Friday, 7 August 2020

The Phantasmagoria Metallique: 100 Years of A. Merritt's "The Metal Monster"

Sphere and block and pyramid ran together, seemed to seethe. I had again that sense of a quicksilver melting. Up from them thrust a thick rectangular column. Eight feet in width and twenty feet high, it shaped itself. Out from its left side, from right side, sprang arms—fearful arms that grew and grew as globe and cube and angle raced up the column's side and clicked into place each upon, each after, the other. With magical quickness the arms lengthened.

Before us stood a monstrous shape; a geometric prodigy. A shining angled pillar that, though rigid, immobile, seemed to crouch, be instinct with living force striving to be unleashed.

Two great globes surmounted it—like the heads of some two-faced Janus of an alien world.

At the left and right the knobbed arms, now fully fifty feet in length, writhed, twisted, straightened; flexing themselves in grotesque imitation of a boxer. And at the end of each of the six arms the spheres were clustered thick, studded with the pyramids—again in gigantic, awful, parody of the spiked gloves of those ancient gladiators who fought for imperial Nero.

For an instant it stood here, preening, testing itself like an athlete—a chimera, amorphous yet weirdly symmetric—under the darkening sky, in the green of the hollow, the armored hosts frozen before it—

And then—it struck! 

 - "The Metal Monster," A. Merritt 

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of A. Merritt's "The Metal Monster," one of my very favourite weird tales and a truly remarkable work of science fiction.

Pal of the Blog Deuce Richardson very kindly hosts my exploration of just how rich and expansive the story's links to modern science fiction are.

For such a visual feast, there's remarkably little illustration out there for "The Metal Monster." Stephen Fabian's cover art for the 1976 Avon Books publication (pictured at the top of the post) is a bit closer to the modular, weird nature of the Monster, but there are some other interesting ones out there.

Argosy's bold, imperious depiction of the Metal Monster with an uncanny humanoid face isn't too far away from some Transformers, especially the original Marvel comics.

This depiction is rather more in line with traditional pulp fiction, but the simple geometric shapes work well enough for the concept, with the floating pyramidal orbs suggesting the modular nature of the beings.
A personal favourite is Jim Cawthorn's 1962 illustration of the Monster in its "walking bridge" form, curiously reminiscent of some great "nightmare Brontosaurus." Comparing sauropod's biomechanical structure to suspension bridges has been supported by modern science ever since D.W. Thompson compared the Diplodocus to the Forth Bridge in 1942. Back in the 1920s, though, science fiction still depicted them as tail-dragging behemoths rather than the sophisticated biological feats of engineering they're recognised as now. Indeed, some architects are looking to dinosaurs for inspiration in future bridges. As of yet, however, I don't think anyone's taken it as far as Merritt in making perambulating bridges.

For my money, though? As with many of his subjects, the supreme illustrator of "The Metal Monster" must be none other than Virgil Finlay. In addition to his typically exquisite linework, his interpretation of the Metal Things in Famous Fantastic Mysteries (August 1941) is functional, yet still very alien: common geometric shapes given an unearthly presence and intelligence.



I always saw us creating a new universe with this book, that goes from the distant past to the far future. It's a whole universe with eons of unwritten history. I want to explore and create and plant flags in the dark unexplored corners of this universe. I live for that.

 - Tom Scioli

A final story to share: many moons ago, I met Tom Scioli at Phoenix Comic Con. Tom's a comics writer-artist who provided me with no small measure of inspiration: his then-new comic Final Frontier utilised a raft of visual techniques (Steranko-inspired surrealism, anaglyphic 3D, "Kirby Dots") not just for visual flair, but to represent different dimensions & plot points within the story itself. He had recently been signed on to write Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, a love letter to not only the two '80s stalwarts, but also the Silver Age of comics and their wonderful eagerness to embrace the wild and the wonderful.

Tom was very accomodating to this daft displaced Scot, and we spent a good bit of time talking about classic comics and their pulp predecessors - so much so that when I mentioned "The Metal Monster" being possibly the earliest example of the Giant Transforming Alien Robot, he made a point of writing it down in his notebook!

Although I would never be so arrogant as to think Tom had the Transformers' spacecraft the Ark land on an island off the coast of Scotland, and for the Scotland-born C.O.B.R.A. villain Destro to adopt the metal mask after slicing off a Decepticon's face & wearing it as battle armour against a host of viking warriors (not to mention casting this century's iteration C.O.B.R.A. as a cult of snake worshippers that would have Bran Mak Morn's teeth on edge), as a result of our conversations, I'd love to think that some bit of the original Transformer made its way into its grandsire's pages.

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