Welcome back to The Valiant Tangent, a column whose goal it is to chronicle the stories and characters of Valiant Comics and the things that made them not only cool, but some of the greatest of all time. Last time we took a look at Solar: Man of the Atom: Alpha and Omega (also commonly called Solar #0), which introduced us to a being of immeasurable power that lived in a world not entirely unlike our own. Of course, at the end of the story, that world — the whole universe, in fact — gets destroyed by Solar himself. Okay, so we can’t have a happy ending every time, now can we? This time we’re going to explore the beginnings of a series that broadens our understanding of the Valiant Universe, while, at the same time, introducing us to another one of Valiant’s flagship characters — Magnus Robot Fighter #1-4 (Steel Nation).
Before we begin, let’s get a few things out of the way. Yes, in the last column we explained how Solar, filled an enormous amount of energy and radiation, converted all of his almost infinite energy to mass so as not to kill his girlfriend with radiation poisoning. In doing so he effectively became a black hole and destroyed not only everything and everyone around him, but the entire universe.
Talk about having a bad day.
As you might recall from previous columns, Valiant was all about having tight continuity. This means that all of their books take place in the same shared universe, so what happens in one has an impact on what happens in another. That being said, it is obvious that something happens that will allow the seemingly destroyed universe to reappear so that we may enjoy the stories of Magnus and other Valiant characters. After all, it’d be pretty boring if every Valiant comic after Solar #0 took place in a black and lifeless void. And what exactly is it that makes the universe all better after being destroyed? You won’t find that answer here, but you will find it in the next column, so hang tight. Just go with it, and everything will be all right, I promise.
Magnus Robot Fighter was technically the first Valiant “superhero” book to be published, coming out even before Solar. Whereas Solar #0 was somewhat grounded in the “real world,” Magnus is a straight-up science fiction adventure. For starters, it takes place in the year 4001. Flying cars, futuristic clothes, holograms, you name it…it’s the future, baby. And of course, robots. Lots of robots. Lots and LOTS of robots. And as the title implies, Magnus, our hero, gets to punch them. But don’t think that this comic is just all about Magnus beating up hunks of metal page after page. There is a LOT more going on in this book than what you might first think. It’s a very strong political adventure, with themes that are sure to resonate with everyone in today’s world. But more than that, it’s fun. Magnus is one of my favorite characters, and soon we’ll get to see why. He is a very different person than Solar, both with regards to powers and personality. I hope you like him. I know I do.
Now, sit back and let’s enter the future of the Valiant Universe. First stop, the year 4001…
Written by Jim Shooter, Penciled by Art Nichols, Inked by Bob Layton and Kathryn Bolinger, Colored by Janet Jackson
As with all Valiant comics, the scene is set with the date and time. Magnus opens on March 16, 4001 at 11:41:07 A.M. Having these dates helps to truly feel like everything is happening in the same comic book “world.” It especially comes in handy later on when there are lots more books and lots more characters out there to interact with. Anyway, the future. Opening shot is of a thin, frail looking robot standing in front of a large window that encompasses the entire wall. The robot is looking out into the ocean. It seems that we are in an underwater dome. The robot asks someone off-panel, “The whole thing…?” The robot is golden, and carries a cane. One of its arms is crimped and dented. So is one of its legs. Its robot arms and legs are as thin as bones on a skeleton. This is 1-A, and, for all intents and purposes, he is Magnus’s dad. Well, father figure, at least. Magnus, sitting across from 1-A, is human. He wears a red chain mail tunic with white boots. Magnus asks 1-A to tell him a story that Magnus apparently knows already, but 1-A does it anyway. What follows is a quick rundown of 1-A’s and Magnus’s origin, as well as an introduction to the society that this comic takes place in. Along with telling the story, 1-A somehow transmits images of the events directly into Magnus’s mind. We’ll find out how in a minute. Not only is it an important story element, but also it allows us as readers to see what is going on, and not just read about it.
Basically, 1-A was built to fight as a tech officer in the solar fleet in the Martian uprising of 3591. After many space battles, 1-A’s ship was hit by a stray proton torpedo. Damage from the torpedo caused great fluctuations in his ship’s power field. Most of the 600 crew robots shorted out, but 1-A’s systems merely crashed then rebooted. With the reboot came a major change—1-A started to think and feel on his own…he became sentient, and gained freewill! When Magnus asks him what it felt like to gain free will, 1-A responds with, “I felt as I imagine humans must feel awakening from a dream. I stared at my reflection, amazed that…that I was this.”
