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RT 6: MYTH TAKES

7 Dec

PROG: 166 – YE FIRST ROBOT

Script: Gary Rice

Art: Brendan McCarthy

Letters: Tom Frame

Plot: In 1820 an unnamed man mourns the loss of his only child. Whilst brooding over how fate has robbed him of his wife, in labour, and their only child, he decides to create a replacement son from steel and steam. Eventually he emerges from his workshop with a large lumbering humanoid device he calls ‘Robert’, named after his son. Taking the machine to his friend Herr Wilhem he is pleased with its’ reception, even though the elderly gentleman mispronounces its name as ‘Robot’. However, on his return home he finds the local peasants take the machine’s coal fire engine and smokey emissions as a sign that it is the devil’s work. They begin to rally against the defenseless ‘Robert’…

Ending: The locals destroy ‘Robert’, leaving the inventor, once more, all alone. However the whole event has been overseen by two observers, one a dignified aristocrat, the other his man-servant. They ponder re-creating the ‘Robert’ experiment but with flesh and blood instead of steel and steam. As they leave the aristocrat is assured of success by the servant, after all he is Baron Frankenstein!

Thoughts: A very curious Robo-Tale, surrealistically introduced by Ro-Jaws in a Judge’s wig, is written in a most unusual style as a ‘lost journal’ with extensive textual exposition of the images contained beneath each passage. It looks very similar to the ‘illustrated prose’ technique that would be used by Ian Edginton’s Twas The Fight Before Christmas (Prog 2009), or even the word/picture juxtaposition in Alan Moore’s The English / Philondrutian Phrasebook (Prog 214), also illustrated by McCarthy. However by the middle of the second page the separation of text and image has broken down and word-balloons creep increasingly into the story. Adding to the unusual visual effect is the fact that none of the images have a panel boarder and the sides of the pages are made to look like the inside of a ring-binder journal. Why a ring-binder is being used for something seemingly written in 1820 is unclear. By Prog 166 McCarthy had contributed to several substantial stories in the Prog (ABC Warriors, Judge Dredd) but his art here isn’t terribly impressive, certainly a long way from the style that would firmly establish him as a reader favourite. The story itself suffers from having Ro-Jaws act as interlocutor as this limits the narrative’s ability to link the un-named protagonist and the observing Baron Frankenstein. Had not Ro-Jaws told the story it would have made more sense to have had either the Baron or the robot’s builder relate the tale and then explain their link to each other. Certainly it would have been cleverer to have had Frankenstein be a descendant or associate of ‘Robert’s’ creator than just ‘passing by’ as it would have allowed his voice to link into the tale earlier than simply as observing the final act. As a causal character thrown in on the last three panels his presence does strike as an after-thought in a story that was already clearly riffing on Mary Shelley’s classic yarn.  The story also loses points for managing to posit Baron Frankenstein being inspired some two years after his own tale had been published in 1818. Basic research from the writer could have set the story in 1810 without altering any key elements. Future Shocks had already re-grounded the Dracula myth (FS 50) so Frankenstein’s turn was always on the cards, sadly this wasn’t the greatest attempt at having fun with the well-trodden source material.

Thrill Power: Pretty minimal. The strange story-telling device makes for a plodding technique which is constantly interrupting the flow of the tale and neither the prose nor the art is compelling enough to compensate. It deserves credit for attempting to play with the form but with the story so obviously echoing  The Modern Prometheus and the tacked-on appearance of the Baron constituting the twist it is all quite uninteresting and dull. Easily the best thing about the tale is the unexplained appearance of Ro-Jaws in a Judge’s wig.

RT 5: THE BIG (OR SMALL) EZ1

4 Dec

PROG: 161 – DROIDS ARE DISPOSABLE

click to enlarge

Script: Gary Rice

Art: Brett Ewins

Letters: Tony Jacob

Plot: The spaceship Freya has crashed hundreds of miles from the nearest base and the robot EZ1 combs the wreckage to see if it is the only survivor. Finally it finds the badly injured Lieutenant Nash, the sole human left alive, and, picking up his broken body in its arms, EZ1  begins the long trek to get Nash to safety. Nash is disgusted at being aided by a robot, making clear that he hates machines like EZ1; but, as EZ1 fends off predators and fierce weather conditions to protect the Lieutenant, gradually he comes to respect his metallic guardian. WIth its power supplies nearly depleted, EZ1 finally arrives at the base. It’s circuits breakdown as it enters the safe-haven having successfully saved the life of Nash.

