Growing up I was an avid comic book reader. I read everything because I had just about everything… inherited from older cousins and neighbors. I horded and collected them and read them many times.
I had a soft spot in those days for Gold Key comics. Comics that featured vivid, pulp-stylized painted covers and some “quirkier” less-heralded heroes. One of my favorites was Magnus: Robot Fighter.
Magnus: Robot Fighter was first published in February 1963 by Gold Key. It was the singular creation, as much as any comic book can be said to be a singular creation, of Russ Manning, who was both writer and artist. Manning would be the creative driving force behind MRF for 21 of the 27 original stories printed by Gold Key.
In interviews, Manning said that he had heard about plans to develop a comic book character and series that would take place in 4000 A.D. The idea was that by 4000 A.D. robots would have become the dominant force in the world. Created originally to serve human beings, robots now ruled human beings. Humanity was in need of a savior.
Manning, who is, of course, famous for his work on Tarzan said that from the beginning he pictured a Tarzan-like protaganist who was like a “force of nature.” Working with the people at Gold Key, Manning developed the world and the character of Magnus that is now familiar to many loyal fans.
The early 1960s, the time in which Manning and the staff at Gold Key first created MRF, was a period of great upheaval and change in America and the world at large. In 1961, with the Cold War was at its height, the U.S.S.R. had put the first man in orbit, Yuri Gagarin. America and American culture was shocked into the space age. By the end of 1962, John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the earth and the first great telecommunications satellite, Telstar, had been put into orbit by the United States.
As rapidly as technology changed in the 1960s, so too did America and American Culture. Throughout the 1960′s, the time when Manning did his work on MRF, America underwent a veritable paradigm shift in its own conciousness. The confidence and joy inspired by the race to the moon was tempered paradoxically by the Vietnam War, the Cold War, racial tensions, assasinations.
MRF and Views the Future
Not suprisingly, the view of the future offered by Manning in MRF is not idyllic. Against the background of the atomic bomb and the Cold War, technology was recognized to be a two-sided coin, it could either be a creative or destructive force for humanity’s future.
Manning’s vision of human-created technology one day controling humans was one that was voiced by many in a variety of science fiction works of the time. But certainly the Star Trek model of technology assisting humans as they rescue themselves and their future from their baser instincts was a much more popular notion: humans and technology would continue to evolve together into a better and brighter future.
While it would be misleading to say that Manning and MRF had a vision of the future that was much “darker” than Gene Rodenberry’s, a case can be made that Manning at least recognized the darker side of technology. Manning’s world does have an under-class. It has people who have been left behind by the modern world, or, who for reasons of their own, have chosen not to participate in the technological future that has been so completely embraced by the other members of their society.
Magnus for Us Today
What then is Magnus’s message to us? As we hear again and again, those who champion scientific advancement and the technological revolution, Magnus reminds us of how uncertain our future really is. Technology does not have the capacity to save us. Only we can do that. Technology’s greatest seduction is that it causes us to forget those who are left behind. Our information revolution is in danger of leaving behind a huge under-class of those unable for economic, educational, and cultural reasons to participate.
As we read and enjoy Russ Manning’s fine work in Magnus Robot Fighter, and enjoyment is the point, we can’t help but notice the many themes that were so much a part of the milieu of the 1960s. We also cannot help but be struck by how many of the same themes resonate with our own time. While mere comic books can be taken too seriously, important issues that they introduce and present should never be taken lightly.