For me, robots only started looking cool when Transformers made its comics debut in 1984.
Before that, robots, androids, synthezoids or any artificial intelligence-based characters were more of supporting characters than anything else, which caused me to overlook some of the most key robot characters in comics (one of which was present at the dawn of the Marvel age!).
Three of them celebrate their 50th anniversary this year – Ultron, the Vision and Red Tornado.
I doubt that it was sheer coincidence that these three key robot characters shared a common 1968 birth year, as that year also saw a spike in android appearances on iconic TV shows like Star Trek and Lost In Space.
Anyway, besides the three characters celebrating their half-centuries, we’ve also included three other robot characters that have played a significant role in Western comics.
Making his first appearance in 1968 through Avengers #54 (cameo) and Avengers #55 (full), Ultron’s comics debut was a little absurd in both costume and concept, as he was initially introduced as … the Crimson Cowl!
He also adopted a passive approach towards fighting the Avengers – hypnotising Edwin Jarvis and the Masters of Evil – quite unlike his more aggressive approach in future confrontations with the Avengers.
Anyway, things got better over the years as the robot dastardly evolved, courtesy of adamantium-enhancements and new upgraded versions.
Co-created by Roy Thomas (writer) and John Buscema (artist), Ultron’s early years were dedicated towards destroying his creator Hank Pym. From kidnapping his “mother” Janet Van Dyne to lobotomising his father, every Ultron-appearance was linked to Pym.
Ultron made key appearances in mega events such as Secret Wars, Annihilation Conquest and headlined 2013’s Age Of Ultron, which was a comic book before it was a movie. However, despite the massive trail of destruction he has delivered, Ultron’s biggest contribution will always be his creation of…
Three issues after co-creating Ultron, Roy and John introduced the Vision in Avengers #57 as a villain under Ultron’s influence who then became a hero and an Avenger (within the same issue!).
Vision is actually a combination of a few other characters – his physical body was supposedly from the original Human Torch (aka Jim Hammond) and his brain patterns came from Wonder Man (aka Simon Williams).
Over the last five decades, the Vision has played multiple roles – Avenger, husband and a father – with the Scarlet Witch being a major part of his life. Together, they spent almost three decades breaking new romantic ground until John Byrne’s West Coast Avengers stint (#42-#57), where he rewrote the couple’s raison d’etre!
From nullifying their kids’ existence to revising the Human Torch’s contribution to the Vision’s physical attributes – this took a serious toll on the couple, with eventual ramifications towards Wanda’s mental psyche.
While Marvel was busy creating history with Ultron, DC responded with the Red Tornado in Justice League Of America #64 in 1968. The brainchild of Gardner Fox (writer) and Dick Dillin (artist), he is an android with the ability to fly and generate tornado-speed winds.
While Tornado’s presence helped complement the JLA’s diverse membership base, DC forgot to supplement his character with interesting plots, which resulted in more than 800 comic book appearances over the last five decades with minimal significant milestones.
Despite being a member in both the JSA and JLA, Red Tornado spent most of his time as a tool. From his creator’s (T.O.Morrow) initial plan of using him to infiltrate the JLA to aliens using him to combine Earth 1 and 2, he was more of a liability than an asset to any team.
To make matters worst, he was constantly destroyed and even when rebuilt, there were minimal roles for him, except for a stint mentoring the Young Justice.
Jim Hammond, The Human Torch
Created in 1939 by Carl Burgos in Marvel Comics #1, The Human Torch is not only the first “android” in mainstream comics, he was also Marvel (or Timely, as it was known back then) Comics’ first ever superhero character!
Not to be confused with the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch, Jim Hammond is an android created by scientist Phineas Horton who started off as a science fiction monstrosity but eventually became a hero who was instrumental alongside Captain America and Namor in fighting the Nazis.
Post WWII, while Cap and Namor were given key roles in the Silver Age, the Torch was overlooked (probably so readers wouldn’t confuse him with Johnny Storm).
The Torch languished in obscurity until John Byrne re-introduced him in the pages of West Coast Avengers (#50), with a startling revelation that Hammond only contributed parts (and not his entire body) in the Vision’s creation.
This paved the way for Hammond’s return as a member of the West Coast Avengers, Heroes For Hire and Secret Avengers.
The Robots in Disguise are certainly more than meets the eye. Marvel’s Bill Mantlo and Bob Budiansky (writers) and Frank Springer (artist) gave 2D life to Hasbro’s “transformable” toy robot range in Transformers #1 (1984), which became a huge success that elevated this initial four-issue limited series into a regular series (which eventually ended with #80).
From Autobots to Decepticons, Dinobots to Unicron, the comic book Transformers experience was akin to a never ending robot assembly line. While the Marvel-treatment of the Transformers was satisfying, the Dreamwave experience (in 2001) brought the robots to a new dimension and even inspired a hit movie (followed by a few crappy sequels).
Created by Jack Kirby in 1977’s 2001: A Space Odyssey #8, Machine Man (who’s also referred to as X-51 and Aaron Stack) is the 51st experimental robotic soldier created in a covert US military project.
With the earlier 50 robots displaying psychotic tendencies due to insufficient programming, Machine Man offered hope that humans and AI could live together in harmony.
Unfortunately, this was not proven in Kirby and Tom De Falco’s 19-issue regular series and the 1984 futuristic take on the character in a four-part mini-series by De Falco, Herb Trimpe and Barry Windsor Smith showed that peace is definitely NOT an option.
The series was so groundbreaking (due to BWS’ arts and colours) that there was a strong sense of optimism in the character.
Since then, Marvel has tried to shoehorn Machine Man into its universe, from being a team member in the Avengers, Nextwave and X-Men, as well as connecting him with the Monolith.