Or, â€œThis Rockman has absolutely nothing to do with Megamanâ€¦â€
The Golden Age was a time of wonder in the comic book industry. New heroes where popping up at dozens of new publishers every week, and if the idea could translate to paper, it was given a shot. Some were never seen after their first appearance, others lasted for decades. Oddly enough, some characters were forgotten and not seen in new adventures for over fifty or more years. The peculiar Rockman, Underground Secret Agent, is one of those recently â€œre-discovered and re-imaginedâ€ heroes of the past.
1941â€™s U.S.A. Comics #1 introduced Rockman. If you look carefully at the art for that first splash page, you can see that it seems to be done by two different artists. The majority of the splash has been credited to Charles Nicholas, while the corner piece is by artist Basil Wolverton. Wolverton drew the completed the story, but it is the Charles Nicholas name that holds some interest. It seems that the name was a pseudonym for several artists working out of the Eisner & Iger studio. Artists Chuck Cuidera, Charles Wotjkoski and Jack Kirby all have been credited with using the name, but the time period for this work fits for Wotjkoskiâ€™s work with Timely. I found some sources that say Rockman was created by Basil Wolverton and Charles Nicholas, but when you take into account the pseudonym status of the Charles Nicolas identity, and the way that many comics where farmed out to independent studios to be created, this seems unlikely. Like many Golden Age characters, the real-world origin of Rockman will probably remain a mystery lost to the ages.
In this first appearance, we start with a man named Roffler threatening building contractor J.J. Gollings. Gollings was hired to complete a secret tunnel leading out from Rofflerâ€™s basement, and Roffler is not happy with the progress. Three days later the workers finish, but Roffler has their truck bombed to stop anyone from disclosing what they had done. A week after that, Gollingsâ€™ car mysteriously runs off a mountain road, killing him. Why is Roffler trying to eliminate anyone who has knowledge of the tunnel? Well, Roffler is an enemy terrorist who knows that an airplane factor is to be built over the tunnel, and he plans on destroying the plant once it is finished.
Unbeknownst to Roffler, he has been under secret observation by Rockman, leader of the Abysmians, an underground society who live below North America. Using his Vibragraph, Rockman learns of the insidious plan and decides that something must be done. Striking a great gong, he calls a meeting of his people who board underground railcars and travel to hear Rockmanâ€™s plan.
It seems that the Abysmians where the first white inhabitants of North America, and when the Ice Age came they sought refuge underground. Paying head to the vibrations from above, Rockman knows of many plots against North America and proposes heading to the surface to secretly stop them. The Abysmians agree with this course of action, and Rockman informs his people that he will send for them if he needs help. He then takes his Digger Car (which can grind through the hardest rock) and makes his way to the surface world.
Weeks later, he arrives and using the knowledge he gained through his Vibragraph, tunnels directly into the tunnel which Roffler had prepared. The airplane factory has been finished, and Roffler plans to fill the tunnel with explosives and detonate them, destroying hundreds of planes. To stop Roffler and his accomplish, Ivan, from escaping, Rockman pulls down the support beams to the tunnel, collapsing the entrance. As Ivan and Roffler desperately attempt to pull the timers and stop the explosion, Rockman attacks. He knocks Ivan out with a mighty blow. He leaves Roffler conscious to defuse the bombs. When Roffler finishes, Rockman is nowhere to be seen.
Unknown to him, Rockman has started to flood the tunnel (he punched a hole leading to the nearest water vein.) The water revives Ivan and he and his boss spend an hour digging an exit from the tunnel. When Ivan attempts to go first, Roffler strikes him with a rock, killing him. Suddenly, Roffler is yanked through the hole to face a furious Rockman! â€œOnce a killer, always a killer.â€ he tells Roffler, â€œI wouldnâ€™t have let either of you drown in there!â€ Panicked, Roffler pulls away from our hero and tried to escape. Rockman then yanks more of the beams, causing a torrent of water to sweep Roffler away, presumably to his death. Moments later, Rockman is standing on a hill having his first look at the surface world. The blurb at the end of the story promises more Rockman next month.
The whole story runs nine pages.
The second issue of U.S.A. Comics held the second appearance of Rockman. This story is also drawn by Basil Wolverton, and it is enjoyable to see such art in the Golden Age. This story again starts by introducing the villain, this time it is Zombo, Master of Menâ€™s Minds! Zombo plans to use his special submarine to sink ships in the Pacific, especially American ships, and plunder them for his own use. As Zomboâ€™s slaves pile onto his submarine, we see Rockman listening in on his Vibragraph and decide that Zombo is a menace that he must defeat!
Here is an interesting story point; the first ship that Zombo destroys is a Japanese shipping vessel. While this was around 7 to 8 months prior to Pearl Harbor, Japan was at war with China. Just a few months from the publication of this story, the United States would be at war with Japan.
The story moves at a fast clip as Rockman uses his strength to tunnel upward through the ocean floor to intercept Zomboâ€™s submarine. After battling Zombo above his submarine, Rockman beats the submarineâ€™s crew and then begins to yell loudly, â€œMen of Abysmia hear me! I, Rockman, speak to you! Go at once and blast down the upper caverns that lie beneath this part of the sea!â€ Catching their rulerâ€™s vibrations, the Abysmians set bombs and do exactly what their ruler asks, causing a tidal wave and earthquake which destroys the submarine, floods Zomboâ€™s island, and kills the villain as he is thrown against the rocks. Rockman, of course, can handle such rough treatment.
