THE LOOK OF THE FUTURE - ROBOTS

 

 

Bender, the robot in the cartoon series Futurama, has a cult following. A favorite game among the Bent, when they're not writing Bender slash fiction, lies in digging up robots from the past who look like the progenitors of Bender's image. What's fascinating, at least to me, is not how much they look like Bender but how much they look like each other. In other words, artists of the 1940s and 1950s shared a common image of what a robot might look like to a degree that goes beyond any coincidence. Below is a journey into the past as we pursue proto-Benders earlier and earlier in the mists of time.

Bender from Futurama, created by Matt Groening 1999
1999 Futurama

1958 Amazing

Amazing Science Fiction Stories Oct. 1958, art by Edward Valigursky

Bender - full name Bender Bending Rodríguez, built in 2996 - is pure retrofuture cartoon construct, resembling a potbelly stove (already nearly obsolete) with dryer ducts for arms and legs, no more intended to be realistically futuristic and scary than Gyro Gearlose's Little Helper. What makes Bender acceptably humanoid are the overly large eyes and huge mouth plate that curves up into a grin, a variety of the neoteny that artists have used for cartoons since Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse. Compare his head size and features to the more menacing robots below.

Future styles have short shelf lives, usually no more than a decade for their core period. This style of robot was dated by the 1950s. Edward Valigursky's very contemporary cover for the October 1958 Amazing Science Fiction Stories is as close as to a Bender as 50s robot images would get but is clearly an updated derivative of the older look. Valigursky is a more realistic artist overall than his cartoony predecessors - people who look like paintings instead of mannikins! - and his robot, despite the oversized and sinister eyes, has a sleekness appropriate to an atomic age. Note the sagittal crest: that's a subliminal callback to the past that we'll keep seeing.

Weird Mysteries #2, Dec. 1952, drawn by Basil Wolverton
1952 Weird Mysteries

1950 Startling Stories

Startling Stories, January 1950, art by Earle Bergey

Basil Wolverton, a working professional illustrator and comic artist from the age of 16 in 1925, wrote and drew a short piece for Weird Mysteries #2, December 1952, titled "Robot Woman." The plot is a slight morality tale of a man creating a "perfect" robot wife only to discover that perfection has its limits, a direct descendent of E. T. A. Hoffmann's classic "The Sandman," best known from the opera Tales of Hoffmann. The robot in the picture appears in only one panel, as an example of the scientist's work. If you count this as a Bender lookalike, as some have, you're desperate. You might as well count the cover of I, Robot.

There's the welded center crest I mentioned above. Earle Bergey, who drew this for the January 1950 Startling Stories, was near the end of a long career as a pulp artist with his style not far advanced over his earlier work. The covor is a collection of tropes, from the glowing eyeballs shooting out radiation, to the imperiled scantily-clad women in red needing saving by a hero, to the armor-like projections on the shoulders, to - oddly - the lefty robot wielding a ray gun. It looks dated because it is, the last relic of an earlier age.

I, Robot Gnome Press 1950, art by Edd Cartier

1950 I, Robot

1948 Brick Bradford

Brick Bradford #6, October 1948

No, I don't think this looks like Bender. That's my point. However, the oval head and the glowing, staring eyes, the uselessly broad shoulders and narrow waist, all combine to cast an image of a humanoid robot that can probably "perform the work of ten men" and will be coming to replace you or be your overlord, no matter that the stories themselves don't convey this message. Edd Cartier's spare design craftily uses the standard accouterments of knight's armor to present an aerodynamic machine that appears poised to shoot out into space.

Brick Bradford was a poor man's Buck Rogers, his comic strip intended to be a major competitor from its start in 1933, though Flash Gordon, introduced the next year, quickly overtook him. Like them he moved into other media, including a comic book in 1936 and a movie serial in 1947. The serial probably was the impetus for starting another comic book for Brick in 1948, although this one lasted only four issues. The protruding eyes and radio speaker grille mouth are stock options on this robot model. William Ritt and Clarence Gray were the writer/illustrator for the strip but I don't know if Gray actually drew the cover. Hope not, because from blonde to ray gun it's a complete rip-off of Alex Schomberg as seen below.

Startling Comics #49, Jan. 1948, drawn by Alex Schomburg.jpg
1948 Startling Comics
Wonder Comics 1#5, December 1947

1946 Human Torch

Human Torch Comics, #23, Summer 1946

Photographers and cartoonists alike love to place scantily-clad women in the arms of robots (or other monsters: check out The Look of the Future - 50s Movie Posters). Blondes were especially favored, probably because the post-war period through the 1950s were the cultural heyday of blondes. The Brick Bradford cover above was itself a copy and somebody might have complained except that both comics were put out by the same company. Artist Alex Schomburg makes the head and its features outsized - compare them to the size of the space detective's head in the background. The resemblance to Bender works best because of the vertical antenna off the top of its head. Schomberg, like many harried artists of his day, swiped from himself frequently as evidenced on that December 1947 cover for Wonder Comics. Wonderman has the same stance as Lance along with the de rigueur ray gun pistol. One quick dye job later, the babe is transformed into the scantily-clad blonde Marna, Lance's partner-to-be-rescued. She is featured in various ridiculously skimpy space outfits on every cover in 1947 and 1948, usually periled, often in bondage, although in the middle of 1948 she suddenly starts defending herself.

