WC: SHOWCASE #40

Among the more memorable strips DC launched during the Silver Age of Comics was Metal Men. The brainchild of writer Robert Kanigher and artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, the Metal Men was a team of robots, each one crafted out of a particular element, who battled super-scientific menaces under the direction of their creator, Will Magnus. One of the things which served to make the Metal Men stories so compelling was the fact that, routinely, the assorted Metal Men would give their lives in the pursuit of a goal, sacrificing themselves for the greater good. And at the end, Doc Magnus would scrape up the pieces and put them back together for another go next issue. It was about as fatalistic an approach as could be had under the auspices of the Comics Code during this time.

The Metal Men started out as a straightforward action-adventure series, but very quickly, it began to grow more absurd and more silly. Some of this was the era–the Camp movement was just on the horizon, which woudl see almost all of the DC heroes begin to lampoon themselves in the quest for sales and attention. But also, Robert Kanigher wasn’t the most disciplined writer in the field, though he was clearly clever and quick. But he had a certain disdain for the work he was doing, and he’d often talk about sitting down at the typewriter to write and having no idea where his story was going to go. This made his issues a bit haphazard in their construction, as any storytelling impulse that may have crossed Kanigher’s mind went straight onto the printed page.

As I understand things–and as the splash page to this issue suggests, this fourth outing for the Metal Men in SHOWCASE was an afterthought. Typically a new feature got three try-out issues to prove itself, but in this instance, there was some delay on what was intended to come next, and so Kanigher and his crew were called upon to produce one more Metal Men adventure. (This parallels the origin of the group, in that legend has it that another editor dropped the ball on his SHOWCASE assignment, forcing Kaanigher to invent the Metal Men over a weekend, and pull the entire first story together with Andru and Esposito in about two weeks.) But since continuity was extremely loosy-goosy in those days, it was no real problem to just come up with one more story–although this is the point at which Kanigher starts to rely on improvisation in his Metal Men scripts.

A pause here at the end of Chapter One for another of Ira Schnapp’s fantastic DC house ads, this one for a pair of reprint Annuals. I’m pretty sure I’ve reproduced this ad before elsewhere, but it would be a shame not to show it off again.

In this particular story, Kanigher defies DC convention by opening the adventure up on the scene depicted on the cover: Doc Magnus has grown to colossal size, taken on the properties of a metal and become dangerously radioactive, and so is being helicoptered to a remote location so that he doesn’t poison anyone. The Metal Men are distraught, none more so than Platinum, who is in love with her creator. Despite his protestations, she wraps her threadlike body around him, becoming as radioactive as he is and joining him in his journey. As they fly, the pair recounts the events that led to this moment, jumping the narrative backwards in time. It turns out that Chemo, the colossal menace that the Metal Men had vanquished in the previous SHOWCASE issue, wasn’t as destroyed as they had thought, A lightning strike sparked the entity into reforming itself, and exposure to Chemo has caused this reaction in Doc Magnus.

In order to safeguard the Earth from the menace that he represents, the radioactive Doc intends to have himself fired off into space away from the rest of humanity. Now that she’s radioactive as well, Tina is going to have to join him–not that she minds in the slightest. Meanwhile, leaderless, the remainder of the Metal Men elect the humble metal Tin to be their new commander, as the military attempts to engage the resuscitated Chemo. Despite his ambivalence in the role, Tin is determined to lead the Metal Men into battle and defeat Chemo in order to preserve Doc Magnus’ legacy.

Because this fourth Metal Men story was unintended, it went to press late enough where Kanigher had received enough mail on the initial Metal Men stories to put together a letters page. It’s light on editorial responses, and looks like something that was put together quickly–but it served to help showcase the growing popularity of the strip as it jockeyed to graduate to a title of its own.

The thing that the Metal Men do the best in these stories is die, and this adventure is no different from the others. At Tin’s command, the feisty robots hurl themselves at Chemo one by one, but despite some moments where it seems as though they may have gotten the upper hand, Chemo succeeds in destroying them all. The battle has made its way to the rocket that Doc and Tina are in–Tin maneuvered the battle there so that Doc could see how well they were doing, a mistake in retrospect. As Chemo climbs the rockey, the Metal Men all dead in his wake, Doc activates a manual override to blast the creature as well as Tina and himself out into space.

But even that blast, and the climb from one rocket segment to another in the void of space as they drop off once their fuel is depleted is enough to kill Chemo. As a desperation play, Magnus sends the capsule back into the atmosphere, where the intense friction of re-entry disintegrates Chemo, saving the day. In doing so, Magnus and Platinum are showered in cosmic matter which reverses their radioactivity (and Doc’s transmutation into a metal) restoring them to normal. Then, all that’s left to do is to collect the annihilated pieces of the fallen Metal Men once again and begin the process of putting them all back together.

And one last house ad from Schnapp closes the issue out. Again, I think we’ve looked at this one earlier.

5 thoughts on “WC: SHOWCASE #40

  1. The Metal Men were a series where the improvisation and camp worked better than most. I’m very fond of the book.
    Chemo is the best of the many monsters Kanigher flung at the Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman and the Metal Men. An old school monster that doesn’t want to do anything but wreak havoc (I see something! I will destroy it!). And as he’s mute, we don’t get any overdone villain banter.

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  2. I recall reading a few Metal Men stories in circa ’70-72, when I was 7-10 years old, and rather liked them, although not enough to keep collecting them as I got older and when I really got more serious about collecting comics. In retrospect, I think the MM concept and stories was just the sort to appeal to kids, particularly those of early school years just learning about the world and such things as metals and their variant properties and what sort of personalities they would have if they were human. Then there’s the dying every issue but being brought back to life before the last panel. That sort of thing may appeal to kids who have a vague concept of death but haven’t yet had to really deal with it on a personal level, enough to understand that in the real world, people and other animals don’t come back from being really dead (not counting the rather miniscule number of cases where someone thought to be clinically dead somehow comes back). That characters in comics can die and come back to life regularly rather brings home the point of their fictionality — that in their “world”, anything can happen, simply based on the imagination of the creators. For most older readers, I’d think, that eventually loses its charm, and the repetitive nature of the stories can get rather tedious after a while.

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  3. I wish they’d stop tinkering with Metal Men and just occasionally give us a mini more or less like their Showcase run. Outside of the additions of Copper and Nameless, no one has ever successfully improved the Metal Men and all efforts to do so should stop.

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    1. I don’t think the underlying character dynamics of the Showcase-era Metal Men would work in the current era. Those stories were basically a kid gang with adult guardian going off on adventures, with a bratty girl member having a unrequited crush on the guardian. That was an outdated genre by the 1960’s, and it’s downright archaic now. I’d argue it can’t be acceptably redone with becoming something so far from the original, that it might as well be new characters from the start. Maybe Doc Magus could have some students who are inspired by his work, and improve on it.

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