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Happy Birthday, Mister Machine

Comics, FYI
Happy Birthday, Mister Machine
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #33 • View online
A brief fanboyish note on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of Machine Man’s debut.

When it comes to my favorite Marvel characters, I tend to go for the obvious choices for the most part. Like all good people, I think that Benjamin J. Grimm, the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing, is one of the greatest comic characters ever created, and I have a fondness for the well intentioned, yet ultimately flawed, Hawkeye. (Clint Barton, that is, although I dig Kate Bishop as well.) Similarly, give me a good Spider-Man story and I’m as happy as anyone*.
There is, however, one Marvel character that I hold in impossibly high esteem that others might consider an also-ran, or worse yet, a never-was – a character that’s certainly B-list, if not lower, when it comes to star status inside the House of Ideas, and as such given to constant tinkering and reworking that only ever takes them further from what made them special in the first place. That character? Jack Kirby’s Machine Man.
Debuting in, of all places, the eighth issue of Kirby’s wonderful 2001: A Space Odyssey series from the 1970s**, Machine Man – or, as he was known for the three issues of 2001 he appeared in before being given his own series, “Mister Machine”*** – was one of Kirby’s last major creations for Marvel, sandwiched between the Eternals and Devil Dinosaur in terms of the three original titles he created for the publisher upon his return from DC in the mid-70s. By this point in his career, Kirby’s ambition was on full display in almost everything he did, and Machine Man was no exception: a reworking of sorts of the Pinocchio story, the title character is a robot that wants to be human, but has to settle for being a reluctant superhero instead.  
In Kirby’s hands, Machine Man is a fascinating character that breaks from the Marvel formula even as he fulfills it. He’s a hero as the result of happenstance, and one that is as feared and hated by the people he’s protecting as he is loved. He’s even hunted down by the military, a la the Hulk; like so many of the successful Marvel heroes, he’s an anti-authoritarian figure by his very existence, even as he seeks to uphold – and be welcomes into – the societal status quo. Yet, he lacks the wise-cracking Stan Lee patter, and the overwhelming confidence that comes from that. Even Lee’s Peter Parker, who theoretically was an anxious loser at heart, comes across as being almost insufferably confident most of the time.
He also seems simultaneously curmudgeonly and intensely lonely at times in ways that feel contradictory and also painfully, uncomfortably, heartfelt in their bluntness and strength. To Kirby, X-51 – the title he was manufactured under – is a character that wants to do the right thing and be loved, even as he doesn’t quite understand much of the world that he’s trying to fit into, and often seems quietly upset at everyone around him every time he’s forced to interact with them. It’s an admittedly confusing, but particularly fun, dynamic that Kirby makes the most out of for the 12 issues he has with the character. (The last three issues of 2001, and the first nine issues of 1978’s Machine Man.)
That’s to say nothing of the… well, the Kirby-ness of those issues. There’s an argument to be made that Machine Man might be one of the last truly great Kirby series in terms of art – thanks in no small part to the presence of Mike Royer on inks all the way through it**** – with the artist still in his prime, and filled with a dynamism born of both his natural instincts to condense everything to its simplest visual elements and, I suspect, no small amount of influence from the pop art craze of the 1950s and ‘60s, wherein Lichtenstein and others stole from comics, inadvertently demonstrating to comic artists that what might have seemed like restrictions and failures of the printing process could be bold graphic choices in and of themselves. And then there’s Kirby’s idiosyncratic writing: who else would have dared explain the fact that Machine Man could fly by explaining, sincerely and straight-facedly, that he had “canceled the gravity equation”? 
Kirby’s Machine Man is, honestly, one of my favorite Marvel runs of all time, with this version of the character up there beside the Thing, Spider-Man et al as an all-time great Marvel character. Everything that’s happened to the hero since, though, has been… significantly less notable.
