featuring "The Evil Ark of Dr. Noel!",
scripted (per GCD credit) by Herb Castle and drawn by Magnus creator Russ Manning, with assistance from Mike Royer.
This story has been reprinted several times, including in the Gold Key MAGNUS #34 Feb. 1973, which is the version I'm using to review it, and in Valiant Comics' VINTAGE MAGNUS series issue #3. The most recent and accessible reprint is in volume 2 of Dark Horse Comics' MAGNUS hardcover archive series.
Review by Bill Henley
A couple of reviews back when I was covering METAL MEN #8 and 9, I mentioned it was a curiosity that two well remembered Silver Age comics series both featured protagonists named Magnus who were closely involved with robots; but that while Robert Kanigherr's METAL MEN tended to treat robots other than the Metal Men themselves as mindlessly rampaging antagonists, Russ Manning's MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER actually took a much more thoughtful science-fictional approach as to how robots might function in a human society and what might lead humans to fight robots. This story is an example of that approach. On the painted cover (credited in the GCD to George Wilson) , Magnus is in flight over the surface of the sun (eschewing anything as wimpy as a spacesuit, though he has some sort of protective aura), while a spaceship is crashing into the sun, and an ethereal face of girlfriend Leeja appears against the background of space. "Leeja's telepathic cry for help causes Magnus to risk the sun's fiery destruction as he attacks THE EVIL ARK OF DR. NOEL!"
As the story begins, Leeja Clane is rudely awakened from a nap by a robot who seizes and kidnaps her. A nearby robot servant protests, "Stop! Robots-must-not-harm-humans! It-is-robotic-law!" but otherwise is unable to do anything except to appeal for orders from a human. As Leeja is borne away by her robot captor in a small spacecraft, her father, Senator Clane, calls for aid from the "pol-robs" (robot police) and the Space Patrol. But pursuit is unavailling, for, to her horror, Leeja's captor announces he is setting course for "sub-space" (defined in a footnote as "space outside our normal four dimensions-- where many of the normal laws of nature do not apply!") Moreover, the snatching of Leeja is just one more in a series of similar recent kidnappings. As Senator Clane heads to raise the alarm at a meeting of North Am's Council, we see that the Council is already playing host to a confrontation between two striking figures; Magnus, our hero, and Dr. Laszlo Noel, a bushy-bearded anti-robot firebrand. He shares Magnus's view that overdependence on robots has made humanity weak, but his radicalism makes even Magnus himself seem "soft on robots" in comparison. Noel demands, "All of them (the robots) should be destroyed!" But Magnus demurs, saying, "I agree with you in part, Dr. Noel,... but all of the robots should NOT be destroyed! Robots are of use to mankind, but there should be fewer of them! We should do many of the things they do for us, before we become completely dependent on them!" The listening council members scoff at both men; "We should have MORE robots, not fewer!" The angry Noel stalks out, warning, "You've had your last chance to listen to ME!" Before the meeting can proceed further, Sen. Clane rushes in shouting about Leeja's kidnapping. Magnus is shocked, somewhat chauviinistically protesting, "But the others who vanished were experts...scientists! Leeja is only a girl! I don't understand!" One who understands all too well is Dr. Noel, who thinks, "Only I know the reason...as I leave this robot-infested Earth!"
Joining the search for Leeja, Magnus deduces that the small craft in which Leeja was taken cannot remain long in sub-space, without rendezvousing with a larger spaceship in normal space; so the task is to find that hidden mother ship. Meanwhile, Leeja is ushered into the ship in question and discovers the other kidnapped scientists, unconscious in giant test tubes. She also notices that the interior temperature of the spaceship is exceptionally warm. The ship is crewed by robots, but Leeja demands to speak to a human and is pushed into "the master's cabin" to wait for his return. It occurs to her that she may be able to contact Magnus telepathically "in the way M'Ree (a human psychic who appeared in previous stories) has been training me!" She reaches Magnus, but befopre she can impart more information than that she has found the kidnap victims and that the spaceship is hot, she is interrupted by the arrival of the "master"-- Dr. Noel. Noel explains that Leeja and the others have been chosen for the "privilege" of helping him build a robot-free world "a thousand galaxies away" from Earth. Ironically, however, having no voluntary human followers Noel is forced to use robots to crew his "ark", and this may lead to disaster as, lacking initiative, the robots are having trouble keeping the ship from drifting into the nearby sun. "My life's work threatened by a brainless metal scarecrow! It will give me great pleasure when I can junk you and all the other robots aboard!", Noel growls as he takes the controls himself.
Meanwhile, even though the telepathic transmission from Leeja was cut off, Magnus has gained from Leej'as mention of abnormal heat the vital clue to deduce where she is; in a ship hidden close and just beyond the sun, the only place the solar system's vast network of scanners and patrols cannot reach. Boarding a small spacecraft, Magnus orders the "pilot-rob" to accelerate to its limits, brushing off the warning that the "grav-forces" will crush him; "I can take it! I MUST!" And so, "Magnus strains every superbly-trained muscle to counter the crushing gravities of acceleration as the craft reaches three-quarters of the speed of light!" (Uh, Magnus, I really think at that kind of acceleration your superbly trained muscles and all the rest of you would end up being a very thin jelly on the walls of the spaceship....) As Magnus's ship reaches Leeja's location, he finds Noel's ark is orbiting within five million miles of the sun, too close for safety either for it or for Magnus's own smaller craft. As his ship and its hapless pilot-rob descends toward the sun's surface, Magnus ejects in a desperate effort to reach the other ship; "My force-shield power unit will last two minutes-- at most!" With no time to spare, our hero reaches an entry port to Noel's ship, breaks in with an "atomic torch", and reseals the airlock just as his oxygen supply runs out.
