Revisiting Fleischer Studios' monumental 'Mechanical Monsters'

I recently had the pleasure of rewatching The Mechanical Monsters, the 1941 animated Superman short from Fleischer Studios. I viewed it once before in the early '90s on a cheap video tape that virtually disintegrated after just three uses. However, we're in the new millennium now, and thanks to the dual magic of public domain and YouTube, the Fleischer cartoons are easily accessible for free in the comfort of your own home.

Do remember the "Beware the Gray Ghost" episode of Batman: The Animated Series? Bruce Wayne watches an old serial starring his childhood hero Simon Trent (voiced, in a stroke of genius, by none other than Adam West).  He's suddenly transformed into a little kid again, with all the cynicism of adulthood melting away. That was me watching the Fleischer Superman cartoons. I'd searched for these videos for analytical purposes, but instead I walked away with words like "Wow!" and "Gee whiz!" popping into my head.

While watching it, you can understand why so many creators have tried (unsuccessfully) to de-power Superman. He struggles opening up a robot's body, and again against downed power lines. Yet, it's thrilling to watch the Man of Steel battle back ... sometimes initially failing, but his never-quit attitude always managing to pay off. The animation is unparalleled; you can almost feel the strain as Superman pries open the robot with the tips of his fingers. Lois Lane is fearless in her own right: Upon seeing an indestructible robot that police have trouble taking down, her first instinct is to ditch Clark Kent and find out what makes this machine work. It's never said outright, but you can see why Superman is enamored with her.

And then there are the brilliant, boxy designs of the mechanical monsters. With their arms outstretched, they transform into airplanes and take flight. On the ground, they become these monolithic, faceless behemoths. It's a design that's brimming with simple Art Deco stylishness.

I imagine this reflected the producers' experience as well -- the animation style of Batman: The Animated Series was inspired by these same Fleischer Superman cartoons, after all. The plot of "Beware the Gray Ghost," in which a mad scientist robs banks using remote-controlled machines (in this case, tiny toy cars), is very similar. If it isn't, it certainly isn't lacking for fans. The Mechanical Monsters has been referenced by Hayao Miyazaki in Castle in the Sky, and in the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

It's also the building block of the comic that brought me to the cartoon: Brian Fies' Eisner-nominated webcomic The Last Mechanical Monster, which uses the Fleischer cartoon for the basis of his story. We last left off at a pivotal scene: The Inventor had gotten a mechanical monster to work, but there was a malfunction; rather than robbing a bank as it was supposed to, it smashed through a fence and began to dig through garbage. That caught the attention of Lillian, the local electronics-store owner.  Upon recognizing a small camera she'd sold earlier to the Inventor, she pieced together his little secret. In the accompanying post, Fies mentions, "THIS is the image I had in mind when I conceived this version of the Last Mechanical Monster."

Lillian confronts the Inventor, and he takes her to his remote hideout. She's not upset, however; rather, she's in awe. She wistfully recalls her own encounter with the mechanical monster, an experience that inspired her to be an engineer. She's suspicious about the Inventor's intentions, but just being able to play with the tools that launched her dreams is a fantastic honor.

That's when it occurred to me this is the metaphor at the heart of this webcomic: Lillian's fascination is the same as what transfixed me when rewatching the Fleischer short. It's also probably the same one that likely inspired Bruce Timm, Hayao Miyazaki and countless others.  It's a testament to the power of art and how something so perfect can leave a lasting legacy that transcends time.

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