When the blog last checked in with Daredevil, back in March, we saw how, at the climax of issue #52, our hero was forced to let his defeated adversary — the murderous roboticist named Starr Saxon — get away free, due to Saxon having quite inconveniently learned that the Man Without Fear is secretly blind lawyer Matt Murdock. Then, following a retelling of his origin story in issue #53, DD came up with the perfect solution — he’d kill off Matt! As he put it in the issue’s last panel: “My problem isn’t Daredevil — and never was! It was always Matt — the blind lawyer — the hapless, helpless invalid! He’s been my plague — since the day I first donned a costume!”
This was probably the worst idea ol’ Hornhead had come up with in a very long time — and considering all the other bad ideas he’d contemplated and then implemented over just the past year or two, that’s really saying something. These bad ideas had included (in chronological order): faking the death of both Daredevil and his “third” identity of Mike Murdock (Matt’s fictional twin brother) in an explosion, so that he could live an unencumbered life as Matt; then, after realizing he really did still want to be a costumed hero, having to invent a new, second Daredevil, supposedly the original hero’s replacement; then deciding to retire as Daredevil yet again, a resolution that lasted less than an issue, as a robot assassin sent by Starr Saxon to kill DD instead attacked Matt, having found him by scent (long story); that event required him to suit up again, and ultimately led to his current predicament of subject to being blackmailed by Saxon over his secret identity.
I mean, I can see where Matt’s coming from. It must be a drag to have everyone feeling sorry for you and fussing over you because of your supposed disability, when you can in fact navigate the world better than a sighted person, at least in most situations. But has he really thought this through? How will he make his way through the world with no valid legal identity? Where will he live? What will he do for money? And what will the effect be on his former secretary and almost-girlfriend, Karen Page, who loves Matt and doesn’t know he’s Daredevil?
Let’s take a look inside Daredevil #54, to see how these questions were addressed fifty years ago by the creative team of writer Roy Thomas, penciller Gene Colan (who’d returned to his long-time regular gig with issue #53, following a trio of stories drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith, and inker George Klein (whose very last contribution to Daredevil this would be).* First, though, regarding the cover (also by Colan) — just in case you’re wondering about Spider-Man’s appearance among its several floating heads — Spidey makes a cameo appearance that takes up all of two panels, as he and Daredevil literally bump into each other on the street while they’re both tussling with some hoods. (Marvel did that kind of thing fairly often back in the day — though I suppose we can be grateful that at lrast they didn’t slap a big “Special Guest Appearance By Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man!!!” blurb on the book.)
The question of how Karen Page will take Matt’s “death” is taken up as early as the splash page:
…. and the answer is, unsurprisingly, “not well”. In fact, Karen is so broken up that she’s pulling a late-nighter at the office where she currently works for recently elected District Attorney Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, who of course also happens to be Matt’s best buddy (though, at this point in the series’ continuity, he has no more idea that Matt is really Daredevil than Karen does). While there, she’s startled by the arrival of DD himself, who’s come there, not to tell her that he’s really Matt, or even that Matt’s not really dead, but to retrieve his recently-mislaid cane — a tool which poor, “dead” Matt may no longer have any use for, but which Daredevil definitely does, as it’s actually his signature billy-club weapon in disguise. However, Karen ends up taking the cane home to her own apartment, wanting to keep it as a memento of her lost love — which forces our hero to follow her there, wait an hour or so for her to go to sleep, and then sneak into her bedroom and steal it. (Yeah, that is kind of creepy.) Then, mission accomplished, Daredevil goes home.
Wait a minute — “goes home“? What home? I hear you, but just hold that thought for now, OK? Because first, Thomas and Colan have to show us how DD pulled off faking his death this time (before you get fully absorbed in the flashback, however, please be sure to note that Matt has apparently been wearing his shades under his Daredevil cowl this evening):
How did Matt get to this private airport in the first place? Well, he appears to have driven himself there. That may seem like a highly improbable feat for a blind man — even one with a radar sense — but it’s actually something he’s done before, on at least one occasion.
