Robot Heroes

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Astro Boy #1 © 2002 Tezuka Productions. (Cover art by Osamu Tezuka.)

Robot Heroes

(pop culture)

Not every superhero is a human being; some are aliens, some have even been animals, and many have been robots, or, more specifically, androids, which are robots or other artificially created beings that are designed to resemble humans. Indeed, one of the very first superheroes in comics, the original Human Torch, who debuted in Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939) was, despite his name, an android that was invented by the scientist Professor Phineas T. Horton.

Writer Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman, and artist Leo Nowak created DC’s original Golden Age version of Robotman, who first appeared in Star-Spangled Comics #7 (April 1942). Robotman was actually what is now known as a cyborg, a being who is part organic and part robotic. According to his origin story, scientist Robert Crane was murdered, and his brain was transplanted into a robot body, thus becoming Robotman. Crane adopted a new secret identity, Paul Dennis, using a face mask and special gloves to look human. As Robotman he battled crime and became a member of the All-Star Squadron, DC’s wartime league of Golden Age heroes. Crane’s former assistant, Charles Grayson, bequeathed his body to Crane, whose brain was successfully transplanted into Grayson’s body in 1981, restoring Crane to “normal” life.

DC’s second Robotman, Cliff Steele, was a race car driver whose body was mortally injured in a car crash. His brain was transplanted by Dr. Niles Caulder into a robot body that Caulder had constructed, and as the new Robotman, Steele became a founding member of Caulder’s superhero team, the Doom Patrol. Co-created by writers Arnold Drake and Bob Haney, and artist Bruno Premiani, the second Robotman and the other original members of the Doom Patrol first appeared in My Greatest Adventure #80 (June 1963).

The next two major robot superheroes in comics were new versions of non-robotic Golden Age heroes. The original Red Tornado was a woman, “Ma” Hunkel, created by cartoonist Sheldon Mayer; she first appeared in his classic Scribbly strip in All-American Comics #3 (June 1939), and adopted her superhero identity in issue 20 (November 1940). She was a comedy character who wore actual long underwear, and a pot for a helmet, and became an honorary member of the Justice Society of America.

Introduced by writer Gardner Fox and artist Dick Dillin in Justice League of America #64 (August 1968), the second Red Tornado was an android constructed by the JLA’s enemy, scientist T. O. Morrow. In what proves to be a familiar scheme, Morrow intended the Tornado to infiltrate the Justice Society, but the Tornado instead rebelled against Morrow, joined the Justice Society, and later joined the Justice League. The Red Tornado can create powerful, tornado-like winds, is superstrong, and can fly.

The original Vision was not a robot but was an eerie being from another dimension, who called himself “Aarkus, Destroyer of Evil.” Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Aarkus first appeared in Marvel Mystery Comics #13 (November 1940). published by Timely Comics (now Marvel). The original Vision could appear and disappear within smoke or mist. In recent years Marvel has revived the character, including starring him in the Mystic Comics 70th Anniversary Special (2009).

Inspired by the Golden Age version, writer Roy Thomas and artist John Buscema created the Silver Age version of the Vision, who debuted in Avengers #57 (October 1968). This Vision was a kind of android called a “synthezoid,” and was created by the Avengers’ robot enemy, Ultron, to pose as the Avengers’ ally and betray them. Like the Red Tornado, the Vision turned against his creator, and became a longtime member of the Avengers.

Ultron constructed the Vision from the deactivated body of the original Human Torch. Later, it was established that due to a kind of time paradox, the Vision and the reactivated Human Torch existed as separate entities. Ultron originally programmed the Vision’s artificial mind with the brain patterns of Simon Williams, alias the superstrong Wonder Man, who had debuted and seemingly died in Avengers #9 (October 1964). Later, Wonder Man revived, joined the Avengers, led a second career as a Hollywood movie actor, and starred in his own Wonder Man comics series (1991–1994).

