2001 spins out a superhero for the present-day
"House of Nightmares”
Written, Edited, and Drawn – Jack Kirby
Inked and Lettered – Mike Royer
Colored – Petra G.
Wiring? – Archie Goodwin
The original Crapbox held a Machine Man. Not this one, but if we are lucky we might find it buried somewhere in here.
So I grew up with this itineration of the character. Beyond this, the Marchine Man character was evolved by Tom DeFalco with the assistance of Herb Trimp and Barry Windsor-Smith into a cyberpunk future version of himself in the X-51 miniseries. Later on, that would turn out to NOT be our favorite Living Machine. Sometime much later Warren Ellis would throw out everything about Machine Man but the Machine part and add him to his Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. series as Aaron Stack.
I have yet to read the X-51 series (I have them all, thank you Crapbox) so I have no feelings on that version of MM. Ellis’s version should upset me, but Nextwave is such fun-loving fluff that I can’t find it in myself to hold any malice toward either the Aaron Stack in it’s pages or Mr. Ellis.
But the guy you see here is MY Machine Man. He’s the one I grew up with and the one I’ll always remember. Issue Six was mine when I was twelve. My favorite part of Aaron was his extendable arms and legs. I don’t know why other than they always looked cool.
As I might of mentioned in my review of 2001: A Space Odyssey that Kirby created the Machine Man character in issue 8 of that book. Two issues later, Marvel would cancel the book, but give Kirby a monthly Machine Man title to further his adventures growing as a person and evading the Army.
Here Kirby copied some of his earlier formulas, that being the one for Silver Surfer. Now bear with me a bit because their origins couldn’t be more different. Dig deeper thought, and you’ll find the obvious character parallels.
Machine Man is a robot of the model X-51 type. All the other robots of that type gain sentience and go on a rampage to destroy humanity. The Army is called in and disposes of all of them. All of them except for the one owned by the scientist Able Stack, who has treated his X-51 with love and compassion. This X-51 encounters the 2001 monolith and the exposure allows him to transcend the malfunction that made his brother robots go all homicidal. However, the Army doesn’t realize that Machine man is any different and hounds him in a way not seen since the Incredible Hulk first came out.
All of this leads to Kirby’s Surfer parallel. Machine Man is an outcast who fights for humanity. He spends his hours split between brooding about his fate and being chased from place to place by a populace that fears him. Yet still, the good inside him makes him take up arms to defend the very group that vilify him.
The three issues in 2001 have Machine Man’s origin and his initial struggles with the Army. Issues one and two of his self-titled solo book has the same protagonist, although the end of this book brings in a whole new enemy who will vex Machine Man for the next four. Kirby has no heavy world building to do here, no spacegods to explain or wasteland to explore. So with the backstory out of the way, what we have is a bunch of time to get to know Aaron Stack and enjoy his adventures. This smaller, more intimate and focused character driven drama hits a home run for me. Let’s see if it does for you too.
We begin our little thrill ride with Machine Man strapped down and menaced by the hands of some unseen monster. Note the style Kirby and Royer use here is thick, Thick, THICK lines with tons of crackle. I think that’s one of the selling points of this book, not only is the story simpler but the art conveys that same message. It lulls you into sitting back and letting the story pull you along.
And where it pulls you is these demons removing Stack’s face, which is always a stand in for removing his humanity. The symbolism of forcing him to confront that which makes him stand apart from the humans he desperately emulates conveyed by machines like himself, yet demonic and murderous is a theme that runs through-out the series.
But don’t get to concerned, as this ends up being a dream. The nightmare itself something that points out the humanity trapped with Machine Man’s synthetic shell. This book is perfused with Kirby tech too. Gloriously rendered for those of us who love his wild engineering, Kirby delivers in every book.
So we watch as Machine Man hides from the Army desperately searching for what they believe to be a sentient engine of death dressed up in a purple painted casing. MM himself is unable to retreat, his flying unit having been damaged in last issues scuffle.
The relentlessness of Kirby’s shock troops is matched only by their anonymity. Aside from the eyepatched Coronel Kragg, we just have random dog-faces, which is fine. It keeps our focus on hunter and quarry, not cluttering the story with sub-plots.
To assist in affecting his escape, Machine Man approaches a pump jockey and mechanic at a local filling station. He wants to purchase some “wheels”, but not the traditional definition that implies. His manner of payment is rather unconventional as well.
Yes, we are using the old “turn carbon into diamonds” maneuver from the Silver Age Superman, but here Kirby spends an entire page and a third on the process before we get to the reveal. It’s all just showing off, which to me is like icing on a cake. How could you not fall in love with a book that feels like a throwback to the Lee-Kirby era of stories?
Aaron gets his tires and makes a promise we’ll see him keep in a grandiose sequence that is all Kirby showing off in just a moment, but first we go to this psychiatrist who aided Aaron last issue in escaping detection. He would be the only man on the planet that Machine Man might call friend and it appears one of his patients is causing a commotion.
This is the doc’s wacked-out patient…
…who appears to be talking in high-tech gibberish.
As Doc Spalding sedates him, he muses absentmindedly to his aid about having met a man who was like a machine just that morning. The aid quickly excuses himself, to make a phone call to the army is my assumption.
Not that they need any help, having cornered Machine Man at the gas station. Feast your eyes on this!
As much as I love those panels, I love these even more…
Isn’t that great! Machine Man’s head slightly inclined forward in panel one as he crashes through the wall! The graceful arc over ducking soldiers as he zooms away! The stances of the grunts as they try to get a bead on their fleeing quarry! And that bouncing off the boulder pile with such force! Such a fun page. Kirby brings action sequences together like few can.
We get some more cool driving moments as MM encounters a couple of bikers. (love the Dutch angle opening)
Which doesn’t work out well for them, as they are too distracted by his appearance to pay attention to the road. Since Kirby’s finished with this amusement, we end with a bang as Aaron discards the wheels in a flashy display.
And with that we turn back to our good Doctor, still pouring over the file of his deranged, tech-spouting patient.
When he receives a unexpected visitor.
And we get a genuine scene between these two that feels just like the old school Marvel. Sure, it’s a bit hokey, but I’m good with that. The cheese here is grilled just right.
But wait! What’s this?
Machine Man is intercepting some kind of signal from space! A signal that he projects on the ceiling for Doctor Spalding to see as well.
Ah…Kirby Cosmic. Ain’t nothing better. Of course this leads the Doc to the realization that his patient zero is also receiving this transmission and perhaps Machine Man can help him. What they will end up with is not what they expect…
However, that gets saved for next issue with the introduction of Ten-For, the Mean Machine!
Kirby digging back down to his silver-age roots and producing a small intimate tale that doesn’t bear the weight of the entire universe on its shoulders, that’s what we get here. It’s easy to love it. It is easy, at least for me, to shift back to a childhood mindset of reading early Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange books. Sure the feel is dated, and probably even more so to today’s audiences. There are ham-fisted segments that will break that fourth wall for some people. I get all that.
But for me, this was a return to greatness for Kirby. It is exactly the fun and frolic I enjoyed in his early tales. We have a few more of these to go, so we’ll see if Jack continues to deliver with Machine Man.
Epilogue: As a bonus, I’m including Jacks own words on Machine Man from the letters page of issue 2. I’m sure you’ll dig hearing from the King himself what he intended this book to be.