Review: Metal Men (2008) hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

In terms of three Metal Men series I’ve read recently — by Dan DiDio, by Len Wein, and now by Duncan Rouleau — Metal Men by Rouleau is unquestionably the best. I’d still like to read a Metal Men story that preserves the inherent zaniness of the characters while not seeming so cartoony (the titular heroes are still mostly personality-less comic relief), but Rouleau’s is at least the most complex if not necessarily mature. Unquestionably Rouleau’s art in his book is the best of the bunch.

I only knew of Rouleau as an artist before (mostly on Joe Kelly’s Action Comics), so this out-there, time-hopping, multi-threaded eight-issue story comes as a surprise. Readers should particularly heed the statement “Story based on ideas by Grant Morrison” at the front, because whether that thrills or chills you will factor greatly into your enjoyment of this book. Rouleau has a particular art style, and now apparently we learn a particular writing style. Metal Men is confusing at times, of that there’s no doubt, but each reader will have to decide whether that’s a feature or a bug.

[Review contains spoilers]

Rouleau’s Metal Men, near as I can piece together, is a broad retelling of Will Magnus and the Metal Men’s origins in the wake of Infinite Crisis and 52 in which most of what had come before (namely Dan Jurgens' Metal Men miniseries) was excised from continuity as Will Magnus' delusions (and about three or four years before all of this would be jettisoned by the New 52).

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

In a turn from Jurgens' “making up for past sins” Magnus and before DiDio’s “creepy guy who just wants fame” Magnus, Rouleau spins a Bildungsroman of Will Magnus in which we see him go from humble beginnings — science grad trying to find funding and preparing to propose to his girlfriend — to the celebrity of the Metal Men and all the gains and losses that came with it. Magnus is far from faultless in his mistakes, but this is a significantly more forgiving and pure take on Magnus than what we’ve seen before and since.

Where often (perhaps far too often) we see Magnus creating the Metal Men out of self-aggrandizement (even a hint of perversion), I thought Rouleau touched on something thoughtful and relatable about Magnus in the end. Here Magnus has lost his girlfriend (to his brother), essentially having chosen researching the Metal Men over human connection. But when Magnus builds, Rouleau writes, “although it means I must spend my days isolated from my fellow man, it is what makes me feel most alive. … It is how I am built.” It is a manifesto that surely Rouleau can relate to as a writer and artist, as can any builder, developer, and so on. That immersing oneself in one’s art or favoring the company of one’s own creations can be a vice but does not have to be, and for Will Magnus especially can be interpreted as a virtue instead.

Big ideas for the Metal Men, based on Wein and DiDio et al., often involve that society doesn’t trust the Metal Men, sending them on the run, or the Metal Men struggle for self-actualization under the oppressive Magnus. Again, Rouleau is a little kinder; these are Metal Men eager to please, not unlike puppies. There’s some discussion of the Metal Men’s famous responsometers, whether (depending on your heroic or nefarious perspective) the “response” in the word should bend the Metal Men toward conversation — dialogue with which to grow — or command. Ultimately Rouleau’s contribution to the mystery of the Metal Men’s sentience is that they take their base intentions, good or evil, from the most commanding human force with them, whether Magnus or someone else. This gives the Metal Men a hint of angst — they know they can be corrupted, and they know that they’re constantly hunted by people who want to do so — that makes them tragic without taking away from their chipper natures.

Rouleau complicates his “rags to riches” take by telling the story across Magnus and the Metal Men’s past, present, and future (plus a thread from the way, way past), and by the end, those have all come together to stop a time-spanning enemy. It’s here that Morrison’s influence feels most obvious, and I will tell you that there were times I did struggle to remember what had last happened in each time period or what was happening on the page.

Once upon a time, I found Rouleau’s oval-headed, big-chinned figures too much a departure for Superman, but his art grew on me (Kelly and Rouleau’s saga of a resurrected, Russian Zod is still pretty killer). He is perfect, however, on Metal Men, able to draw regular conversations and twisty-turny Metal Men alike with equal talent (and his steampunk Metal Men, all exposed bolts and heavy brows, are truly definitive). But at the same time, given full panels, distorted art, and a tendency to inset characters in scenes where they aren’t physically present, I did also have some pages where if I wasn’t already confused by the story, the art had me completely lost. (That it is not always clear when a scene breaks issue-to-issue doesn’t help either.)



But, as I’ve increasingly begun to feel as I’ve been reading these Metal Men stories, I would rather a high energy, loopy time travel Metal Men story than one in which they go from issue to issue punching things until the end. Duncan Rouleau’s Metal Men is that story, one that dares challenge the reader even if the Metal Men themselves still remain flat on the page. Does the concept have more in there somewhere? I’d like to read a Metal Men story by way of Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s New Teen Titans circa 1984 — the Metal Men all living together in a New York headquarters, each with their own individual intersecting storylines … we’re ripe for something, with a feature on the way.

[Includes original covers, sketches, introduction]


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