If ever there was a concept that seemed bullet-proof against the whole “grittying up” of the DC Universe in the New 52, it had to be the Metal Men. Originally introduced in the early sixties, the Metal Men were six “living robots” named after (obviously) real metals; you had your field leader and alpha male, Gold; Iron, who was the team’s muscle; big dumb Lead; the always pissed-off Mercury; self-doubting and insecure Tin; and Platinum, who, this being the sixties and all, was just “the girl” on the team, and was of course in love with her creator Doctor Will Magnus, who was like Marvel’s Reed Richards, but with no powers. The concept was really basic, really twelve year-old friendly, and very much on-the-nose (“Mercury is a hot head! Gold is vain!” and so on). And frankly, I’ve always been shocked that they never got a cartoon show of their own; They were such an obvious choice for Saturday morning animation.
After their sixties heyday, as superhero comics got more serious, the Metal Men seemed more and more out of place in the DC Universe, only making occasional appearances here and there, usually to fill out a crowd scene of gathered heroes during a crossover event like Crisis on Infinite Earths or one of its sequels. They were probably the least likely candidates to survive intact in the New 52 universe, where everything is harsher and more “bad-ass” than the old universe, where people did silly things like wear their underwear on the outside of their clothes.
And yet, writer Geoff Johns, ever an aficionado of all things classic and Silver Age, has brought back the Metal Men almost exactly as they were back in the day. Issue #28 of Justice League really only has one member of the League in the story, Cyborg, and almost the entire issue is devoted to the origin story of the Metal Men in the New 52. Oh sure, a few things are different. Yes, their designs are slightly more modernized this time, but their basic original looks remain. Their creator, Dr. Will Magnus, isn’t a middle aged dude with a pipe anymore, he’s a young genius, because no one is old in the New 52 universe anymore (and by old, I mean over thirty). Those two changes aside, these are pretty much your daddy’s Metal Men. And that’s a good thing.
This issue is still essentially a part of DC’s Forever Evil crossover event, and for those of you not reading that whole thing, I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version; the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3 (the evil doppelgängers of the Justice League) have taken over our Earth, and banished most of the League to their now barren and ruined alternate Earth. Cyborg’s A.I. components have become sentient, and, much like HAL in 2001 (or most sentient computers in science fiction), he becomes evil. He joins the Syndicate in their whole “let’s rule the world” thing. Cyborg isn’t so much of a cyborg anymore, he’s kind of a busted up ball of flesh, but his father gives him new, non-evil cybernetic parts, and BOOM! He’s Cyborg again. As this issue begins, he goes to Dr. Magnus to look for his help in getting allies to help fight the Crime Syndicate… allies in the form of the Metal Men.
But Magnus says that he can’t help Cyborg… as the Metal Men are no more. The rest of the issue is a flashback to six months prior, where we see just how our young genius, while working for the US Army Research Lab, created the team in the first place. The Army, it turns out, was looking for robot soldiers (obviously) as well as thinking machines that can perform rescue missions in toxic environments. Much like the original sixties series, Magnus created a “responsometer” – an artificial brain that would bond with a molten metal to fuse with its atomic structure and create a body for itself. What he didn’t count on (and this is true of the original comic as well) is that the responsometers would not just be artificial brains, but artificial souls as well, giving each member of the team a unique personality.
And here is where Johns decides to keep all the Silver Age silliness alive; Each of the Metal Men comes out of the womb (or the vat, I should say) not only with full personalities intact, but even with knowledge of pop culture and slang; Gold looks like a frat boy and says things like “bro,” Iron is the meathead of the team and wants to know if they have any cable to watch wrestling on. It’s totally silly and totally awesome, the kind of wacky fun I thought had been bled dry from the New 52. What’s so great about this issue is that it tells the Metal Men’s origin story in 24 pages, as we see how they came into being, and how they became heroes, and how they “went away”… and why they need to come back and help save the day.
Geoff Johns has, for the past decade, been one of the best writers of superhero comics out there. His runs on Green Lantern and Flash are already legendary, and his Teen Titans run was one of the best that book ever had. But the New 52 hasn’t been kind to him; so far his Justice League run has been mediocre at best, and I can’t help but feel he would just rather write the classic versions of these characters than have to come up with new, grittier personalities for everyone. He’s a writer who loved to build on the existing past, not come up with a whole new past, and with the exception of his work on Aquaman, almost all his New 52 stuff feels like he had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this reboot. And now that it’s been around for two plus years, he seems to be slowly trying to put things back the way they were. Maybe the continuity won’t ever go back to pre-Flashpoint (and sorry, guys, it won’t), but maybe the characters can once again start acting like the ones we loved, which is why I was so pleased to see the classic Metal Men more or less intact in this issue.
Artist Ivan Reis has certainly been a bright spot at DC during these past few years with the New 52, first with his amazing work on Aquaman, and then taking over for Jim Lee on Justice League. While there is no doubt Lee is an amazing artist, especially when it comes to splash pages, when it comes to actual storytelling and movement… Reis has him licked. His Justice League work doesn’t quite match what I think is his best work at DC, which I still think is Blackest Night, but it’s still pretty damn beautiful. He and inker Joe Prado are an amazing team together, and one DC should keep together for as long as possible.
Everything about this issue of Justice League feels like what in television is called a “backdoor pilot,” an episode of an ongoing series that serves as a launching point for another series. I can honestly say I would much rather have Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis on a fun ongoing book featuring the Metal Men than a Justice League book with a bunch of characters that don’t feel like they even know each other. I can’t imagine DC would ever give the Metal Men their own title again, unless they somehow called the book Justice League: Metal, and had each of the members mimic one of the main Leaguers in appearance (oh God, I hope I didn’t give someone at DC an idea just now.) But maybe they’ll indulge Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis and give them a back-up in one of the main books, or maybe a mini-series. If it’s anything like this issue, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.