Pat Mills, comics, politics and subversion – Looking back (and forwards) at Ro-Busters

A RECENT purchase, if not release, was the first book in a two-volume collection of all the Ro-Busters strips which ran in Star Lord and then 2000AD back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Ro-Busters: The Complete Nuts and Bolts Vol 1 is a handsome book in sturdy hardback and on glossy, good-stock paper which nicely does the strips justice (particularly the early Star Lord ones, which were originally printed on glossy photo-gravure paper, as opposed to 2000AD’s more basic newsprint). But it was only while reading these stories for the first time pretty much since their original publication I realised how much they had stayed with me. On reflection, this was surprisingly formative stuff.

Ro-Busters begins as a pastiche on Thunderbirds, with the eponymous team of mismatched robots (bought at knock-down prices by stingy cyborg boss Howard Quartz) acting as a rescue team sent into disaster situations deemed too dangerous for humans. The two main characters are Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein (geddit?). Ro-Jaws is a sewer robot with a Cockney accent and a rebellious, bordering on anarchic, disdain for authority (in other words, humanity), while Hammerstein is a straitlaced, world-weary war droid. There are other members of Ro-Busters, most notably Angel, the medic, Howard Quartz (also known as Mr Ten Per Cent on account of the fact that he’s now only 10 per cent human) and Mek-Quake, a terminally thick bulldozer with a penchant for ultra-violence (“Big Jobs!”) and an obsession with revenge on Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein, who never miss an opportunity to give him cheek.

The key strength of Ro-Busters is its humour and character. Admittedly, this can often veer rather close to the British sitcom humour of the time. Ro-Jaws could be seen as a more subversive version of Reg Varney’s character in On The Buses and Hammerstein as just slightly reminiscent of Windsor Davies’s Sgt Major in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Although perhaps this is doing them both a disservice and could be better described as archetypes established in an earlier generation of war films – Hammerstein the noble warrior, Ro-Jaws the plucky but irreverent lower-ranks. But regardless of their antecedents, the key appeal of Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein is down to their enduring likeability and character.

Or rather, that’s part of their appeal. The Ro-Busters strips quickly evolved from a ‘disaster of the week’ format to something a little more subversive, no doubt helped by the strip’s move to 2000AD, which was always a little cooler and hip than the more child-friendly Star Lord. There would be an increasingly rebellious subtext to the stories, starting perhaps with the Space Ritz story, in which a robot rebellion is revealed to being incited by some human malcontents. The insurrection is foiled but Ro-Jaws is quite clear he has only done so because it was a phoney one. If it had been a genuine, he would have been all for it. The story ends with him looking forward to the real thing.

The prospect of a robot rebellion simmers in the background in every Ro-Busters story from that point. It’s made clear that in this world robots are very much second-class citizens, treated largely with contempt by the humans around them. And eventually it comes to a head in the finale to the series, The Fall and Rise of Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein. Howard Quartz is facing bankruptcy and decides to blow up Ro-Busters in an insurance ‘accident’. Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein get wind of this and join a robot underground to help get their comrades offworld. They then stay behind to help other robots escape from their (ironically) unfeeling human masters.

While on the surface these stories are comic romps, with the comedy being provided by Ro-Jaws (has there every been a robot who’s got to dress up quite so often?), there is a clear political undercurrent to them. Much of this is social commentary on industrial relations of the time (in one story Ro-Busters is threatened with nationalisation). Mr Ten Per Cent is the epitome of the money-grabbing, exploitative management class and Ro-Jaws and co are the Workers. Indeed, Ro-Jaws is seen in the role of the bolshy shop steward in one story. And add to that a roll-call of venal and corrupt government and council officials. Ro-Busters exists in a world that for all its hi-tech fripperies is essentially indistinguishable to┬áBritain in the Winter of Discontent.

However, these specifically now-historical references do tend to date these stories (more on that below) but they are anyway subsidiary to a deeper core of commentary that tackles themes of prejudice. Robots are second-class citizens, often seen in situations not just of servitude but of abuse. The overall arc of the stories is one of emancipation and self-determination.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the work of Ro-Busters’ leading writer, Pat Mills. Mills’ name should be far wider known in the annals of British literature than it currently is. He’s been responsible for some of the best and most significant works in British comics, and is continuing to do so today. Away from SF, he’s responsible for Charley’s War, one of the most powerful pieces of anti-war literature ever and a thoughtful examination of the role of the working classes in the British war machine. He also wrote some extremely strong early stories in the fledgling Doctor Who Weekly back in the late 1970s. The first of these, the Iron Legion, concerned a robot uprising in a future world where the Roman Empire never fell (sound familiar?). The second, City of the Damned, presented a society whose inhabitants have been forcibly purged of emotion and, once again, is overthrown by a band of resistance fighters who have each chosen to master a single emotion, to keep it alive. It’s clear that Mills, as with all serious artists, has themes to which he returns again and again.