Ending: Lieutenant Nash comes to in the camp’s hospital and enquires into how EZ1 is doing after their arduous trek. After being told he was ‘put to good use‘ the Lieutenant looks down at his first meal and see’s EZ1’s serial number stamped on the plate. EZ1 has been scrapped because ‘droids are disposable‘. 

Thoughts: Gary Rice’s second Robo-Tale is a nicely executed story which returns to a theme of early Future Shocks – that humans are utter bastards – in a tale that echo’s much of the humanism Sci-Fi of the 1970s. The story of Nash and EZ1 bonding through survival is not so much traditional buddy movie material, as Nash is incapacitated throughout, as A Boy and His Dog or Silent Running. It’s a well executed tale with the antagonism to EZ1, despite his heroics, foreshadowed by Nash’s own initial reactions. The script throws in a fight with a  winged beast to keep the tension high as well as reinforce why Nash learns the lesson the people at the base then neglect. In terms of story the use of a robot talking to itself is a tad clunky but this expository device is thankfully curtailed by the discovery of Nash. Ewins’ art is more problematic than the script, there is a major issue with the relative scales of Nash and EZ1, sometimes they look 1:1, sometimes EZ1 seems twice the size of the human. There also seems a complete inconsistency in the inking, sometimes faces are over-inked and at other there is a very clean line deployed. EZ1’s face also seems some peculiar mix of malleable human and Hammerstein, an unfortunate case of neither fish nor fowl. Ewins does appear to have drawn a USB connector and slot some 20 years before their ubiquity which at least draws a smile. One very effective panel is of EZ1 clutching the limp Nash to its chest. Filled with powerful symbolism of the robot as guardian this panel centers the emotional lesson of the story and, whether it was the choice of the artist or in script, the decision to focus page two around this image makes a very strong impact right at the half-way point of the tale. As ever with Brett Ewins any criticism of his early art comes attached with the acknowledgement that he would go on to be an excellent artist for the Prog.

Thrill Power?: Sadly the art rather dates this otherwise nice if functional tale. It’s a solid script and one an aspiring art-droid should maybe have a bash at re-drawing for a trial submission to Tharg.

RT 4: CLOCK STOPPED

30 Nov

PROG: 157 – Revolt of the Tick-Tock Monkey Bomb

Script: Gary Rice

Art: Dave Gibbons

Letters: Tony Jacob

Plot: Having been accidentally built with an advanced logic circuit, a ‘Monkey Bomb’ anti-personnel device brags that he isn’t going to detonate around the neck of the enemy human he is deployed against but will use the threat of detonation to get out of the war-zone and into a better body. As planned he attaches himself to an enemy solider and uses his ‘tick-tock’ noise as a threat of detonation to ensure he is taken to a safe factory where he can be transplanted into a humanoid robot. En route the Monkey Bomb forces the solider to kill anyone standing in their way, but eventually the recipient body is ready..

Ending: Just as the robot is about to transplant into his new body a commander at his army’s headquarters notices he has failed to explode when deployed and operates the remote detonation. The Monkey Bomb and his nearly-freed host solider are consumed in the massive explosion.