I suppose that if you can manage to drive a car using your radar sense, then flying a plane is no big deal either (especially when you have no intention of trying to land the thing).
And that’s how a superhero knocks off his civilian identity, boys and girls. Easy-peasy!
Now what’s all this about Matt’s “home”? How does he, a “dead” man, even have a home to go to? Those seem like pretty fair questions to me — but, as you’ll be able to tell from the very next page, they don’t seem to have occurred to our storytellers:
The clear implication of page 12, from the first panel’s depiction of Matt chillin’ in his PJs onward, is that after spending his days in costume as Daredevil, he’s going back to his Manhattan brownstone digs every night to crash — and while one might allow that it could take Matt Murdock’s landlord, legal representatives, etc., a few days to change the locks, dispose of his property and furnishings, etc., it seems highly improbable that this situation would continue indefinitely — through all “the days that follow”, in Roy Thomas’ phrase — or, at least, that Matt should assume that it would. But hey, maybe that stuff works differently in the Marvel Universe.
After one particularly unsatisfying day of beating up street hoods, and getting no closer to nabbing Starr Saxon, Daredevil decides to distract himself by reading the newspaper. “Nothing like a bit of nuclear sabre-rattling — for taking your mind off your problems!”
As editor Stan Lee’s footnote (likely scripted by Thomas himself) informs us, Mister Fear was one of the first villains DD ever fought, and he had appeared in all of one issue, Daredevil #6 (Feb., 1965). (Even then, he’d shared billing with a couple of hirelings, the Ox and the Eel, as “the Fellowship of Fear”.) His modus operandi — using a gas that caused intense, debilitating fear in his victims — is likely to remind many comics fans of the similar shtick of the classic DC Comics villain, the Scarecrow — but it’s worth noting that while that Batman foe did indeed debut much earlier than Mister Fear, having made his first appearance in World’s Finest Comics #3 (Fall, 1941), he didn’t actually begin using fear-inducing chemicals until Batman #189 (Feb., 1967) — a comic book published a full two years after Daredevil #6, and thus having the potential, at least, to have been influenced by it. Still, it’s fair to say that Mister Fear never caught on the way DC’s villain did — perhaps simply because the “scarecrow” image is immediate, and even archetypal, in a way that a conventional super-villain costume can never be; even when the design is by as gifted an artist as Mister Fear’s co-creator (with Stan Lee), Wally Wood.
Fear goes on television to repeat his challenge, offering to give $100,000 to charity if Daredevil accepts his challenge, and vowing that even without using his “fear-pellets”, he’ll be able to prove that “the ‘Man Without Fear’ — is a common, craven coward!!”
Mister Fear grabs Daredevil and pulls him up into the air. The two tussle inconclusively for a couple of pages, until our hero takes a tumble off the villain’s “flying hubcap” — though, luckily, he lands in the waters of the Central Park Zoo’s seal exhibit:
I dunno… you’d think that the good people of New York City would give their Scarlet Swashbuckler the benefit of the doubt, considering that they know he’s going up against a super-criminal known for artificially inducing fear in his victims. (Not to mention that there really wasn’t anything at stake in this fight, other than bragging rights.) But maybe Thomas and Colan were feeling especially cynical this month.
The story continues in issue #55, as veteran artist Syd Shores replaces George Klein as inker for the comic’s interiors. (The cover, on the other hand, features inks by Sam Grainger.)
Hmmm… if DD is actually trying to blend in to the urban landscape and not attract attention, I’m not sure that a bright green hat and coat worn over bright red tights is really the way to go.
