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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, February 16, 2017


It's scarcely a coincidence that in my review of TRASHMAN LIVES I asserted that it was less symbolically complex than many contemporary kids' comics. This particular issue of Gold Key's MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER-- whose original stories ran mostly from 1963 to 1968-- is a case in point.

The setup, generally credited to artist-writer Russ Manning, had good mythic potential, drawing on the general science-fiction idea of the "supercity." In 4000 A.D. most of the North American continent has been covered by a single interwoven city, "North-Am," divided between the well-to-do people living in the high-rises and a barely seen lower class dwelling on the ground, in deserted buildings over two thousand years old. The idea may owe something to Wells' TIME MACHINE, but if so it's one in which the human underclass, the parallel to Wells' "Morlocks," barely exists in the stories. In place of Morlocks, Manning's effete "Eloi" of 4000 A.D. have constructed an underclass made of robots who act as servants, policemen, and so on. But there always exists the possibility that even a mechanical underclass may revolt, and to keep humankind from becoming too dependent on robots, an ordinary human named Magnus receives training in a sort of super-karate, giving him the power to smash metal with his bare hands. Not surprisingly, Magnus's skills are in constant need to put down rebellions of robots who have either attained self-awareness or (more frequently) are being used as pawns by tyrants and conquerors.

To be sure, most of the stories are very straightforward adventure, not bothering to delve much into the sociological matrix of North-Am. This issue is one of the few to explore said matrix, though I add the caveat that politically it's almost the opposite of the three-years-later "Cloud Minders" episode of STAR TREK, in which the separation of "high" and "low" is decried.

The assault of the lower classes upon the (literally) high-living citizens takes place through the venerable device of theft, when a North-Am store is robbed of various items by the weird team of a single robot and a talking dog. The reader sees the odd thieves joined by a little girl of six or seven years, and then the trio "disappear in the dark, dangerous lowest levels of [the] continent-spanning, mile-high city of North-Am." Magnus is called in to investigate the odd crime, and the appearance of the talking dog spurs him to consult a character seen in issue #13: Danae, a scientist who specializes in using futuristic science to endow ordinary animals with special, human-like skills.

Magnus, his girlfriend Leeja, and Danae descend to the lowest level of the city, where the reader is told that the only inhabitants are "criminals and anti-socials" called "Gophs" (short for "Gophers.")
Some of the Gophs hurl stones at the vehicle of the three upper-worlders, calling them "cloud-cloddies," but this doesn't stop Magnus and company from tracking down the thieves to an ancient junkyard. There they meet the robot Junko, the talking dog Sam, and the little girl who directed them in their theft, Pert Doner. Danae recognizes Pert from an earlier encounter, in that Danae gave the girl a "neo-dog" to help Pert recover from the loss of her parents in an accident.

Pert, despite being extremely intelligent, has been traumatized by the loss of her parents and has chosen to live among the Gophs in a rejection of the life of North-Am. However, she doesn't know that the Gophs, led by a tough fellow named L'sier, are simply stringing her along in order to get her to steal for them. Thus the remainder of the story takes the form of a struggle between the "uppers" and the "lowers" for Pert's soul.

While Manning spent many years on Tarzan-- a feature which often contrasted the visceral appeal of the jungle with the indulgences of modern civilization-- MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER upends that formula. In this story L'sier takes a position like that of Tarzan, sneering at the pampered "cloud-cloddies" and boasting about his toughness. There's some irony in the fact that his critique is much like that of Magnus in other stories, professing the need for "eternal vigilance" against the softening effects of civilization. Here, however, Magnus is the voice of futuristic reason, and though L'sier is one of the few humans able to go toe-to-toe with the Robot Fighter, there's no real doubt that the way of the Gophs is just meaningless anarchy.

Manning is certainly no Marxist, given this portrait of the underclass. Admittedly, he does include one redeemable Goph character: a young boy named Spikey, who helped Pert construct her makeshift robot. Still, Spikey is only redeemable because he, like Pert, really does want to be a "cloud-cloddie," and he's given no ties with his own people that might prevent his defection from the lower class-- which does indeed take place in a later issue. That said, Manning's approving portrait of a high-tech civilization, one physically removed from the land, forms a significant cosmological and sociological myth. The former TARZAN artist doesn't say a lot about the disposition of Earth's animal population in this super-science world, though his introduction of "neo-animals" may be an attempt to work them into his universe. albeit by making them the beneficiaries of super-science. It's interesting that real animals given special technological powers are able to become part of the technological paradise, while humans who don't fit in are compared to animals that burrow in the dirt. Danae's mythologically derived name puzzled me a bit, since the Perseus myth doesn't have any major relevance to the theme of animals in the wild. However, I think it feasible that Manning was really thinking of a goddess with strong ties to the forests primeval: the Roman Diana, more or less a recasting of the Greek huntress-deity Artemis. This interpretation may be supported by the fact that Pert-- who is bonded to just one animal, rather than several like Danae-- bears the surname "Doner," which may also have been suggested by the name of Diana. It's also interesting that in both of their appearances the Gophs wear heavy cowled grey garments, which make the characters look less like impoverished scroungers than like members of some arcane cult.

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