In nearly every vision of the future, robots are a necessary part of daily life. They have been shown to be obedient servants, undertaking all those menial jobs as well as all the most perilous ones without any complaint. On the other hand, they have also been shown to have potential to rebel and to become ruthlessly efficient killers, turning against their makers. The magic of Ro-Busters is Pat Mills’s deft skills at incorporating all these elements whilst infusing his robot heroes with emotional responses and anti-social behaviour.
First rattling their nuts and bolts in the early years of 2000AD, Ro-Busters were a breakthrough in mechanical men with attitude. Prior to that, British comics had featured the lighthearted hijinks of Robot Archie (a favourite in Lion), The Steel Commando (from Thunder) and Brassneck (from Sparky). Over in America, most of the non-human heroes were androids such as the original Human Torch, Red Tornado and the Vision. As far as the movies were concerned there were the Gorts, the Robbie the Robots, but also the menace of HAL or the Westworld killers. TV produced memorable robotic characters such as the Robot in Lost in Space and our timelord’s favourite mutt, K-9. But arguably, one movie changed all perceptions in 1977 with its Laurel and Hardy in Space, R2-D2 and C-3PO, who were infused with all-too-human personalities.
With the coming of Tharg’s thrillpowers, it was time to unleash an argumentative, foul-mouthed team of tin men who were destined for the scrapyard until brought together by billionaire businessman Howard Quartz (also known as Mr Ten Per Cent because his brain is the remaining human part which is housed in a robotic body).
Set in 2078, he hires out his team to undertake dangerous missions. Whilst there is a motley band of robots, the most dominant characters are Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein, the Odd Couple of the automaton world. One is a rusty, foul-mouthed sewage droid, the other an antiquated pensioned-off war veteran, and as their bather continually shows, there’s still a few sparks in the circuits yet. With towering mechanical support from Mek-Quake, a demolition droid who relishes his ‘big jobs’, they become the lifeforce of the strip.
The early adventures appeared in the short-lived Starlord (which was also the home of Strontium Dog) before transferring to 2000AD when the two comics characteristically merged. Those tales were led by Pat Mills who retained a mischievious humour and subversive edge whilst addressing very human traits through his artificial men., and that was the tone continued by fellow writers, Jack Adrian and V Gross, recounting robot rebellions on the moon and corrupt industrialists.
Carlos Pino, and more significantly, Ian Kennedy, drew many of the first issues with a painterly draftsmanship which was reminiscent of comics legend, Frank Bellamy, especially his peerless Gerry Anderson strips that appeared in TV Action/ TV 21 Comics. In particular, the design of the spaceships also conjured up memories of those iconic International Rescue craft, Thunderbirds, to whom Ro-Busters pays affectionate homage. However, with all these strips reproduced in black and white, the beauty of Kennedy’s coloured splash pages diminishes some of the visual impact.
With the collection of stories reprinted from 2000AD, Mills focuses less on the missions and devotes considerable time to developing the characters of Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein, giving them both a chance to retell their origins. It gives him an opportunity to explore aspects of how future war impacted on people, tying it into 2000AD continuity with the battles against Volgan invaders seen in the very first prog in ‘Invasion’ strip as well as mentioning the plans to build Mega-City One, later home to Judge Dredd, but in Ro-Jaws recollections, it’s more an examination of the selfishness and jealousy that man breeds amongst men a hundred years from now.
Maybe it’s not surprising that the days of Ro-Busters were numbered. ‘The Terra-Meks’ storyline, a poignant tale full of pathos and anger, about Charlie, an expendable giant robot and the equally expendable community he looks after, carries themes of corporate manipulation and fractious relations between humans and robots. It also reveals Quarz’ true colours as he chooses profits over his own crew, preferring to destroy the Ro-Busters rather than change his business tactics. This second half of this volume features art by Dave Gibbons, Kevin O’Neill and Mike McMahon, all at early stages in their career. And since this is the Complete stories, it also includes material from the Annuals, which has the added bonus of a trio of Alan Moore’s script.
What’s evident from reading the complete adventures is that it evolves and moves away from its original ambitions as its two prominent robot stars demand more attention and hold greater potential. Pat Mills himself, though, admits in the introduction that he found the format too restrictive to what he wanted to do – “a kind of robot Muppets meets Green Wing“, and so he finds a way to take apart what he had put together. Not surprisingly, when the strip finished, it created the A.B.C Warriors as well as rewarded Ro-Jaws with his own comic strip and an appearance in Nemesis The Warlock. This bumper-sized volume of their collected adventures shows the nuts and bolts skills of storytelling that breaks free of the restraints initially imposed by its concept, exploring the complex relationship between humans and robots to comment on social injustices, class, slavery and racism as well as adding political overtones. It’s also an invaluable read for defining and shaping 2000AD’s stellar success.