The Fifth Color | Man, machine and philosopher King
Machine Man has had a pretty good career in comics. One of those trendy sort of alternative careers where he’s filled in on guest spots, played with cyberpunk in the ’80s, a bad-ass mission to kill in the late ’90s (along with one of the most important philosophical roles in Earth X), a good dose of cynicism and humor with Nextwave. Heck, he even fought zombies, which is the trendiest of things to do in fiction right now!
Because he’s been sort of a unique cypher for the writer and reader, I think Jack Kirby would be proud of his creation. I say this as if I would know anything about Kirby personally, but in a way, thanks to some amazing moments in the original pages of Machine Man under his pen, I think I just might know something of the King. Machine Man had a lot of questions in his creation, a sort of philosophy on man and humanity. Within the pages of gorgeous, larger-than-life art, Kirby himself invited us to answer the questions he posed in the story.
I’m three days late, but what can you do? You can take a little time with me and look back at the weird and the wonderful idea that started as “The Machine — As the Dude Next Door.”
WARNING: We’ll be talking about the first volume of Machine Man, written by the King himself! So find a copy and read along …
The short-short version is that Machine Man (the living robot!) was created as part of a project to make machines in the form of men that could function under almost impossible stress, but their undoing came not from a bullet or a bomb but rather from existential crisis. “Marvelous neo-human mechanisms developed an ailment common to all men! They suffered an Identity Crisis!” Then there was robot war, a sort of madness that took over all these Weapons from the X-Project (hush, Wolverine), and the decision was made to destroy the whole lot.
Because they all were fashionably labeled, we know that the 51st robot survived the massacre of his brother because of one man. Abel Stack, referred to as a “brilliant psychologist,” treated X-51 as a son and solved the identity crisis by giving X-51 a human face. Yeah, it was a human face with some big, red bulgy eyes that probably made a terrifying night light, but a human face nonetheless.
This face makes all the difference in the world to both the characters and to the readers. This face is a major plot point to the extent that Machine Man himself has nightmares about losing it and his sense of humanity. How he relates to that face as a physical representation of his humanity is just as important as how we react to that face and if it changes our perceptions of him as well. Also, there are robot fights and parallel dimensions in this book. Just wanted to be clear on that.
The neat thing about all the metaphor and philosophical musing one can do about the man/machine dichotomy are the short little essays one can find sprinkled through the first few issues (sorry folks, I only have the run up through Issue 9, with a couple holes in the mix, so I’m just going off what I have in front of me) as well as a fascinating letter column in the back of #9, which was to be the last issue under Kirby. In between the action and adventure of a robot hunted by the military and trying to sneak through society, Kirby mused directly about what he considered “the hottest social question of our time.” In the first issue we have “The Machine — As the Dude Next Door,” where Kirby pitches us the book in the larger scope as well as the small. The idea that a living spirit could inhabit “the wrong body” (allegory at its finest!) causes all sorts of problems for mankind, from the personal of how we might approach this new life form to our government and laws, right down to our jobs and safety. Kirby promises us that the story of Machine Man is a very compassionate and human one; he is so certain of this that the address to write in about the book is his own. Instead of forwarding the mail to Marvel, the address for the Machine Man comic is a little mailbox in Thousand Oaks, California. In future essays like this, you simply mail them in to Kirby.
If anything can be truly cited as the “Marvel Way,” it’s this: a clear invitation into the story itself and the ideas within from the people who bring you this book. Sure, this sounds pretty heavy, but in Machine Man #2 there’s another essay while Machine Man fights off an army hunt and forges himself into a rockin’ three-wheeler to jump the Army’s barricade. This one’s called “A Persecuted Machine” and posits the question that “If Machine Man exhibits humanity, isn’t it incumbent upon us to extend our own to him?” Kirby explains that it might not be in any of our best favors to do so, as humanity isn’t merely our compassion, but our worst qualities as well. “We’re all a kaleidoscope of conditioning and emotions both volatile and placid.” To share our humanity with this new living machine would mean our fears as well as our understanding, our hate as well as our compassion. It’s a mixed bag.
Among the dimensional clockwork and invading alien machines named “Ten-For” (the Mean Machine!), there’s another essay by Kirby called “The Unexpected Robot” in which he talks about his own perceptions of the character he created:
“I can tell you that when I draw him, I visualize Machine Man not as X-51, but Aaron Stack, a nice young man of 26 with good scholastic credentials and a person of positive and constructive qualities.”
But there are some things you just can’t look past — there’s no denying that there is something terrifying in the synthetic man-machine. Kirby admits to not only recognizing the “divine” in his creation, but his own fears as well. Humanity at large might also fear and hate the Machine Man for his superior body and his uncanny valley, but they will never flinch from using him to their own benefit as well.
In Issue 5, there’s a galactic threat bearing down on Earth, and all of humanity will be doomed if Machine Man doesn’t step up to save us. There are a few pages of reasonable doubt on whether he should choose to side with those who would destroy him. Inside this debate and world-shaking dilemma, there’s a essay titled “Would You Like a Machine to Fight Your Battles?” As Aaron Stack debates, so does Jack Kirby, who admits that having a robot fight his battles would be pretty sweet. That is, until your neighbor has one to do the same. And then the criminals have them. On and on in an escalation of force, all very clear in 1978 (kids, there used to be this thing called the “Cold War” …). Kirby then turns it all around and marvels at the indignity of being the Machine Man that continues to suffer through our human foibles as the debate rages on, the one who’s sent into battle. The hate and fear continue, now mixed with ownership rights and ridicule.
“Poor Machine Man. Made in our image, he will shoulder our uncertainties, insecurities and put up with the company of our visiting relatives.”
The indignity of his use as man’s plaything might cause a Machine Man to disconnect his own life circuits, but
“Naturally, that won’t bother us humans one smidgen. We’ll just manufacture more machine men — to fight our battles and hang out the wash, because that’s what we want, and there wasn’t a moment since the first hairy rascal sallied from his cave to the present day, in which a human being didn’t fulfill his own desires.”
Not to leave you hanging, Aaron Stack does indeed choose to save humanity despite his own misgivings and despite our dual sided human nature because that’s the best way to take the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, the whole human experience. These are larger concepts played out on our paneled stage in great big pictures with great big consequences. Sure, Machine Man has changed throughout the years, evolved, been set back, wondered and forgotten, but then again, so haven’t we all?