Iâ€™ve just got to make a quick interjection here regarding Basil Wolvertonâ€™s art: I LOVE It! Many Golden Age artist seemed to be very vague on details, and they employed the basic panel layout. Their characters were small, and lots of people looked similar. But Wolverton was YEARS ahead of his time! He uses imaginative layouts that move with the story. The characters seem larger than life and their near caricature style make the stories fun to read. You would think that you were reading a story that was published in the 60â€™s underground scene instead of in an early 40â€™s superhero anthology.
The third story, in U.S.A. Comics number 3, is special because it is not only written by Stan Lee, but because it shows Rockman in his natural environment, underground. Although not credited, it is believed that the art was taken over by Syd Shores, the legendary Captain America artist, and there is a marked difference. This is also the only story in which the writer is known. Joe Simon was the books original editor, and Stan Lee did not take the editing chores till just before his military service started.
The story starts with the beautiful princess of Jugoslavia being kidnapped by little dwarf like people referred to as Pixies. Upon hearing of his daughterâ€™s kidnapping, the King proclaims that there are legends of underground Pixies kidnapping their people, and proclaims that they must contact Rockman to save her! Rockman arrives and tells the King that he has heard of these people, they live near his own people in Abysmia. Rushing to his Mole Ship (I guess the Digger Car was in the shop) he drills down to the subterranean tunnels to find the Princess Alecia.
Alecia, it seems, has been taken to become the bride of the Pixie King. Proclamations go out across the Pixie land announcing the wedding. Pixies travel from far and wide to see their King married. As the King prepares to seal the union by placing the crown upon Aleciaâ€™s head, the Mole Ship appears in the Pixie city. The cry goes out that Rockman has arrived, and the King demands that his Pixie guards capture the Ruler of Abysmia. Overcome by little Pixie guards, Rockman is chained to a pillar and watched constantly by his captors. Late that night, Rockman slips a secret transmitter out of his belt and calls to his people, asking for aid in escaping captivity. What happens next is visually funny, as we see Abysmian ship tunneling up into the Pixie city. Rockman beraks free and smacks four of his guards down with one blow! He then puts two of the evil little men over his knee and spanks them, at the same time! But before the Rockman can do much else, he hears the Princess Alecia cry for help; it seems that the Pixie King has decided that if he cannot have her, no one can. Rockman burst in, knocks out the evil King, and saves Alecia. Then, after he has appointed his own Prime Minister to rule the Pixie land, he returns Alecia home. Although her father offers to kiss him, Rockman proclaims he would rather receive the kiss from Alecia.
Issue four of U.S.A. Comics contains the fourth and last story of Rockman. The art is good, but the story is standard fair and possesses little of the imagination of the previous stories. Learning of a killer named La Barbe, Rockman seeks to end his murderous career and travels to Alaska. After La Barbe has killed some miners for their gold mines, La Barbe knocks out Rockman with a gas bomb. He ties him, an old man, and his grandson up in their cabin and sets it afire.
Breaking free, Rockman grabs his companions imperil and escapes. Then he goes to track down La Barbe, following him into a mine. Silly La Barbe! Using his fists to take care of the thugs, he calls out to his people to collapse part of the mine, sending the murderer to his death. The cave-in uncovers a rich vein of gold, which Rockman gives to the old man and his grandson. The next to last panel shows the Mole Ship/Digger Car diving underground, with the dialogue, â€œAnd so I leave the Upper World, with a few less mortals in it to plague their fellow men.â€ The last panel proclaims that Rockman will return next issue, but he never did.
The only other use of the character is in U.S.A. Comics number 2, a prose story by Stan Lee which has Rockman attend a meeting with the other U.S.A. Comics heroes and discussing their comic book adventures. After the fourth issue of U.S.A. Comics, Rockman remained buried for 58 years, until 2007.
The event which brought Rockman back from retirement was the announcement by Marvel Comics (the successor to Timely) that writer J. M. Straczynski and artist Chris Weston would resurrect Rockman and 11 of his fellow forgotten mystery men for a twelve issue mini-series called, The Twelve. The story follows the exploits of twelve World War two mystery men (and woman) after they are discovered in suspended animation after being captured on their last mission. Rockman is shown here, but as a large, hulking man. The other heroes believe that he is slightly crazy and that his story of ruling an underground kingdom and being married to a beautiful princess is part of a delusion. The fact that Rockman spends his free time pounding on the floor of their new basement home, trying to contact his people, does not make them think him any saner. He is featured on the cover of issue #6 of The Twelve, with art by Pablo Rivera.
Rockman was a different type of character, even for the Golden Age. Normally, heroes of his ilk came from the mountains (as with the Green Lama and Amazing-Man) above the earth. Villains often came from underground. Not only did Rockman come from underground, but he was the ruler of his own kingdom and was highly intelligent. Most characters associated with the earth tended to be more dim-witted with a limited vocabulary. If you think about it, he would have made a good companion to the Sub-Mariner, as both are rulers of lands that are below the surface and helped America during World War II. He is not to be confused with the Rockman from the British published Lion Comics who was part of the Society of Heroes.
And thatâ€™s that. An â€œupdatedâ€ Rockman can currently be seen in the Marvel Comics series, The Twelve. Whether there are any plans for this character beyond that remains to be seen. As it is, he is an interesting character who has been largely forgotten. If you would like to discuss him, or any character, or have a suggestion for a Hero History, feel free to leave a comment on the Major Spoilers Forums. The guys have a whole area just for Hero History talk!
So, until the Vibragraph detects another evil plot, this is Stacy W. Baugher, signing off!