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ED-CMYK: A Survey of RoboCop in Comics (Part Two)

Part one of this story can be found here.

 

After departing Dynamite, RoboCop found his next home at Boom!, which adopted an approach similar to Avatar’s, bringing in Steven Grant to adapt Frank Miller’s unused screenplay for the third RoboCop film, this time with artist Korkut Öztekin. The result, the RoboCop: Last Stand mini-series (2013), is a diminished work, even by the measure of Frank Miller’s RoboCop (Avatar). Whereas Miller’s original screenplay for RoboCop 2 managed to approximate RoboCop’s post-human manneredness, the Miller script Grant uses for Last Stand gives the character stock noir dialogue. The story’s take on a corroded Detroit is also more perfunctory; when readers see a commercial for something like the forced reprogramming of rude children, it has a direct link to Last Stand’s larger plot. The work here resembles The Spirit (2008), a film in which unchecked Millerisms smother the identity of its source text.

Last Stand begins with RoboCop in hiding, framed for a series of murders but committed to protecting Detroit’s most vulnerable. The city’s police force has collapsed, and RoboCop is effectively at war with OCP, aided by a rogue engineer and RoboCop super-fan named Marie Lacasse. Battles rage within OCP as well, allowing Faxx, a scheming researcher, to rise to the top. Faxx, whose work involves “molding [a person’s] existing personality to a more socially acceptable matrix,” is a character nearly identical to Margaret Love of Frank Miller’s RoboCop, down to Last Stand’s irony-free attempts at titillation. These resemblances occur often throughout the series; it’s a wonder Boom! had any confidence Last Stand might stand on its own. The comics read not just like an echo of the film RoboCop 3 or Grant’s Miller adaptation at Avatar but also of Miller’s other works.

Maxx seizes control of OCP with the help of Otomo, an android sent to Detroit from Tokyo to aid the company. There are shades of Miller’s Ronin here, but with nothing to match that comic’s inventive cartooning and with more blatant orientalism. The story first finds the silent, inscrutable Otomo in a meditation chamber, then hopping along rooftops with a katana . . . It’s every ninja cliché you might expect from Miller, or for that matter from any of the Miller parodies that had proliferated by the time he wrote the script, deployed in the interest of misdirecting readers from a nonetheless obvious reveal that this guy’s a robot too.

Maxx and Otomo take RoboCop captive, killing his assistant and admirer Marie in the process. RoboCop’s salvation comes via plans Marie made before her death. Readers learn that she has converted her consciousness into artificial intelligence, which replicates itself throughout OCP’s databases as soon as OCP attempts to repurpose RoboCop. In the story’s one really good turn, Marie then generates a synthetic form for her consciousness to inhabit—the Bride of Frankenstein creates herself.

What undermines this twist is Miller’s having already repurposed it, two decades before the release of Last Stand, in RoboCop Versus the Terminator. The earlier mini-series sees RoboCop, a prisoner of Skynet, fighting back by replicating himself across that hostile system. Last Stand, following this, hands readers a pile of bones and hopes no one will notice they’ve been picked over once before. It’s worth mentioning here that Grant wrote the introduction to the collected edition of RoboCop Versus the Terminator; also that Miller put unused ideas from RoboCop 2 into his script for RoboCop 3, meaning that the comics adaptations of these scripts are somewhat redundant of each other. (For instance, both Frank Miller’s RoboCop and Last Stand include the same in-story ad for the “Eroteque” sex robot, a detail Miller really needed to share with the world.) The decision to still create this mini-series, knowing how many elements of Last Stand had appeared in other forms, is one of either high cynicism, obtuse fanboyism, or both.

The right artist could have gone a good way toward redeeming even a venture like this, but Korkut Öztekin is not that artist. Scenes that would have benefitted from a keen visual wit (RoboCop hurling a helicopter into a building, a armed standoff inside a crowded Detroit dive bar) are muddy in their execution. The whole mini-series is poorly made and a chore to read, the end product of a series of choices seemingly designed—in the absence of a story distinct from Frank Miller’s other RoboCop projects—to publish Miller’s dregs and take money from suckers.