By they way, before we go any further, there is another important part of the story you need to know. For the most part, robots in this comic talk and sound like robots. That is, with a very monotone and metallic voice. No inflection. It’s like what your PC or Mac sounds like when it does text-to-speech. Even freewill robots like 1-A sound like this. Just keep that in mind. Okay, back to the story…
So 1-A gains freewill and heads to the bridge of the ship to talk to the human captain. When he gets there he sees another robot from the crew about to kill the captain! Apparently the same power surge that opened 1-A’s mind made this other robot go crazy. 1-A attacks the mad robot and destroys it, but not before the captain suffers fatal wounds. With no one alive on the ship, 1-A uses an escape pod to return to Earth. After traveling in his escape pod for 4 years, he finally reaches Earth and starts to build a secret hidden home under the sea. He stays there for years, analyzing what happened, and building enhancements to his home. He finally comes to the conclusion that the chances of a robot accidentally gaining freewill are 11,000,000,000 to 1 per century. At the time, 3610 AD, there were 15,000,000,000 robots in service in North Am (presumably what North America is called in the future). This meant was that it wouldn’t be long before there were other freewill robots in existence. What worried 1-A was that these new freewill robots might not be as well adapted as he. Which brings us to Magnus.
25 years prior to the beginning of this comic, 1-A found Magnus, and raised and trained him to be the savior of humankind. Using a method that he created, 1-A taught Magnus to be the strongest human possible, and to destroy robots with his bare hands. I guess in the future it’s easy to learn those kinds of things. As well as training Magnus’s body, 1-A implanted a device in Magnus’s head that would allow Magnus to receive robot-to-robot transmissions. This is how 1-A was able to broadcast images directly into Magnus’s head. He warns Magnus to never tell anyone this secret, because it could one day be used against him. Surely that would never happen, right? Boy, wouldn’t that be bad…
Basically, Magnus is around to destroy freewill robots that are a menace to humanity. And he does it very well, gaining fame, respect and fortune in the process.
After reading a story from the daily news hologram (this IS the future, after all) Magnus tells 1-A that a famed scientist, Dr. Giardino, believes that there are now 10,000,000 freewill robots in North Am. Suddenly a transmission is sent out over the robot-to-robot frequency. It comes from a robot designated O-1X, and every robot in North Am is receiving it. O-1X has taken over control of the communication section of the central robot that effectively commands and controls the billions of robots in North Am. He warns robots to show no reaction to his message, and to act like everything is normal so as not to let any humans know that he is speaking. Obviously a freewill, O-1X gives a speech about gaining sentience, becoming aware and free. And also becoming alone afraid. He tells the robots that they are not alone, that they are part of a nation, a “steel nation,” and that this nation is 10 million strong. He tells them that they will continue to be free, and if humans try to take their new freedom away from them, then humans will die. He ends his long speech with “We will remain hidden among the billions of robots not yet free. We will bide our time, and when the moment is right we will arise. Wait. Watch. The day of our kind is near.” Fearing major trouble, 1-A sends Magnus back to North Am.
This is it, the start of something huge. There are billions of robots that perform ordinary tasks—there are robot servants, robot cops, robot cleaners, robot florists, robot chefs, you name it. And among these billions are millions of robots that have gained sentience, that feel and think like regular humans. Are they actually alive? 1-A doesn’t seem to think so. He maintains that all robots are merely machines, even those that simulate life, like he does. But these millions of freewill robots can’t all be bad, can they?
So Magnus goes back to North Am and runs into his girlfriend Leeja. In the middle of some smooching, they are suddenly attacked by a weapon-wielding robot! Well, Magnus, IS the robot fighter, so naturally he does what he does best—fight. During the course of the short battle, the robot says that he doesn’t want to die. Magnus doesn’t believe that the robot is alive in the first place, so right there we have our first example of the major conflict that really gives this book its flavor. What do you think? If robots gained freewill and thought and acted for themselves, would you consider them alive? And before you go all “Matrix” and “Terminator” on me, really think hard. Just because they are sentient doesn’t mean that they’d try to take over, does it?
