Friday, November 5, 2010

Robo-Hunter: The Droid Files Volume 02

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Robo-Hunter: The Droid Files Volume 02 (Rebellion, 2010).

Back in June, I mentioned that I reread a series called Robo-Hunter every couple of years. It ran in 2000 AD periodically from 1978 to 1986. Written by John Wagner and Alan Grant and drawn by Ian Gibson, it's the absolute best example in comics of what I was mentioning in my article about Chew the other day, how the type of plotting in fiction that appeals the most to me is the type that has to run all over the map of wild possibilities to get from points A to B. I like stories where the protagonist doesn't just have to overcome great obstacles, but mundane, ridiculous, unexpected, downright weird and lunatic ones as well. Throw a kitchen sink at our hero, literally, and I'm in heaven. There's a bit in the very first Robo-Hunter serial where our hero is held hostage in a sewer until he completes a rigged game of Monopoly. That's what I'm talking about.

Our hero in Robo-Hunter is a hard-boiled PI named Sam Slade who cannot catch anything like a break. Unfairly unable to thrive in a world where he might do well (as though 1940s Los Angeles would be much of an improvement for him), Slade works in a far-flung future where a lazy, indolent, soaps-and-sports-obsessed humanity has let lunatic robots take over their lives for them. The human population in Pixar's Wall-E, and the nutty personalities of its robot cast, is not that far removed from what Wagner, Grant and Gibson had come up with for this comic. It's a world where any human with a job is pretty odd; jobs are what people built robots for! They built them to be their prime ministers and their soccer stars, and now the population of future Britain is content to collect welfare checks, visit historical castles and watch the World Cup. From this premise, the creators come up with some of the funniest and most ridiculous comics ever made. It's an absolute gem.

The first of Rebellion's two phone book-sized omnibus editions reprinted a little more than half of these creators' original run. In the second, you get more tomfoolery with Jim Kidd, a character from the first series who had been de-aged to a baby and briefly starred as the hero of a TV series before his own poor fortunes see him setting up shop as a competing robo-hunter. Slade and Kidd are hired in one of the series' most infamous installments, "Football Crazy," which sees some wildly stereotyped comedy. Having already established that future Britain was nothing to be proud of, and giving their own culture both barrels, Wagner and Grant took a few unbelievable potshots at the Italians and the Japanese in this story, which is guaranteed to make the more politically correct members of a contemporary audience wince. I've always figured it's fair for a writer to mock other cultures, provided the writer isn't simultaneously claiming that his own culture is superior. That clearly doesn't happen here.

After that, Slade's story continued through a pair of much longer adventures before the creators completely surprised readers by giving Sam a happy ending. After all these episodes of Sam overcoming unbelievable and ridiculous odds and never getting his reward, he got it. In a just world, the epic "The Slaying of Slade" would have been Sam's deserved finale, but of course, Sam Slade's world isn't "just." The very next episode, set a few years later (most cruelly, it originally ran in the following issue), sees Sam's two idiot assistants ruining everything yet again and giving Sam new problems to fight. Ian Gibson's redesign for the character - he had to come up with two! - is just hilarious.

"Sam Slade's Last Case" and "Farewell, My Billions" are often overlooked by fans, but they're every bit as ridiculous and convoluted and beautifully drawn as the earlier, better-known stories. In fact, as much as I admire the brilliant plotting and sparkling dialogue of the epic "Day of the Droids" (reprinted in volume one), Gibson's artwork towards the end of the run is leagues superior. "Farewell, My Billions" was drawn between the second and third series of Halo Jones, Gibson's celebrated collaboration with Alan Moore, and his linework, design and inking were at a career high. The decayed, decrepit look of future Harlem is just completely lovely, and the hospital scenes with the strangely familiar Dr. Goyah have an absolutely perfect balance to them. I would love to own some of the original artwork from this story.

"Farewell, My Billions" proved to be a finale that Wagner and Grant didn't believe that they could top, and the series was retired. About six years later, however, there had been some editorial changes at 2000 AD and the strip was resurrected. It was given to Mark Millar, then a promising newcomer, and a rotating bank of artists. Enough has been written already about why these failed; no more needs to be said. Suffice it to say that Millar's lengthy run is not included in this collection, however, an episode by John Smith and Chris Weston, set in the same continuity and using Millar's take on the character, is, probably on the strength of the artwork.

The third iteration of Robo-Hunter followed right on the heels of Millar's. In fact, there was some actual overlap in 1994, with one Millar story drawn by Simon Jacob appearing in print after the first by the new team of Peter Hogan and Rian Hughes. I have also written at length about how wonderful the all-too-brief Hogan and Hughes run was, and encourage visitors unfamiliar with it to see what I have written previously at my currently dormant blogs Thrillpowered Thursday (June 2007) and Reprint This! (April 2009 and April 2010). If you'd rather not click, suffice it to say that these are extremely clever and witty and wonderful in every way. This volume, happily, reprints all of Peter Hogan's episodes. The reproduction is not quite ideal - most of them originally appeared in color, and the grayscale versions here don't do Rian Hughes' thick, solid primary colors justice - but just having them all in one place is a dream come true. Well, my dream, at least.

There has also been a fourth iteration of the series. From 2004-2007, Grant and Gibson reunited to tell the story of Slade's granddaughter Samantha, who followed her predecessor into the robo-hunting business and picked up his two idiot assistants. Criminally, these six stories were not as popular with the fan base as they were with me, and even I'll admit that the second story really does take a lot of defending. Sadly, the series was one where the writer was enjoying the experience more than the artist, and it seemed to end, behind the scenes, acrimoniously. Three or four of us are still hoping for a return and greater things. These episodes are also not included; they should appear, in color, in their own volume, shortly after Samantha makes her triumphant return to the comic. Any day now.

Summing up, across the two volumes, you get the entirety of the original Wagner-Grant-Gibson run, one episode by Smith and Weston, and the full Hogan-scripted apocrypha. They're completely terrific comics. Knock down traffic cones and drive across people's yards to get them. Highly recommended.

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