After a couple of pages of musings which serve to recap the previous issue for newcomers, Daredevil is compelled to ditch his “disguise” and leap into action when he responds to a mugging victim’s cry for help. Things seem to be going well at first, but then one of the two hoods gets in a good lick from behind, knocking DD to his knees — and then…
The mortified hero — so bummed out he doesn’t even bother to retrieve his discarded coat and hat — ambles away to indulge in more morose brooding:
It may not conjure the same immediate associations with “fear” as DC’s Scarecrow’s outfit does — but that Wally Wood costume design is still pretty great, and Colan and Shores give it a highly effective presentation in this full page splash.
Unaware of just how near his nemesis is, Daredevil continues to meander along in the rain, until he’s suddenly struck by a bright idea. To implement it, though, he needs help — and seeing a light on in his old law office’s window, he decides to see if anyone’s home. However, since he’s uncertain how Mr. Fear’s “fright whammy” might affect him should he go his normal billy-club-line and window-entrance route, DD opts for a more conventional approach…
“And, that’s the last thing that a blind person wants!” thinks Daredevil, continuing his interior monologue. “All he desires is a chance… a chance to pay his own way!” It’s a reasonable and even a worthy sentiment, which by its expression here allows Thomas to provide us readers with some insight as to why the notion of being pitied is so distressing to him, perhaps even more so than the idea that the public might be beginning to see him as a coward. On the other hand, it’s always a little odd when our hero identifies himself as being among the conventionally unsighted, when we all know that he has tremendous advantages they don’t; after all, in the issue just previous, he drove a car and flew a plane. (OK, so he didn’t land a plane, but still.)
Arriving at the former offices of Nelson and Murdock, DD greets Foggy and Karen, and then asks the new D.A. for a favor: Could Foggy call the warden at the state prison and ask for all the info they have on the recently paroled Zoltan Drago, aka Mister Fear?
Meanwhile, Mr. Fear himself, having no worries any longer about being interfered with by Daredevil, is busy conducting a “one-man crime wave“, which apparently every other superhero in NYC is too busy to concern themselves with. (Where’s a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man when you actually need him, huh?)
(Notice the “innocent citizen” in the second panel of page 15, above? He certainly seems to share our hero’s sense of sartorial style, doesn’t he? Or maybe red and green were simply the fashionable colors that year.)
The armored car sequence on the preceding two pages is, frankly, rather confusing. If there is in fact “another guard up front”, presumably he’d know that his compadres Charlie and Dave are waiting in the back, “armed to the teeth” and ready to take down the bad guy — so why does he suddenly step on the gas, thereby incapacitating tem? The illogic of that action, plus the fact that we never actually see this second front-seat guard, makes me believe that Colan intended to convey something else with his drawings — that in fact it’s the villain who, using his “repello-ray”, somehow causes the car to suddenly accelerate and slam into the wall. Receiving the pencilled pages, scripter Thomas either 1) didn’t realize that’s what Colan had drawn, or 2) didn’t like the idea; either way, he then came up with the “other guard” scenario on his own.
If I’m right about this, I’d call it a great example of the “Marvel Method” at its most dysfunctional; but if I’m wrong, well, then it’s just bad storytelling, to my point of view.
If you’re counting, this is the second time that Fear’s ray-gun has jammed in as many pages. That’s terribly convenient for the storytelling — so much so, that you’d think that there must be some hidden significance to these sudden malfunctions. Maybe Daredevil somehow managed to sabotage his enemy’s weapon while the latter wasn’t looking? But if that’s what’s happening, we readers are never told or shown so; going by the information we’re given, we’re forced to conclude that either Mister Fear is having really bad luck today, or he just has shitty equipment.
