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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Comics Spotlight Review - Magnus: Robot Fighter #1

Dynamite's Gold Key Universe revival continues to expand with Magnus: Robot Fighter #1 from Fred Van Lente, Cory Smith, and Mauricio Wallace.  Minor spoilers ahead! 

Can computers achieve sentience?  If they can, they be able to feel emotions as we understand them?  Can we get along with devices literally created to be nothing more than clever tools?  And what happens if we can't?   It's a sequence of questions that toppled into cliche about forty years ago - a few standout recent works excepted - but it's also one that's slowly becoming more and more important to consider.  And thus you have the essential thematic hook of Magnus: Robot Fighter: Can two very different societies, each of which treats the other as a slave, ever truly get along?  While the answer writer Fred Van Lente seems to suggest is, "I don't know, but we have to try," the title isn't Magnus: Robot Lover.  The struggle to free humanity and come to some sort of harmony is going to be a rough road.

The thing that's always impressed me about Van Lente is his ability to mine genuine pathos from situations most writers would write off as ridiculous.  Whether its in Archer and Armstrong or The Incredible Hercules, Van Lente knows how to combine comedy and heart.  With Magnus: Robot Fighter #1, he leans harder on the heart - this is not a funny book - and his talent for playing a silly situation straight means that some of that heart bleeds through.  Unfortunately, though, a mid-issue twist neuters some of the effectiveness of Van Lente's set-up and pulls him away from his natural talents as a writer, a flaw that in many ways dominates the book's best qualities.

This next paragraph will contain some spoilers, so if you haven't read the issue and don't want them, just skip one down.

Partway through the issue, we learn that the utopian-but-limited world of Maury's Peak is an AI simulation run by a renegade computer trying to promote better human/AI interaction in its host, Magnus.  It's a good way to ease us into the setting without dumping us straight into dystopia, but it also means that it spends fully half the book introducing us to a supporting cast that doesn't exist and a hero who doesn't know who he is.  Magnus' quest, to reclaim his life, is an impossible one; there was never any life to begin with.  The closest analog to Magnus' situation is probably Valiant's Bloodshot, and I wouldn't be shocked to see Magnus take a similar (though less bloody) path.  Bloodshot worked because it highlighted the inhumanity of giving its hero these fake lives, however; Van Lente seems to pitch that act as a noble one.  It'll be interesting to see this particular plot thread play out.

Cory Smith and Mauricio Wallace do excellent design work.  Wallace's lighter color palette - it seems to border on pastel at times - in Maury's Peak sets up the issue's transition nicely, and the shift to harder, darker colors once Magnus finds himself in the city is well-handled.  I was particularly enamored of the small details that so dominated the city, like a countdown clock in the background telling citizens when the state-mandated rain will begin, but really, they capture the entire dystopian atmosphere quite well.  The book's sole, brief action sequence has me a bit worried, however.  It's stiff, lifeless, unchoreographed, just a sequence of destructive money-shots that lacks rhythm, power, or a sense of real danger.  I'm assuming robot-fighting is going to be a big part of the book going forward; if so, I sincerely hope this was just an abbreviation for space purposes.

Magnus: Robot Fighter #1 isn't all there just yet. There are good ideas - a lot of good ideas, I think - but right now, the book hinges heavily on a character we know virtually nothing about.  Still, those classic sci-fi concepts should be more than enough to interest many readers in the start, and if Van Lente can build on those in interesting new ways, this could be something really good.  Perhaps my favorite moment in this first issue was a brief sequence that found a 'friendly' AI - the model, it seems, for robot/human cooperation - smiling benignly as it watched two characters make love without them knowing.  A book like this, working with such tried and true tropes, needs those shades of grey to remain compelling.

The only thing I knew about Magnus: Robot Fighter before hand was from the excellent Ass Ponys song, "Magnus."  Van Lente, Smith, and Wallace have managed to pique my interest with the world of Magnus: Robot Fighter #1 beyond that, but they haven't sold me completely.  It's an interesting setting, but that's all it is so far; Magnus himself is a non-character, which means we're stuck with a pulpy hook and nothing to hang on it.  Still, Van Lente is a talented creator with a gift for making you care about his characters, and developing a particularly deep connection to a character is difficult in such a plot-driven first issue.  Once Magnus settles down in a month-to-month groove and lets Van Lente focus on his strengths, I suspect it will be a much more charming book; as is, Magnus: Robot Fighter #1 is interesting, but flawed.

Rating: B-

Magnus: Robot Fighter #1
Released March 12, 2014
Fred Van Lente, Cory Smith, Mauricio Wallace

Magnus: Robot Fighter is published by Dynamite Entertainment. An advance copy of this issue was provided for review. No other compensation was given.
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