigher's sf imagination.
The plastic robots have no intelligence or personalities, unlike the Metal Men. Instead, they are the sort of mindless but powerful entities the Metal Men often fight. This lack of intelligence makes the plastic robots less purely doubles for the Metal Men.
This story is delightfully funny. Kanigher is "on" throughout, and his wit is flowing. Some of the humor is admirably feminist, as well.
Kanigher opens the tale with the Metal Men reading letters of complaint from readers, about the sameness of recent tales. These letters spell out an archetypal recent, now cliched plot, one which has been repeated relentlessly in preceding issues. The Metal Men, and implicitly Kanigher, accept this negative criticism as justified, and vow to change their ways. The letters seem to be real ones from real readers, although Kanigher has perhaps punched up their criticism to make it more forceful and funny. Much of the rest of the story is explicitly measured in the dialogue against this stereotype plot of previous issues, showing how current events and characters are different. Kanigher's tales often are constructed to show readers what it might be like to live inside a certain movie. This tale applies the same approach, but with a reverse twist. The story we are inside here is not a famous film, but Kanigher's own recent Metal Men tales. And we do not directly relive the recent stories; instead we are in a new story whose differences from the recent ones is constantly being pointed out. Still, both this work and Kanigher's movie tales have a common paradigm: showing the reader what it might be like to experience a well known fictional universe, in a tale that points out the similarities and differences of the story itself against its well-known predecessor.
A tale like this is certainly reflexive, with the plot of the story becoming an explicit subject of discussion within the story. There is a very long history of reflective stories in the comic books, dating back at least to the earliest comic books of the 1930's. Kanigher comes up with a whole new approach to such a reflective work here.