But perhaps Mills’s clearest treatment of prejudice and the suppression of underclasses is in Nemesis the Warlock. Basically this ongoing series set in a far-flung future where Earth, now known as Termight, is ruled as an intolerant religious fundamentalist state that is conducting a hate-filled war to the death against all non-human life. This campaign was led against a phantom-like bigot called Torquemada and opposed by a Devil-like alien named Nemesis. Nemesis was highly influential in its day and Torquemada’s slogan ‘Be Pure, Be Vigilant, Behave’ even found its way onto the graffiti on the Berlin Wall. And while written in the 1980s and 1990s, it’s a story that has perhaps even more resonance now than it did then, with its themes of violent religious intolerance, hatred, hypocrisy and bigotry.

Ro-Busters came to an end after the final robot revolt story but it’s perhaps appropriate that Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein found their way into Nemesis’s world. By Book Four, Ro-Jaws had become Nemesis’s personal valet and it wasn’t long in that story before Hammerstein and the rest of his ABC Warriors made an appearance.

Outside of Judge Dredd himself, it’s perhaps not a stretch to say that the ABC Warriors is 2000AD’s most successful strip. A group of mismatched war robots, led by Hammerstein, initially on war-torn Mars, then on Earth, as well as future adventures in Nemesis’s world. Think Transformers meets The Dirty Dozen.

I was not that big a fan of the original ABC Warriors strips, finding them a bit too gung-ho, despite their obvious inventiveness. They seemed to lack the humour of Ro-Busters a bit too much for my liking.

However, over the past few years there has been something of a renaissance in the ABC Warriors tales, starting with the four-volume The Volgan War sequence, the Return to Earth, Return to Mars and, most recently, Return to Ro-Busters stories.

Largely illustrated by Clint Langley’s striking digital collage work, these stories have also been distinguished by Mills reintroducing aspects of the original Ro-Busters world, deepening a decades-old mythology and retconning it where appropriate.

The Volgan Wars are centred around an oil war on Mars, with the Volgans (one of 2000AD’s earliest ‘villains’) reimagined as Tsarist metallic foes. Mek-Quake, an occasional member of the Warriors now returns and the Warriors embark on a mission to find the Urban Fox, a Banksy-like social provocateur, who is revealed to be none other than Ro-Jaws.

The political repositioning of the narrative continues when it is revealed that the arch-protagonist of the unrest is none other than Howard Quartz. All the key players of the original 1970s strip are now back in place but with the industrial-relations era class politics replaced with Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine theories of neoliberal global manipulation. Return to Ro-Busters, for example, makes clear that many of the so-called disasters of the original stories were orchestrated by Quartz himself, replete with ‘crisis actors’ and using the spectre of the ‘war on terrorism’ for economic gain and political manipulation.

With Quartz’s machinations revealed, the ABC Warriors find that their programming forbids them from going against their previous owner. Their only hope, it seems, is to find the one bolshy robot who defied him on a regular basis. Enter, once again, Ro-Jaws.

This retconning becomes even more pronounced in the most recent volume Return to Ro-Busters. Rather than jump straight into the action, the book takes a ‘The Usual Suspects’ approach and revisits all the major stories from the original Ro-Busters run, filling in some gaps, offering revised interpretations elsewhere. For instance, a 1979 story, concerning a plane crashed into a high rise tower, has taken on a very different resonance now, and the strip explores this. Similarly, it’s made more explicit that what once seemed an absurdist song-and-dance routine by Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein is in fact a reference to the Cakewalk dances of black slaves, slyly mocking their white owners – possibly a reference too far in the 1970s but which can now be more fully foregrounded.

If all this sounds terribly serious and self-important, that’s really not the case. The anarchy and the humour are still more than present. As usual, much of this comes courtesy of Ro-Jaws. His ‘death’ scene during a final 40-years-in-the-making showdown with Mek-Quake is a witty pastiche of Roy Batty’s demise in Blade Runner (‘turds in the rain’ indeed).

And while the stage is set for a climactic confrontation in the story itself, the process of getting there demonstrates firstly that one of the satisfactions that long-running comic series enjoy is the ability to revisit and essentially rewrite its old mythologies, and to deepen and enhance them in the process. (It’s something that the likes of cinema and TV are only catching onto now and to which there seems to be greater resistance too, as the recent hoo-hahs over the Star Trek and Ghostbusters reboots has shown.)

However, it also once again shows just how wrong-headed the snobbishness of critics of the genre can be. Yes, comics can be silly, one-dimensional and inane. But so can any artform. And when it’s firing on all cylinders as it is in these volumes, it can also be simultaneously witty, entertaining but multi-faceted and questioning as well.

As Ro-Jaws says, “Begin Thinking, Stop Believing.”

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