Secret Origins Redux 2: Robotman

Siskoid and Bass take on Secret Origins Month at the Fire and Water Podcast Network with a tale that might well have fit into the original run of Secret Origins, The Origin of the Golden Age Robotman, from All-Star Squadron #63 (November 1986). Who was the original brain in a metal body? Roy Thomas, Mike Bair and Mike Machlan give all the deets, and Siskoid even went back to look at the original tale by Jerry Siegel for comparison. Every secret revealed!

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“Premonition” (Theme for Secret Origins Podcast) written and performed by Neil Daly.

Additional music: "Robots" by Dan Mangan.

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38 responses to “Secret Origins Redux 2: Robotman

  1. Oh, now I see! Gord, Siskoid, I’m sorry I accused you of hatching some secret Canadian scheme on the other SOR comment page.

    See? Americans can apologize, too. You don’t own the copyright.

        1. Sorry, Cap’n.
          Your apology was sincere. When Canadians apologize, we are really snickering behind your back. Sorry to break this to you.


  2. I’ve been listening to Secret Origins for years but this is the first time I felt compelled to leave a comment.

    Great episode, Siskoid and Bass. I’ve only read a dozen issues of ALL-STAR SQUADRON and this isn’t one of them so it was fun to experience an “all-new” origin story of a character I don’t know a whole lot about. I really enjoyed the insightful mention that Siskoid made almost in passing, that unlike Cliff Steel, if the ASS Robotman gets damaged or loses a limb, he’s capable of repairing himself, unlike Cliff who depends on the scientific knowhow of the Chief.

    Ahh, the joy of hearing someone else describe Roy Thomas’ lifting of Golden Age scripts!

    One question: I’m not sure if it’s clear in the story or if I didn’t hear it in the discussion; are Crane and Joan specifically going to see the *movie* ARSENIC AND OLD LACE? Because the movie was based on a play that did premier in 1941.

    Again, this was a delightful show to listen to and a pleasure to hear Siskoid’s passion for this book and these Golden Age characters again. Have you ever considered doing a JSA/Golden Age podcast?!! 😉

    1. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh I think you cracked it. They were going to the “theater”, a play makes more sense, and if it was in 1941, then yes, that’s it. Roy, you ABSOLUTE NERRRRRD!

      1. I wish an editor wrote a note on Thomas’s script “Nobody cares, Roy.”* We get it. You know stuff.

        *This is an homage to King of the Hill’s Dale telling Bill the same thing. “Nobody cares, Bill.”

    2. The play ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ opened in January of 1941 and ran for 1444 performances in its intial Broadway run (Thanks to the Internet Broadway Data Base for these details). The play was a stable for high schools and community theater for years and I participated in our schools production. As Chris Franklin notes below, Boris Karloff originated the role of Jonathon Brewster (the bad nephew) who was on the run with Dr. Einstein (no relation) his personal plastic surgeon. Einstein was still with him because he had screwed up his first go at a new face and they were looking for an opportunity for a second surgery. It seems that Einstein got drunk and went to the movies the day before the surgery. He had the brilliant idea to make Jonathon look like a movie star. Unfortunately, the film he chose was ‘Son of Frankenstein’, released in 1939 when the play was written. They make a point several times that Jonathon now looks like the guy who played the monster.

      All that is a preamble to saying that the reference to the play is undoubtedly a reference to the Creature of Dr. Frankenstein with the transplanted brain. It seems complicated, but it’s Roy Thomas.
      I certainly enjoyed hearing this episode because I didn’t pick up this issue when it was published.

  3. Boris Karloff was in the original, broadway production of “Arsenic and Old Lace”, so maybe there was a slight “Frankenstein” reference there as well?

    This is one of the few issues of A-SS I’ve never tracked down, so thanks for the coverage. I do know Robotman got a delightful robot dog later on in his strip. Dynomutt prototype.


  4. It’s interesting to me that Siskoid refers to Thomas’ slavish adherence to continuity as “nerdy.” It’s such a crutch for RT, it’s beyond “nerdy.” I liken Thomas’s need to show off how much he’s researched to the kid whose hand has to go up to answer every question in class.

    No wonder Ryan and this guy are feuding. I hope Ryan wins.

    I know I don’t know Bass’s life, but does this mean we’re not getting a Zero Hour this month?

    1. Apparently, Roy was only making this for me. I love all that nerdy crap.

      Oh, Oh, Oh! Mr. Siskoid! Chuck Grayson’s cousin is Dick Grayson!

      I get an apple from Mr. Thomas.

      Ryan is getting coal again.

      1. Count me in the Roy Thomas NERD camp. I love it!!!

        I’m glad he reneged on something he wrote about this Robotman having an earth-one counterpart, he should be distinct.

        Also of interest is in a later Detective Comics tale, Paul Dennis is confused by criminals for someone who looks just like that mask. It was explained that the mask was produced based on a life model! Which calls into question whether Robert Crane made the mask himself or simply purchase it prior to becoming Robotman.

  5. Interesting review of this issue. I only sporadically picked up A-SS and missed this one. I do believe that there was a somewhat long story with this Robotman and Mekanique … but maybe that is only in Anj-continuity.

