Howdy Gang of Four. It’s your old buddy, GhostAndy, back to pitch in my two cents on the continuing saga of the Stratosphere’s motley crew of misfits and their misguided attempts to educate and entertain the masses on with their views on comic books.
Once in a while, something draws me back to reading classic Valiant titles from early 90’s. Like a siren song from the sea luring me back to drown me in a sea of mixed feelings and unfulfilled promise. This is especially true of the really early Valiant books, like the ones from before and right after their Unity Saga crossover, which I still will go down swinging is the company’s high-water mark which launched them into stardom only to see it all come crashing down again. Maybe it’s this story of rise and fall that seems so intriguing to me at times. Maybe it’s the allure of the “early years” concept, in that everything is much more interesting, fresh, new, exciting whatever in those first 2 to 3 years after it first takes off, so if you are going to experience anything from that series, line, company etc. you should focus on that output more than what comes later when things start being diluted, copied, and watered down due to oversaturation.
But regardless of the reason, I sometimes find early Valiant to be extremely fascinating and will return to it every so often for a good read. I mean this was a company that I feel, more than Image, was poised to be the next Marvel at the time. Image had high profile names, like Liefeld, Mcfarlane, Lee, and Larsen, but I feel they lacked the proper management and editorial control to really make any sort of cohesive universe that could hook readers into investing in more than one title. Valiant however did have that under the guiding hand of someone I also go down swinging as the best editor in chief Marvel ever had outside Stan Lee, Pittsburgh’s own, Jim Shooter.
A lot has been written about Shooter’s editorial control style and how it ruffled feathers everywhere, but when you look at the quality output of titles that Marvel created in the late 70s through the 80s under his watch, his sheer talent and ability can not be denied. For me, he crafted two of the all time classic comic crossovers ever in Marvel’s Secret Wars and the aforementioned Valiant Unity. Not only that but he’s an incredibly solid writer and creator in his own right, so he doesn’t just talk the talk when demanding such high expectations from his fellow writers, he walks the walk in delivering well thought out tales that not only manage to tell decent stories in their own right but often times set the blueprint for series that should follow in an ever expanding comic universe.
That’s why I decided that if I was going to continue my analysis of how Valiant became the temporary juggernaut of the comic industry in the early to mid 90s, I best start at the beginning.
The opening 4 issue arc of Magnus, Robot Fighter, which later went on to become called Steel Nation, at one point was one of the most sought after comic books made before the 1960s. As the origin series for the entire Valiant shared universe, The Wizard Comic Magazine would regularly increase the value of the comics that made up this arc every single month when I was a teenager, to the point, where I became fascinated with the notion owning them for no other reason than I had bought into the comic book bubble hype, and more than the Image books, the value of these series seemed legitimate.
As my brother Dave said, the reason the first Fantastic Four issue was worth so much was a combination of two things: Rarity & Impact. Image Comics, like Spawn #1, to me were never going to be worth much, because they made so many and tons of kids bought and saved them in perfect condition. So regardless of the eventual impact, which Spawn did have, there were just going to be too many number #1s out on the market to ever make this book valuable.
But Magnus was different in my mind. Nobody gave a flying fart about Magnus when it first came on the market in the early 90s. It was just a revival of an old forgotten Gold Key comic series that luckily had art by the incredible Russ Manning, which elevated beyond the mundane Sci-fi series of the time. So not a lot of people bought Magnus, Robot Fighter #1, and fewer people bothered to keep it. Then the Valiant Boom happened and it seemed like the perfect storm: This was a somewhat rare book and it was gaining in impact! No wonder all the prognosticators were estimating this book to be worth so much. After all, once they made a Magnus Movie or something, having that first issue was going to be enough to put your kids through college. Am I right?
That’s the thing about bubbles. They eventually burst.
Not exactly sure what caused Valiant to collapse, whether it was being bought out by the video game maker Acclaim in 1994, or Jim Shooter being asked to leave in 1992, but my betting money is on the absence of Shooter. Again for whatever problems the company had with Shooter, he had the vision, creativity, and drive to build a cohesive comic book universe and without his hand, the whole thing was eventually going to go down the tubes.
In 1992, they were named the Best Publisher by Diamond Distributors and Shooter was given a Lifetime Achievement Award for creating this comic company. They were hot on the heels of incredibly successful Unity crossover, launching all kinds of new books.
It seems crazy that they would dump Shooter, but that’s what happened. He must have pissed off the wrong guy. And that’s really tragic for this story…I mean look at Marvel. What if Stan Lee had left in 1964 just as things started to look up for the comic titan? The entire industry could have had a much different landscape today. No MCU. No nothing…
But I digress. I keep going down this rabbit hole about Valiant comics in general instead of focusing on the work at hand which is the actual series of Magnus, Robot Fighter, and whether it’s any good for comic book fans to read. At the end of the day, regardless of any of the historical gobbled gook I send your way, the real gauge of whether a book has “impact” is whether some nearly 30 years later, it still is a quality read and strikes those right notes.
