Sunday, 28 March 2010

The Complete Ro-Busters

I rarely buy books new, and then hardly ever from a bricks and mortar bookshop, but sometimes need and opportunity coincide to such a degree that I find myself plonking my money down. When I saw The Complete Ro-Busters in Waterstones at Canary Wharf, I knew I was going to buy it, even if it took me a couple of days to convince myself to do it. Fifteen quid is not a small amount for a book, especially one I've already read (technically speaking), and so I can only conclude that the psychological impulses at work were particularly acute in this case.

I could try and pick them apart, but I'm pretty sure they're tied up with a mid-life crisis that's brewing or, perhaps, right now in full swing. After all mad people don't realise they're acting wierd, do they? It all seems totally normal at the time with careful rationales and comprehensible, if dotty, reasoning. I suppose I should be grateful that my insanity is expressing itself through the purchase of slightly expensive nostalgia rather than, say, massacering my work colleagues with a pair of scissors.

Anyway, Ro-Busters is particularly resonant to me of youthful ambitions. It came at a time in 2000AD's history when it was just beginning to move from playful subversion of boys comics cliches to making real breakthroughs in the types of art and story possible for British mainstream comics. At the same time, I was in my early teens and moving from kid's books to the adolescent world of golden age sci fi, and 2000AD seemed to be growing up alongside me. While much has been said about the developing satirical sophistication of Judge Dredd during the 1980s and 1990s (probably too much, IMO, although that's maybe an issue I will address when an increasingly desperate desire to recapture my youth drives me to buy the multi-volume Judge Dredd files) and Mills's ABC Warriors/Nemesis stories (also definite candidates for volumes to be found next to me in the car with the hose pipe going from the exhaust to the window) are considered benchmarks here, but I think the whole development is contained very nicely within the pages of this volume.

Ro-Busters starts with its "robot Thunderbirds" concept very clearly stated, but right from the start the heroism with a strongly cynical undercurrent. Howard Quartz, Mr 10 Per Cent, is no John Tracy: he doesn't care much for the people he saves and even less for the robots that save them. Bought as scrap, they are treated as machines but have all the personality and characteristics of human beings. They do what they're told and act with honour and bravery that all the humans seemingly lack. It's a classic kids fiction scenario, with the robots standing in for the feeling of powerlessness and naive clear-sightedness of children.

Do you think we're the bad guys?

When the thrill moved to 2000AD, it takes this children's eye view of the underdogs world and gives it a very political twist. Ro-Jaws's life story is clearly based on the children's classic Black Beauty, but when you replace the real-life horses of Anna Sewell's day with intelligent robots, the story takes on a more overtly political context. The obvious parallel is slavery, and the Fall & Rise of Ro-Jaws and Hammer-Stein story line draws these parallels very clearly, but it also has a more topical resonance in Britain in the eighties, with hardworking and naive workers being harassed by a police in league with their capitalist exploiters. The Robot Interception Patrol - RIP - take wicked delight in kicking and bashing robots and are uniformed in the same kind of nazi deaths-head nazi regalia Mitchell & Webb joked about.

Overt political messages stay just the right side of universal. The story of Charlie, the gigantic robot ships pilot who works at the docks in "Northpool", a generic Northern sea port sees salt-of-the-Earth workers led by a fiery preist do battle with wicked developers to save their jobs. Ro-Jaws and Hammer-Stein don't appear in this story, and in fact Ro-Busters are really the bad guys here: the developers have hired the Ro-Busters "Terra-Meks" to destory the city and lay tarmac over the land for a new space port. It was first published in 1979, but the theme of redveloping docklands and images of workers men fighting with police for their jobs looks very prescient now.

I remember loving this one at the time, but I don't recall getting the political context. To be fair, I was a twelve yeard old living in Titahi Bay New Zealand, I was a million miles away from this. I just loved the romantic heroic tale. It's brilliantly told by Mills and Gibbons, combining superb dynamic mega-machine wrestling with a stirring story of heroism and sacrifice.

Dave Gibbons and Pat Mills cheering on Charlie the robot dock worker nearly killed by Thatcher

It's not very subtle, but it synchronised exactly with changes in what I was reading and the way I was reading, drawing in particular on Asimov's robot stories, which I was discovering for the first time back then. 2000AD in its classic period had the same unconstrained quality that I used to enjoy in golden age SF. No one's too bothered if the world building doesn't make much sense, and the story makes more of an emotional impact on the themes of inequality and exploitation rather than being a speculative piece about the limits and consequences of artificial intelligence.

Part of that quailty comes down to the art, of course, and here we can see a handful of the great 2000AD artists reaching their prime. The fantastic character designs are by Kevin O'Neil, and fan favourites Dave Gibbons and Mike MaMahon both provide fantastic work here. The lesser known artists who take on the Ro-Busters also provide great work, notably Mike Dorey and Carlos Pino, who drew their early strips and set the tone for much of what followed with terrific page layouts that emphasise the big-screen drama of the disaster stories. O'Neil, McMahon and Dorey really pull out all the stops for the final Fall & Rise of Ro-Jaws & Hammer-Stein story, providing art that's loaded with wit and pathos.

Robots tying one on - terrific character design from Kevin O'Neil

I'm really pleased I gave into the bad chemicals that compelled me to buy this. It's a terrific reminder of where I started and to the aesthetic foundations of my own character and writing. Ro-Busters raises serious points within the parameters of broad satiric comedy. It's a story told with sympathy and emotion and brilliant visual flair. 2000AD really didn't get much better than this.

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