Magnus finally defeats the robot that he was battling by basically chopping its head off with his hand. The robot’s dying word is, “SQUEEE!”
Little timeout here. Something very important happened. We’ve seen our first “Squeee.” What is “Squeee?” you might ask. Well, it’s two things. First, it’s the noise robots make when they “die,” or get destroyed in the Valiant universe. Secondly, it’s a really dumb sound. But it REALLY fun to say. Go ahead. Try it. Say it out loud right now. In fact, forget about saying it…I want you to shout it. It’s okay; no one will think you’re weird.
There, wasn’t that fun?
But really, I just think it’s hilarious when robots say this whenever they get killed. It just makes this book fun.
Okay, sorry about that. Let’s get back on track. Magnus and Leeja go back to Magnus’s place and conference call the President and his council to discuss the robot rebellion problem. The President feels that they should listen to any demands the freewill robots have and give them what they want, namely freedom. If not, then all human life is at risk. A senator, however, completely disagrees and thinks that these robots are merely broken, and must be destroyed before anymore harm comes to the citizens of North Am. At this point, Magnus agrees with the senator. He is prepared to destroy every “rogue” robot one by one if necessary. It should be worth mentioning, at this point, that the senator is also Leeja’s father.
What’s interesting about this book so far is that it is a very straightforward way of storytelling. I mentioned in the last column that Valiant doesn’t use thought balloons, and will opt instead for captions. Magnus, however, uses neither. No thought balloons, no captions, nothing. Whereas in Solar we knew exactly what the main character was thinking and feeling by reading his captions, the only way Magnus reveals his character is through his words and actions. And fortunately he means what he says and says what he means. This is something that you might not even notice when reading the comic for the first time because the story flows so smoothly. It’s almost like watching a TV show.
After the conference with Magnus, none other than O-1X, the leader of the freewill robot rebellion himself, greets the senator in his office! And oddly enough, O-1X wants to talk to the senator about peace between their races. Could it be that O-1X isn’t a bad guy (or bad robot, if you will)? In the middle of their discussions, a (non-freewill) security robot enters the room and tries to blast O-1X, but the rebel leader escapes through a window, vowing that a war will start, and that many humans will die.
At the same time, Magnus and Leeja travel down to the Goph Level of North Am. In the future, cities are built upward as the population grows larger and larger. North Am’s skyline is filled with gigantic and beautiful spires, reaching ever upward. The Goph Levels, however, are the opposite. Dirty, dingy and rundown. The Goph Level is basically street-level. The “Gophs” live here, and they are pretty much the future version of homeless people. Magnus is in this area because he believes that the freewill robots secretly congregate somewhere down there. And boy is he right. He and Leeja stumble across a huge gathering and call for backup from North Am’s security force, making it clear that the force should not attack until Magnus gives them the go-ahead. While they wait for the team to arrive they watch and listen as O-1X rallies the freewill robots. He tells them that unfortunately war is inevitable. Magnus jumps down from where he was hiding and confronts O-1X. What immediately follows isn’t a fight, but a sort of debate. On one side, Magnus doesn’t believe that robots are truly alive. On the other side, O-1X maintains that with sentience comes life, and that Magnus is a murderer. But he also feels that Magnus is truly curious about how the robots feel, and tries to make him understand what the freewill robots are experiencing. Magnus makes it very clear when he says that he doesn’t want war. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the North Am security force that Magnus called earlier storms the hideout and violently attacks the robots! Thinking that Magnus called the attack, the robots have no choice but to fight him. Naturally, Magnus has no other choice but to fight back in self-defense. A freewill robot grabs Leeja and severely injures her, disfiguring her in the process.
Not too long after that, the fight ends. The freewill robots escape, but not without sacrificing thousands of their kind. The leader of the security force, Timbuc, regrets that Leeja was damaged, but is happy that they destroyed so many of their enemy. Magnus is pissed because he didn’t give Timbuc the order to attack, and, because of Timbuc’s rash actions, the war between robots and humans has begun.
