Thursday, May 27, 2010

Elektro 2: Robot Boogaloo


If you've just tuned in, kids, you may remember that yesterday we were talkin' about Electro, the Marvel (Comics) of the Age, Timely's contribution to the "super-robot destroys enemies against America" genre that kept our spirits up and had America's troops on the move throughout World War II. Until Tom Hanks develops a 13-part miniseries for HBO entitled "Robots: America's Last Line of Defense Against Super-Nazis," old Electro probably isn't going to be making a big comeback any time soon. He did feature in J. Michael Straczynski's retro-fest The Twelve...

Electro it's perhaps not impossible that we'll soon be seeing a new Electro monthly written and penciled by Walt Simonson, or The Marvel of the Age stepping up to lead the all-powerhouse team of the Electric Avengers (Vision, Machine Man, The Original Human Torch, Awesome Andy, Albert the Wolverine Robot, Agent Cheesecake, Robot Stalin, and H.E.R.B.I.E.). Or even Electro Team-Up. Until then, we'll just have to console ourselves with the adventures of Electro's real life counterpart, Elektro, the Westinghouse Robot. Who had no comic book adventures. Or...did he?!?!?

Yes. Yes, he did.

All-Star Squadron

Holy humanoids! Is that character manhandling robothandling the Boy Wonder of the Ages actually who I think it is? Why yes, it's Elektro, the Westinghouse yadda yadda yadda. But what the Sam Scratch is such a talented automaton doing hanging out with Roy Thomas's 1940s Fantastic Four, The All-Star Squadron? And what kind of wacky dance is he doing? Is that the monkey? The mashed potato? Or is he doing the rob...oh, nevermind.

To find out how Elektro made his way to the DC Universe of Super-Stars, take a big steaming gander at that talking ball and pointy thing in the first panel. That's actually the Trylon, Perisphere, and Helicline of the famous 1939 World's Fair in Flushing, New York...

World's Fair

...and immortalized for all time as part of the DC Universe in the 1939 and 1940 comic books Superman and Batman's Questionable Vacation Special, re-named just in time to

World's Fair Comics

As we saw in video yesterday, Elektro, the amazing mecho-man created by that crack robotics team at Westinghouse (at least until they were pushed sideway into working on the frost-free technology instead of thinking automotons), debuted in the Westinghouse Pavilion at the World's Fair. While he appeared there, Elektro had the great honor of meeting Elizabeth (later, the Queen Mother) of England and falling deeply in love with her, but due to his golden and honorable robot-heart, was unable to express his feelings even tho' she was wed to the evil alien starfish conqueror Starro in the form of King George VI. Luckily Johnny Quick (in the blue suit and white hat) was there to film the proceedings for later buffs of ephemeral film, and helped Elektro stave off a mass invasion of starfish by forcing them to mate with the Fair's Trylon instead of completing their plans of conquest. (Pretty much every word in this paragraph is one I've made up, but I prefer to call it a retcon, because if Roy Thomas can do it, so can a little stuffed bull.)

All-Star Squadron

A few years pass, the World's Fair is closed, the buildings become abandoned derelict. Despite the 1940s require of every superhero to have a secret identity of a playboy billionaire, the All-Star Squadron adopts the World's Fairground as their headquarters, partly because of its central location, partly because of its patriotic symbolism, but mostly because they're squatters and don't have to pay one thin dime of rent to Mayor Fiorello "Dropyer" LaGuardia, who would later sell off his own name to a young and up-and-coming airport to get New York out of its fiscal crisis.

It's in the superhero union rules that no crime-fighting team may move into a new headquarters without fighting a) ghosts b) aliens c) Nazis made out of bees or d) robots, so guess who the Squaddies discover when they're rooting around the Perisphere's basement? Oh, go ahead, guess:

All-Star Squadron

Well, I'll be's Elektro! Mothballed by Westinghouse after the closure of the Fair, he's been undiscovered until the A.S.S. wakes him up. And geez, isn't that an unfortunate acronym for a comic book team or even a comic book itself? You can bet DC Comics didn't make that mistake ever again, no sir!

All-Star Squadron

Luckily for cool retro-robot-lovers everywhere, Elektro isn't a baddie: he's just drawn that way being controlled by Brain Wave, one of the Squadron's arch-villains. Robotman has an idea for getting the old adding, smoking, goose-stepping 'bot out of mothballs and turning him into what every war-era American dreamt of: an unpaid servant.

All-Star Squadron

In a startling prediction of robots building robots to build robots that was later perfected, and then destroyed, by the Detroit motor industry, Robotman repairs Elektro by installing one of Tony Stark's leftover hearts...

All-Star Squadron

...and renames him Gernsback, after Hugo Gernsback, the famous publisher of the world's first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. Gernsback did not, however, invent time travel, so he would never discover that Stephen Spielberg would later use that title for his anthology TV series whose highlight was a remake of Memphis Belle but with added candy canes. Gernsback did live until the late '60s, however, and as far as we can tell, never sued the All-Star Squadron for defamation of character and appropriation of trademark. If he did, it's pretty certain Squadron-comrade Superman woulda flown over to Gernsback's offices and either roughed him up a bit, or maybe squeeze some charcoal into diamonds to convince him to drop the case.