Hoo boy. Maybe it’s been a “looonng day” for Daredevil, but that last page went by awfully quickly for me as a reader. In the space of five fairly crowded panels, DD overcomes Fear and unmasks him as Starr Saxon, then watches as Saxon immediately slips and falls to his (presumed) death, then explains (out loud, for no logical reason) how Saxon used our hero’s own billy-club weapon as a secret fear-gas pellet delivery system. It all feels terribly rushed, and should probably be considered another example of the Marvel Method not functioning quite as it ought — though this time it’s a more common sort of example, deriving from Gene Colan having run out of pages before he ran out of story. To be fair, this is the kind of problem that afflicted a number of artists at Marvel in the 1960s, not just Colan — but it probably happened most frequently with Colan, simply because of his admitted habit of beginning to draw a story before he’d finished reading its plot. His frequent collaborator, Roy Thomas — to whom Colan personally confessed this very habit, in a 2000 interview for Thomas’ comics history magazine Alter Ego — later offered this opinion about it in a later issue of the same magazine: “Starting to draw without reading the whole plot seems to me like a prescription for disaster.” Maybe “disaster” is too strong a word, but one can imagine how Thomas and the other writers who worked “Marvel-style” with Colan back in the day might have gotten frustrated by this sort of thing, at least occasionally.
Rushed or not, however, this ending is all we’ve got. Does it work? As I recall, it did for me as an eleven-year-old reader, in June, 1969. I was honestly surprised to see Mister Fear unmasked as Starr Saxon, as well as satisfied to see the guy get what was coming to him. Perhaps I was also a little regretful that we wouldn’t see this intriguing villain again, though I can’t say for sure. But, let’s face it — my younger self wasn’t almost the most discerning, or demanding, comic book consumer; to wit, I don’t think I had any problems with any of the previous issue’s oddities, such as Matt driving or flying, or going home every night to a home that shouldn’t have been his anymore. So my fifty-year-old verdict probably shouldn’t be the benchmark for judging the story’s resolution today.
Re-reading the last page of DD #55 in June, 2019, one thing that really stands out to me is the problematic timetable for Starr to have 1) killed Zoltan Drago and taken all his stuff, and then 2) planted the fear-pellets in Matt’s cane. Saxon didn’t come into possession of the cane until the final pages of issue #51, when he kidnapped Karen Page; and he only had access to it until about the middle of the following issue, when Daredevil and the Black Panther arrived at Matt’s apartment to rescue Karen. But Saxon had never actually met Daredevil until several hours before the kidnapping; prior to this recent sequence of events, his only connection with the Man Without Fear was that he’d been hired by a jailed gangster, Biggie Benson, to assassinate the hero by means of Saxon’s robot, the Plastoid. So if Saxon killed Drago before he acquired Matt’s cane, he would have had to do so well before the main events of issues #49 through #52 — at a time when he’d have no expectation of ever needing to deal with Daredevil personally, and when he also seemed to have his hands full building up his own robotics-based criminal operation. Sure, it’s possible that Saxon tracked down the original Mister Fear and killed him for reasons of his own, well before his first encounter with our hero; but it seems highly improbable. And certainly not nearly so cut-and-dried as implied by DD’s hurried explanation in #55’s final panel.
I’m inclined to believe that Roy Thomas (or Stan Lee?) realized that the resolution to his tale was a little shaky, and that what ultimately went to press might not have been what was originally written. One reason I believe this is the lettering (credited to Artie Simek) in that final panel. Doesn’t the lettering in the top two word balloons look a little different than that in the others? To my eye, the lettering in those two balloons looks more widely spaced, as if there used to be more text there — text that’s since been whited-out and lettered over. Could there originally have been another explanation in those balloons, one that perhaps made more logical sense, but was in the end deemed too complicated? I don’t think we’ll ever know. And of course, what’s done is done — especially since the “what” that we’re talking about was “done” a half-century ago. So, I suggest we now put aside our speculations, faithful readers, and look ahead — perhaps to contemplate the question of how the hell Matt Murdock is going to put his life back together, now that the reason for his being “dead” is no more.
Still… I do think that Starr Saxon was an intriguing and promising villain. It’s a shame that we never saw him again.
I’ve read a lot of comic books in the past fifty-four years, and I still read about thirty new ones a month, on average. Some of them — and this includes the new ones, as well as the old ones — I remember better than I do others.
