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Magnus, Robot Fighter


While DC was re-introducting its Golden Age characters to a new generation and Marvel rolled out it all-new heroes, Gold Key only reluctantly got into the superhero fray, preferring instead (like its predecessor Dell) to publish books based on popular movies and TV shows. So when artist Russ Manning heard that editor Craig Chase wanted him to work on a new book set in the year 4000 AD, he leaped at the chance to get away from licensed books and to write and draw his own creation.

The concept of a future world in which robots have enslaved mankind was a particular shrewd one for the time. Pure science fiction comics - as opposed to superhero comics with some sci-fi elements to them - suffered under the Comics Code Authority. They became for the most part an endless series of stories about intrepid heroes saving young women from bug-eyed aliens, their usefulness as commentary on our Earthling ways effectively gutted by the CCA guidelines. Buck Rogers was a relic from another era, Flash Gordon was missing in action, and by the 1960's there were few titles giving readers any idea of what the future might bring.

But then came the first issue of Magnus, sporting a beautifully painted cover that showed a man karate-chopping one of the "evil robots who are the masters of man!" Maybe it was the hand-painted covers, a rarity at the time. Maybe it was the pleasure in seeing a man wrest back control from machines with nothing more than his bare hands. Or maybe it was the breathtaking views of North Am, the sprawling urban landscape in which this Tarzan of the future called his home. Whatever the reasons, readers responded warmly to the title, and Magnus quickly became the strongest original character that Gold Key had ever produced, outselling even Superman at one point in his career.

Why single this series out for special mention? First, Manning's painted covers were a delight to the eye, and a welcome change to much of what was published at the time. Second, the title's glimpses into the future turned many people away from watching the skies to watching the calendar; it's not too far-fetched to suggest that Magnus primed audiences for the likes of Star Trek and other forward-looking facets of our pop culture. Finally, Valiant's successful handling of the character for a new generation of readers led to relaunches of other characters from that era - Solar, Man of the Atom and Turok, Son of Stone come to mind - bringing a sense of continuity between the 1960's and the 1990's.

The original series lasted only 46 issues, but Magnus would be revived by Valiant Comics in 1991 to enjoy a more successful run. It was a gamble - aside from diehard older fans, few readers had even heard of the character, and a fellow beating up robots seemed like an odd choice in a more technologically hip decade. But the deliberately retro sci-fi look scored big with readers, and Valiant found the springboard it needed to flourish, launching several other titles in the wake of its success.

Times and preferences may change, but a good character will find an audience no matter where - or when - he pops up.

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