The Daily Heller: Tech Tox, Tech Tox, Life Marches On

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As we gird ourselves for the coming wave of AI and its consequences (which have been part of human discourse since science fiction became a genre), artists are trying to adapt through serious experimentation and satiric commentary. Brian Fies’ latest graphic novel, The Last Mechanical Monster (Abrams Books), falls somewhere in between as a human tragedy of a man who has gone awry with a wicked compulsion for nurturing mechanical intelligence as an extension of himself and a personal reckoning.

Fies is the creator of such graphic novels as Mom’s Cancer and A Fire Story. The Last Mechanical Monster is a story that covers the gamut of emotions, ambition, creativity, mortality, friendship—and is a story about the legacy we leave behind.

Decades after his imprisonment for threatening his metropolis with a criminal army of giant robots, an elderly scientist reenters society, only to discover he needs help adjusting to the 21st century. Experiencing real kindness and friendship for the first time, his new relationships challenge the inventor’s single-minded devotion for vengeance—just as his plans threaten to spiral out of his control.

Fascinated by the premise, I asked Fies to expand on making a book where his monster finds a soul. I am certain that whether you are a fan of comics or not, you’ll find Fies’ motivations and feelings for his characters insightful time well spent.

First of all, why, after doing your previous, more emotionally weighty work, did you decide on this comically apocalyptic theme?
I like “comically apocalyptic” very much! I kind of needed to remind myself that although comics can be as mature and serious and adult as any literary medium—which is pretty much my wheelhouse—sometimes they should still just be fun. I wanted a palate cleanser that didn’t involve cancer, disaster or compiling 2,000 pages of research. It’s also straight-up fiction, which I hadn’t really done before. It was a refreshing stretch for me. And fun!

The Last Mechanical Monster is my sequel to a 1941 Superman cartoon by Fleischer Studios titled “The Mechanical Monsters,” whose copyright lapsed in the 1960s. Now, that doesn’t mean Superman is public domain, but the robot and its inventor are, and I always loved this ridiculous character, inexplicably dressed in a tuxedo, who clearly spent more money building an army of robots than he could have ever recouped by stealing gems. Fleischer’s “Superman” shorts were Streamline Moderne masterpieces that still influence animators today. So, part of my inspiration was an appreciation of these great cartoons.

I’m also fascinated with this arc in American culture from optimistic utopianism to pessimistic dystopianism. We used to think the future would be better than the past and technology would make it happen; now we believe the future’s going to be terrible and technology is going to kill us all. How did we get from Flash Gordon to Blade Runner? That was a big theme of my second graphic novel, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, and one that this story also lent itself to—particularly once I realized that the “Mechanical Monsters” short was actually released in November 1941, right before Pearl Harbor. World War II was a watershed in American history. What does an old-timey character like this robot inventor do when he’s thrust into our modern industrialized world? Well, he flounders a bit, but it’s a mistake to underestimate him.

Comedic as it is, there is still a dose of menace. Particularly, in seeing your evil inventor as a young man turn into a wizened old man. It is very effective. Why did you have him released from prison, still evil but kind of hapless?
Everyone is the hero of their own story. Nobody thinks they’re the bad guy. So I tried to get into the mind of a supervillain who’s been locked up most of his life for robbery and attempted murder. He’s a genius and he knows it, and he still can’t believe his brilliant plan was foiled. “How dare they lock me up like a common criminal! Don’t they know who I am?” He’s arrogant and stubborn, and he’s been nursing a grudge for 60 years, not one bit remorseful or rehabilitated.

At the same time, I made him self-aware enough to realize that time has passed him by and he’s not as sharp as he used to be. There’s a wistful sadness to him that I think is real. I mean, I know I’m not as sharp as I was when I was 25. I compensate with experience, but I’m just not. What does that feel like when you’re pretty sure you used to be the smartest person in the world? There’s also a part of the inventor that begrudgingly respects the man who took him down. In a quiet moment he measures his hand against Superman’s handprint pressed into an old piece of steel, and in his dreams he flies. He also meets the other characters in the book, who drag him a bit closer to humanity with their basic decency.

There are clearly references to noir movie and comic book villains. Who or what influenced you the most?
Oh, gosh. He really begins as an archetypal comic book supervillain, a Lex Luthor type, who I wanted to get to know when he was past his prime. There’s a dash of Doc Brown from Back to the Future in his DNA.

Graphically, I’ve always believed there’s a lot of similarity between comics and silent films. They both depict a stylized reality with missing information—sound and color in the case of silent films; motion, sound and photographic realism in the case of comics—and so need to exaggerate to make sure their meaning is clearly communicated. When I was designing and drawing my inventor, I really kept in mind the expressiveness of actors like Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, Max Schreck in Nosferatu, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge in Metropolis. Bold, grand, operatic characters and gestures.

Let’s get to the point. Why is he so murderously angry? Why does he want to revive his mechanical monsters?
Well, wouldn’t you be murderously angry if you were (in your mind) unjustly imprisoned by people and a legal system that was so obviously inferior to you? These morons aren’t even fit to tie his bowtie! What a tremendous injustice!