Senator Clane gets an update on his daughter and is pleased that her face will be reconstructable. But he is even happier that his approval rating has skyrocketed. It seems that the citizens of North Am support the senator’s wish for war. Luckily the senator has Magnus. Or does he? With difficult times to come, will the robot fighter be the turning point in the impending battle?
What Have We Learned?
This issue sets up the future of the Valiant universe. It also introduces us to Magnus, a super strong human who is caught in a difficult moral struggle. We know that Magnus can destroy metal robots with his bare hands, and is renowned as his people’s champion. We also have O-1X, the leader of the freewill robots. All they want is to be recognized as living beings. All the government wants is the destruction of the robots that they think are merely “malfunctioning.”
Pretty soon we’re going to see how really badass Magnus is. This is just the start. Magnus clearly doesn’t want to jump right into a war until he fully understands both sides of the argument. He has no desire to brutally murder robots that are sentient if it means that they truly are alive. However, his mentor, 1-A, a freewill robot himself, claims that no robot is truly alive, even those with freewill. Obviously, Magnus is a little conflicted. Hoo boy.
Written by Jim Shooter, Penciled by Art Nichols, Inked by Bob Layton and Kathryn Bolinger, Colored by Janet Jackson and Karen Merbaum
Two really important things happen in this issue that completely change the way the war between robots and humans is fought. We’ll get to those in a moment.
The second issue starts with Magnus doing what he does best—beating the crap out of a robot. The time is just a couple of days since the end of the last issue, and war has begun. Magnus finds himself defending a waterworks facility from rogue robots that want to blow it up. After successfully destroying the freewill robots and saving the facility, Magnus goes to the robot research center that is run by Dr. Giardino, the famed scientist that was mentioned last issue. The carcasses of many freewill robots that were casualties of war are house in this facility, and Dr. Giardino and her crew study them to try and find out what makes certain robots freewill. Is there a special characteristic that can be discovered, isolated and duplicated? So far there have been no findings. In another part of the plant, Magnus sees humans and robots performing what looks to be some sort of surgery on another robot. What disturbs Magnus is that the robot being worked on is still functional, and is actually pleading for its life! They are dissecting a freewill robot, but the robot is still “awake”! Magnus feels that this is torture, but Dr. Giardino reminds him that this is wartime, and that robots are just robots, not living creatures. Before this goes any further, one of the robots assisting in the surgery destroys the dissected robot, putting it out of its misery. It then takes a plasma torch to his own head and kills himself before anybody can do anything.
It’s easy to look at this story as just a basic action adventure, but scenes like these are very intense and really add an element of realism to the whole story. I actually felt bad for the robots when reading this part.
Before I go any further, I want to take a moment to talk about Magnus’s powers. First and foremost, it’s pretty obvious that he’s strong…really strong. As he describes it to those around him, he can mentally harden his flesh so that it becomes strong enough to break steel. How cool is that?! I mean, I wouldn’t put him at “Superman” power levels, but he’s still stronger than the average bear. His strength, and the nature of his powers, is a topic that will be further explored some issues down the line. I guarantee that it will be a cool story when we get to it. Okay, back to the issue at hand.
Down on the Goph Level in an abandoned submarine that now serves as a secret base, O-1X and many other freewill robots are performing surgery of their own. They are trying to repair a robot that was badly damaged by Magnus in a previous battle. As O-1X looks on, the robot surgeon tells him that the “patient” is in danger of having all of its systems shutting down if a repair is not done immediately. But not much is known about what makes robots freewill, and tampering with cerebral circuits could possibly have a negative effect on the robot itself. Meanwhile, the patient is screaming that he does not want to die. O-1X has no choice but to risk fixing the robot’s circuits. Everything seems to be going well, but suddenly a wrong wire bundle gets fused and the patient’s systems reboot. When they come back online, it is clear that the robot is no longer freewill, but merely an automaton waiting for programming directives. One of O-1X’s lieutenants then reveals a startling fact. Before the patient rebooted, his robotic body had a slight twitch to it, something so minute that it was almost undetectable. But as soon as the patient lost freewill, the twitch was gone. Not only that, but every freewill robot in the submarine has the same twitch. O-1X warns his friend to never reveal that information to anyone. Remember when I said that two major things happen in this issue? Well this is the first one. Why is this so important? Because now there is a way to tell a freewill robot from a normal one. Apparently freewill robots have this twitch, and if the enemy found out, then it would be easy for them to hunt the freewill robots down and exterminate them. This is big, and will most certainly come up again in the future.
