Gimmick or Good? - Magnus Robot Fighter #25

In this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence "Gimmick or Good?" Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We continue with the embossed foil cover for Magnus Robot Fighter #25...

Magnus, Robot Fighter #25 (published June 1993) – script by John Ostrander and art by James Brock and Ralph Reese. Cover by Bob Layton.

This month, Dynamite Comics resurrected the Magnus, Robot Fighter franchise. This superhero series has a long and interesting history, as it was originally a Gold Key Comic first published during the early 1960s, running until its cancellation in 1977. About 15 years later, the franchise was revived by former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter as a centerpiece of his new Valiant publishing label (Shooter also scripted the first 20 or so issues). That series lasted until the mid-90s, but was a casualty of Acclaim Entertainment’s buyout of Voyager Communications, the company that owned Valiant. Over the subsequent years, Magnus returned multiple times, most recently for four issues via Dark Horse comics.

The 25th issue of the Valiant series features an all-silver foil cover courtesy of longtime Marvel artist and Valiant co-founder Bob Layton. The comic, which explains some of the origins of the series’ titular character, sold nearly 750,000 copies during its heyday of the 1990s.

But what about inside the comic?

Magnus, Robot Fighter was a very important series for the comic book industry during the early 1990s as it demonstrated how Valiant was very formidable competition to the “big two” publishers in Marvel and DC. Despite Shooter and Layton not having the industry sex appeal of Image’s Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane, the early runs of Valiant’s main books were generally well-received by critics and are remembered with fondness years later. And yet, Magnus #25 is such a frustratingly weak comic book. This issue marked an early entry in John Ostrander’s run on scripting duties. Ostrander was a big deal in his own right, especially during this era, but my goodness, Magnus #25’s script is downright cringe-worthy and difficult to read in parts from its redundancy and rigid dialogue.

Just the opening splash page of this issue demonstrates my point. Here, the reader is greeted with a soliloquy of sorts courtesy of one of the main Malevs – the alien robots that are the chief antagonists of Magnus and his allies. The Malev says: “Hate. Such a Human Concept. So Illogical. Anti-Logical.” Did Ostranger have this character describe a lack of logic two different ways for dramatic effect, or was someone getting paid by the word? Either way, it’s totally superfluous and takes me right out of the scene after only nine words. And who talks like this, even when you take into account that it’s a robot that’s speaking?

The robot continues: “Strange – amusing – that we should feel something as human as hate – but we do hate Magnus.” Well okay, then. Four word balloons in and we’re still talking about hate here. It still gets the reader to the same conclusion that is made in the very first sentence of this comic. Not to mention that the dialogue still reads as being stilted without any real rhythm or character to it. Plus, wouldn’t a soulless robot speak with more efficiency than your standard emotional human? What’s with the pontificating? Once we move on from page one’s speechifying, we learn that the Malev’s plan is to “turn” Magnus to the side of evil as a means to win the war against humanity. But first, they need to learn “more” about Magnus in order to conquer him. Do you smell origin story, because you should!

Ostrander treats us to some more “who really talks like this moments” when Magnus cues up an old music video of Nancy Sinatra singing, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” on a hologram screen and tells his friend Rokkie, “She was my first pubescent fantasy female.” I can think of at least a dozen different ways to make that statement, all of which would exude more personality and sound less rigid that what Magnus says here. Additionally, it’s such a weird, out-of-nowhere moment that in no way comes back to play a role in this individual issue (except for that fact that Magnus wears little white boots like Nancy, which Rokkie refers to with a wink to the reader). And that’s not even taking into consideration what a fairly dated reference this is. This comic was published in 1993 and the story takes place after 4000 A.D. “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” was a success in 1966. Maybe it’s just an homage to the Gold Key series? Why am I spending so much time wondering why the creative team is referring to a music video from more than 40 years ago?

The big reveal of this comic is that Magnus finds a letter from his mother and learns that he is a full-fledged human and not a robot as he suspected. This is meant to be a very triumphant moment for the character, though his celebration is cut short when he is attacked by a group of Malevs. After emerging victorious in battle, he tells Rokkie that he has the “’Blood of heroes’ in my veins – but mine is human blood.” He then quickly concludes, “Let’s get back to Japan,” as if this is the kind of news he hears every day. The line is made even more abrupt by the fact that the comic just ends after that sentence.

Beyond my issues with Ostrander’s script, I’m not a huge fan of the James Brock/Ralph Reese art combination. I actually lay a lot of the blame at the feet of Reese, as I think his inks just don’t add any real depth to Brock’s pencils. But there are just some outright bizarre-looking panels in this book. In one scene, Magnus’s girlfriend Leeja is crying, and it looks like the tears were smeared on her face with a paintbrush. Is this how people supposedly cry in 4000 AD because, if not, I’m seriously concerned about the condition of Leeja’s tear ducts.

Again, I fully understand and appreciate the overall importance of Magnus, Robot Fighter in the comic book industry, and I’m wondering if my displeasure for this issue is just a byproduct of a new creative team not being able to hold a candle to the work of the title’s predecessors, of if there’s just something significantly bigger going on that has caused me to not “get” this comic book. In a column I wrote last year, I found X-O Manowar #0 – which was released around the same time as Magnus #25 – to be far more compelling (and good-looking), so I’m going to wager my issues are more with the creative team than with me not appreciating the Valiant universe and it’s unique storytelling.

Verdict: Gimmick

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