Wednesday, May 03, 2023

The Last Mechanical Monster by Brian Fies

Brian Fies, as a graphic novelist, seems to have two modes - I say "seems" because he's only had four long projects, so dropping them into two buckets of two each is plausible but probably awfully reductive.

Still: he's done two non-fiction books about crises in his own life, Mom's Cancer and A Fire Story. His other two books are both fictional tales with elements of super-science deeply tied to the years immediately before WWII, which is awfully specific to be random. His second book was Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, yet another Boomer's wistful "how come we never got jetpacks" lament.

And his fourth book is The Last Mechanical Monster, which explicitly calls itself a sequel to the 1941 Fleisher Brothers cartoon "The Mechanical Monsters," although the main character of that cartoon (a Mr. Superman, still the property of a large and litigious organization) is entirely absent, except for one namecheck in an old newspaper headline. It is a tale of super-science - the kind that steals from banks, is made with flashing diodes and sparking vacuum tubes, and may or may not be accompanied with maniacal laughter - and its collision with the modern world. I believed it a bit more than I did World of Tomorrow, but it's still a very artificial story.

The unnamed evil genius of that cartoon is released from prison. It's sixty or seventy years after his crimes; we don't know exactly when but let's say the early days of the twenty-first century. The Inventor - we never learn his real name; some call him "Sparky" - is not quite a hundred years old, and has not changed disposition or aims one iota in the long decades since his initial failure. He is nearly as brilliant as he was as a young man, just as dismissive of every other human being in the world, and entirely focused, in the way of a Republic serial villain, with the crudest kind of theft as the way to succeed.

So he buys some supplies with his discharge money, goes to the secret hideout where he was captured so long ago, gets into that place through a secret secondary entrance, and sets to work amid the smashed corpses of his robots.

He does have to return to Metropolis [1] occasionally, and makes a few "friends," including bus driver Ted, electronics-shop owner (and retired engineer) Lillian and librarian Helen, though he's brusque and demanding and rude to all of them, only advancing to the barest level of courtesy, sort-of, almost, by the end of the book.

His plan is a diminished version of the old plan: salvage enough to make one robot operational, use that robot to steal valuables from banks or wherever, and then Make Them All Pay!!!!! Bwah-ha-ha-ha!!!!!!!

There's an underpants-gnomes level missing step there, obviously. The Inventor never realizes it, and never would think of using his inventions to do anything else on his own. It's also a plan that was only barely plausible in 1941 and utterly impossible decades later, as another character eventually points out, without quite having understood that was The Inventor's plan.

He does get one robot working, as the title and cover reveal. It is somewhat more self-directed than expected, and doesn't steal the things The Inventor wants it to at first. It does have an impressive capacity for destruction, as we will eventually see.

I found Mechanical Monster enjoyable as a pulpy SF adventure yarn without ever quite believing in it. The Inventor is a standard character, the one who doesn't change in the slightest over the course of seventy years and then shifts when it would be touching near the end. The story is yet another Boomer love letter to the kind of SF that doesn't examine its premises, and I ran out of patience with those stories not too long into my own SF career, quite some time ago. Fies is good at this stuff, and clearly has a strong affinity for it. I hope it's hugely successful so that he can keep doing retro super-science stories for as long as he wants to, but I might not end up reading them.

[1] No character ever says the name, but we see it on signs.

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