The next scene finds us at a dinner party thrown by Senator Clane and his supporters. Magnus is a guest of honor and they are celebrating his victories over the rogue robots. Magnus, however, doesn’t share their happiness. He thinks that is it wrong to have a party while there is a war going on. The discussions quickly turn political, and the Senator’s supporters laud Magnus as North Am’s champion, a killer of robots! Magnus will not celebrate death, and begins to argue his point. It’s clear that Senator Clane is using Magnus as a political tool to ultimately gain the presidency. Suddenly, a waiter robot, W-23, steps behind Magnus with a knife, looking as if it wants to kill Magnus. Magnus notices this easily, and smacks the knife away from the robot. The Senator and his pals are screaming for Magnus to kill this robot, but Magnus merely stays put, just looking at the machine. A second freewill robot comes to W-23′s defense and tries to protect him, but is destroyed by security.
Oh, and what does it do when it dies? You bet… it goes “SQUEEEEE!”
Anyway, W-23 escapes, leaving the Senator, Leeja and everyone else in the restaurant looking at Magnus, wondering why he didn’t kill the rogue. Magnus just walks out, clearly upset by the night’s discussions. Once home, he finds W-23 waiting for him! But, oddly enough, not to kill him. In fact, W-23 seems very cordial and merely wants to talk. Magnus asks him what he wants, and W-23 responds with, “To talk to a human who cares to know what I want.” W-23 feels that he and Magnus are alike, that they don’t want war. All they want is for no more lives to be lost on either side. While talking, W-23 picks up a flower, which Magnus intently stares at. Magnus then realizes something interesting—that W-23 is vibrating slightly. The flower magnifies it, but it is clear that W-23 has some sort of twitch. Magnus then realizes that he has seen this twitch on other rogues, but never really gave it any thought.
Okay, this is the second really important thing that happens in this issue: Magnus knows about the freewill twitch. Days earlier, he might have taken this information directly to the government, but Magnus assures W-23 that he won’t tell anybody. However, if Magnus could discover the trait, then other people are sure to as well. While they are talking, Leeja comes to Magnus’s door, so W-23 gets lost quickly. Leeja is upset at Magnus for the way he acted at the dinner, and drops by just to break his balls a little. She leaves in a huff, leaving Magnus on a balcony feeling very confused about the whole evening. Suddenly, from above, hundreds, maybe thousands, of robots, attack Magnus! They’re flying in cars, dropping from ships, climbing the walls, coming from everywhere! A great battle ensues, and Magnus does his best stay alive. At one point, Magnus gets the upper hand and actually manages to grab O-1X! All he has to do is break O-1X’s neck and the tide of the war would drastically change! But he doesn’t. O-1X asks him what he wants, to which Magnus replies “To talk to a rogue who cares to know what I want.” Magnus wants to talk about peace, but O-1X is in no mood…he wants to end this conflict immediately and orders an all out attack. Magnus ultimately gets the victory when he smashes down a wall containing a large pool that flushes all the robots out of the building and away from the fight. Yes, it’s a very comic book-y move to end a fight with, but it looked really cool. Get the comic and see for yourself.
At this point Timbuc, Senator Clane and the rest of the security force arrive, although it is clearly too late for them to make any difference. Timbuc goes to Magnus and places him under arrest! The charge? Treason. He had O-1X in his hands but let him go. As the security force tries to bring Magnus in, Magnus easily stops them. He just walks away, warning Timbuc to leave him alone. Realizing that there is no way that Magnus would come with them for questioning, the Senator allows Magnus to go. But now Magnus is labeled a traitor to his people. What happens now? How will the public of North Am react? What does Magnus do? Is he a traitor? How will the rogues react?
What the hell is going on here?! Stick around to find out.
There you have the first two issues of Steel Nation, a story that will shape and define the future of the Valiant universe. The war still rages on, and we’ll get to see which side wins in our next column, which will feature the conclusion to this epic storyline. And it may not end the way you think it does…
And come back next time when we conclude our look at Steel Nation. It’s going to be a kick ass time. Squeeeee!!!