Tuesday, October 23, 2018 • Evening Edition • "Shit happens here."

On The Other Hand #10 … The Metal Men

Written by Logan on Tuesday, March 14 2017 and posted in Features

On The Other Hand #10 … The Metal Men

In metal we trust.

Mercury is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature.

You probably knew that. This is a basic chemistry fact that most people learn in middle school. I knew this before first grade because I read comics. (And they say comic books aren't educational.) I was introduced to the concept of elements and the periodic table thanks to a wonderful team of metal men, The Metal Men! The team is made up of six robots, which was more than enough to capture a young geek's imagination, but they were so much more.

Robby and MorpheusWhen the Metal Men appeared in 1962, the entire concept of what a robot could be was still in the primitive stage. The word robot comes from a 1920 play by Czech playwright Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (which stands for Rossum's Universal Robots, when translated into English). The foremost robot in pop culture was the Forbidden Planet (1956) character Robby the Robot. Robby was the dominant pop culture robot and made regular TV appearances in shows like The Twilight Zone, The Addams Family, and Lost in Space.

The Metal Men could only have existed in the comics. They broke new ground in robot design. They were shaped like real people, not weird artificial constructs. They were all different from each other instead of coming from a common mold. The Men were independent and had all too human personalities. They argued and boasted; they had self-esteem issues and fell in love. And, of course, they were heroes.

It's Science!

The real selling point for the Metal Men was that each one was composed entirely of a single metal. The members of the team were Gold, Platinum, Mercury, Iron, Lead, and Tin. They were made of, respectively, gold, platinum, mercury, iron, lead, and tin. They were solid statues made of each element; there were no visible gears, no seams, no armor plates or pistons. They each had a single line of what appeared to be rivets, but it turned out that was merely decoration.

Being the living embodiment of their elements gave each robot special properties. Lead was extremely dense, heavy, and immune to x-ray vision. Gold was an excellent conductor. Mercury was liquid at room temperature. Readers learned the symbols for these elements, their atomic weights, melting points, what ductility is, and more. Very educational.


Unfortunately, the book also contained a lot of bad information. For example, a robot composed entirely of mercury would be one of the deadliest things ever invented. Mercury is incredibly poisonous, and so is lead for that matter. These two may just be the most dangerous robots ever created! Mercury was also red instead of silver (but that can be forgiven as an artistic choice).

The Six Billion Dollar Men

Dr. Will Magnus is the genius that invented the Metal Men, and I have one main question for him...what the hell kind of budget was he working with?? Robots made of solid platinum and gold? Are you kidding me?? Let's do a little math, shall we? Using the average volume for a male adult, in today's money Gold would cost approximately $53.3 million. Platinum, aka Tina, was slightly smaller and so would only cost around $42.7 million. Those prices are for materials alone assuming you could even acquire that much. And we haven't discussed the football field sized lab filled with fantastic machinery.

At the center of all this amazing technology was Dr. Will Magnus greatest invention, the responsometer. This microscopic machine is truly one of the most unbelievable devices ever conceived of in any comic book universe. Here's how it works. Simply deposit the responsometer into a carefully calculated quantity of metal and it comes to life. That's it. The micromachine reacts with the specific metal to create an artificial intelligence based upon that metal's properties as it animates the creation. Thus we get the different personalities of each Metal Man.

If you've ever wondered what kind of personality a metal would have, now we know. Tina was a flirty, blonde bombshell. Lead was dense, mentally as well as physically. Mercury was a hothead. Gold was noble and stalwart while Iron was a sensitive strong man. Tin, the weakest one, became a stuttering nebbish. Dr. Magnus was the most emotionless one of the bunch. It's ironic. (Get it? Screw you, that's funny.)


In addition to forming the personality, the responsometer records memories and thoughts, so it can be put into another body should one get destroyed. And they got destroyed a lot. Robot characters take a tremendous amount of damage simply because they can. It's one of the great truisms in comic books: if you have a character that be destroyed and rebuilt, they have to do it over and over again. (See also regeneration) You know what this means? He had more solid gold bodies just waiting to be used. That kind of spending would make Tony Stark blush.

The Element of Surprise

None of this is the reason that the Metal Men grabbed my imagination so strongly, though. The major appeal is much more basic. They look freaking cool. The Metal Men are shapeshifters. They're metamorphs, or, more colloquially, stretchy guys. And I love stretchy guys. They're my favorite character types, and a whole team of them working together is a dream on the page. The visuals of the team in combat, stretching and morphing to take on some of the freakiest villains imaginable, were amazing. I could see their motion as they flowed through still images from page to page. I imagine the artists had a great time drawing these scenes. When details like their elemental properties are added the package is just irresistible.

The term shapeshifter is a bit nebulous. It has come to mean anything with other specific forms including werewolves and Autobots. When I use the term I am referring to beings that have a more amorphous nature with no definite shape. They can stretch and twist and contort themselves into a variety of different shapes.