Thoughts: Dave Gibbons 2000AD career is known for two phases, his early work on The Harlem Heroes & Dan Dare and then his iconic work on the initial Rogue Trooper stories. In the period between Dare ending and Rogue Trooper‘s début he would complete a Dredd (The Mob Blitzers, Prog 130), an ABC Warriors (Cyboons, Progs 130-1) and a welcome number of beautifully drawn Robo-Tales of which this the first. Gibbon’s art elevates a fine but simple tale, one marred with a very poor deus ex resolution, into something worth reading many times. The wonderfully titled Revolt of the Tick Tock Monkey Bomb is a real Curate’s egg of a script. It has a great premise, a delightfully mean-spirited protagonist and carries itself entertainingly, but it’s resolution is among the very worst of the genre. The ‘suddenly someone at base remembers to hit self-destruct’ is such a hoary old cliché that the fact the strip has entertained so much until that point makes it all the more disappointing. With a great set-up and central character it is a shame Gary Rice couldn’t think of anywhere else to take the tale. Gibbon’s art is fantastic, and in formal terms a notable change to most of the art so far seen in the series. He uses techniques such as splitting a single image over several frames, removing backgrounds to emphasise emotion, and breakout frames in a restrained and masterly way. As with much of his work there is a convention and tradition evident in every panel, never too grotesque, never too flashy, always a beautiful story-teller. The manner in which he manages to combine modern techniques with a traditional illustration style makes his art very appealing to both reader and fellow-professional. Gibbon’s début on the series is a sign that good times are ahead.

Thrill Power?: A really good tale, another of the gems of Tharg’s back catalogue. The out-of-the-blue ending is frustrating but the Monkey-Bomb has the same malevolent charm as the Robo-Hunter‘s Teeny-Meks, Dredd‘s SAMS and all the other vicious smart-talking explosive robots. It is a grand 2000AD sub-genre and Tick Tock … is, largely due to the beautiful art, a fine entry.

RT 3: ‘3P0 ‘N R2, THE LOST YEARS.

28 Nov

PROG: 148 & 149 – IT’S A KNOCKOUT

(click to enlarge)

Script: Oleh

Art: Casanovas

Letters: Peter Knight

Plot: Witnessing a gang of children stoning another robot, the android Gree-C tells them they should stop because he knows of ‘someone’ who will punish them. Prompted into elaborating, he tells the group that he was once a ‘Ro-Waiter’ and that, while being bullied by a loutish human client called Walker, a mysterious stranger came to his aid. The Stranger makes a simple bet, that Cree-C can beat Walker in any four competitions they choose. Should Cree-C lose any of the four tasks then the Stranger will forfeit his own life. If Cree-C can manage to win all four then Walker be the one to die. Confident of success in the two tests of his own choosing, Walker accepts and they begin with the two tasks selected by the Stranger. Despite attempts at sabotage, the competitions to serve every table and mop the floor quickest are won by Gree-C. Walker chooses that the first of his selections is to be shooting a coin in the air. Gree-C is worried he’ll fail until the Stranger reminds him he as telescopic arms which he can use to stay close to the flipped coin. Walker complains that this is cheating but the adjudicator rules in favour of the android. Still confident, Walker nominates poker as the final competition and the last test begins. Triumphantly, Walker displays four Kings…

Shock: Gree-C has ‘only’ got four ‘ones’ (Aces). Infuriated Walker attempts to shoot Gree-C but the Stranger blasts the gun out of his hand. With Walker at his mercy the Stranger listens to the man plead for his life. When Walker blabs that the stranger wouldn’t ‘kill one of his own kind over this‘ the Stranger flips open a face-plate to reveal that he too is an android. Casually he shoots Walker. 

