Friday, 3 September 2010

Robo-Hunter: The Droid Files Vol 1

Robo Hunter is another series I remember well from when I was a kid. I knew Ian Gibson's art from some early Judge Dredd stories (I think he did the Mutie the Pig/Rico stories, which were the first Dredd stories I ever read) and this was the first time I'd seen him in full flight. Just as Ezquerra – in my eyes – “owned” Strontium Dog, Ian Gibson seemed to me to “own” Robo Hunter. I see now that the strip was written by “T B Grover”, being a nom de plume for John Wagner and Alan Grant, with Grant and Wagner working occasionally alone, nut for me it was entirely Ian Gibson's strip.

This has a much lighter tone than the series I've reviewed here so far. The others I've reviewed here have taken an at least partly serious look at some of the thematic implications of their settings. Ro-Busters addresses issues of slavery, Nemesis and Strontium Dog both address issues surrounding racism and prejudice, albeit in the context of space wizards and inter-stellar bounty hunters, respectively. Robo Hunter also has a satirical message, but the whole thing is treated without the gravity and pathos that you occasionally get in the other series and played strictly - and brilliantly - for laughs.


Unlike the other stories, Robo-Hunter relies heavily on pastiche and parody. The first episode establishes Slade as hard boiled private eye of the Bogart variety, and he even as a passing resemblance to Bogie. The first person narration is heavy on world-weariness: “I came into the apartment blasting. I've been at this game for forty years and there's one thing I've learned – never give a robot an even break.” This introductory story line even has a robotic femme fatale, just to hit all the right generic notes. However, Sam's first is not quite the detective story hinted at here.

He's hired by some shady looking business types to find out what's happened to a lost colony. The planet Verdus was prepared for humans by robots; when the signal was received that it was ready for its new masters, the colonist were sent and then never heard from again. Subsequent fact finding trips have discovered nothing, and the organisers suspect defective robots are to blame, so they've decided to send a robo-hunter to find out what the problem is. Sam Slade is the best there is, so they've chosen him.

Verdus has robot politicians to save the human colonists the bother.
Sam quickly discovers the source of the trouble: the robots of Verdus have been imprisoning the human colonists as they arrive because they have been programmed to believe that humans are their superiors in every way. However, the robots are stronger and faster and clever than the humans and so, logically, these flaccid, weak creatures CAN'T be humans, can they? To prove that he is human, Sam has to find the first robot on Verdus – SJ1, or Smoking Joe – who will vouch for his bona fides. After they've confronted the leader of the Verdus robots – Big Brain, whose enormous bulb-like head is stuffed with “sim” (ie, human) tissue realises what he's been doing he goes mad and leaves the lesser robots to sort things out.

It's the kind of absurd, satirical adventure that was popular in silver age SF, not a million miles from Planet of Apes, as the forms and morés of contemporary society are mocked through imitation by the comical robots. At its centre is a the absurdity of human self-importance: humanity has such a powerful notion of their own superiority that it's ultimately their undoing. On the other hand, Slade is the only one who can see through this projected vanity and make the robots see humans are not the idealised masters they've been waiting for. There's further irony, of course, in the fact that Slade does indeed prove superior to the robots in the end, and so one wonders if perhaps the other poor saps who preceded him simply didn't deserve their new planet.

Robot Rowan Williams and
Robot Jonathan Sacks.
From here, matters take a more explicitly Swiftian turn as the robots go to war with each others over the fact of Sam's humanity, just like the absurd war between the Lilliputians and the Blefuscudians in Gulliver's travels. Just like Swift, Wagner, grant and Gibson have a lot of fun at the expense of contemporary army and popular conceptions of warfare and gallantry as the noble British-like army led by General 1 fights the the brutal, Hunnish army of General 2. The story ends on a blackly comic note. As the first army look set to loose and so Sam rigs a signal that fries the circuits of every robot on Verdus, including the robot boots that helped him to find SJ 1 and confront Big Brain. The resulting conflagration destroys the colony, and furthermore the surviving colonists are all killed, but the whole thing has a cartoonish aspect that prevents it from being too ghastly.

Slade himself is not an especially compelling character – a fairly standard heroic type without the special powers of Johnny Alpha or the unique world view of Judge Dredd – and so Robo Hunter is often a story of side kicks. On Verdus, there's the ship's pilot, Kidd, transformed into an obnoxious foul-mouthed baby one-year old by some time-wimey technobabble early on, and a robotic sidekick in the shape of QT, a buxom robot assistant that hangs from his belt looking disturbingly like a dildo. She never had that much to do, and her simpering character was more annoying the sexy, so I don't think anyone was sorry to see her sacrifice herself to save Sam's life late in the series, and Kidd doesn't have any reason to stick around once Sam returns to Earth (although he reappears later) and so during his second story - Day of the Droids - Sam gains a couple of new side-kicks, Hoagy and Stogie.

Hoagy meets Sam after applies for the job of assistant rob- hunter. Of course, Sam never advertised for an assistance – Hoagy took that on himself – and he never officially gives Hoagy the job – or any job - but the hapless robot just follows him around anyway. He's a classic comic idiot, well-intentioned and even good-hearted, in his own way, but utterly inept, constantly getting in the way, giving Sam up to his enemies, dropping the evidence at the vital moment or – frequently – falling on Sam from a great height.

Stogie is equally funny, a robotic cigar given to Sam – so rumour has it – because IPC were uncomfortable with Sam as a ciger-chomping role model. Stoagy gradually decreases the amount of puff in the hit, gradually weaning Sam off nicotine but his health benefits are secondary to his role as Sam's chief cheer leader and – along with Hoagy – stalker fan. The fiesty little cigar has a bellicose demeanour and a cheeky Mexican accent in which he constantly exhorts Sam to kill his oppoenents – pam! pam! pam! – frequently making tense situations worse. These two really lift the strip, and it's impossible to imagine how it could have continued without them. They're brilliant comedic creations that add just enough chaos to Slade's already farcical cases. Gibson draws them both with obvious relish giving Hoagy a delicious wide-eyed moon faced gormlessness and Stoagy a fiesty little cheeky-face that matches his fiery character.

In fact, all Gibson's robots have a a great deal of rich character in their faces and their poses. Although the story begins with fairly robot-y robots, as the Verdus story goes on Gibson adds more and more human qualities to them as time goes on. By the time Sam and Co decamp to Brit Cit to set up I (having worn out their welcome on the other side of the Atlantic during the Day of the Droids) it's hard to tell the robots from the humans.

Robot trades unionists - welcome to Brit Cit, Sam!
In Day of the Droids, the robots have become a race of more or less malevolent changelings in human society, perhaps the morlocks to the human eloi, keeping the machines working but acting preying on them without hesitation. The robot gangster in Day of the Droids - the God Droid - wipes out he human gangsters he was created to serve and intends to take over the operation, while in The Beast of Blackheart Manor, the servants in the titular stately pile are knocking off the guests and making them into pies in an effort to attract tourists to the house's spooky reputation. Throughout these stories, humans don't seem to have a great deal to do except get into trouble from their robots, and the Day of the Droids storyline even kicks off when a human government bigwig discovers his been replaced by a robot without even realising!

In this world of fools, Sam is the only sane man, but unlike Dredd or just about anything by Pat Mills, the satire is played for laughs, with lots of gags and an indulgently jaded eye on human foibls. There's no real moral correctness here – even Sam is essentially venal and self-indulgent, even if he does err on the side of the angels. It's a refreshingly light-hearted strip after the grimness and grotesque of some of its contemporaries and has lost none of its charm over the intervening years.

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