Nearly exhausted by the stress of acceleration and deceleration followed by the grueling space walk, Magnus nonetheless gamely sets out to find and rescue Leeja and the other kidnap victims. The "secret robot speech-receptor" in his skull alerts him that the presence of an intruder has been detected and robots have been sent to capture him. He manages to wreck several of them with his standard move of a karate chop to the vulnerable robotic neck, but "ship-robs aren't fighters, but too many...too many...." and at last Magnus is subdued and dragged into the presence of the ship's master, Dr. Noel. Magnus snaps, "I might have guessed your talk against robots was only pretense!", but Noel denies this; "I will destroy all these in my ark after they have served my purpose!" And what is that purpose? To travel a hundred Earth-years' journey away, in suspended animation, till they reach a world "beyond the Andromeda galaxy". "Earth has grown soft and weak! It rejected my plea to get rid of robots! Now I reject Earth! Soon I will build a new society...peopled only by those I have carefully chosen (including Leeja, who he has chosen as his wife without consulting her) where there will be NO robots!" When Magnus protests again that "properly used robots DO have a place in our civilization", Noel sneers that they are "vile imitations of man! Counterfeits!"
But Noel's dependence on these "counterfeits", however temporary, is a deadly weakness to his plan, as his incompetent robot pilots again threaten to send his ship into a "drift trajectory" into the sun before he can launch it on his interstellar voyage. Magnus is further shocked to learn that if he does escape the solar system, Noel intends to leave his ship entirely in the hands of the robots as Noel, Leeja, and the rest of the humans aboard go into suspended animation. "But robots can't think, can't react! Any slight accident can destroy everybody aboard!" Unmoved by this warning, Noel vows to proceed with his plan, and moreover comes up with a fiendish punishment for Magnus's interference. The Robot Fighter will be locked in a cell, fed and kept alive by the robot crew, but not put into "deep sleep" for the hundred-year journey. "You will grow OLD, WHITE-HAIRED.... Leeja and I will sleep! We will not be a day older when we arrive at my new world! But YOU will be dead and forgotten!"
As the robots drag him off toward this terrible fate, Magnus tries a last stratagem on the robots, counting on their inability to "react to the unexpected". He pretends to fall down from weakness and then, when the robots drag him, rises up and smashes them before they can report back to Noel. Meanwhile, Noel prepares to force Leeja to swallow the suspended animation serum; "This must be the end of all that Magnus and I planned together! Oh, Magnus...." But Magnus is still trying to come to the rescue, despite the still-increasing heat aboard the ship and a sudden tilt of the decks. Is our hero feverish and dizzy in his weakness? No; the ship really is tilting as the robot pilot warns, "Ship-is-losing-gyro-spin! Strong-trajectory-drift-beginning!" For the moment, this is a good thing for Leeja as Noel falls and spills the deep sleep serum. But all of them will receive a "warm welcome" from the sun (to steal a line from Dr. Doom) unless Magnus can reach the control room and take matters in hand. Noel is still determined to launch his journey into sub-space, despite Magnus's warning, when he does reach the control room, that "we've gotten too near the sun! To start the shift magnetics against the sun's gravity NOW would tear us apart!" Instead, Magnus urges, Noel must activate the ship's "repellers", to move away from the sun. But Noel refuses to abandon his master plan, and he orders his robots to stop Magnus from interfering. "For Leeja...for those sleeping in that compartment.... I must try one more time!" He manages to defeat the last remaining robot, but not before Noel has hit the switch to shift into sub-space-- and, as Magnus warned, the vibration of the shift begins to tear the ship apart. Seizing the controls, Magnus tries to reverse the thrust and activate the repellers; "I'll try to save the ship, Dr. Noel-- but not for your sake!" As the vibrations cease and the ship begins to pull away from the sun, Magnus tells Leeja, "All we can do (now) is pray!" Their prayers are answered, as Noel's ship escapes the sun's pull, and they rendezvous with a Space Patrol cruiser that has been following Magnus. As Noel is dragged away by "pol-robs," Leeja wonders what will happen to him, and Magnus predicts, "Banishment, probably...to some asteroid where he can cause no more trouble!" (Fat chance, Magnus; Noel made several more trouble-making appearances in later issues, one of which I may review at a later date.) Of Noel, Magnus says, "He is wrong in thinking all robots should be destroyed! We can learn to live with them without losing our own strength!" And an adoring Leeja agrees, "Yes, Magnus-- with your help, North Am stands the best chance of staying independent-- where men are free!"
Comic book supehero stories, especially up to and including the Silver Age, tend to see conflicts in very stark and uncomplicated Good vs. Evil terms. MAGNUS was somewhat of an exception to this rule, particularly with this story, in which the "bad guy" is, in a way, on the same side as the hero, but Noel's radicalism and fanaticism make him as much of a threat as any enemy who believes in robot domination of humanity.
The original MAGNUS #13 features a four-page "Aliens" tale by Manning titled "Day of the Nightmare!"; unfortunately, since I don't have the original issue, I don't have this story handy to include in this review.