The Metal Men are part of the larger DC universe that includes Superman and Batman, but unlike those heavy hitters they play more of a b-list background role in major events. Until recently, that is, when DC did its 52 series to focus on otherwise background characters rather than their major icons, including the Metal Men. They are a group of robots made of metal, each of them a different element on the periodic table of elements like Gold, Iron, Lead, Copper, Platinum, Mercury and Tin. Each has abilities and personality traits derived from their element, so Lead is both physically and mentally dense, while Iron is strong-fisted and stubborn. Led by their maker, the brilliant scientist Doc Magnus, the group usually fills the role of comic relief in larger DC activities, as well as being a great example of the weird and wonderful characters that allow DC to come to life. Doc Magnus smokes a pipe with a father-knows-best demeanour, while the Metal Men themselves represent the innocent curiosity about the universe that is the heart of science for its own sake. This was all we needed to know about the characters, or so many of us had thought.
This mini-series-come-TPB is the follow-up to their exposure in the 52 series, and in my mind was intended to both explain their origins and to create a mythology and rogues gallery for the team. If the series took off, the miniseries would be enough to get an ongoing series off its feet. By the end of the story the reader is familiar with what drives the main character, Doc Magnus, and a buffet of examples of a Metal Men adventure. The author/artist Rouleau is also the creator of the cartoon franchise Ben10, and I wonder if he was told to do with Metal Men what he did with that cartoon: create a viable franchise.
Rouleau creates several groups of villains, including an ancient alchemist’s thralls, a group of modern day robots trying to end robot-slavery to humans, a mysterious time traveller apparently trying to stop the Metal Men from ever being created, and a collection of robots like the Metal Men called the Death Metal Men, each based on chemical metals that are poisonous or radioactive. The theme for the villains is the dark shadow of the protagonists, each showing a different aspect of said character gone wrong, or illustrating what they’re going through, such as the Time Traveller representing Magnus’ regret for things he gave up while working on the Metal Men. This mirrors the way the Metal Men themselves are mirrors of parts of Doc Magnus’ personality, with Gold being his knowledge and leadership skills, Iron being his stubborn side, and so on.
Metal Men is a very complex read. There is a lot of action jammed into the book, and a lot of concepts that are just crammed in there. On top of that, Rouleau used Time Travel not only as a plot device but also as a plot structure: the story jumps about through time as much as the characters do, demanding the reader keep up as best they can. This is confusing, and had me flipping through the book while reading it to keep track of what was going on. As well, there are a lot of characters in a lot of teams of metal-themed robots in this book AND going back and forth in time AND discussion of how fake-chemistry works (not real chemistry, by the way), AND so forth. It is very crowded and crammed into place, so if you read it you should go in expecting it.
What stays with me about this book is that the characters convey the drama more strongly than the narration does. I think anyone reading this page has either read Alan Moor’s Watchmen comic, or seen the movie, so: remember how Rorschach’s mask is like the Rorschach psychology test, so if you look at his face you see the truth about yourself? That’s character design conveying drama as much as the plot of Watchmen does. The medium is the message, if you will.
The Metal Men does this more with its structure and character design than with the plot itself, which is over-crowded and confusing. This may have been due to lack of space to fit in every concept, but I’m surprised the editor didn’t ask Rouleau to skim down and focus more for clarity. One mini-series at a time rather than five, please, developing all the characters rather than just introducing team after team after team of new ones!
The theme is hammered in over and over again, though, of the Metal Men as aspects of Magnus’ personality, and the villains as aspects of the team. The book questions whether the building of the metal men was actually a disaster: did Magnus delve too deeply into the secrets of science? Is his creation taking up too much of his world to the exclusion of relationships like love and family? This is illustrated very well in a glimpse of the future where one of the various groups of metal men absorbs the entire world, thus destroying humanity.
This is the dilemma of any artist or creator: is my career eating up space where my family should go? Have I made the right choice in devoting myself to this? Am I making a mistake? Looking at all the counter-examples in the storyline, we see not only a contrast to Magnus that damns him, but also that saves him: he and the metal men are unlike any of his opponents, however much they seem alike.
I think I’d give this book 3.5 stars, losing 1.5 only because the super-charged art style and the crammed-style pack in too much where the story could have used some space to breathe.