As to why his first action is trying to revive his robots, I think that’s the one thing he knows how to do. They say that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The only tool in his toolbox is a giant robot. He also wants to prove that his previous plan was brilliant and his defeat was a one-in-a-million fluke. It’ll work this time! That’ll show ’em! They’ll be sorry!

While we’re talking about his character motivation, what about Lillian, the feisty “engineer”? Who is she representing?
Of course she’s me, in the way that most characters that people write about are a part of them. Specifically, she’s the part of me that had jobs that paid the bills and helped raise a family, but left me wondering if they really mattered.

I was an environmental chemist for about 15 years. I was talking to some former colleagues long after I left the field when we realized that everything all of us had done in our entire laboratory careers was gone, because the longest any of our clients were required to keep their data was seven years. It was all shredded and recycled. Our work served its purpose but it felt so ephemeral.

Lillian’s very smart. She worked hard and had a good career as an electrical engineer. But, as she says, nothing she did couldn’t have been done just as well by someone else. Now she’s retired and wondering what to do with herself when she stumbles on this technology whose potential she grasps better than anyone, even its inventor. She’s dazzled by it and, like the inventor himself, sees one more chance to make a difference.

My favorite character is Helen, the librarian. Who is she for you?
Helen is young and a bit naïve, but also very smart. She’s the only character who even comes close to single-handedly defeating the robot. She’s a librarian dedicated to the free exchange of information and love of books, which is a risky thing to be these days. Don’t mess with her books! There’s a moment in the story when she makes a choice between safety and danger, and she runs toward danger to defend her library. That choice makes her a hero.

What is his obsession with Theodore Roosevelt?
Just a bit of hero worship! I may be one of the few people who read all three volumes of Mark Twain’s massive autobiography that came out a few years ago, and one of its recurring motifs is how much Clemens detested Teddy Roosevelt. Hated everything about him! Roosevelt was too crass, blustery and, worst of all, popular. I thought that kind of contrarian character might appeal to a young genius who saw himself as a rebel against authority. And of course I got to use Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech.

I know you have your reasons for doing the book in color, but I think it would be just as striking in black, grey and white—or with blue instead of grey. Any reason for your choice?
The Last Mechanical Monster actually began as a black-and-white webcomic, and I agree—it worked pretty well. That was the version that received two nominations for an Eisner Award, which is a major prize in the comics industry. Publishing it in gray tones or with one spot color certainly would have been more economical for my publisher, Abrams. But we decided the book should be full-color from the start. First, I wanted to try to capture and convey some of the bright, colorful look and feel of the original cartoon. Second, I thought I had to provide some “value added” for readers who’d seen the black-and-white version. Give them something new for the book!

Well, enough of trying to pry open your inspirations. What was the most satisfying aspect of creating the characters and inventing the plot?
My already great admiration and respect for the original Fleischer animators only grew as I studied their work. As I mention in the endnotes of the book, there were times when I thought to myself, “Ah, I see what you did there!” And other times when I thought, “How the heck did you do that?” The robot itself is a masterpiece of animation design, all cylinders and rectangular solids, constructed to be readily hand-drawn 10,000 times. Sometimes it really felt like I was having a conversation with artists who worked 80 years ago.

I learned an important and unexpected lesson about the creative process while writing this story. There was an early version of it, with different characters and settings, that I wrote and drew more than 100 pages of before I abandoned it. I found myself dreading sitting down to work, finding excuses to procrastinate, and realized that if I wasn’t having fun creating it, then nobody else would have fun reading it.

I also realized that when I described the story to people, I was telling them a different story than the one I was actually doing. I started over from scratch, turned those 100 sheets of paper over, and started drawing the story I really wanted to tell on their backs. One satisfying aspect of this project was learning that that was the right thing to do. I needed to go through those months of what turned out to be a dead end to get to where I needed to be.

Another gratifying aspect was being surprised by how much readers cared. I certainly wrote and drew it as well as I could, but didn’t consider the story much more than a lighthearted romp. Then I began hearing from readers who were very invested in it! I got a lovely note from a man whose father had recently become widowed and seriously depressed, and my story helped pull him out of it. They decorated their Christmas tree with little paper mechanical monsters that the dad had made!

When you publish nonfiction books about cancer or firestorms, as I have, you expect that some readers will be very emotionally affected. That comes with the territory; that’s why you do it. I did not expect that to happen with my fun robot story, but it did.

The rendering is meticulous. The flow is well-timed. The book is long. How much of you went into this?
Thank you! There’s more of me in this story than I expected. Charles Schulz used to say that if you wanted to know him, just read his comic strip. I feel the same way. Someone who reads my books knows me better than close friends I’ve had for decades.

I’ve come to choose creative projects by asking, “Is this a story only I could tell?” If anyone else could do it, or someone else could do it better, I’m not interested. I’ve actually turned down work based on that filter. The Last Mechanical Monster is, I think, a story only I could tell, at least in this way. Just the fact that I decided to spend so much time plumbing the motivations of a crazy old inventor and his giant robot buddy probably reveals more about me than I intend.

What do you want the reader to take away?
I learned a long time ago that readers take what they take, and I never disagree with them. It’s their book now, and out of my hands. But if someone reads The Last Mechanical Monster and gives some thought to how they want to be remembered and what they’ll leave behind, and how much or little control they have over that legacy, and how much or little it matters, I’d be very happy.