Retro Review: Machine Man #4 (January 1985)
A compelling narrative, with fascinating art and a strong protagonist.
If you don't like 80s comics, you're going to be annoyed by the 80s comic of them all.
Reactivated in a strange future world, Machine Man has been hounded at every turn by lackeys of Sunset Bain, the woman who disassembled him in the first place. He’s about to show her the error of her ways… Your Major Spoilers (retro) review of Machine Man #4 awaits!
MACHINE MAN #4
Writer: Tom DeFalco/Barry Windsor-Smith
Artist: Barry Windsor-Smith
Colorist: Barry Windsor-Smith
Letterer: Jim Novak
Editor: Larry Hama
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: 75 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $3.00
Previously in Machine Man: Created as part of a government experiment, Machine Man was raised as a son by his brilliant cyberneticist father, Abel Stack. Trying to fit into a society that feared him, Aaron Stack became known first as Mister Machine, then as the Machine Man, finding friends and even discovering love with fellow AI Jocasta. When Jocasta died at the hands of her “ex”, the monstrous robot Ultron, Aaron was dejected and removed himself from society to process his grief. Some decades later, in the year 2020, a group of petty criminals discovered a crate containing Aaron’s inert form, deactivated by his enemy, Sunset Bain. Trying to figure out the world of the future, Machine Man clashed with old enemies, found old friends, and discovered that his one true love might also have survived into the future, but Sunset Bain and her crony, Arno Stark (the Iron Man of that future world) have done everything in their power to break the machine… but they forgot about the man.
In the previous issue, Machine Man was shocked to find that his new friends in the dystopian techno-future (a group of gang-types known as the Midnight Wreckers, consisting of luminaries named Slick, Hassle, Brain and Swift) are in fact led by his old friend, Gears Garvin (who has something of a potty mouth, it seems.) As the main opposition to the corporate reign of Sunset Bain and her personal enforcers, the Wreckers’ headquarters has been destroyed, and the gang is ready to retreat. Aaron Stack, on the other hand, has other ideas…
Though Barry Windsor-Smith had been at Marvel for over a decade by ’85 (most notably on ‘Conan The Barbarian’), his evolving art-style was in a fascinating place during this series. He hadn’t quite shaken the Kirby influence that put him on the map (fitting for a character who was CREATED by Kirby, as you might recall from last summer) but hadn’t yet fully finalized the intricate art style he uses today, making for incredible imagery, as we’ll see in a few pages. Machine Man follows Bain’s transmissions back to her headquarters, and is nearly destroyed by her thugs, only for Wrecker Slick to kamikaze his cycle into a group of soldiers. This doesn’t go over well with Aaron…
Battering his way into Baintronics Headquarters, Machine Man confronts the woman who built a massive, corrupt enterprise out of his reverse-engineered parts, only to once again have to confront Arno Stark, this era’s Iron Man, who has little use for mechanical life-forms and their chicanery…
For those of you keeping track, this is the same Arno (or rather, a different VERSION of the same Arno) currently seen in Iron Man’s own book, as the 30 years since this comic was released have made the year 2020 less a far-away mystery and more of a ‘Year We’ll Probably See Avengers 3 Come Out.’ The battle between machine-raised-as-a-man and man-cloaked-in-a-machine is not only brutal, but PERSONAL, with Iron Man ripping at Machine Man’s mechanisms, shattering his skull-cap, and flat-out cheating. When Sunset Bain blasts Machine Man with a massive jolt of electricity, it seems that the battle is over.
And then, Aaron Stack once again rises to his feet…
Barry Smith does wonders with the bio-organic guts of Machine Man, and the shattered chunks of computer bank, even giving us the first glimpse of the insides of our robotic hero. (It’s a style that would later be used to great effect in the origins of Wolverine a couple of years later in ‘Marvel Comics Presents.’ Does anybody even REMEMBER that story anymore?) Either way, Machine Man’s determination proves too much for this third-generation Iron Man,
…which struck me as an unusually gutsy choice for Shooter-era Marvel, putting over one of their minor characters at the expense of a sorta-kinda bigger name. Of course, with Arno being a faux-Iron Man, they could always claim that he just wasn’t up to Tony’s standards (a story that I believe they’ve actually told once or twice, come to think of it.) Enraged at being dragged into a war he had nothing to do with, Machine Man turns to finally face Sunset Bain, the woman who brought all this on…
Seeing the fembot he loves brings Aaron back to his senses, Machine Man insists that Bain stop harassing and attacking the Midnight Wreckers, and she agrees, terrified to see what he is capable of. Jocasta seems shocked at Bain’s reports that her boyfriend might have been ready to crush Sunset’s skull, but agrees that they both will keep their word. Machine Man informs Sunset that if she changes her mind, he will return, he will find her, and pointedly asks the demoralized old woman if she really wants to ever see him again…
Oh, man… THAT hurt. Even as a teenager, the longing and pain in that goodbye was painful to read, and really cemented this book as one of my favorites. Jocasta gives Aaron one last gift, using Baintronics systems to block the police sensors for a moment, allowing Machine Man and the Wreckers to slip away into the night.
There were a lot of things going on in comics in the early 80s, and it’s interesting to note that this book came out before either ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ or ‘Watchmen’, but it’s take of a traditional comic book hero in a future world gone a little bit mad is familiar to readers of either story. Tom DeFalco is a writer that I find very much hit-and-miss (his Thor was recursive Kirby-worship, his Spider-Girl was pretty phenomenal from time to time), but working with Windsor-Smith allowed him to craft a big hit here. The 2020 universe has never really gone away, recurring occasionally in 90s Marvel (the ‘Wild Thing’ book was set in this future, and Arno Stark, as we discussed earlier, continues to pop up), but this series was probably the best use of its future-noir neo-Max-Headroom madness. This book is the one that introduced me to Machine Man, a character who has never been utilized to his full, awesome potential, and the four-issue mini has been reprinted several times, showing it’s durability. Machine Man #4 is indicative of Marvel’s early use of the limited series as a special event, a showcase for characters who deserved attention and art-styles that were outside the mainstream, earning a very impressive 4 out of 5 stars overall. There are those who might dismiss the book as too familiar, but the ’1984′ overtones are well-done, the art new and unique, and the central character strong enough to make it feel like a trend-setting zeitgeist rather than a derivative tale…