As super heroes began to take hold of the comic book marketplace at the beginning of the 1960s, all sorts of different publishers stepped up to provide their own take on series featuring costumed do-gooders. One of the best-remembered was MAGNUS, ROBOT FIGHTER (though today most readers may be more familiar with the character in his later Valiant incarnation.) Magnus was the invention of writer/illustrator Russ Manning. Manning was one of the cleanest draftsmen in the field, and his work was appealing, polished and attractive. He’d eventually be associated with Tarzan thanks to his time on the jungle lord’s newspaper strip.
Magnus, however, was the anti-Tarzan (and reportedly was conceived in that fashion.) His adventures took place in the far future year of 4000 AD, a time in which human beings had become largely soft and complacent, because robot automatons had taken over all of the hazardous tasks facing mankind. Sensing that this was a problem for the long-term survival of the species, Robot 1-A (implied by his designation to be the first self-aware robot, though this is never outright stated) trained Magnus since childhood in a secret undersea base, hardening his body and instructing him in steel-shattering martial arts so that he would be a match for any robot. Magnus’ purpose was to oppose any robots that might imperil regular humans or attempt to dominate them. MAGNUS was less a super hero series than it was an adventure strip, but given that it starred a character with superhuman attributes who wore a distinctive costume, I’d say it was at the very least attempting to straddle the line in appealing to super hero fans as well as adventure series audiences.
MAGNUS, ROBOT FIGHTER was published by Gold Key, one of its first new creators following the split that wrote the end to the powerhouse Dell Comics dynasty. It was produced by Western Publishing, who had been producing the material for Dell’s line of publications for years, but who were left without a publishing arm in the wake of a conflict with Dell. Gold Key was their own entry into the field, and while they’d never again be quite as large or successful as the combined Dell had been, they produced some excellent work and are well-recalled by readers of the period.
Gold Key’s titles stood out from most of everything else that was on the stands in the early 1960s. Like the Dell books, they ran without advertising. Additionally, in most cases, they did away with panel borders on their interiors, using the “hold” of the color to delineate the forms of teh panels. This tended to give their output a nice airy feeling to it. Another thing that set Gold Key apart was its covers. They eschewed line art images in favor of full paintings, which gave them a distinctive flavor on teh racks. Additionally, at least for the first couple of years, they would run the cover image in a virgin state sans logos and trade dress on their back covers, as a pin-up.
The covers to MAGNUS, ROBOT FIGHTER were produced by painter George Wilson, sometimes from a sketch by Russ Manning. Manning himself was solely responsible for the contents of the interiors of the book. The stories were always solid, but it was Manning’s artwork that was the real draw of the strip. His futuristic cityscapes were very much his own, and his figures were clean and uncluttered. His robots were simple and a bit cartoony, but also distinctive and memorable. Also, because Gold Key didn’t subscribe to the Comics Code any more than Dell did, manning’s depictions of Magnus’ girlfriend Leeja Clane were just a hair sexier and more alluring than anything shown in any contemporaneous comics. As with Dell, Gold Key tended to use far less copy per panel than the competition, putting the emphasis firmly on the visuals.
MAGNUS was a successful venture, and ran for 46 issues, the last published in 1977. However, Manning only contributed to the first 21 issues, and most of the later ones were simply reprints of his earlier work. As the field constricted after the super hero fad had run its course, Gold Key pulled back substantially on its output, eventually abandoning the newsstand entirely in an attempt to sell its wares exclusively through supermarkets, department stores and toy stores in plastic 3-Bags.
Magnus would go on to have a second life in the 1990s after former Marvel editor in chief Jim Shooter licensed the rights to the Gold Key heroic characters and made them the cornerstone of his new Valiant universe. Since the original Valiant shut down production, a few other companies have tried their own hand at licensing Magnus and doing a modern update, including Dark Horse and Dynamite.
Most issues of MAGNUS, ROBOT FIGHTER included a short (usually 4 pages) back-up strip called THE ALIENS. It concerned mankind’s first contact with aliens, and is one of the great forgotten series in comics. With its strong visuals and quasi-hard SF concepts, THE ALIENS stood out from most everything else of its type. It, too, was produced by Russ Manning.