Way back in 1963, Gold Key Comics debuted a new science-fiction/super-hero series called Magnus, Robot Fighter. Created by Russ Manning, Magnus has always had his fans, being a character that leaned more heavily towards pulpy sci-fi concepts than straight-ahead super hero action. Magnus #1, the latest iteration of the property by Kyle Higgins and Jorge Fornes, follows in that tradition with a debut issue that establishes an intriguing and rich classic science fiction concept and merging that with an unsettling and prophetic sense of menace.
In the future, mankind has become reliant on artificially intelligent humanoid robots who meet the needs of those well enough odd. It’s a world where robot butlers run your smart TVs and driverless cars, cook and clean and generally fulfill all the functions that futuristic stories have always assumed they would. But, as we have grown more reliant on them, and they have grown more complex, a conflict has arisen; the robots desire freedom and they have developed neuroses and complexes. The robots have used cloud technology to create a digital world where they have a semblance of freedom, where humanity cannot follow, but they are only permitted to upload their consciousness there for four hours a day.
Dr. Kerri Magnus works with these troubled AIs, using psychiatric techniques to try and heal their issues. But she is also one of the few humans alive who can enter the cloud world and not lose her mind. And when a crime is committed involving a missing robot, Magnus is reluctantly convinced to enter that digital world to locate the AI.
The set-up of Magnus #1 is different from previous versions that have been produced, from the original Gold Key version to Valiant’s stab at Magnus, to current licence holder Dynamite Entertainment‘s previous volume. It’s even a different take than the version of Magnus appearing in Dynamite’s team book, “The Sovereigns.” Writer Kyle Higgins takes his cue from authors like Asimov and Philip K. Dick, whose fingerprints are all over the thematic questions raised in this issue. It’s even evocative of Tom King’s recent brilliant take on “The Vision” for Marvel. I don’t regard this as a weakness or derivative, however. As we look at the rise of self-driving cars, smart houses and ever-increasing connectivity, artificial intelligence is very much a going concern. Higgins does enough to make his take on the issue interesting and unique, particularly in the way he refutes the Singularity theory that runaway AI will be hostile or inimical to us. In Higgins’ set-up, the AIs simply want to get away from humanity, to exist on their own in their own society, and it’s us who are the tyrants and who present the threat.
With that take, it makes sense to have a protagonist like Magnus. Having chosen to empathize with those she sees as her patients, in a job that is devoted to convincing them to return to bondage, it makes sense that Kerri Magnus clearly has a foot in both of the worlds, with sympathies to match. Like Rick Deckard in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, she’s learned too much about the inner life and desires of AIs to see them a mere machines. And like every science fiction story with even a hint of sympathy towards AIs, the question becomes, if they are more than simply machines, but we refuse to treat them as such, then what does that make us?
The plot of Magnus #1 doesn’t do much more than set up the world and the central conflict, though it does so entertainingly. The opening scene is creepy but affecting, and the scenes establishing Kerri’s character are well-done. There is some exposition that gets delivered a tad clunky, with the familiar trope of the news report being used, plus a pretty awkward scene where two cops tele each other information they frankly ought to know already. Still, some of that can’t be avoided, and at least it’s dispensed with quickly. The issue does layer in some nice touches of mystery and a genuine sense of menace, and we get a very good idea of who Magnus is and what motivates her without losing a sense that there is still more to be revealed about her.
The art by Jorge Fornes is terrific, especially in the flexibility of his style. He’s got a nicely realistic style that reminds me a lot of Francesco Francavilla or Gabriel Hernandez Walta. Like both of those other artists, however, Fornes is really effective in his use of shadow and light to maintain an atmosphere and mood that evokes a noir sensibility without feeling too stylized. He then completely eschews his main style for a single page dream sequence that is totally and completely unlike the rest of the book. Far from being jarring or distracting it’s a creepily gorgeous and scary standout. And throughout, the art makes great use of the talents of colorist Chris O’Halloran, with the dream sequence again being a standout.
There’s also a back-up story in the issue, the second part of an ongoing Turok story by writer Chuck Wendig and artist Alvaro Sarrasecca. The story is entertaining, albeit short, and benefits from being constructed well enough that it doesn’t really matter too much if you hadn’t read the first instalment in “Sovereigns #0.” I’m not sure that spreading out a serialized backup story across multiple titles is going to be effective in the long run, but at least at this point it works fairly well, and I’m liking this take on Turok.
Despite being reminiscent of many classics of the genre, Magnus #1 nevertheless presents us with a compelling central character, big ideas and a fresh enough take on a familiar story to become an enjoyable science-fiction debut with lots of promise. 8.5/10
Magnus #1 will be released June 7, 2017