Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Trouble With Robots

One of the central themes running through DC comics in the Silver Age was a reverence for science combined with skepticism for applied science (i.e., technology).  Few plot points illustrate this better than the continual problems that Superman (and Superboy) had with his robots.

They were originally created to help Superman out of jams, particularly in situations where both Superman and Clark Kent had to be somewhere at the same time.  However, they were unreliable at best, often shorting out due to electrical disturbances, or sunspots.  And at times they were unavailable for other reasons:

And on more than one occasion, they nearly revealed his secret identity:
At least twice, his robots went rogue.  Ajax, a robot who was transformed into an android by members of the Superman Revenge Squad in Superman #163, apparently went off the reservation and tried to kill Superman, although it turned out that he was just pretending to do so to fool the SRS squad.  And when Superman tried to create an android of his own in Superman #174, it turned out to be mistake-prone and attempted to take Superman's place by convincing Clark Kent that he had never really been super.

But nothing reveals Superman's trouble with robots more than the story in Action #299, surely one of the wackiest in the entire Silver Age.  He receives a robot named LL-35 from the planet Jax that is supposed to be much smarter than even Superman himself.  LL-35 makes a suggestion:

Here are the robots he builds according to the instructions:
Kryptonite vision, you say?  I can't imagine how that could possibly backfire on Superman.  Unless, that is, some aliens tampered with the robots' loyalty tapes:
Well, that's pretty unlucky.  And for the next several pages, the robots torment our hero, using Red Kryptonite to turn him into an elastic man, and later giving him three faces:

Superman doesn't even get out of this using his wits; instead he gets lucky.  See, this was all taking place on an alien planet, where every day, a fallout dust disintegrates metal:
Any other examples of Superman's robots causing headaches for him?


NES Boy said...

There's a Superman story where he discovered that a Superboy robot was still secretly protecting Smallville years after he left it. It turns out the robot turned against Superman because he ordered a series of Superboy robots to fly into the sun since he no longer needed them.

wordsmith said...

The first Silver Age story that comes to mind regarding Supe's robot difficulties is "Superman's Toughest Day", (Action Comics #282--Nov, '61), which featured a Clark Kent robot, during a tour of a factory, trying to hide the fact that the plastic "flesh" on its hand had been been partially dissolved by an industrial solvent, revealing the metal "skeleton" underneath.
The android displays such considerable ingenuity and self-awareness (we can even read its thought balloons) that it's not surprising that another Superman robot later achieved a brief humanity in the form of "Wonder Man", and I'd tell you what issue he appeared in, but the GCD is behaving wonkily.
The story that NES Boy is thinking of was published in one of the Superman 100-pagers of the mid-70's, either #278 or 284, and was a good story, but a bit outside of the parameters of the Silver Age.

Pat said...

Wordsmith, the Wonder Man story is from Supes #163 and is the one I talked about with the Superman Revenge Squad.

I left out the Superman's Toughest Day story because (as you note) the robot performs very well in that tale; indeed the story should have been entitled Superman's Robot's Toughest Day.

Anonymous said...

In Superman #185, he summoned a robot to impersonate Clark Kent so that Clark and Superman could appear in different places at once. The double fell in love with a woman whom Clark was supposed to be dating, and he ended up fighting the real Superman over her. At the end, it turned out that he was not a robot, but a member of the Superman Look-a-Like Squad from Kandor. He had taken the robot's place when it broke down and was unable to answer the call. So I don't know if this one counts. The robot didn't turn on Superman, but it did malfunction, which indirectly caused trouble.

wordsmith said...

Well, I'm feeling pretty stupid now, but don't worry, I'm used to it. That said, I first read "Superman's Toughest Day" in "Showcase Presents: Superman--Vol. 3", and didn't appreciate it as much as I do now--I love stories where the characters have to solve problems, though I thought that it might have been more suspenseful if Superman weren't so fully confident that the robot would figure things out.
Anyway, I like your column, and I'll try to pay more attention next time.

Pat said...

Don't be hard on yourself, Wordsmith; you were thinking of Wonder Man and my post mentioned Ajax; it is quite understandable why you would miss that they were the same.

Smurfswacker said...

"Superman Look-Alike Squad"?

Kirk House said...

Ah, the good old days of Kandor! Supeman's lookalike cousin, Van-Zee, fell in love with Lois Lane from afar, but she couldn't accept his honorable proposal, and advised him to find another girl who looked just like herself. He did, swept Sylvia of her feet, married and reared children, all in a glorious book-length story. They lived in Kandor, where Sylvia must wear anti-gravity boots ALL the time.
Then it was noticed that practically EVERYONE in Superman's orbit, down to and including Perry White, has a double in Kandor. They formed the Lookalike Squad to be on hand when a Earthling needs a double. But they are NOT to be confused with the Superman Emergency Squad, which responds to distress calls regardless of facial features.
Of course, neither one should be confused with the Superman Revenge Squad, which is a bunch of sore-loser aliens.

Tmdess said...

There was a very early 60s story where Pete Ross accidentaly damages a Superboy robot and then has to impersonate the robot until he can fix it. In the same story, Ma and Pa Kent seem tobe able to control the Superboy robot as well