Writer Dan DiDio and artist Shane Davis’ new Metal Men series, out this week, is drenched in bright splashes of gleaming colour that hide a dark, human truth. It binds the comic’s team of heroes and their creator together in ways that devastate them all. The book still features the Metal Men series’ signature camp and sight gags, but in between the moments when the team is facing off against giant monsters, they’re grappling with a reality about their creation that’s difficult to accept as true.
When I spoke with Davis recently about the new DC Comics series, he likened it to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina because of the focus Metal Men puts both on the brilliance of the metallic heroes’ creator, Will Magnus and the heartbreaking truth about the Metal Men themselves.
Davis insisted you can’t help but sympathise for the Metal Men by the end of the first issue, because you’re able to see truths about themselves they can’t — and if you were in their position, you’d want to know those same truths about yourself.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: Talk to me about this book. We’re very much getting back to the classic Metal Men, but the story’s doing some interesting work to comment on the whole of their comics histories.
Shane Davis: Well, the story we’re telling all comes down to a simple creator and creation story. What is sentience as opposed to life? I think these are really relevant things to think about in today’s times with the advancements we’ve made in AI and robotics, but it’s funny because those ideas were always there in the comics back in the ‘60s.
Metal Men was really ahead of its time in that way because unlike a lot of other teams that were formed accidentally like the Fantastic Four or the Doom Patrol, the Metal Men were created with a purpose. As a group, they represent this spectrum of emotions that are all based off the feelings and memories of William Magnus, and in this book, we’re really trying to get Magnus to deal with his emotions in the form of the Metal Men.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: I feel like this first issue doesn’t really try to dance around the existential question that’s at the heart of the series. Throughout the issue, Magnus is clearly in this dark, contemplative space that we don’t fully understand until that moment where the Metal Men confront him about what they’ve found.
It seems like he’s so steadfast in his belief that the Metal Men have never really been alive, and I’m curious whether that’s just his perspective in the moment — if he’s just being morbidly dark — or if that’s just the new canon for the Metal Men?
Davis: As the series progresses, you’re really going to see that this isn’t just a perception thing, each of the Metal Men really is a reflection of the way Magnus would respond to something emotionally, and that becomes difficult for all of them to consider. Every emotion they have is reminiscent of something he would feel because each of them is based on a very specific emotional experience, which makes all of them contemplate what their relationships are to one another.
This is a broad statement I’m about to make, but I don’t think anyone ever just created without inspiration, whether it be obvious to them or something on a subconscious level. Will realises this and accepts that each of the Metal Men was inspired by his life experience, but at the same time, this is what makes him realise that he’s never truly created sentient life and that his fame is based on a lie.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: Lie’s such a strong word, but I think I know what you mean. This first issue takes so much of what we know about the Metal Men from their classic canon and really upends everything to make the canon feel false.
Davis: The idea that Will Magnus just made sentient life, that’s a story told. The Metal Men are more interesting if they’re part of something more complicated, like a lie that Magnus was able to convince himself of, and I think that makes him a more relatable character to some degree.
I hate to make the comparison, but that’s what makes characters like Don Draper and Tony Soprano compelling. Magnus is nothing like those men, but we wanted to give him an arc that brought that same kind of humanity out in him because he’s not a perfect protagonist.
That being said, Dan [DiDio] did something great with his script that ends up making you sympathise with the Metal Men more than you ever could with Magnus, which is amazing because stories with robots or clones are so easy to drop the ball with.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: What is it about this story that you think keeps the Metal Men from falling into that trap that robots and clones do?
Davis: You can’t help but feel for them, as you head into issue number two because they don’t even know what’s just happened to them the way that we do from reading the comic. You see all of the Metal Men going about their lives and being treated like they’re special and just just don’t know the truth about what they are.
They’re superstars, but their fame is all based on a lie, and going forward in the series, that memory of what happens in the first issue begins to creep up, but it’s a gradual process.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: As we see them coming back from you know, that Westworld-style hard shutdown, are we going to see them coming back to Magnus from a different angle?
Davis: We will, but really, that x-factor you’re talking about comes in the form of the Nth Metal Man who’s made of a psychic substance, and they really introduce a new energy to the Metal Men’s dynamic that then starts to affect everyone in the group differently. One by one, the Nth Metal Man brings something new out in each of the Metal Men, and it slowly begins to surface things about their pasts.
Charles Pulliam-Moore:What creative muscles has this book really allowed you to flex that another book that wasn’t as high concept might not?
Davis: A lot of it comes back to the basic concepts of the group and translating their dynamics into a visual language, even if the scene’s just everyone sitting around and talking. Every character has one big emotional beat that’s sort of their anchor, and so I have to think about how that emotion plays out in space in a very physical. way.
And of course, with the Metal Men, you have to really lean into the action and we didn’t want to take out any of the campy stuff from the original. You have these big, epic fights with horrible monsters, but one of them will transform into a giant screw to land a hit, or a mace or a hammer because that humour’s a part of the book’s DNA.
Metal Men #1 is in stores now.