The distribution of new comic books in the late 1970s wasn’t so wonderful. Only a couple of years earlier, it was possible to find comics in several local locations, and the number of titles available were plentiful. But somewhere along the way, comics began to lose their status, and disappeared from a lot of storefronts. Additionally, even the outlets that would stock new comics, such as my local 7-11, typically wouldn’t bother to carry new titles. They kept stocking the existing books, and once a series made it to a certain point, it might begin to turn up on their racks. But this meant that I missed a lot of the books that debuted during those years (as well as assorted specials and one-shots and the like.) MACHINE MAN was one such title. I found this issue at a store in nearby Ronkonkoma during a shopping trip, and I almost certainly picked it up because it was a series that I had never seen before.
MACHINE MAN was the latest creation of Jack Kirby, the central pillar of the Marvel Universe. It was an outgrowth of his time doing 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY–in the final issues of that series, he had introduced the character Mister Machine. But when Marvel chose not to continue with 2001 (or possibly this was the decision of the rights-holders) Kirby retooled his creation slightly, and he was spun off as Machine Man, with all references to the Monolith or 2001 excised from the narrative. I didn’t know any of this at the time, as I hadn’t really seen the 2001 comic. And if I had, I doubt that I would have purchased it–I had only a passing awareness of the film at that point. When I came across MACHINE MAN, though, it looked like a super hero book, and those were my meat, so I dove in. This was the only issue in the run that I would ever find or buy, at least until the series was relaunched a year or two later by Marv Wolfman and Steve Ditko.
Jack Kirby was a creator I had an uneasy relationship with at this point in 1978. His work could best be described as singular. It had a power and a scope to it that was unequalled in the field. He also didn’t at all follow the narrative tropes of the line, meaning that the story elements that were of interest to him weren’t along the lines of what everybody else was trying to do. There wasn’t a lot of quippy banter or soap opera conflicts in Kirby’s work at this time, and his dialogue and copy had a cadence worlds away from the Stan Lee flavor that had permeated not just Marvel but the rest of the industry. So I would read Kirby comics semi-regularly, but they never quite were able to hook me. I was often pulled in by the graphics, despite the stylistic quirks that made his work seem less polished than the ultra-illustrative Neal Adams approach which was then in vogue. I knew there was something there, but I didn’t yet have the life experience to connect with it. I did love Kirby’s work on the reprints of his earlier stuff at Marvel and elsewhere–but in those instances, it was often being scripted by Stan Lee and others, and so I figured that was what made the difference.
MACHINE MAN concerned itself with the adventures of X-51, Aaron Stack, the fifty-first experimental robot created by Doctor Abel Stack and the only one whose positronic personality didn’t go insane. The difference being that Stack raised X-51 like his own child, treating him like a son and fostering his development slowly. Still, Aaron Stack was a stranger in a strange land, and after his father died and the project was shut down, he was pursued in true Thunderbolt Ross fashion by the vengeful Colonel Kragg, who considered Machine Man a menace and who had himself lost an eye in the service of the X-Series project. There isn’t a whole lot of preamble in this issue before Kirby jumps into the story. Apparently, last issue, Machine man and his friend Dr. Spaulding came into contact with an individual whose mind had made contact with an entity from outer space. In the opening, Machine Man uses the technology built into his body to project images from the man’s mind–the being that’s in contact with him is trapped on a ship that’s about to plunge into a star, and can only be rescued by them by means of dimensional transference.
Machine Man and Spaulding are willing to help out, despite the fact that they cannot ascertain whether the creature they are in contact with is friend or foe. But its life is in jeopardy, so they have no moral alternative but to effect a rescue. Following instructions transmitted by the alien, Machine Man constructs an “Instrument” from his own workings, a device capable of opening up a portal through space. As it is activated for the first time, Spaulding is almost sucked through into the void, but Machine Man is able to rescue his friend and thrust him out of jeopardy. Meanwhile, outside the Sanatorium they’re holed up in, Colonel Kragg and his troops have arrived. Despite the fact that it’s a working medical hospital, Kragg is willing to attack it in order to capture and destroy Machine Man (certainly this is a Court-Martial offense, if not an out-and-out war crime, right?) Aaron Stack is Kragg’s white whale, and he’s not about to let Machine Man elude him again, even if it means potentially jeopardizing others.
While Kragg’s forces prepare for their assault,. inside the building, things are popping off. Machine Man is able to get control of the Instrument and use it to bring the alien through from the vaporizing starship. It’s a technological being, similar to Machine Man himself, one that identifies itself as Ten-For, a Rover for the powerful Autocron Empire made up entirely of machine-based life. It acknowledges Machine Man’s rescue, then turns to extinguish the life of the man through whom he was able to make contact with Aaron and Spaulding. To the Autocron Empire, animal life is a lesser form of existence and not worth preserving. SO Machine Man has inadvertently drawn an incredibly dangerous entity to Earth, one whose personal code may require him to wipe out the whole of humanity. When Peter tries to interject with Ten-For, the Autocron blasts him with a paralyzer beam, in the manner in which you would train a puppy.
Horrified by what he has unleashed, Machine Man suggests that Ten-For can be dispatched equally easily with the Instrument, and so the Autocron immediately incinerates it. Just at that moment, Kragg chooses to open fire, and his attack is interpreted as a deliberate provocation by Ten-For. He identifies himself as a Holocaust Specialist, and he immobilizes Machine Man with a vertigo inducer that severs the connection between Stack’s mind and his body. Ten-For then turns his attentions outside, where the military is waiting for a fight they don’t really know is coming. Shaking off his paralysis, Spaulding attempts to dislodge the vertigo inducer from where it has been locked to Machine Man’s head–Aaron can still see and speak, but he’s terrified by the awesome power that Ten-For represents, and knows that it’s urgent that the Autocron be dealt with, defeated and ejected from the Earth, before he can summon the rest of his kind. And it’s on that note that the issue is To Be Continued. I enjoyed it a fair amount as a kid, even though I found a lot of the copy a bit stilted and unwieldy. but I thought Ten-For was cool, as was Machine Man (despite the fact that I couldn’t quite figure out what his powers were, As was typical of Kirby in this era, he didn’t care about quantifying matters such as that, so Machine Man could often pull whatever gadget the story called for out of his inner workings.)