Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Magnus Robot Fighter 4000AD


Raw Steel

Magnus Robot Fighter 4000AD
(The Gold Key and Whitman Years)

Gold Key Issues 1 - 46 USA 1963 - 1977
Whitman Issues Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom
Back Up Strip 28 - 31 1981 - 1982


I never read or, I think, even saw these Magnus Robot Fighter 4000AD comics when I was a kid. We certainly had a few of the Gold Key titles on the UK news stands back in the early 1970s but they were mostly titles like Lost In Space, Boris Karloff Presents or Star Trek and, even those were fairly scarce among the gazillions of DC, Marvel and Harvey comics which dominated the racks here. The few Gold Key titles which were here did tend to stand out, though, because the fully painted covers were absolutely brilliant compared to any of the rival companies mentioned above.

That being said, I did read at least one Magnus comic strip and I was interested in the character because of that. The strip in question was from a second hand TV Tornado annual I had somehow acquired in the 1970s. TV Tornado was a comic that I didn’t get or know about but I somehow had an annual and the Magnus strip I read when I was a nipper would have been, like all the Magnus strips included as part of that comic, a reprint from one of these Gold Key issues. The look and feel of the character, from what little I saw, really appealed to me but, obviously, those were the decades before the internet so any information about the character was really not forthcoming like it would be today.

But now I’ve read these, I am a little more clued up on him... at least from his original Gold Key era. Like a couple of other of the ‘original’ Gold Key characters, Magnus has had a longer life after the company folded in various other comic companies over the years and, I guess I’ll get around to reading those ones too at some point. These ones though are... kinda interesting but a very simplistic presentation of a complex issue, it seems to me.

The strip was created by famous comic artist Russ Manning, who would also work on titles like Tarzan and who would be also well known in the US in his later years, just before he lost his battle with cancer, for drawing the Star Wars newspaper strip. He drew the first 21 issues of the Gold Key title until other artists took over for issues 23 - 28 and also the short lived revival as a back up strip in the revived Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom (which I reviewed here). Manning’s art is pretty clean and you can tell from his storyline that he was obviously interested by the challenge of Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. So much so that he even quotes it in the first issue. Another sign of a good artist is the fact that the page layouts don’t ‘strictly’ follow the Gold Key style of panel counts with more dynamic layouts and splash panels/pages which Manning throws into the mix.

Issues 29 - 46 are all, regrettably, reprints of earlier issues... I’ve got no idea how Gold Key got away with pulling stuff like this off but I think they got rid of the letters page around about the same time so there was nobody complaining about it. At least not visibly.

The first issue tells of Magnus’ first day in North Am, a vast city which unites all of the North American continent in the year 4000AD (and beyond). This is an origin story and tells how he was rescued as an orphaned baby by the robot 1A, who took him to his ocean lair and trained him, as a toddler, in the arts of robot fighting... allowing young Magnus to hone his body like steel so he can smash robots with his bare hands. On this day in the first issue, Magnus must be in his early 20s and he returns to North Am to enlighten mankind that they have come to rely on robots too heavily... turning them into a weak race. So he fights any evil or malfunctioning robots, falls in love with a senator’s daughter who is a regular on the strip, never lets anyone know that he has a receiver implanted in his head so he can pick up transmissions between robots and get a jump on any alarming activity... and is somehow welcomed into the hearts of the people and the upper echelons of North Am, without having much of an actual job to sustain him other than being, it would seem, a permanent ‘live in guest’ of the senator and smashing bad robots.

So, yeah, interesting premise of a world gone weak through over reliance on robots but brushed away in a simplistic strip which, I suspect, Russ Manning probably left because he’d realised it had run its course in such a short time. After all, how many evil robots can there be?

There are recurring villains from time to time, mostly humans controlling robots of death... but things get fairly ridiculous quite quickly with not much to add to the initial concept, I felt. Not that the writers didn’t give it a try. For instance, exploring the concept of highly intelligent, telepathic animals to try and expand out the narrative or even... and this is a bit fraught with peril... having a group of what amount to a fan club of teenage sidekicks called The Outsiders to get into trouble and, just occasionally, get Magnus out of harm’s way.

But then you also get stuff like the mental consciousness of a robot planet that Magnus destroyed in an earlier issue coming back to take over two of the title character’s human enemies by thought control and having them harnessing robots through the power of black magic... it just gets a bit silly. There’s even a hollow reference or two in that particular issue to H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos if you look carefully at the spells they are chanting.

The comic also had a back up strip called The Aliens which was fairly unfocused and tried to preach on the subject of racial tensions dressed up as a kind of aliens/human exchange programme.. but with lots of ‘problem solving’ action. However, the strip wasn’t that great and it kinda gets cancelled half way through the run on a cliff hanger so... I guess I’ll never know (not too worried about that, to be honest).

So yeah, when it does have good things to explore, such as the anti-robot sentiment operating through a robotic society or the different classes and status of the inhabitants of North Am, it does kind of throw them away so we can see more things involving Magnus smashing robots but, to be fair, it is entertaining enough and I am wondering if the later incarnations of the character, written and drawn in decades which were a little more sophisticated than the comics audience was in the 1960s/70s, had time to look at some of the more interesting side effects of the main premise than the original comic did. I guess I will have to get around to reading some of those at some point in the near future but, for now, I’ll just say that I did kinda enjoy perusing the adventures of Magnus Robot Fighter 4000AD and I will come back to this character at some point, I’m sure.

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