I’m not just talking about his appearance in Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s fan-favorite early 2000s series Nextwave, although that’s probably the most high-profile version of the character for a generation of fans. The Nextwave Machine Man was the character re-created as a pretty generic Ellis-written asshole with only the most tenuous connection to anything that went before, as seemed to be the joke of the entire miniseries as a whole. (I genuinely don’t get the reverence so many have for Nextwave, which even at the time read to me like Ellis on autopilot, cashing checks and making Immonen do most of the heavy lifting.) Every version of Machine Man since Kirby’s has been lacking in some way.
Part of the problem has been that, in almost every subsequent appearance, the character has been given a makeover in some way or another. The 1984 Machine Man miniseries famed for its Barry Windsor-Smith art places the character in a dystopian future, replacing his desire to be an everyman with a desire to, basically, find out what is going on; 1999’s X-51: The Machine Man tried to co-opt him into both X-Men and Eternals mythology as he became part-Sentinel and part-Celestial-built robot, which might have been connected to his part in 1999’s Earth X, where he shows up as a predominantly passive observer of the grim alternate reality alongside the Watcher. Even in recent appearances by creators who respect the twists and turns of Marvel continuity, he’s closer to the manic, suspicious-of-humanity Nextwave incarnation than anything else.
All of these changes are… fine, if you like that kind of thing, I guess…? Except that, for me, each one pulls the character further from Kirby’s original conception and closer to a generic “wacky robot” character, like a cross between Inspector Gadget and Bender from Futurama. There’s a simplicity and a gracefulness to Kirby’s starting point of “Pinocchio, but with gadgets” that, conceptually, feels far stronger than anything it’s been replaced with in the four-plus decades of appearances after Kirby left the character.
I feel the strength of Kirby’s original idea has been demonstrated as much as anything by two beloved projects that don’t feature Machine Man at all. Star Trek: The Next Generation found great success with the character Data, who very much embodies the “robot Pinocchio” idea that Kirby had gifted Machine Man, to the point where he was arguably the most popular character in the show. Elsewhere at Marvel, Tom King and Gabriel Hernandex Walta’s acclaimed The Vision series showed a robot trying to be human by building himself a family… something that, arguably, was more in keeping with Machine Man’s history than the Vision’s. (Of course, only one of them was in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and had name recognition…) 
None of this is intended to be a plea for a new Machine Man comic that restores the original version of the character; what would be the point, in this age of constant reinvention and rebooting of characters? Neither is it a forlorn hope that Marvel Studios suddenly realizes what a treasure is in their back catalog and rushes the character to Disney+ as played by, I don’t know, Adam Scott or whoever. Instead, it’s simply an appreciation of those first 12 issues by Kirby, and of the potential of what he put in place, only for it to be ignored by everyone that followed in his footsteps. The key to the character was never his telescopic limbs, as cool as they look.
* Of course, my definition of “a good Spider-Man story” may not match everyone else’s; I’m not a particular fan of the clone stuff, or anything that pulls away from the central idea for me that Spider-Man stories should be fun at their core, in addition to melodramatic or action-packed. If you’re getting too dark, you’re losing me. (Everyone who loves “Kraven’s Last Hunt” immediately disagrees, I can tell.)
** In fact, 2001: A Space Odyssey #8 was released on this very day in 1977; that’s right – I pushed this newsletter out a day earlier than usual just to celebrate the 45th birthday of a minor character that I love. This is why having my own newsletter is, at heart, a ridiculous prospect. 
*** A pre-existing toy with the name “Mister Machine” was what prompted the name change; it’s a shame, as “Mister Machine” is honestly a far better name than “Machine Man.”
**** The same is true of Devil Dinosaur, which ran contemporaneously as the actual Machine Man title, launching and ending in the same month. By the time Kirby launched Captain Victory at Pacific Comics just a handful of years later, the combination of his slowly declining abilities and ill-chosen inkers definitely impacted the series’ visual flair.
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Graeme McMillan

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