Shapeshifters were used differently back then. A shifter's favored form of attack was to morph their hands into enormous sledgehammers and pound their foes into submission. If you were really mad you might form spikes. After Wolverine became the number one character in the comic universe, blades were the weapon of choice. Characters appeared whose entire power was to transform their hands or arms into blades. Ugh, just awful. Anybody remember Razorsharp? Of course not, she's terrible. Bring back the fist shaped like a mace. Now that had impact, that was fun!

The Metal Men had a whole slew of tricks when they worked together. Eventually they even learned to create a Voltron-like gestalt which they called Alloy.



By Any Stretch of the Imagination

There are two kinds of stretchy guys in comics. The most common kind is elastic. This group includes Mr. Fantastic, The Elongated Man, Elastigirl, and others. Their bodies can be pulled and stretched in a variety of ways like a sheet of rubber. No matter how they are distorted, they remain a single, solid body and will snap back into their human shape.

The Metal Men, on the other hand, are fluid. Their bodies exist in a semi-fluid state somewhere between solid and liquid. This group includes Sandman, Clayface, and the T-1000. Their semi-fluid composition can be contorted into limitless shapes, including the ability to form gaps and moving parts. Bodies like this can even be pulled apart with little damage. Maintaining a human shape is not always automatic; it requires an act of will.

I love all the stretchy guys, but the fluid type are my absolute favorites. Marvel's Sandman is my number one guy. He was so versatile and cool, he could do almost anything. And the Metal Men was a whole team of him.


This is one of my favorite panels for some reason.

A Periodic History

Being heroic robots, the Metal Men fought a lot of evil robots. It's yet another comic book truism that you have fight your own kind. A good number of them were also element based evil robots. What are the odds? Pretty good when you know that Dr. Magnus created some of them.

The Metal Men have been around for a long time and they always enjoyed moderate popularity. The first Metal Men was cancelled after 45 issues, but returned three years later continuing the same numbering. (Are you listening, Marvel?) The Men have been perennial guest stars in the DC Universe ever since their own series finally ended in 1978. They even appeared in an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

The membership rarely changes, but they did eventually add another member. Copper was the second female member of the team. She was modeled after a teenager rather than a grown woman. Copper doesn't always appear with the team in their numerous guest appearances and attempted revivals. One other member was added in a horrible mini series from 1993. This series retconned the Metal Men into being human psyches that were transferred into the robots. At the end, Dr. Will Magnus himself is transferred into a robot called Veridium. These changes didn't last. Let us never speak of them again.

Class is in Session

DC was determined to teach us some chemistry. The Metal Men fought a host of villainous chemicals. They had enemies like The Gas Gang (robots that embodied different gases: Oxygen, Helium, Chloroform, Carbon Monoxide, Carbon Dioxide), The Robots of Terror (Aluminum, Barium, Calcium, Plutonium, Sodium, and Zirconium), and The Plastic Perils (Ethylene, Methacrylate, Polyethylene, Silicone, and Styren). Each issue also had a feature in the back called "Metal Facts and Fancies" filled with fun information.


The Metal Men weren't the only ones engaged in this educational endeavor. Metamorpho, the Element Man, was another fluid shapeshifter. He could transform his body any known element and even become gaseous. There was also an Element Girl for a while. Mister 104, an enemy of The Doom Patrol, could also transform into any element or chemical. His name referred to the number of elements on the periodic table (at the time). The Legion of Super Heroes gave us Element Lad, a teen with the power of elemental transmutation. Then along came Chemical King with the power to manipulate chemical reactions. These things needed to be explained to the reader so they could follow what was happening.

An Element of Doubt

I'm not quite sure why they are used so sparsely these days. Perhaps a team of robots controlled by their creator is an antiquated idea. Stretchy guys never get much respect and a whole team of them has an element of goofiness to it, no pun intended. Old school geeks like myself are always happy to see them. Unbelievably, they appeared in the New 52. They suffered the same disease as Cyborg, though. None of them looked clunky enough and they needed to be more obviously robotic. It's a silly and frustrating disease. Are we really supposed to believe that as technology advances machines will become more unwieldy? Yeah, that makes sense.

Oh hell, I know why we don't see them much: they're fun. You have to have a sense of humor to enjoy the campiness of robots that are always saying things like, "I can be flattened into a sheet only four millionths of an inch thick!" Tina was pretty risque for her time, clearly a sex-bot prototype. Trying to get them to be taken seriously just doesn't work.

I'm not entirely disappointed by their special guest star status. There's an old show biz axiom: always leave them wanting more. I definitely want more Metal Men and I look forward to their next appearance.


On The Other Hand is a column of unrepentant nostalgia. The author learned a lot from comics as a small child, including words like nebulous, amorphous and elongated.


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