One recent series I enjoyed very much (and expect to remember well in years to come, though of course we’ll have to wait and see) was Marvel Comics’ Ant-Man, written by Nick Spencer. This series (which actually appeared under two different titles, Ant-Man and Astonishing Ant-Man) saw eighteen issues (plus a few spin-offs and ancillary issues) published from 2015 to 2016. Featuring the Scott Lang version of the character, it was launched in the wake of 2015’s Ant-Man movie; like the film, it emphasized Scott’s status as an ex-con and divorced dad trying to do right by his daughter. The comic book also emulated the movie’s humorous tone, though without slavishly imitating it.
The premise of the series finds Scott Lang moving to Miami to be close to his daughter Cassie, and then attempting to start his own security business there. Along the way he meets the Grizzly, a reformed super-villain, and offers him a job. Soon afterwards, Scott’s new employee encourages him to look up someone Grizzly knows from his Supervillains Anonymous support group meetings, Machinesmith. Machinesmith first appears in the series’ fourth issue, in a scene that goes like this (art in this and subsequent Ant-Man sequences by Ramon Rosanas):
When I first read this series back in 2015, I immediately recognized the Grizzly as one of the lamest Spider-Man villains on record — a big, strong, not-too-bright buy in a bear suit, whose comedic potential seemed obvious. I wasn’t so sure that I’d encountered Machinesmith before, however, though he seemed at least somewhat familiar. But the thing is, I didn’t need to know anything beforehand about either Griz or “Smith” to enjoy how Spencer and his artistic collaborators utilized them in this series. You can get a sense of how the two “recovering” villains played off of each other, as well as Ant-Man, in this scene from Ant-Man Annual #1 (Sept. 2015):
Here’s another scene, this one from Astonishing Ant-Man #3 (Feb., 2016), an issue featuring Sam Wilson, Captain America, as guest star:
You get the idea, right? I realize that humor is a subjective thing — but if your sense of humor is anything like mine, I bet you agree that this stuff is golden.
By now, however, I’m sure that at least a few of you are wondering why the hell I’m spending all this time and space in a post ostensibly about a fifty-year-old issue of Daredevil going on about a short-lived Ant-Man run of less than five years vintage. Others of you probably already understand why, but just to get us all on the same page: I said earlier that, in 2015, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen Machinesmith before, but the truth is, I had — in fact, I’d been acquainted with the guy for almost fifty years.
Because Machinesmith is Starr Saxon.
But I didn’t realize that at all until some months back, when I Googled Mr. Saxon online in preparation for my Daredevil #51 post, and was directed to the Wikipedia article on Machinesmith. Or, to put it more accurately, I didn’t remember at all that Starr Saxon and Machinesmith were one and the same — because I’d actually been privy to that bit of information ever since 1980.
Machinesmith, as Machinesmith, first appeared in Marvel Two-In-One #47 (Jan., 1979), in a story that co-starred the Thing and the Yancy Street Gang (!). Here’s what he looked like in his initial on-panel appearance:
If you’re thinking, “Gee, that doesn’t look very much like Starr Saxon, who had a full head of longish brown hair and no whiskers!” — well, you’re absolutely right.
As portrayed in this issue, as well as through most of the next month’s follow-up (which teamed the Thing with Jack Of Hearts), Machinesmith appeared to be a normal human being who also happened to be a master maker of robots. But the climax of MTIO #48, which revealed the Machinesmith the heroes had been battling to be himself a robot, put that in doubt. Had the villain simply been using a robot double as a stand-in, a la Doctor Doom and who knows how many other comic book baddies? Or was something else going on?