And the simple answer is: Yes….and No.
I know not really simple at all, but let me explain.
The arc benefits greatly by being written by Jim Shooter himself, which as I said before can deliver on solid classic style comic book yarns. There’s nothing ground breaking here, but then again in someways it doesn’t have to be. Its very comfortable reading with just enough thought provoking concepts to keep it from being completely forgettable or bland.
As a somewhat continuation of those Russ Manning Gold Key stories from the 60s, the book picks up with Magnus already knee deep in his fist busting quest to rid the Megacity of North Am from the threat of renegade robots that developed free will. Trained from birth in secret by a free will robot himself named 1-A, who seems to have a weird sense of self loathing about himself as he carries an intense hatred of other free will robots, considering them “not alive”, Magnus is reintroduced to us as a young man caught in a series of contradictions, desperate to figure out his role in this world.
For years it seems, he unquestionably hunted down these renegade bots without remorse or pity, making himself a hero among the humans and the angel of death among the mechanicals. Again, hearkening to the words of his mentor, 1-A, he repeats his mantra that these robots are not alive so terminating their existence is no different than unplugging a toaster or trashing a broken lawnmower. His exploits and insane perfect physique have brought him much fame and the love of Leeja Clane, the sexy daughter of Senator Clane, one of the main power brokers of North Am.
It’s at this point in the backstory that Shooter steps in and really starts to put his own spin on the events as given to him by this backstory. He first starts introducing the more modern notion that these robots in developing self thought and determination have become alive in a true sense, so Magnus is committing what is tantamount to murder every time he destroys one, a fact that Magnus seems to acknowledge more and more as the arc continues and he interacts more with the free willers.
Shooter further complicates Magnus’s emotions by introducing the notion that given Magnus was raised by a robot and looks to him as a father figure, that he might actually feel more comfortable with robots and relate more to them than his own kind, especially the stuck up, snooty aristocratic company he needs to keep being Leeja Clane’s beau. This coupled with the introduction of a charismatic robot leader in 01X who is leading a robotic guerilla movement in an attempt to get the humans to stop hunting his kind, and the equally charismatic Tekla, a former robotic butler who falls in love with Magnus and recreates itself as a female robotic version of Leeja to hopefully capture the hero’s heart.
All of these events drive Magnus to make a series of decisions in an attempt to stop war between the robots and the humans that ultimately cause him to be viewed as a traitor by the humans and a villain by robots. Hated on all sides except for Tekla, Magnus starts building his own legacy for the first time outside the confides of his previous “heroic” robot killing past, and although in the end he takes drastic measures to stop 01X from killing more human lives, he also renounces everything about this former life, removing the robotic implant that allowed him to seek and hunt free will robots, and decides to live among the “Gophs” in the poorer undercities of North Am in an attempt to find who he really is. Tekla also takes Leeja under her wing and attempts to teach her to be more than just a pretty face, but a capable strong woman she knows she can be.
Drawn by Bob Layton, who other than Barry Winsor Smith, I consider “Mr. Valiant” in terms of artwork that defined this comic company, Steel Nation does attempt to tackle some pretty heavy topics such as racism, class warfare, self determination, and what is life itself and does so pretty competently even more than 25 years later. It does hook you in for the most part, compelling you to read on to see what exactly happens next in the series. Magnus seems to be a interesting enough character, despite the rest of the universe other than Tekla, being as dry as three day old toast.
There are things that still don’t make a lot of sense such as 1-A’s motivations in first setting Magnus down the path to destroy other free will robots, and given that’s a main aspect of his origin, it can be a little unsettling as a reader. It’s almost as if I wished they hadn’t even bothered to explain that aspect, because they did so rather poorly, and in the end it just left me with more frustrated questions than anything else.
Still though, Magnus is a much better Valiant character than I thought he was going to be, and these first 4 issues are much more satisfying read than the previous Valiant future book I reviewed on the blog a couple months ago in Rai.
So I guess, kudos to Shooter/Layton for starting the Valiant universe on the right foot. Shooter would next go on to write Solar, Man of the Atom, which my fellow Ghostie, Rob Stewart, also reviewed on this site, albeit not with the same viewpoint as historically analyzing these series as the flashpoints for that brief insurgence of Valiant into the comic book landscape. I might do my own read pile on that series next as a continuation of the work I’ve done here, but until then feel free to check out Stew’s Review of that book by clicking here.