All-Star Squadron

Unfortunately for those of us who like to see big giant robots kick Nazi ass, Gernsback was never frontlined as a member of the All-Star Squadron but instead was assigned to important and vital duties of national wartime security, like playing cards with Hourman...

All-Star Squadron

...and being squashed like a chump the second the Crisis on Infinite Earths starts in 1942, thus denying his true destiny of being unable to stop Supergirl's death and bringing about a new Golden Age of heroes and heroism, where valiant DC crimefighters don't get stabbed and stashed away in matchboxes.

All-Star Squadron

Poor Gernsback. Nobody even really frets about him, proving that if you're a poor robot and you get blown up a lot (see also: Red Tornado), usually the most emotion you can get out of somebody when you go to meet your maker is "What a mess!"

Empire Strikes Back

Moody, piney Robotman is the only one who knows how it feels to be a metal man in a world of fleshy beings, and repairs Gernsback again...

All-Star Squadron

...just in time for him to get fried by attacking robot Mechanique. When oh when will this robot-on-robot violence stop?!?

All-Star Squadron

Gernsback then goes on to an illustrious career as the Young All-Stars' doorman, reduced to a repeating comedy gag bit about ever-changing-passwords:

Young All-Stars
Young All-Stars

Sadly, his 1943 performance review left him with a written reprimand after he allowed entrance to the Perisphere to El Pigeono, the arch-villain of the Young All-Stars.

Young All-Stars

Poor Elektro. Once he was the toast of the World's Fair, attracting record crowds at the Westinghouse Pavilion during the day and romancing beautiful dames like Betty Davis, Vivian Leigh, and Brigitte Helm by night, now reduced to the role of a doorman and saddled with a ridiculous slave name by his human owners. Indignity after indigity he bore with patient silence, even the day they used the wrong metal polish on him.

Young All-Stars

So, it was kind of a relief when when he was fried by the Earth-2 Dr. Light, even counting what Dr. Light did to his comotose body afterwards.

Young All-Stars

Elektro lost the rest of his Westinghouse money in the late 1950s investing in Ford's newest hit sensation car the "Edsel," so he attempted to re-jump-start his career, first with a pair of jumper cables, then by appearing in Hollywood films, a career which had worked out well for his arrogant and disdainful cousin Robbie. Sadly, by 1960 Elektro was reduced to appearing in Mamie van Doren sex comedy romps as "Thinko, the robot having a nervous breakdown":

Plans to spin the Thinko character off into his own series of comedy movies were mothballed when Mamie van Doren complained that the classically-trained Elektro was outacting her, so Elektro spent a few years on the road with Jack Kerouac as a member of the counter-culture crime-fighting team known as The Dharma Bums, who regularly fought The Establishment and The Military Complex, among other supervillains. Later immortalized in Tom Wolfe's classic book The Elektro Kool-Aid Acid Test, Elektro found a brief resurgence in the early 1970s appearing on chat shows alongside Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett and Tom Snyder, as well a the occasional guest panel spot on Match Game '76, and, in one of the lowest-rated episodes of its premier season, hosting Saturday Night Live.

Today Elektro resides in his comfortable but modest retirement at the Mansfield, Ohio, Memorial Museum, where he is displayed alongside a diorama of ducks attending a wedding.* Approached by reporters he modestly waves them away, telling them he's happy to enjoy slow thumping walks around the grounds, and to catch Jeopardy every night at seven pm on Cleveland's WOIO-TV 19. Every weekend he attends bingo at the Mansfield VFW, and

Who are we kidding?!? They've got Elektro locked up like a cheesecake at a Jenny Craig convention and they've hung a chunk of robotium around his neck so he can't move! They're holding him prisoner! So, here's what we, the loyal fans of Elektro, must do: we will break him out of there and return him to the wilds of Flushing, NY, where he can roam free in his natural environment of what's left of the World's Fair after Agents J and K trashed the place trying to prevent Edgar the Bug from escaping. Meet me at midnight at the back entrance to the Mansfield Memorial Museum: I'll bring the grappling hook and the magnetic winch, you bring the 400 D-batteries we'll need to get him back under his own power. And, just like Free Willy, we'll be content in the knowledge that we've returned a mighty living being back to his own destiny, leaping majestically over us to return to his ancestral home. We're coming to free you, Elektro, buddy! Hang in there!

After all, if Elektro is not freed, then his family line will be broken, shattering the future of one thousand years hence when his descendant either joins the Legion of Super-Heroes, or who is this guy:

So if you don't want the future of humanity to be emperiled, WE MUST FREE ELEKTRO!


The More You Know Dept.: Here's a slightly more, um, factual history of Elektro. (And a special tip o' the nose ring to "Awesome" Andrew Weiss for help in tracking down Gernsback's Elektro's comic book appearances.)

*The bit about the duck wedding is absolutely true.


Scott Bryan said...

I miss All Star Squadron a great deal. Thanks for posting this!

David Campbell said...

I thought I could make it through this kooky life without learning a massive amount of information about Elektro, but happily, I was wrong.

Eden said...

Our favorite bar uses Elektro in some of their signs throughout the bar (he used to be on the menus too). This is because the bar is awesome.

(One of the long-time bartenders also has a Watchmen tattoo ... and he was upset when the movie came out because he thought everyone would think he was jumping on the bandwagon.)