This “first” Machinesmith story was written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Chic Stone; but when the “new” villain next turned up, a little over a year later, it would be under the auspices of writer Roger Stern and artist John Byrne, who used him as the primary bad guy for the first three issues of their brief but classic run on Captain America. Stern had been the editor of Marvel Two-In-One when Mantlo and Stone’s two-part tale appeared, and appears to been the person who actually came up with the character, according to the account he gave Mark DiFruscio for an article published in Back Issue #41 (June, 2010):
“I had originally devised the Machinesmith character for one of Bill Mantlo’s Marvel Two-in-One stories,” Stern notes. “Mark Gruenwald had come up with the character design. I really liked the look Gruenie gave ’Smith, so I decided to use him as the master villain in our first Cap story arc…”
Stern and Byrne’s Machinesmith story began with issue #247, and built to the final confrontation between the robot-maker and the Sentinel of Liberty in #249 (Sept., 1980). At one point, thinking he had the bad guy on the ropes, Cap grilled him to try to learn who he was and how he’d come to be (i.e., his origin story):
Yep, it’s the finale of Daredevil #55, down to the very words spoken by ol’ Hornhead as Mister Fear Mark II abruptly plunged to what we all assumed was a messy death, back in June, 1969.
Machinesmith’s recounting of his history is briefly interrupted while Cap battles his swarm of disembodied robotic forearms, but resumes a page later:
Byrne’s design for Saxon’s “worker-robots” strongly resembles Gene Colan’s design for the Plastoid in Daredevil #49 – 51, which is a nice touch.
Why did the newly-roboticized Saxon create a “more human appearance” for himself that bore no resemblance to his original physiognomy? The story suggests that the decision derives from his having conceived of Machinesmith as a whole “new identity”, distinct from his previous existence as Starr Saxon — but I have to wonder if the idea to identify this new villainous robot-maker with the earlier (and presumed dead for the last decade) villainous robot-maker Saxon came about after Mark Gruenwald had already sketched out his visual conception of the character (shown at right).
Following the (apparent) conclusion of his backstory, Machinesmith attacks Cap with a whole host of robot “doubles”, ultimately driving the Star-Spangled Avenger to smash the mainframe computer that appears to be directing his automated assailants — only to discover (via one final flashback) that such was Machinesmith’s plan all along:
I didn’t buy and/or read the two “Machinesmith” issues of Marvel Two-In-One when they came out; but I did buy, and read, all three of the Captain America issues that continued his story. So, obviously, I had to know that he was the same guy as Starr Saxon, once upon a time — though I’d forgotten all about it when I first revisited Saxon’s original appearances in Daredevil for the blog, months ago. As I said earlier — I’ve read a lot of comic books over the decades, and some have lodged in the memory better than others.
In my defense, it was a very long time before I saw Machinesmith again, which I think made it easier for the villain (and his history) to slip my mind. Actually, no one saw him again for almost a decade following his apparent second “demise”, as the character didn’t resurface until Captain America #354 (June, 1989), over a hundred issues since his last appearance.
