Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Complete Ro-Busters

written by Pat Mills, illustrated by Steve Dillon, Dave Gibbons, Mick McMahon, Kevin O’Neill & Bryan Talbot

For the past couple months I’ve been stopping by the Time Machine, a comic shop on 6th Avenue, down the block from a tanning saloon and across the street from a papaya joint. It’s on the second floor of a building whose first floor is apparently abandoned, and it’s easy enough to miss if you don’t know what to look for. The place is everything a comic shop should be – joyously disheveled and overwhelming in its unmanageable clutter. A certain degree of obsessiveness is required to appreciate the place. Ease and convenience simply isn’t the point. The sheer disorder and the maddening logic behind it all accentuate the experience of the collector. That is, one must appreciate the time and patience necessary to seek something out in order to get the most from such a shop. In the age of online shopping and blogs, one often wonders whether hole-in-the-wall places such as the Time Machine are still viable. I can, after all, acquire a complete run of any comic book from Amazon much more easily than by flipping through countless long boxes at various shops throughout the city. Which begs the question, why go to the trouble? The act itself, that is, the very gesture of collecting, is tantamount. As prone to snobbery and cultish materialism as the collector may be, the practice facilitates a sensitivity to place. That is, items become imbued with the aura of location – a particular record or first edition of a book of poetry becomes fixed to the spot of acquisition. Certain spots, then, acquire a glow all their own, accumulated through numerous visits on drizzly Thursday afternoons and hangover-clouded Sundays.

The Time Machine has become just such a place. Every week or so, I’ve rung the bell next to a rather unassuming door and climbed the creaky wooden steps to the second floor. On one of my first stops to the store, and completely on a whim, I picked up a back issue of the Francophile adult fantasy anthology Heavy Metal from the late 70s. I’ve been coming back for more every week since, moving through the late-seventies and into the early-eighties. For anyone only familiar with the bare-chested zebra women and Franzetta wet dreams of latter-day Heavy Metal, these early issues will serve as something of a revelation. Yes, you’ll still find your fair share of cheesecake and robust barbarian gore, but you’ll also find the stream-of-conscious oddity of Moebius’ ‘Airtight Garage’ serial and the baroque psychedelia of Phillipe Druillet. Even the beefy warriors of Richard Corben’s epic fantasies seem to carry a bit more satire and bemused self-awareness to them. These early issues subvert their hyper-adolescent gore and flesh extravagances while admitting there’s something inherently awesome in an intergalactic chess match played with massive interstellar spacecraft.

In its early years, the editors of the American Heavy Metal drew much of its material from the trailblazing French periodicals Metal Hurlant and Pilote. This work, spearheaded by the previously mentioned Moebius and Druillet, as well as others including Dick Matena, Enki Bilal, He, and Francois Schuiten, proved influential and far-reaching, inspiring artists in the American underground, Mexico and elsewhere. This intuitive and progressive French tradition could almost be deemed a continental tradition, as Eastern European and Italian creators such as Milo Manera were similarly implemental in the forging of an aesthetic identity. What, then, of Britain?

If Metal Hurlant and Pilote can be seen as a heady brew of May ’68 agitation, commercial design and 60’s head culture, then Britain’s premier anthology of progressive and esoteric comic serials, 2000 A.D., finds its genesis in Thatcher-era dissent, boy’s adventure periodicals such as Eagle and, perhaps most importantly, in punk rock. The transcendental stoner idealism of Metal Hurlant is nowhere to be found in 2000 A.D. The cynicism of strips such as the seminal Judge Dredd and Sam Slade, Robo-Hunter, therefore retain a relevance and a vitality which it is hard to see, 20-30 years hence, in the naïve, even to the point of arrogance, ‘us-vs.-the squares’ humor of Caza.

Where Heavy Metal has walked that fine line between subverting cheesecake exploitation and becoming exactly that, 2000 A.D. has been similarly problematic in terms of the boy’s adventure trope. 2000 A.D. has, at times, fallen pray to just such clichés, even to such an extent that writer Alan Moore and artist Ian Gibson felt impelled to satirize these conventions in their unfinished epic, ‘the Ballad of Halo Jones.’ But ‘Halo Jones’ was not, as its creators were quick to forget, so much a subversion of the 2000 A.D. tradition as a return to its foundation upon wild satire and hyperkinetic ideas. Which is, of course, where the great Pat Mills factors in. Mills is the co-founder and first editor of 2000 A.D., in addition to being the founder of the more politically iconoclastic Crisis magazine. Mills in many ways bridges between the gleeful cynicism and over-the-top satire of 2000 A.D. and the baroque surrealism of Francophile comics. John Wagner and Alan Grant’s Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog serials may have served as the backbone to the 2000 A.D. aesthetic, but Mills contributions to the magazine brought us many of its strangest and most vital series, including Nemesis the Warlock, Slaine the King, the A.B.C. Warriors and its antecedent, the slapstick-and-violence class comedy, the Ro-Busters.

