Andy’s Read Pile: The Complete 13 issue run of X-51
Back in the trenches again for another exciting review of something that was an dusty inhabitant in my never ending comics read pile, that is now a less dusty graduate.
For those of you that have been following my blog, over the course of the past couple of years, I’ve been fascinated with the adventures of a pretty obscure C lister of the Marvel Universe called Machine Man. This should come to no surprise to some given my long standing penchant for robot or robotic looking super characters such as The Vision, Doctor Doom, and Rom the Spaceknight.
However, really, my new found love for Machine Man started with decision to purchase a bad ass Machine Man t shirt with Jack Kirby art. After getting the shirt, it made me start thinking that if I was gonna wear this shirt, I should have knowledge about the character in case I get challenged to a Steel cage death match nerd trivia throw down (that’s trademarked by the way).
So I started doing my research and that’s when I found out that the original Machine Man series was not only drawn by Jack Kirby but then Steve Ditko took over after Jack left. I couldn’t argue with that kind of pedigree. That’s like the House of Ideas at it’s finest. So I read that series and then the follow up Machine Man 2020 mini series (which I read piled here: Machine Man 2020 Review )
Now most modern comic book readers know Machine man best from Warren Ellis’s irreverent and humorous Next Wave series in which Machine Man is portrayed as a beer swigging, boob loving, human hating anti hero with some absolutely great put downs. But given where the heroic yet misunderstood outcast started in Kirby’s series in the late 70s, this Nextwave portrayal couldn’t be more off. It’s literally like a completely different character, so I started to think that there had to be some series which Machine Man started down this path which lead Warren to cast him in such a light.
That’s when I started reading the short lived X:51 series from the late 90s written by Karl Bollers. Although this series didn’t completely explain the fictional change from the 70s Aaron Stack (Machine man’s real name) to the modern day one, it at least gave me the feeling that logically the end result could take place given the character’s history.
Basically, the entire X-51 series has its origins in a one off story presented in an annual of another robotic Marvel superhero, albeit infinitely more well known since he’s a X-man, Cable. In this story, for whatever reason, Cable and the X-men are fighting Bastion, one of the sea of “future time line” characters that populated the collection of utterly confusing junk that was the X books of the 90s. And for whatever reason, Machine Man joins in the fight (probably because the “D” list Hollywood Squares show didn’t want him as a panelist that week.)
In any case, the end result is that Machine Man gets infected with Sentinel programming and more importantly nanobots. He initially shrugs this off like a champ, and the character is back to the status quo. However, sometime later in some off screen adventure, Machine Man ends of being blown the “F” up and his remains pitched like yesterday’s trash. As he lays there in some SHIELD garbage dump, the nanobots, rebuild him into a more Sentinel looking version of himself thanks to parts left over from a Life Model Decoy robot and some other assorted electronic riff raff they found lying around.
For the remainder of the series, Aaron Stack struggles and more often times fails to resist his new Sentinel programming and retain his status as a hero. It’s all very late 90s Emo stuff, and you often think you are going to see Machine man sitting in his parent’s basement, listening to Limp Bizkit, and saying that the world just don’t understand him.
But despite that heavy “in yo’ face” 90s sensibility (complete with a weird side plot about some Fox Mulderesque SHIELD agent), the series actually does have some high points. One 2 issue story arc in particular I thought was absolutely fantastic occurs in Issues 4&5 of the series. It details Machine Man going to the Avengers for help with his condition, given that they have some of the smartest minds on the planet among its members and the fact that he is a reserve member thanks to some of his exploits in the mid 80s with the group.
Of course this is the Avengers team during Kurt Busiek’s historically great run, so two of the key members of that squad are Firestar and Vance Astrovik aka Justice. Unfortunately for Machine Man, they are 1) the only Avengers present when he shows up 2) more importantly both mutants. Long story short, Machine Man goes all Sentinel on them and nearly ends up killing them. That is until my favorite Avenger of all time shows up to save their bacon.
Issue 5 is just a flat out knock down drag ‘em out slug fest between Vision and Machine Man which I gotta say is one of my favorite single issues I’ve read in some time. For a character that gets shit on more times than not lately, the Vision is a complete stone cold hard ass in this book and shows why he should be considered on the short list of essential Avengers. Machine Man is also incredibly capable in this book trading blows for blows with his fellow android peer.
And ultimately its a fight that matters, as Vision definitely relates to Machine Man in a way not a lot of Avengers could, and although he is kicking the tar out of his fellow Avenger, he deeply needs to find out why the regularly heroic Aaron Stack is acting like this. Almost like an physical intervention to stop a fellow friend descent into madness through drug addiction, the Vision isn’t going to sit blindly and allow Machine Man to throw his promising future as an Avenger away if he can help it, so there’s real emotion and drama to the proceedings.
I really wish the rest of the series was as good as these two issues, because these are really everything great about comic books and ones that I would recommend to any of my friends. Unfortunately, the rest of the series, is pretty much a confusing mix match of a lot different ideas thrown together in a pot.
It desperately wants to be an X-men style book with all the X-man references and gratuitous T&A shots of hottie members of the Hellfire Club prancing around. But in trying to be an X-man style book, a lot of the character of Machine Man and what makes him unique is lost. The writer tries to right the ship towards the end of the series, curing Machine man of a lot of the Sentinel angst and making the series more about him, but it’s too little too late. It’s as almost if the writer got the word from upstairs that he better make changes or the book would be cancelled, and yet the book was cancelled anyways.
The final issue is actually more of a mini novel than a comic, basically recapping Machine Man’s history and saying that ultimately, he was taken by the Celestials for study since there was some reference to them in the original Jack Kirby story written decades previously for the short lived 2001: A Space Odessy series. Thus the series ends with more of whimper then anything else, and you are left with a feeling that there were a lot of wasted ideas in this book that could have been done much better if the series had more focus.
Of course, if you enjoy reading modern day Machine Man stories, then you can appreciate that some of the ground work that was set in this late 90s series paid off with the development of a much more interesting and complex anti hero that we have now, as opposed to the almost Pollyanna type character of the original series. At least someone realized that in order to keep this character relevant and usable, some major changes needed to be made and had the courage to try.
So I guess for that reason and that brilliant 2 issue story arc from 4&5, I can’t really give these series as harsh a rating as I would otherwise.
Andy Read Pile Rating: C+