Mark Gruenwald, the Marvel writer and editor who’d first visualized Machinesmith for Roger Stern, was now writing Cap’s adventures, and he made the cybernetics genius a major player in a lengthy storyline involving the machinations of the hero’s arch-foe, the Red Skull. In a back-up story in issue #368, Gruenwald and artist Mark Bagley had Machinesmith relate his backstory once again –though in a longer version, this time, and directed to one of the Red Skull’s Sleeper robots, rather than to Captain America:
In this account, we learn that Saxon had an apprenticeship of sorts with the Tinkerer, yet another criminal engineering genius from Marvel’s stable of super-villains, who first appeared way back in Amazing Spider-Man #2. It’s a neat bit of Marvel Universe continuity, as would be the later revelation that somewhere around this time Saxon also found time to create the Magneto robot that appeared in X-Men #50 – 52 (and which we encountered briefly in our discussion of X-Men #58 on this very blog, just a few weeks ago)
Machinesmith’s tale continues on through the details we already know from CA #249, before filling us in on what transpired afterwards. He describes the epiphany he had when he returned to consciousness inside one of his robot bodies, just moments after Cap’s destruction of his mainframe and subsequent departure:
Now fully accepting of his mechanical nature, Machinesmith was all too happy to accept the Red Skull’s offer of employment. In this role, he’d go on to make regular, recurring appearances on and off over the next fifty issues or so, as well as turning up in a couple of issues of Avengers. It was apparently during this period that Gruenwald established that Machinesmith was gay, per this sequence from Avengers #325 (art by Rik Levins):
Gruenwald may have made this decision regarding Machinesmith’s sexuality on his own, but it’s also possible that he was influenced by Starr Saxon’s original characterization in Daredevil — or, at least, what that characterization was “supposed” to have been. Allegedly, Barry Windsor-Smith has said something to the effect that Saxon “was supposed to be presented as gay in Daredevil #50; however, the early art was not good enough to get the point across” (Wikipedia) I say “allegedly”, because I don’t have access to Wikipedia’s cited source for this information (500 Comic Book Villains, by Mike Conroy [Barron’s, 2000]), or any other source that independently corroborates it. I do, on the other hand, have access to this 1996 Comics Journal interview with Windsor-Smith, where he refers to Starr Saxon as being among “the hundreds [of characters] I’ve created”. That’s inaccurate; Saxon wasn’t created by Windsor-Smith, with or without Roy Thomas; rather, his debut came in Daredevil #49, which was written by Stan Lee and drawn by Gene Colan. If Windsor-Smith doesn’t remember that fact, I’m not sure how much credence I’m willing to give his other (alleged) recollections regarding the character. And just how do you draw someone to be “presented as gay”, anyway?
But to return to the early ’90s, and Machinesmith’s appearances in the Captain America and Avengers comics of that era: To be frank, this was a period when most of Marvel Comics’ output held little appeal for me, and I didn’t buy or read any of those issues. Nor did I buy the several issues of Iron Man that featured him as a supporting character, slightly later.
On the other hand, I did pick up the four-issue Captain America story arc featuring Machinesmith as the villain, written by Mark Waid and drawn by Ron Garney, and published just prior to Marvel’s 1996 “Heroes Reborn” debacle. And while I ignored the villain’s later appearances in Thunderbolts, New Warriors, and Astonishing X-Men, I also bought and read 2010’s four-part Steve Rogers: Super Soldier miniseries, written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Dale Eaglesham, in which Machinesmith was the bad guy; as well as the follow-up story in Captain America (2011) #8 – 10, again written by Brubaker, with art by Alan Davis.
And you know what? All of those Machinesmith stories were good ones. I liked those comics. And the last one of ’em came out in 2012, just three years before Smith popped up in Nick Spencer’s Ant-Man. So how come I wasn’t completely sure if I’d ever encountered the character before, when I first read Ant-Man (2015) #4?
Um, well… the best I can figure is that throughout most of these stories, Smith was wearing his “passing for human” look, with the red whiskers and yellow jumpsuit, rather than the shiny chrome finish he sports in Ant-Man, so I didn’t make the connection visually. That, and the fact that I’ve always been lousy with names. Oh, and also the additional fact that I’ve read so many comic books over my lifetime that I can hardly be expected to remember them all… or have I mentioned that already?
But since we’ve now come all the way back around to Ant-Man, I can’t resist sharing just one more Smith scene with you, this one coming from the final (13th) issue of Astonishing Ant-Man.** While attempting to do the right, superhero-appropriate thing, poor, unfortunate Scott Lang has nevertheless once again fallen afoul of the law, and been arrested. He’s being represented at trial by attorney Jennifer Walters, aka She-Hulk, who calls Machinesmith as a character witness (art by Brent Schoonover and Ramon Rosanas):
Believe it or not, Scott gets off; but his security business goes belly-up as part of the same storyline, and the old gang inevitably breaks up. Soon thereafter, Marvel’s “Secret Empire” event happens, and (according to Secret Empire: Brave New World #1 [Aug., 2017]) Smith and Griz leave Miami to head north, following a lead on a “job opportunity” offered by Baron Zemo. So much for going straight, in other words. But since both of these guys have recently shown that they’re not really such bad guys, surely neither one of them is going to back to serious super-villainy, right?
