This series was originally published for a now-defunct site called SciFiObserver run by the very astute Mike Moody. Read Mike’s pop-culture commentary at TVSquad and hear his podcasts (including many with myself) at ScreenPunk.net. This entry includes Marvel Comics writer/artist Chris Eliopoulos and originally ran in April of 2008.
With florescent eyes that seem to emote, “feel ambiguous about me,” and a warm nixie tube mouth that would look at home in Charlie Brown’s wardrobe, H.E.R.B.I.E. is hardly what comes to mind when people think of the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.
But, for a brief, sad time in the late 1970’s, he was the fourth member of the Fantastic Four. Now he’s a super-nanny.
“H.E.R.B.I.E. is a high strung babysitter whose job it is to watch and care for Franklin Richards,” explained Marvel artist, writer and letterer Chris Eliopoulos. “A hard job that keeps him on his toes. He can do all these amazing things and yet, because of his programming, can’t control the little terror.”
The Humanoid Experimental Robot B-type Integrated Electronic device (better known as H.E.R.B.I.E.) owes his infamy to the 1978 Fantastic Four cartoon. Despite promoting itself as the adventures of Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, the Thing and the Human Torch, the show was conspicuously missing the Human Torch. Instead surprised fans found themselves staring into the glowing eyes of H.E.R.B.I.E.
A comic book urban legend grew around the show. Consperiousy theorists believed fears children would light themselves on fire prompted producers to replace the flaming kid, but the truth was more bureaucratic. The Torch was left out because Universal had opted him for a never-made feature film.
X-Men artist Dave Cockrum was initially asked to design the robot, but the final version came from FF-creator Jack Kirby. Kirby called him ZZ-1-2-3, but Stan Lee’s choice for moniker stuck.
The rumor persisted however, giving rise to one of the greatest single Fantastic Four issues ever created, Fantastic Four #285. Since then, H.E.R.B.I.E. has turned up from time-to-time, especially when least expected.
Attempts have been made over the years to replace H.E.R.B.I.E., including the Hyper-Ultronic Brain Employing Randomized Tracings robot (H.U.B.E.R.T.) and the Human User Multi-Purpose Handling Robot and Interactive Entertainment System (H.U.M.P.H.R.I.E.S.) – even an evil twin called H.A.D.L.E.Y. (presumably that stands for something) – but the original always returns in one form or another.
There’s been the Mark II, the Mark III, a giant version, microscopic versions, a “human” version (Robert Herbert Marks the Third) and a real-world robot. He just won’t go away!
The most common version, based on the Mark III, is drawn by Eliopoulos in a series of one-shots for Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius.
He pitched the idea to Marvel, and now produces Son of a Genius comics for Marvel semi-regularly with writer Marc Sumerak.
“I just thought of this kid left at home all the time, unsupervised, in the capital of cool stuff,” Eliopoulos said, adding H.E.R.B.I.E. was a natural fit for the comic. “I saw in an old comic, Franklin’s babysitter and thought it would be totally cool to have him be Franklin’s foil. It was a part of my original pitch.”
Under Eliopoulos’ pen, H.E.R.B.I.E. can unleash his full potential as a robotic nanny to fulfill Security Protocol 1870: protect the children!
“He has defense weapon, can change like a transformer to become a sky sled and has even turned himself into a suit of armor for Franklin,” he said. “Basically anything I can think up, he can do. I enjoyed the last issue when we had H.E.R.B.I.E. all pimped out.”
Franklin and H.E.R.B.I.E. hit stands again May 7, for the one-shot Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius – Not So Secret Invasion (a loose tie-in to Marvel’s major crossover Secret Invasion).
“A Skrull assumes the shape of Franklin and gets into trouble, which knowing the trouble Franklin normally gets into, no one seems to notice,” Eliopoulos said.