    And while I have never read James Robinson’s Golden Age, I have heard rumors that Robotman plays a big part in it, perhaps becoming something monstrous.

    Thanks for all the review. I clearly didn’t know a lot about this character so this review was informative and entertaining.

        1. At least The Golden Age is clearly labeled an Elseworlds (despite the fact Robinson often referenced character bits from it in his Starman run). Identity Crisis (brrr) never gave us that courtesy.


  6. Wow.

    Siskoid and Bass went 57 minutes about the secret identity of Bob Crane, and didn’t make one Hogan’s Heroes joke.

    Too soon?

      1. Oh, sorry, didn’t realize that HH might not have translated into Franco-Canada in the years it was in reruns. Credit it for the Frasier Crane, thing, though — I”m listening.

  7. Impressive Pod cast Most Impressive. I’m barely familiar with this Robot Man. I read his trail ware his brain ends up in Grayson’s body. I had just thought. Oh so this is earth 1 Robot Man. And thought nothing of it. But, cool. Yeah that is one weird dress. Looks like something Grace Jones would have warren in a James Bond movie. The Guy kind of Has Bruce Wane face. Like a version of him from when he remembers Crime Ally. So in the 40s she slaps him. In the 80s version looks like she Pimp Slapped him. Almost like she was waring a Unity ring. And she was gonna call Mr. Cane, Charlie Murphy.

    The updated version Of Robot Man looks better than the O.G. version. Still It reminds me Of Cliff Steel a bit. Yeah…yeah it does take more than just a face mask to become a woman… tell me about it. The Turfs on my YU-tube page love to tell me…, Moving right along. If he can make a Robot body that can react as his old brain stim did to his brain. And a robot heart and longs that his brain doesn’t reject. And His Robot Body can reproduce the Blood his brain will need to function. And have his robo lugs filter the air so his brain can use it. While sending the gas or what ever the Robot body runs on with out hurting the brain in the cramped space of a 6ft humanoid body. I’m sure he can make a female body to reattach the his robot head too when he wares the female mask. I’m guessing none of these masks were used in the 40s issues. But, who knows. It’s posable. The Train non was cool even if he was wrong about the artist. Joseph Shuster was a cool artist, but this is a more classic style than his on the old Robot Man stories. Better autonomy and what not. And the style it’s self is different than Joe’s. His is more Dick Tracy than this. Not sure ware his eye sight is at this point Cause Joe does start to lose it near the end. But, it didn’t hurt his Funny Man stuff so who knows? Still not sure how Roy saw this as his work. The 40s stuff. Though cool to see more of Jerome Siegel’s created characters out there. Along with Dr. Occult, Spector, Slam Bradly. Some guy called Super or something. I can’t rember his name. Mike Balley may have heard of him. Moving on. Funny Man Super Boy. Star Spangled Kid and Stipesy.

    As well as some of the LSH. Interestingly his work in comics goes all the way up to the 80s but we only really talk about Supes. Supes is awesome. But, safely his other stuff gets passed over save the stuff Roy Thomas and others saved. Granted I’m in shock Roy doesn’t have a pod cast with all the Golden Age knowledge he has. Still it’s impressive how well he pivoted to do these origin stories etc. When Crissis happened. And he’s still done great comic work to this day. His Namor run wasn’t great. But, hey he had to take over after Byrne left. But, he made Namor way to Blue callor. Like him having trouble with a suit. No. Namor can teach a class on Winsor knots. He wouldn’t be fumbling with a suit. Still I like what he did with this Robot Man and his other work

  8. Top show! Before A-SS I only knew Robotman from a few Super-Spectacular reprints. I like him lots! I did not like that Whatever Happened to…? Story from DC Comics Presents. Poor Chuck.

    I like that montage of ‘faces Robotman might use’ – can anyone identify them all? I think I see Peter Parker, Marilyn Monroe, Superman, Oberon, Guy Gardner, Oprah Winfrey and Veronica Lake… apparently our hero could see into the future and across comic dimensions!

    That moment in which Chuck Grayson says ‘Alive… he’s alive’ is another Frankenstein reference, I guess.

    I absolutely love Joan’s snood outfit, good on Bair for getting this high-class look on the page. I hope you show it to the OHOTMU empresses for their comments.

    ‘Joan Carter’s going to see a lot more of Paul Dennis.’ Not that much, at least until he attaches the electric whisk.

    I think my favourite DC robot who’s actually a robot is Automan (see Siskoid’s Blog of Geekery!).

    And I’m with Ryan, how about a Golden Age podcast from you boys when you have a moment?

    And could we have a feedback show covering all the new Redux shows at the end?

  9. Thanks, Siskoid and Bass! I agree with you both (and apparently all the commenters) about enjoying all the nerdy facts Roy worked in — especially real world stuff like Arsenic and Lace. New things to learn were always a bonus, never a bother. The initial run of Tom Clancy novels went into far greater detail telling the reader what the author learned in his research. I think the readers who didn’t like it just turned the page.

