Sunday, January 07, 2007

Who ya gonna call? Ro-Busters

Scenes like this regularly greet the reader in an opening episode of Ro-Busters. Clearly published at a time when the idea of a plane sticking through a thinly-disguised London towerblock was less distressing, it's all about major disasters and how to help the people caught up in them. Following the adventures of a disaster clean-up and rescue squad is a surefire recipe for fun boys adventure comics - and Ro-Busters tended to deliver on this score. (Although, strangely, Holocaust 12 in the Megazine about 20 years later did not - or at least not as effectively)

Strontium Dog may be the ultimate Starlord success story, but I will argue that Ro-Busters is theoretically a more impressive comic strip. Yay Pat Mills and Kev O'Neill.

Firstly, we have that premise of a disaster rescue squad. With Mills onboard, of course, there's also an added political text, namely the idea of robots as slaves, whose labour is exploited by humes for little or no reward. Strontium Dog similarly has a fun set-up - bounty hunters who chase their foes across space (and, later, time) - and has it's political bugbear with the whole maltreated mutants thing. In the hands of Wagner and Ezquerra, SD tales were individually much more exciting than your average Ro-Busters outing. However, Ro-Busters works better for me because it paid more attention to the world it was set in. We get to see the corporate world, we get to explore a robot's place in more detail than the mutants (in StarLord, at least; SD wold go much further in years to come). Also, Ro-Busters tries to be all things to all people, what with the childish art of Mike White, the awful pun names and constant bickering of the two heroes. The story is a genuine mix of serieous drama, high action, hyper-violence and juvenile simplicity. I'm starting to recognise that Strontium Dog is all those things, too. There is a difference, but perhaps it's only that you can't imagine Johnny Alpha or Wulf finding themselves in the editorial pages hosting their own anthology series...

Perhaps it's just that I'm a fan of robots in stories; especially robots with personalities. Ro-Busters could be entertaining if they were mindless machines, but clearly what Mills is interested in is character. Why all these robots have personalities is an important question within the strip itself, of course. A question that is perhaps answered by this creepy panel:

It's an essential part of Ro-Busters (and in fact every 2000 AD use of robots, really) that all humans hate and distrust robots, although it's never really explained why. I guess it's with this in mind that robot manufacturers try to make their creations as human as possible. Evidently future technology is destined to overcome the uncanny valley (hit wikipedia, all you robo-novices), allowing humans to take comfort in robots with human features as in this panel. But presumably this only works if said robots have accompanying genuine-people personalities. Douglas Adams may have started this trend (probably not), but Mills runs with it in Ro-Busters. The sexy lady robot is not a new idea, of course. Where Mills goes further, to disturbing effect, is in suggesting that robots are programmed to be turned on by such female robots as well. Moreover, they are also aroused by the humans such sultrybots are based on...

As I've said, Ro-Busters sticks out of its Starlord crowd because it's very much a junior comic strip. It tries to be funny all the time, using cheap slapstick and one-note characters with abandon. Sure, Strontium Dog was often funny, too, but in that trademark Wagnerian sardonic way. Mills is more adept at Beano humour, frankly. But this works in his favour as that kind of humour is all about characters who dependably behave in one way all the time. In Ro-Jaws, Hammer-Stein and Mek-Quake, three of Britain's most enduring creations, Pat Mills and Kev O'Neill (or possibly Mike White in the case of Mek-Quake?) deliver brilliantly.

By virtue of using robots, Mills can make a societal comment with his characters even as they are ostensibly used to be funny (which is lucky, because they often aren't funny in these early StarLord outings). All three robots are clearly the products of their programming, but also have their own matching personality to go with it. Ro-Jaws is a sewer cleaner / waste processor by trade, and therefore must be given to bad language and overt lower-class traits (whatever that means to the middle-class readers of 2000 AD...). Hammer-Stein (in this incarnation, at least) is a soldier, evidently of junior officer rank, and is pompous and patriotic to go with it, as well as curiously moral. Mek-Quake is a bulldozer / grinder bot of some kind, who is programmed to be stupid so as not to object to his cannibal-like job. But being a Mills/O'Neill creation, he has developed a personality to enjoy, nay to love his job. I always get a kick when he's seen reading violence mags or watching extreme gore films. The whole thing is not too far removed from Dad's Army, frankly.

The Starlord Strontium Dogs are fun, but inessential. But there's at least one reason to seek out the StarLord Ro-Busters strips. We get to explore the other great character, Howard Quartz, Mr 10 Percent (10% human, that is) himself. A brain in a jar is a favourite image of mine, one that 2000 AD had previously used in Harlem Heroes / Inferno. Quartz is heaps more fun, though, as he's evil, but also very occasionally made to be read sympathetically because of his plight. The Ro-Busters outings in 2000 AD are far better than the StarLord efforts (especially the Dave Gibbons tear-jerker double whammy of 'Death on the Orient Express' and 'The Terra-Meks'). But in StarLord we get to see a lot more of the corporate shenanigans that were surely part of Mills' original idea, before the characters ran away with their own success. Conflicted Mr Quartz gets to be shrewd, self-obsessed, and just a little bit on the side of his robots, much to the chagrin of rival businessmen who evidently only trust humans or sycophantic butler droids. It's just a shame that all too often the story in virtually unreadable owing to its childishness.

As always, there is a saving grace to most episodes, in the form of Ro-Jaws and Hammer-Stein. I find this version of Hammer-Stein to be mostly very annoying, but he does occasionally get his hammer out to dish out some pain. Ro-Jaws, however, came out fully formed. The pointed 'ooh, isn;t he foul' comments do grate a bit, but largely he spouts appropriate quips and the odd bit of working class encouragement to his fellow downtrodden brothers. Also, he gets to kick his fair share of arse, oh yes. Let us also not forget Kevin O'Neill's original designs for his robots. Mike White and John Cooper, both perfectly serviceable artists, drew the bulk of the actual strips, but O'Neill delivered some stunningly detailed covers. Ro-Jaws in particular is awesome to behold; Hammer-Stein would have to wait until he got his new (old?) head in the ABC Warriors strip.

I feel that this post has become something of an incoherent mess, but perhaps with some good bits in it, much like the Starlord episodes of Ro-Busters. Maybe I should get back to the main mission at hand, which is to re-present some great moments from the comic. Here's Ro-Jaws proving why he ever deserved to be an ABC Warrior...

You know what? That last panel can serve as a 2000 AD 'the pain' award for the Ro-Busters story where they go to a hotel in space and have to cross-dress and sing a show tune in order to expose and defeat a gang of evil humans who are disguised as robots (yes, really. Really)*

Now, if you're at all a fan of 2000 AD, you could do worse than picking up a full run of Star Lord. It's not that hard to find on ebay. Clearly not as good as current standards, but every bit on a par with the equivalent 2000 ADs from 1978. Tornado, on the other, hand, well that's another story entirely. Let's wrap up the love for Starlord with a little pinch of Mind Wars, which certainly merits an Extreme Edition revisit.

* Shockingly enough, several of these themes would be revisited by Mr Mills years later in the ABC Warriors 'Khronilces of Khaos' story - only that time it was good.


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