Everybody was Robot-Fighting

Magnus, Robot Fighter 4000 AD Archives Volume 1: written and drawn by Russ Manning (1963-64; collected 2010): The late, great writer-artist Russ Manning did terrific work on everything from Tarzan comic books and comic strips to the Star Wars newspaper strip from the 1950’s to the 1980’s prior to his death in 1981 at the age of 52. But many consider the 21 issues of Magnus, a comic book he created in 1963, to be his magnum opus.

Manning’s style favoured clean lines and nicely choreographed action. The art merits the term ‘balletic’ in a way that only a few other superhero artists truly do — the great Gil Kane comes to mind as well. The in-panel and panel-to-panel action flows smoothly; one really races through the stories. Manning’s propulsive artistic skill means that one has to go back to appreciate the non-narrative pleasures of his art, which are many.

Most notable from a design standpoint are Manning’s depictions of technology, especially vehicles and robots. His robots have a wide array of designs suited to their function, while his vehicles, especially the spaceships, avoid the cliched ‘V-2’ designs of most comic-book rockets of the era.

The narrative is very simple. In the year 4000 AD, humanity has become too reliant on technology. And some of that technology has begun to turn against humanity, either on its own or as part of some human’s evil plan. Enter Magnus, trained by an ancient robot to fight other robots with his super-strength and martial arts skills. And so Magnus does.

Pretty much every story ends with Magnus warning humanity against the dangers of becoming over-reliant on technology. This seems to have been a big deal with Russ Manning in the early 1960’s. I’d love to see his reaction to today’s world. Or at least Magnus’s reaction.

There’s currently yet another attempt to reboot Magnus on the market, but while it’s skilfully done, it’s not Russ Manning. And, reflecting our times, it’s more like Magnus, Virtual Reality Computer Fighter. Where’s the fun in that?

Magnus influenced a number of later comic books, probably none moreso than Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s Nexus, which began in the early 1980’s. Rude’s art riffs on Manning at points in enjoyable ways without slavish imitation. And there was even a really enjoyable Magnus/Nexus crossover from Dark Horse Comics (who also issued this reprint volume) back in the 1990’s. That was done by Baron and Rude, and is also well worth seeking out. So, too, the originals. Highly recommended.

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