One of the most spectacular misfires in the history of comics, NEUTRO lasted only a single issue, released by Dell at the tail end of the super hero fad and attempting like so many others did to cash in on the sudden heat of that genre. It’s debatable whether this colossal shaggy dog story even started out life as a super hero title, or whether the copy identifying him as “The Most Astounding Super Hero of All!” was added later in the production process, as an attempt to tail-ride on the popularity of the genre at that moment. One thing is certain, though: those who read NEUTRO #1 did not forget the experience. Or maybe they did. I don’t know. All right, let’s start at the beginning.
NEUTRO was the work of writer D.J. Arneson, who had worked on a number of the outfit’s adventure series, such as WEREWOLF and LOBO, and artist Jack Sparling. it concerned a gigantic alien robot that had been buried on Earth centuries ago in pieces–Neutro’s parts were separated and buried in a number of mysterious boxes to prevent the towering titan from ever being re-assembled.
But this is a comic book story, ostensibly a super hero comic book story, and so of course somebody was going to track down those boxes and put them back together again. That somebody is John Dodge, who is intrigued by the stories of the alien visitation, and his friend “Doc” Banyan. Dodge is able to locate the buried crates and unearth them, bringing them back to his and Banyan’s laboratory.
Busting open the crates, the pair finds that they contain super-sophisticated electronic parts, far more complex than anything yet realized on Earth. Being inquisitive dumbasses, the pair somehow intuits how to re-assemble the parts into a gigantic robotic figure that stands as large as two men. This is Neutro, an invincible robot from the stars with only one fatal weakness–but what a weakness it is!
You see, as “Doc Banyan puts it, Neutro has no brain! He’s completely an automaton, whose immense destructive power is at the service of whomever operates its control device. In good hands, Neutro is capable of great good, but in nefarious hands, his power could spell the end of civilization.
Dodge and Banyan spend pages testing out Neutro’s capabilities. I mean page after page after page after page, each one crammed with typically four panels, each one showcasing Neutro accomplishing some feat of strength, speed or power. There really isn’t a narrative at this part of the story at all, just a series of trading card images of the robot going through its paces. But having studied neutro and his capabilities, Dodge and Banyan are horrified by the prospects.
The pair are incredibly worried about what might happen if evildoers were to gain control of Neutro–evildoers being represented in this instance as a gigantic hand with the letters E-V-I-L seemingly tattooed on the fingers. Again, we are treated to page upon page upon page showcasing what Neutro would be capable of if guided by a nefarious operator, with nary a narrative thread to be seem.
And they are right to be worried. For at that very moment, a group of European scientists known as 777 (and made up of a bunch of racist caricatures) were working to capture Neutro! (How they knew about the robot in the first place is anybody’s guess.) And as they begin their machinations, the narration tells us the secret of Neutro: that there is a Neutro on every inhabited world, placed there by the aliens to be activated whenever they want to assume control of that planet. Mind you, the aliens don’t do anything like that in this issue, they don’t even show up again–but the threat is there, if only before the readers!
Back in Europe, the 777 scientists work and work and work and work, for what seems like pages, their rallying cry having become, “We’ll capture Neutro!” And eventually, they and other groups like theirs are ready to try. Their methodology is to attempt to wrest control of the robot from Dodge and Banyan by means of a more powerful control signal. At first, though, their signal is not strong enough.
But the very attempt concerns Dodge and Banyan, and they begin to brainstorm on ways of keeping Neutro out of the hands of the evil scientists. Simply taking him apart and burying him again doesn’t occur to them, apparently, and instead they consider different methods by which Neutro might be made safe and kept away from the bad guys. If you’re sensing a pacing problem with this comic book, give yourself a cookie.
But eventually, the inevitable happens and Neutro’s control signal is overwhelmed by the evil scientists! He rockets away from Dodge and Banyan, blasting through the ceiling and into the night. Left behind, the pair vow to regain control of Neutro before he can be put to any ill purpose. And with that–the story ends! The sum total of what Neutro has actually done in the course of this story is burst through a ceiling and fly away from teh men who rebuilt it.
Suffice it to say that this is a dull comic book, without much going for it at all. Sparling’s artwork is sketchy and unrefined, and the copy by Arneson is rudimentary. I’ve no idea where they thought they were going to take this idea had a second issue ever been commissioned, but the whole thing is ridiculously misguided. Neutro himself, of course, has no personality whatsoever.
The book also likely didn’t sell all that well, as it became a staple of discount bins all throughout the 1970s. Copies were in plentiful supply, but nobody was buying.
This all said, there is something wonderful in an Ed Wood way about just how incompetent every facet of this production is. It’s a dadaesque masterpiece if approached in the correct light. And a reading experience that no reader was ever likely to forget, or remember.