Thoughts: An extended six page, spread over two Progs, tale that really amounts to very little but is adorned with some of the most sumptuous Casanovas’ art seen in 2000AD. As a story the tale is pretty much an unmitigated failure, a series of panels where a linear narrative occurs but one without any real internal logic nor convincing reasoning. Why would Walker agree to bet his own life for that of killing a stranger? Why would the final task be a game of chance? Are young readers meant to understand the rules of Poker? Why would a bunch of kids think anyone was going to kill them based on the story of the bar-room bet? None of it makes any sense and then to wrap it up in a format where Ro-Jaws introduces a tale where Gree-C then introduces a tale makes the whole thing far too complicated and necessitates too much exposition where a better plot could have been fleshed out. With the tale split over two Progs there is even a re-appearance of Ro-Jaws in the middle of the story but this time he returns the reader to the central tale without the re-appearance of the Gree-C ‘warning the children’ narrative. Worst of all is that the ‘twist’ is the reveal that the Stranger is a robot! That’s something new (bar FS 12, 31, 34, 35, RT 2).  The writer, credited as Oleh, may have been Oleh Stepaniuk who was published in the 1981 Annuals and Specials but it is not clear from Barney if this is the case. Saving the tale for a modern reader is the art which packs every panel, especially the Salon bar, with rich inventive detail. Every bar customer, every ornament and furnishing, every detail of clothing is rendered in the minutest detail. Much like his debut Future Shock, Casanovas gives us an ‘alien’ world which looks familiar yet definitely different. On the ‘down’ side Gree-C is a ringer for C3PO and the robot being stoned at the start of the tale is clearly R2D2-on-telescopic legs. A result of this, in the year The Empire Strikes Back conquered the box-office, is that it impossible to read the tale without every panel screaming ‘isn’t this a rubbish tale with C3PO’. The whole problem is compounded with Gree-C having the same shambling apologetic demeanour as has celluloid kin. So blatant are the influences that the strip forces you to look at other background characters to see if they look like the inhabitants of the Mos Eisley Cantina. Indeed, some of the girls do look like Princess Leah in her skimpy dancing-girl outfit and the ‘Stranger’ looks like Dr Strange! Whats he doing in Star Wars? Maybe this was down to the script or just Casanovas having fun but in retrospect it does detract from the otherwise stunning art.

Thrill Power? The only way to enjoy this tale is to revel in the beautiful artwork, the story itself is ill thought out and terribly dated. A story so bad even the sound effects are deeply unconvincing (‘F-SHAM!‘ anyone?) With readers having had The Omen last Prog and Star Wars in this story they probably feared a robot-disguised-as-The Jazz Singer next week.

RT 2: SNATCH FAMILY ROBOT SON

23 Nov

PROG: 147 – DAMIEN, CHILD OF THE FUTURE.

Script: Kelvin Gosnell (as W.Gosmore)

Art: Mike White

Letters: John Aldrich (as Aldrich II)

Plot: While Rolf Harris is happy with his busy career as a ‘top electronics engineer’ his wife Mary pines for them to start a family. Faced with Rolf’s intransigence she pleads for some compromise and, several years later, Mary is overjoyed by the arrival of her baby Damien. Damien grows up a talented but slightly distanced teenager, one focused, like his father, on designing and building electric gadgets. Damien’s distance and cold nature lead to a row with his mother over having taken and melted down her wedding ring. Eventually Rolf intervenes and takes Damien off to dismantle him. Damien is just a robot built by Rolf. As Damien’s head comes of the robot cries out for his parents to stop.

Ending: As the Harris’ sit confronting life without their robot son they are stunned by the head reactivating and informing them that he has improved on his father’s design many times over. A door slides open and simulacra robots of Rolf and Mary appear. The humans realise they are to be dispatched and replaced.  Later, as the robot family settle down, Damien suggests to his robot father that they consider doing something about the neighbours next…..

Thoughts: A very traditional but thoroughly entertaining sinister Robo-Tale doubtless appealing to the revenge fantasy of many of the then readers. In a series called ‘Robo-Tales‘ it is pretty obvious from the start that Mary’s ‘compromise’ must be a robot; so the revelation, on page three, about Damien having been built isn’t terribly surprising. The story delivers its ‘shock’ with the abandoned robot’s head stating that his ‘parents’ disloyalty will see them replaced by robotic versions of themselves. Children as central characters have been remarkably rare in 2000AD stories and this tale has the honour of being the first one where a child gets around to killing his own kin. Given the amount of death lashed out weekly in the Prog that it took until Prog 147 for parenticide to feature is pretty remarkable. The final touch of suggesting the neighbours will be next gives a nicely sinister coda to the tale. The only real problem with the very traditional art of Mike White is that not only do Rolf and Mary not seem to have aged while Damien grows up but poor Mary seems to have had the same haircut and wardrobe for the whole time. Damien’s lack of school friends was probably down to his shame from having parents who looked a decade out of date.

Thrill-Power?: After the left field antics of Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein in the series debut this is much more traditional Future Shock fare. Without ever being top-drawer, the ending and the malicious joy of the young Omen-bot’s triumph over stern adults make it a great kids comic even if they may not have been of the age to recognise that the Damien-bot is the exact spit of the infamous celluloid anti-christ.

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