    I may be alone in my opinion, but I think the original 1942 art was also showing Joan in a hooded dress. She just had the hood down. Otherwise, there’s a lot of unnecessary material on the dress’s back neckline.

        1. I once had to play an improv “in the style of Victor Hugo”. We were very naughty, so we started with two characters saying something like, oh a jail cell, and then our key player walked in and talked about the history of Parisian prisons for about 5 minutes in his most scholarly voice. It was brilliant. People still talk about it.

  10. Like Siskoid, I was introduced to Robert Crane first, so he’s my favorite Robotman. Until recently, he was followed by the Jim Meddick comic strip character and then metallic punk Ben Grimm, but I’ve really enjoyed Brendan Fraser on the episodes of the TV show that I’ve watched so far. So Cliff Steele finally reached the number two position, I guess.

    I really prefer the Robert Crane design, which I think plays with the inhumanity of the cyborg more effectively, especially the sinister red eyes and the perpetual creepy smile. Not that I advocate for a Golden Age heel turn– just that it lends Crane a greater sense of tragedy through his overt attempt to ingratiate himself to and soothe us meatsacks. Oddly, Cliff’s clunkiness and more impressionistic design lends him a greater external humanity. Cliff’s aversional personality makes him seem more real, where Crane gives off an air of sad desperation playing to be more human-looking while plainly being a construct. I appreciate the sleekness and minimalism while also giving a curious little proto-robo-mullet. It’s a pleasant mingling of knight’s armor and retrofuturism.

    If you think about it, despite all but disappearing from comics after 1953 and not having a technical legacy, there’s a whole slew of characters seemingly in his debt. Cliff Steele obviously owes Crane for the super-hero name and a lot of his look. Both Vision and Red Tornado did the latex mask and manufactured human identity bit. For the life of me, I still don’t understand why Gerry Conway would create Steel when Robotman was right there, but then again, I don’t recall his ever having a Captain America run. Between the silver hue and varied attachments, Cyborg could arguably be the modern age Robotman, and because of the organic interface has more in common with him than the androids. I also think Vic would benefit a lot more from having a robot dog than a Mother Box.

    At a conceptual level and with little actual exposure, I currently prefer Robotman to any of this lot. I used to like the Vision, but the MCU really drove home a lot of annoying stuff about him that I’d glossed over in the comics. I’ve ordered the Captain Comet Archive Edition every time DC has offered then cancelled it, and I’d jump on a Robotman one just as readily (and likely fruitlessly.) They used to throw reprints of his stories into various extra-length anthologies, including the same dollar comic that introduced me to the debut Atomic Knights tale. They have a warmth and sense of adventure I find appealing, and Robert Crane really fits Scipio Garling’s platonic ideal of DC heroes. Sure, he’s trapped in a unfeeling mechanical body, but it was built from his own extraordinary intellect, and his curiosity and resilience allows him to make the most of his circumstance. He takes joy in the opportunity rather than wallow in self pity. Also, with all the fun added appliances he had in his solo strip, he’s sort of a analog Plastic Man in his cartoonish versatility. It probably doesn’t hurt that future Martian Manhunter artist Joe Certa did a lot of those latter-day Detective stories.

    I think the genesis of the origin is fine, but the pursuit of his killers isn’t very interesting. Crane was a victim of a botched robbery helping his friend and benefactor, so there’s an emotional remove that makes the super-hero action feel like an afterthought. As usual, Roy Thomas’ retelling belabors and prolongs rather than embellishes. I enjoy the robo-Christ/modern Prometheus imagery on the All-Star cover. Overall, Bair and Machlan are both underrated artists, but their effort here falls far short of the promise of the cover and splash page. Crane’s ladyfriend’s very eighties hair distracts the hell out of me. The Star-Spangled version is overall better, especially that nightmare fuel final panel of Robotman going all Leatherface with his disguise.

    Besides Captain Compass, I do think Crane was very much a victim of Cliff Steele’s existence. Unlike with an Alan Scott or Jay Gerrick, there was no great need to explain the existence of a Robotman multiverse, and the All-Star Squadron was such an artificial construct that it never resonated even fractionally equivalent to the Justice Society. Unlike M*A*S*H, I didn’t appreciate a series set during a war that outlasts the U.S.’s involvement in said war, especially when you factor in that A-SS started in December of 1941 and was still in 1942 five years later. There was a time that I thought I wanted to go back and read more of that run, but reading pretty much any single issue unfailingly disabuses me of that notion. Whenever writers complain about continuity ruining storytelling, Roy Thomas’ ears burn. Anyway, the WWII period was already so thoroughly canvassed in comics that I’d be much more interested in literally any era afterward up to the ever-shifting “Modern Age” of DC heroes.

    Anyway, Robotman deserves better than he got, especially seeing as how he made it just shy of the Silver Age. I really feel like his story template would benefit later characters, especially Cyborg, and he’s just so much cooler than other DC Golden Age heroes that have gotten more play. I’ll take him over a Guardian or Vigilante any day.

    P.S. I haven’t seen either His Girl Friday or Arsenic and Old Lace since the ’90s, so I can’t narrow down for sure which is the best Cary Grant movie, but it’s without question down to those two.

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