Saturday, May 18, 2013

It Does Not Compute--It Kills

If you were stunned to see the 1978 Fantastic Four animated series launch with a diminutive robot replacing the Human Torch on the team, think of the double-take comics readers probably did at seeing the cover of Fantastic Four #209 in 1979, which introduced a new character in the book:

And the Thing may very well have summed up reaction to the development:

Nevertheless, "H.E.R.B.I.E." was now a part of FF continuity:

But unlike in the animated series, HERBIE in the comic was not an active, independent member of the team, but instead a mobile computing aide to Reed--with a permanent link-up to an alien "living computer," without which, according to Reed, HERBIE's design "would have been impossible." This, coming from a man who's come up with designs and breakthroughs that would make HERBIE look like a wind-up toy by comparison. I think Reed is probably overdue for a rest stay at a resort somewhere.

As for the animated series, HERBIE was the brainchild of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and would substitute for the Torch on the team due to the Torch's television rights already having been optioned for a possible solo project down the road, which prevented his use for the cartoon show. You have only to look at the first episode of the series to see the differences in how the two mediums treat HERBIE's role in the FF. In the TV series, HERBIE is something of a take-charge character--almost annoyingly so--actively coordinating the team as well as making decisions as to the team's actions as well as its own. Yet it's easy to see what a hit he'd be to kids watching Saturday morning cartoons--not only do they get to see the Fantastic Four--but their mascot and, dare I say it, friend is a cutely-designed, hovering, mobile robot with a funny voice and a bumpy but good-natured relationship with the gruff Thing.

A relationship which the comic book Thing had no intention of facilitating:

Though it appeared that writer Marv Wolfman wasn't about to let such an opportunity pass by:

But, as HERBIE's initial cover appearance intimated, this robot's seemingly harmless functions are perhaps not what they seem. And there are other occasions which arise that have us wondering if Reed might have missed a few decimals when coding HERBIE's programming:

HERBIE has only a limited time with the FF, though--and it's nine issues later when HERBIE's secrets are finally revealed. And it begins with this computer link-up which gives it information on the team's weaknesses, information which elicits a surprising response from a mere programmed mechanism:

Subsequently, Doctor Sun, later revealed to be in possession of HERBIE, makes his move on the team, incapacitating them one by one:

Yet Sun makes a tactical error in dealing with the Torch, when he leaves HERBIE's form to return to Reed's main computer in order to use the building's own defense systems against the last free FF member:

At that point, Reed comprehends Sun's shift from HERBIE and moves to isolate the villain within the computer. But surprisingly, it's HERBIE who deduces the only possible way to thwart Sun:

And when the dust settles, Ben is ironically (and perhaps appropriately) the one who gives HERBIE his due and brings the robot's appearance in Fantastic Four to a close:

Once the mutual back-scratching of HERBIE's cross-appearances was dealt with, Reed was later free to give HERBIE new life in forms that were a little less intrusive, and blended into the feeling of family which writer/artist John Byrne's run on the FF excelled at. His first such refit for the robot came in the form of a babysitter for Franklin:

Though somebody forgot to clue in Ben:

Unfortunately, this HERBIE would be the first witness to Franklin's power manifesting, which is one of the things Reed created him to monitor. Maybe Reed should have rigged the robot's alarm to be a little less self-contained:

Which is where we'll have to leave our story of HERBIE. But as an interesting footnote to the animated series which spawned his creation, you might have a look at FF #236 (the team's 20th anniversary issue), which takes episode 8 of the show and converts it to a comics story that follows up the regular tale in that issue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oy. The way I remember it is that they replaced the Torch with Herbie in the cartoons for fear kids might decide to start setting themselves on fire. I think that's probably bullshit, but who knows. Maybe it costs a lot more money to animate the Torch in cartoons. Most kids I knew, even the real dumb ones, didn't set themselves on fire back then, including the ones who were huffing gasoline.
Anyway, this marked the point in which I stopped caring much about the F.F. either way. Even Dr. Sun, a really cool villain from Tomb of Dracula, deserved a better send-of then this.
Byrne, in his usual passive-aggressive manner, killed Herbie off in grand style, and went on to play the Franklin card. I don't think anybody really knew much what to do with the F.F. after Lee and Kirby.