Machine Man: The Complete Collection by Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko (graphic novel).

The first thing to say is that this ‘complete collection’ isn’t. ‘Machine Man’ originally featured in Jack Kirby’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ stories which may never be reprinted because of copyright issues, alas. He’s also reappeared in a mini-series illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith in 1984 and another one in 1999 where he was turned into a mutant hunter.

Never mind. Let’s go with what we have here. As part of a US government project, a Doctor Broadhurst invented the X-Models, robots that were superior duplicate men. They all went mad except X-51, our hero, who was taken into the home of brilliant psychiatrist Abel Stack and treated like a son. He took the human name of Aaron Stack. The government ordered all the robots destroyed and General Kragg is on the case. He lost several men and his left eye fighting Machine Man’s kin and has a fervour for the job equal to that of General Ross for chasing the Hulk. In issue #1, Machine Man befriends a psychiatrist named Peter Spaulding, one of whose patients is used to allow an Autocron to come to Earth. The Autocrons are a whole race of sentient robots who like conquering fleshy people. Later, a US Senator decides he can further his career by campaigning against the Machine Man menace.

The art is good Kirby. There is some variation in the layouts. In issue # 1 pages 2 -3, he does long panels to show Machine Man descending a cliff space. In issue # 2, a shot of Machine Man looking round a door cuts to a shot of a nurse looking round a door in the exact same pose. Neat. In issue # 9 on page 153 of this edition, there’s a nine panel sequence in which Machine Man shows someone how he escaped an atom bomb blast. None of this is particularly mind-boggling but it does show that Kirby was focused on the job and doing good work.

Plotting is pretty tight. At his worst, Kirby would spread out a thin plot over several issues by doing plenty of big panels accompanied by splash pages or double page panels and ‘chapters’ as filler. The Autocron yarn is a bit dragged out but, if you removed the rose-tinted nostalgia spectacles, you can see that it’s no more so than some Fantastic Four stories yarns in the later 1960s. In general, you get a fair bit of story per issue. I didn’t feel cheated. Which brings me to the script.

I don’t know where Kirby got his idea of which words to emphasise in speech and captions but it isn’t the standard practice. You get used to it. There were a couple of glitches in the dialogue though. Spalding says of a patient: ‘This kind of case is unique but not rare.’ Later Machine Man says: ‘I’m picking up inter-stellar transmissions!’ Spalding replies, ‘You’re talking about signals from beyond our own galaxy!’ Er, no. Interstellar is in the same galaxy. Jack turned it out pretty fast and errors are inevitable but consulting editor Artie Simek should have picked these up.

Kirby’s run of ‘Machine Man’ finished with issue # 9 from December 1978. He began again in his own title with issue # 10 in August 1979 which was preceded by him co-starring in The Incredible Hulk # 234-237 from April to July 1979. With scripting by Roger Stern and art by ’Our pal’ Sal Buscema, these are okay. At the end of Kirby’s run, he introduced a well-funded, high-tech gangster group called Inter-Gang – no, it was the Corporation, sorry – and they feature in these Hulk stories. Happily, the contents page gives all these dates and one doesn’t have to check them on the Internet.

So to Steve Ditko. I bought the book as a Kirby completist thing because anything by Jack always doubles in price when it goes second-hand, so it’s best to grab the fresh printings quickly. Ditko was a bonus and it was a pleasant surprise that he wasn’t slacking neither and turned in an art job worthy of the good old days. Largely, I think, because he was inking his own pencils. Scripter Marv Wolfman gave our hero a better human mask and a job in an insurance company so he became more like a conventional super-hero with a cast of colleagues and a secret identity to hide. Senator Brickman is still out to get him and there are some low grade villains to contend with as well. All in all, it’s like a decent super-hero comic from the 1960s with no gory violence or misery but enough drama to go round. I thought the stories went downhill somewhat when Tom DeFalco took over with issue # 15 but that was mostly because of the awful alliteration he resorted to in both dialogue and captions. The plots were okay.

The artists are headlined in the title because they’re the reason to buy the book. Kirby and Ditko have now achieved almost legendary status because of the terrific stuff they produced at Marvel in the 1960s. This book has Kirby doing five to six panels per page and Ditko doing six to nine panels. The art is not at all far from the quality they produced back in 1965 and, if you squint a bit or take a small drink or anything to give them a bit of leeway, it’s easy to imagine that this is a reprint from those halcyon days of yore.

Eamonn Murphy

December 2016

(pub: Marvel. 400 page graphic novel softcover. Price: around £18.30 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-78519-577-1)

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