Robotman rescues Robbie. Artist: Jimmy Thompson.


Medium: Comic books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1942
Creators: Jerry Siegel (writer) and Leo Nowak (artist)
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The word "robot" entered the English language in 1923, with the opening of Karel Capek's famous play about them in New …

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… York and London. Almost immediately, they began turning up in science fiction stories of all types, frequently in minor, menial positions (the word means "worker" in Czech). When they played major characters, more often than not, they were bad guys, as the mechanical monstrosities tended to inspire fear just by their very nature. By the close of the '30s, however, people were feeling more comfortable with the concept, and it was becoming possible to treat them in a more balanced way. Sci-fi writer Otto Binder (who also did comics, and was responsible for Captain Marvel, Fatman the Human Flying Saucer, and a lot of stuff in between) was probably the first to humanize them, in his short stories about a robot named Adam Link. the first of which hit print at the start of 1939. A few months later, good-guy robots hit comics, with The Iron Skull.

In 1942, DC Comics humanized them further, by launching a series about a man with his brain transplanted into a robot's body. Robotman debuted in Star Spangled Comics #7 (April, 1942, the same issue that introduced The Newsboy Legion). Unless you count Bozo the Robot, which was just a mechanical device that a guy could climb inside of, this was the first use of a "metal monster" as a superhero.

Robotman was built by Dr. Robert Crane and his assistant, Chuck Grayson, as the ultimate prosthetic — a machine that could function as an entire human body, into which a brain could be transplanted when there was no other way of saving a person's life. As these stories so frequently work out, it was the very night their creation was perfected, that criminals chose to break into the laboratory to steal it. They failed, but in the attempt, killed Crane. Before dying, he instructed the younger man to use the robot the way it was intended. As Robotman, Crane's first act was to bring in his own killers, which incidentally prevented Grayson being charged with the crime. Thereafter, he used the robot body's enhanced strength, speed, eyesight, etc. in a one "man" crusade against crime and/or evil.

The opening story was written by Jerry Siegel, one of DC's star writers, who had already co-created The Star-Spangled Kid, Slam Bradley and Superman himself for the company. The artist was Leo Nowak, also a DC regular, who drew several Superman stories about the same time. Other writers and artists came and went as the series progressed. Prominent among the latter were Jimmy Thompson (who also drew Captain America and The Human Torch for Marvel in the mid-'40s) and Joe Certa (John Jones, Manhunter from Mars; Captain Marvel Jr.; as well as a lot of mystery/horror stories for Gold Key Comics in the '60s).

It isn't 100% clear why Robotman kept it a secret that his brain had belonged to the late Dr. Crane, but he only managed to hold it in for a few months. In Star Spangled #15 (December, 1942), he was put on trial as a non-human menace, and the secret came out then. Also, as luck would have it, the courtroom ceiling collapsed, giving him a chance to save the jury's lives, and they could hardly order him put down after that. In the meantime, tho, he'd fashioned a new human secret identity, Paul Dennis, which he maintained by the simple stratagem of covering his metallic face with a latex mask. He even managed to keep up a relationship with his old girlfriend, Joan Carter, tho what attracted her to him is another thing that isn't 100% clear.

In the 25th issue, he built himself a cute little companion, a robot in the approximate shape of a dog, named Robbie. Robotman and Robotdog continued fighting crime in the back pages (but never on the cover) of Star Spangled Comics until #82 (July, 1948), when a new hero, Captain Compass (a seafaring man who solved mysteries) replaced him. Instead of being dropped, tho, he was transferred to Detective Comics, where Batman was the star, replacing Air Wave.

He was in Detective Comics from #138 (August, 1948) to #202 (December, 1953), skipping only one issue. This made him one of the longest-lasting of DC's back pages heroes. In the 203rd issue, Captain Compass, now a refugee of the demise of Star Spangled Comics (which had dropped him for Dr. Thirteen, mere months before kicking out all the running characters in favor of non-series war stories), replaced him again, and this time Robotman was gone.

In later years, DC used the name "Robotman" for a member of The Doom Patrol, and a completely unrelated outfit used it for a toy that became a comic strip star. This Robotman never got another regular gig, tho he did occasionally hang out with The All-Star Squadron in the 1980s (in stories set back in the '40s). But he did, like so many series-less characters, make occasional appearances over the decades. Eventually, Chuck Grayson died and, in accordance with his wishes, Robotman's brain was transplanted into Chuck's body — tho why anyone with a choice would want an age-ravaged body that had already suffered one death is, again, not 100% clear. If still living, he's unlikely to do much superheroing in the future. Robbie is retired.


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Text ©2004-09 Donald D. Markstein. Art © DC Comics.