The new Vision could mentally control the density of his body. Hence he could make himself hard as diamond, thus becoming nearly indestructible, or turn immaterial, enabling him to pass through walls. He possessed super-strength, could fly, and could project heat beams from the jewel on his forehead. Although the Vision outwardly seemed emotionless, he actually had a strong capacity for emotion, and fell in love with and married his fellow Avenger, the Scarlet Witch. However, their marriage eventually came to an end.

Years later the Vision’s body was destroyed. Iron Lad, the founder of the Young Avengers, downloaded the Vision’s programming and operating system into his armored battlesuit. When Iron Lad gave up his battlesuit, the Vision took control of it, turning it into his new body and endowing it with his previous superpowers.

Writer/artist Jack Kirby introduced the sentient robot X-51, also known as Machine Man, in issue 8 of Marvel’s comics series based on the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (July 1977). The character moved into his own Machine Man series in 1978. Seeking to fit into humanity, he adopted a human guise under the name Aaron Stack. He later joined the Avengers and writer Warren Ellis’s Nextwave team.

One of the best known and most beloved Japanese superheroes is the robot Astro Boy, who was created by the great Osamu Tezuka, the Walt Disney of Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime). Astro Boy debuted in Japanese comics in 1951 and in animation in 1963; the English language version of the animated series premiered in the United States in the fall of that year. Resembling a young boy, Astro Boy seeks to become more human in personality. He has numerous superhuman abilities, including super-strength and flight by means of jets in his arms and legs. He can fire laser beams from his fingers and arms—and even has guns in his rear end! An Astro Boy computer-animated movie came out in 2009.

The very first American robot superhero was Quality Comics’ oddly-named Bozo the Robot (from Smash Comics #1, August 1939). Other robot superheroes in American comics include Timely Comics’ superstrong robot hero Electro (from Marvel Mystery Comics #4, February 1940); two androids called Dynamic Man, one at Timely (from Mystic Comics #1, March 1940), and the other at Dynamic Publications (from Dynamic Comics, July 1941); Timely’s Marvex the SuperRobot (from Daring Mystery Comics #3, April 1940); M-11, the Human Robot (from Menace #11, May 1954), who is now a member of Marvel’s Agents of Atlas; Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Elektro, a former menace (from Tales of Suspense #13, January 1961), who recently turned hero as a member of Marvel’s Fin Fang Four; DC’s Metal Men (who debuted in Showcase #37, March-April 1962); NoMan of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents (from Tower Comics’ T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1, November 1965); John Byrne’s comedic creation Rog-2000, who appeared in Charlton’s E-Man in the 1970s; Beautie, a life-size, doll-like superpowered android (from Kurt Busiek’s Astro City #1, August 1995); and Roger Stern and John Byrne’s Walkabout (from Marvel: The Lost Generation #12, March 2000).

At DC, writer Grant Morrison co-created Tomorrow Woman, an android superheroine who later turned into a real human (from JLA #5, May 1997), and the third Hourman (from JLA #12, December 1997), an android from the 853rd century. This new Hourman was based on the genetic template of Rex Tyler, the Golden Age Hourman (from Adventure Comics #48, April 1940), a superhero whose Miraclo pill gave him super-strength for one hour. Hiro Takichiro, a brilliant Japanese teenager, invented his robot bodyguard Baymax, a “synthformer” who can change shape, appearing in humanoid form or as a dragon-like being. Both are members of Marvel’s Japanese superhero team Big Hero 6 and debuted in Sun-fire and Big Hero 6 #1 (September 1998).

Hanna-Barbera produced animated cartoon series featuring the robot Frankenstein, Jr. (1966) and the robot dog superhero Dynomutt (1976). In writer/director Brad Bird’s animated film The Iron Giant (1999), based on a 1968 book by Ted Hughes, the colossal alien robot, who is the title hero, consciously regards Superman as his role model. —PS

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