Protruding box around the eyes, grille for mouth, yes, there are similarities and for good reason. This is another Alex Schomburg cover on the Summer 1946 issue of Human Torch Comics. You can't get much more menacing than a giant robot plucking an airplane out of the sky, unless you add glowing radioactive rays emanating from its head. (Radioactive rays always glow: that's how you know they're radioactive.) By modern standards the robot is too cartoony but it falls dead center into the standards of the day.

Exciting Comics #45, March 1946
1946 Exciting Comics
1943 Exciting Comics
Exciting Comics #25, February 1943

More Alex Schomburg, here on the March 1946 Exciting Comics. I'm sensing a theme. The Black Terror was secretly pharmacist Bob Benton, who used his chemical "formic ethers" to give him superpowers. That's kid sidekick Tim Roland sticking his head in through the window. Together they were known as the Terror Twins. As for the menace: cylindrical head, large eyes, rictus mouth, stove and stovepipe body with decorative rivets - this robot would be strictly generic from the container marked "Robot" if it weren't carrying a gun, an ordinary gat, not even a ray gun, and apparently being a lefty. Who designs a left-handed robot? It's just not right.

Alex Schomburg? Yes, Alex Schomburg. From the February 1943 issue of Exciting Comics. Was it a law that imperiled heroines had to wear red? Anyway, another day, another robot for The Black Terror. This one is a bit sleeker than its successors but makes the mistake of not packing a pistol. That's not a ray gun in the Terror's hands; he's ripped a high-voltage electric cable off the wall. Either he's immune to electricity or he's wearing an all-rubber battle suit to keep his weight down.

Captain Future, Winter 1940, art by George Rozen

1940 Captain Future

Captain Future, Summer 1940, art by Earle Bergey

1940 Pep Comics

Pep Comics #1, January 1940, art by Irv Novick

A robot with a welded crest and giant eyes - with eyeballs!, a bald ectoplasmic alien, and a Earthman, together holding three of the wildest ray guns in all SF. Is one of them the Space Emperor? The robot holds pride of place, Captain Future is too gosh-darn American to be an Emperor, and no alien gets to be Emperor with aim that lousy. But I'd buy that first issue (Winter 1940) of the pulp magazine Captain Future: Wizard of Science just to find out more. That was the job of the cover artist and George Rozen was an old pro. If this robot looks like Earle Bergey's on Startling Stories above, there's good reason. It's the same robot, illustrating new adventures of Captain Future. Bergey copied the robot directly onto the third issue of Captain Future, Summer 1940. An unusual example of a character, any character, let alone a robot, keeping its features from magazine to magazine and artist to artist.

Another first issue, Pep Comics #1 gave the world the first flag-draped superhero. The Shield was a clumsy response to Fawcett's Captain Marvel, the smash hit of the previous year, who appeared when Billy Batson shouted SHAZAM, from Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. Joe Higgins is another genius chemist who applied a super-strength formula to parts of his anatomy, the Sacrum, Heart, Innervation, Eyes, Lungs, Derma or the SHIELD. Innervation is "The arrangement or distribution of nerves to an organ or body part." What, he was going to use Intestines? I can't make this stuff up, which is why I would have starved in the 1940s. The artwork is by Irv Novick, then a fairly new pro who would go on to have a 50-year career. His robots may have influenced Alex Schomburg since his two later Exciting Comics cover robots each take pieces off of these walking boilers - who are also lefties with guns!

Amazing Stories, January 1939, art by Robert Fuqua

1939 Amazing Stories

1928 Amazing Stories

Amazing Stories Oct. 1928, art by Frank R. Paul

The original "I, Robot," a tale about a robot that did good rather than menaced the world, the one that persuaded a very young Isaac Asimov that he could sell similar robot yarns. Eando was a pseudonym for brothers Earl and Otto Binder, which Otto continued to use even after Earl went into other work in 1936. Not surprisingly, the artwork on this January 1939 issue of Amazing Stories, by Robert Fuqua, the name used by Joseph Wirt Tillotson, is iconic. This robot is not a barrel-chested warrior but a flexible servant, capable of holding up a hand in peace. The glowing, protruding eyes will be seen again and there's the full sagittal crest in all its glory. The speaker mouth is built into the chest but Fuqua offers just enough of an inverted triangle to suggest a mouth that complete's the robot's face. One of his best covers.

It always comes back to Frank R. Paul, doesn't it? He did every cover for the first three years of Amazing, including this one for October 1928, illustrating the story "To the Moon by Proxy" by J. Schlossel. An inventor who can't walk sends a radio-controlled robot with television eyes to view adventures for him. Classic exaggerated features, including bug eyes and a voice box for a mouth. And... Wait. Is that robot wearing a loincloth? It's not clear whether the censors of the day had qualms about robot pelvises, Gernsback had a deeper streak of prudity than anyone realized, or the robot proxyness was intended to go a lot farther than mere moon travel.

EK

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    Amazing Stories Oct. 1928, art by Frank R. Paul