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Every so often, public opinion shifts and popular culture gets a craving. Remember when everything was all about pirates? Then we all got on this huge kick about vampires and the supernatural, and we had a variety of different television shows to slake our thirst? The remnants of those yearnings still linger (well, not so much the pirates), and now the masses have all lined up for zombies.
Zombies play into so many metaphors for the fears that plague us (death, communities turning against us, a loss of identity and so on), and they can even reflect economic shifts with consumerism and political-mob mentalities. That latter point is probably why Game of Thrones (a fantasy political drama) and The Walking Dead (a morality play on humanity versus its corrupted self) are TV-ratings gold.
Sadly, this cannot last. I’m not saying zombies are on their way out, just that the cultural craze is reached a peak and is moving toward something new — and Marvel comics has your back.
With robots! They’re fantastic and a personal favorite of my science fiction-loving heart, so the announcement of Avengers A.I. left me looking past our zombie-filled present with a hope for a new future-craze. We should be looking forward to what comes after our old rotten selves, pushing forward with our fiction to better understand the human condition. There is no better metaphor than that of the robot to help us grasp our own humanity and morality by looking through mechanical eyes; the future of our pop culture might not be full of artificial men, because who can really predict the public’s taste for fantasy or fiction? But Marvel seems primed and ready to try to take us into a new age of androids.
It’s not like the publisher doesn’t have the tools, story resources and impetus for a robot revival. Rick Remender has been laying the groundwork for quite a while, and some of Marvel’s most interesting heroes and villains list themselves as automatons (or simply as our betters). But why robots? Why do they provide such a wealth of self-exploration and opportunity to learn about humanity and morality? Bear with me as I gleefully explain.
The word robot was introduced in 1920 with R.U.R. (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”), a Czech play about labor and exploitation. From the get-go, robots have been a way to look at how we treat ourselves, and what exactly makes us human. The concept of the creation of life, and what it is, is a lot easier to discuss when you can be there for the tightening of the bolts and screws. What is living and what is a paperweight can be debated by looking at a replica of a human being for comparison. What makes us a man and not a toaster? Can intelligence and the spark of life come down to a bit of electricity? And is that spark aware of what it is? Isaac Asimov nearly made it a career to define all these questions in a myriad of books before reality caught up with fiction and now we can have Siri explain the weather to Zooey Deschanel in a commercial and think nothing of it. But why stop there?
Jack Kirby’s Machine Man, a personal favorite, tried to get at this idea of understanding a mechanical man and how we relate to him (and he, us) in a mighty Marvel fashion, full of bombastic introspection and military chase scenes. Is Ultron an evil robot or are his motivations corrupted by his creator’s continual condemnation? If Hank Pym had just hugged his robot son more, would we not be living in a post-apocalyptic age? Does being human or having human characteristics place upon you the ideas of good and evil? I mean, it’s easier to judge a robot because we can simply take them apart and search through their programming, something I do not recommend trying with a human being. Whatever comes of Age of Ultron, the idea of Hank Pym as the “godfather” of artificial intelligence taking a group of mechanical men and women on an Avengers quest seems like something that’s been long coming.
Brian Michael Bendis had promised us an “Age of Ultron” for years. Remender started with a small appearance by Dethlok that built up into an incredible multi-part epic for the end of his run on Secret Avengers. Jeff Parker hasn’t let go of Machine Man, just as much a main character in Red She-Hulk as the title role. And, let’s face it, mutants are a mess at the moment and just aren’t cutting it for teaching us about philosophy and the human condition. So why not robots? They seem to be testing well as both Age of Ultron and the sci-fi starter Guardians of the Galaxy topped the charts last month. Could we be looking at the next pop-culture zeitgeist?
Who knows? All I can say is that we’re about due for a revolution.