I wish that was true; but alas, Smith seems to have fallen off the wagon, hard, per a couple of projects that Marvel has released since “Secret Empire”. Somewhat oddly, both are digital-only efforts that are each part of a larger promotional effort involving Marvel movies and outside corporate sponsors. The first is 2017-18’s Black Panther: Soul of A Machine, an eight-part miniseries co-produced by Marvel and Lexus — whom, you might remember, enjoyed exceptionally prominent product placement of their LC 500 automobile in 2018’s hit Black Panther movie. In the comic, writer Fabien Nicieza (who’d previously written Machinesmith in Thunderbolts) returns the robotic roboticist to his old cyber-terrorism ways, having him attempt to impose his “flawed, but deeply felt, vision for integrating man and technology into harmonious perfection” upon the world. (Needless to say, the Lexus LC 500 figures into the story as well.) Setting aside any consideration of this comic’s other merits, this is an approach to Smith that syncs perfectly well with his history up until Ant-Man, but feels like a regression in that series’ wake.
Even worse, I’m afraid, is the second project — a co-production of Marvel and Dell, whose GS 15 laptop computer plays a role both in 2018’s hit Ant-Man and the Wasp movie and in a one-shot digital Ant-Man and the Wasp comic. Using Machinesmith as the villain in this story — which can be seen as a follow-up of sorts to the two recent Ant-Man series (though it should be noted that it’s written by Unstoppable Wasp scribe Jeremy Whitley, rather than by Nick Spencer) — just feels wrong. Maybe Smith doesn’t feel any particular affection for, or obligation to, Scott and his family, but for him to identify himself as Scott’s enemy doesn’t wash, at least not for this reader.
The story’s essential contempt for Machinesmith also seems off, tonally speaking. Spencer’s Ant-Man may have played Smith for laughs, but there wasn’t any real doubt about the guy’s overall competence. That’s not so in Whitley’s take (art by J.L. Giles):
Yeah, Smith, they’re laughing. But I’m not. I hate coming down so hard on this comic, because Whitley gets so much else right in it, but he’s done a real disservice to this character, and what Nick Spencer accomplished with him in Ant-Man. I really wish I didn’t have to consider either this story, or the preceding Black Panther one, as canon.
And hey — maybe I don’t, at least so far as the “main” Marvel Universe goes! Maybe both of these tales take place on a parallel Earth of the post-Secret Wars multiverse never glimpsed prior to 2017 — let’s call it “Earth-Marvel-and-Corporate-Co-Sponsor”, at least until we find something less unwieldy — rather than on the good ol’ 616. Yeah… I think that’ll work just fine for my headcanon.
Or, it will until Marvel comes out with a Machinesmith-is-evil story that’s not presented as a co-production with Dell, Lexus, or another company. And if they are going to go that route, I hope that they’ll eventually get around to letting Starr “Smith” Saxon mix it up with Daredevil, one more time. After all, how much sense does it make that Machinesmith never, ever leveraged his knowledge of the Man Without Fear’s secret identity even once in these last several decades of super-villainy? Maybe we’re supposed to assume that he’s moved on, but I don’t buy it. Like Machinesmith told the Sleeper back in Captain America #368: “A fella never forgets his first, huh?”
*Sadly, Klein had passed away on May 10; his artwork, however, having been produced several months prior to publication, would continue to appear in Marvel’s comics for some time.
**I offer the commercial failure of Ant-Man as sad proof, if such is actually needed, that neither a consistently high quality of story and art, nor the supposed promotional boost provided by an extremely successful major motion picture, are guarantees of success in today’s comic book marketplace.