The Ro-Busters didn’t begin serialization in 2000 A.D., but rather in its color spin-off, the short-lived Starlord. When Starlord folded, Pat Mills brought the Ro-Busters over to 2000 A.D. Aside from a practical switch from one periodical to another, this move to 2000 A.D. also brought a pronounced aesthetic shift in the serial, as it opened itself to more experimentation and willful oddity in its second half, as well as making explicit its class criticisms. What then, were the early Ro-Busters strips like? First off, the recent 2000 A.D. omnibus of ‘the Complete Ro-Busters’ does a great disservice to these early strips, which were originally printed in color, but assumably due to cost-restrictions are available here in sloppy black and white reproductions, many of them with a noticeable blur from the transfer. These early strips very much set the premise – that is, Hammerstein, a decommissioned military droid, and Ro-Jaws, a wise-cracking former sewage robot, are members of the Ro-Busters, a disaster crew composed of expendable, out-dated androids.

Part of the appeal of these clumsy early strips, dating from the late 70s, is to see Pat Mills and his artistic collaborators gain confidence in their approach. The first couple adventures are fairly rote, as the stoic Hammerstein and the acerbic Ro-Jaws battle humans infected with a murderous gas (as well as crocodiles!) in the bayou, stop a robot insurrection aboard an interstellar pleasurecraft and neutralize a nuclear device aboard a plane that has crashed into a skyscraper (!). The artwork by Pino is serviceable at best, though to be fair, something is lost in transferring color artwork to a black and white format. The shift from Starlord to 2000 A.D. roughly one-third through the omnibus is instantly apparent, as Mills is paired with artists such as a young Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon and the incomparable Kevin O’Neill. These 2000 A.D. strips find the Ro-Busters finally drawn by artists who can match the anarchic and violent slapstick of Pat Mills.

It is also apparent in these 2000 A.D. strips that Mills is growing tired on the initial premise, that of a disaster corps. of rescue robots. In ‘Hammer-stein’s War Memoirs’ and ‘Ro-Jaws’ Memoirs’ Mills pushes the stories beyond the rescue-and-recover formula and expands upon the implicit class criticism at the heart of so much of his work. The final story in particular, the fantastic ‘the Fall and Rise of Hammer-stein and Ro-Jaws,’ uses robot oppression to highlight many of the glaring injustices of Thatcher-era England. The oppression Mills attacks is not so much that of race, but that of labor-based class inequalities. At one point in the story, Ro-Jaws and Hammer-stein enter Oil-a-Go-Go, a robot bar with a house band fronted by Led-Belly. This makes a cursory connection between robot and race oppression. Indeed, the colonization of a gold planet by rogue robots also reminds one of the mid-century founding of the nation of Israel. Still, Mills only uses these beats to further imply the vast subjugation of the robots.

The robots plight can, ultimately, only be understood in reference to labor. Each robot is, in fact, completely defined by their job. Ro-Busters is littered with robots doomed to the scrap heap after they are no longer needed. The heart of the Ro-Busters serial is the Charlie sequence. Series stars Hammer-stein and Ro-Jaws are nowhere to be seen, as we follow Charlie, a massive robot build to steer ships to Northpool’s harbor. But as Northpool’s harbor begins to fail, Charlie is no longer necessary. A robot built for specialized labor is useless when the job it is build for is no longer needed. The contractors looking to renovate Northpool wish to move the lower-class human citizens out of the sun and into claustrophobic subterranean flats with deceptive names like ‘Cosy-Down Burrows’ and ‘Snuggle-Down Warrens.’ Though the contractors can’t kill the lower-class residents of Northpool outright, like they can destroy Charlie, they can at least shuttle them off to a negligible existence in some underground ghetto. An obsolete Charlie, confused as to what is even happening, must battle a squadron of destruction droids commissioned by the Ro-Buster’s sleazy owner, Mr.Ten-Per-Cent, in order to save his working-class town from being obliterated in the name of economic progress.

While the first half of the Ro-Busters omnibus stands as little more than a curiosity for 2000 A.D. and Pat Mills devotees, in the latter half of the book, we see Mills crafting these stories into a bizarre, hyperviolent, Marxist song-and-dance comedy where the working class, in this case ‘soulless’ robots, must relinquish their very limbs to the more able-bodied. It’s a remarkably revolutionary comic, and all the more so for the conventional adventure comics trappings on its surface. Mills’ work on Nemesis the Warlock may remain the first stop for the curious, but those already familiar with Nemesis and the A.B.C. Warriors are encouraged to look at these early strips, where many of Mills’ signature quirks are already gloriously on display.

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