* * *

If RoboCop: Last Stand suggests a depth of cynicism unique among RoboCop adaptations, RoboCop: Dead or Alive (2014) might be the clumsiest of them. Another Boom! release, from scripter Joshua Williamson and artist Carlos Magno, Dead or Alive sets RoboCop against Killian, a goateed-and-ponytailed arms dealer. Killian positions himself as an advocate for the people of Detroit, publicly criticizing RoboCop and OCP while privately working to “make the future of Detroit a war zone” and profit from an intra-city arms race. Magno isn’t bad here, just miscast. His work strives for photorealism, with a detailed hatching technique that doesn’t match the sleek textures of RoboCop or the concrete battle zones of the story’s Detroit. Williamson is the main offender.

Dead or Alive’s Killian, in his bad-faith crusade for a safer Detroit, arranges for the city to confiscate RoboCop’s gun. (“How does it feel to be neutered?” a reporter asks Murphy.) RoboCop gets it back, of course, during a pivotal scene in which the head of OCP admits his ignorance and arrogance in ever taking the gun away. The story unfolds like a meathead allegory about the hazards of anti-firearm overreach and the importance of good guys with guns, but it’s difficult to be sure, because Williamson demonstrates no awareness of subtext anywhere else. Dead or Alive reads like the work of a writer whose major reference point is other bad comics.

Clichés overrun Dead or Alive and are often the only things connecting the motions of its plot. When a repurposed ED unit prepares to kill a downed RoboCop, one of Killian’s henchmen stops it because they “got what they needed.” Later, Killian asks of a new hire, “allow me a moment to brag,” before launching into the exposition that gives readers his back story. There’s no self-awareness in these moments; they’re strictly functional. The task of writing police work is also a challenge for Williamson. Dead or Alive sees RoboCop’s partner Lewis sidelined from street action after a promotion to cold-case detective, and the story’s glimpses into her process of deduction provide some of its most unfortunate moments.

A scene a few issues later finds Lewis looking back through old OCP security footage, which leads to her to expose Killian as a murderer. Lewis’s epiphany comes after she encounters a protestor with an OCP IS WATCHING US!!! sign and then spots a security camera stationed above OCP headquarters. These cameras have been around for months, readers learn—Lewis just hadn’t noticed. In other words, during the story’s crucial moment of deduction, Williamson makes his sleuth out to be a total dimwit. He has since fallen upward, with a gig writing the World’s Greatest Detective.

In the run of RoboCop comics that follows Dead or Alive, RoboCop: Citizens Arrest (2018), there’s no mistaking the storytellers’ social commentary. These are the inevitable RoboCop comics about apps, in which justice is crowd-sourced. The first volume of Citizens Arrest jumps ahead five years from the previous Boom! series. Murphy is a recluse, and a tech start-up has revived the RoboCop program as “a holistic system of urban pacification” involving drones, twig-limbed robotic officers, and the R/Cop app, which allows citizens to monetize reporting each other’s infractions.

Jorge Coelho, the artist on Citizens Arrest, draws like Walt Simonson in a hurry, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He creates his figures out of straight lines and hard angles, but his compositions are never too constrained, and his staging of action is clear. He’s among the best artists on the various RoboCop comics. Brian Wood, meanwhile, is the scripter who most resembles Murphy, with initiatives like this prolonging his career after events that might otherwise have brought it to a close. Like some writers before him, Wood has trouble maintaining RoboCop’s stiff-by-design speech, opting instead for more conventional tough guy dialogue, e.g. “There are no cops—just us ghosts—too dumb to realize it” and “The city screwed you all by selling itself to OCP.” (One of the oddities of RoboCop’s comics appearances is how seldom scripts recreate the speaking patterns that help define the character.)

Wood’s work is aligned with the original film in its attempts at commentary, although these attempts don’t land quite as well. RoboCop’s adversary in Citizens Arrest, an ersatz Steve Jobs, explains not attempting to kill RoboCop five years earlier by saying, “It was nostalgia, pure and simple. [But t]he more I watch him, the more depressed I get.” It’s a dangerous thought to introduce in a story like this. The tech guru wants to gentrify and corporatize Detroit so that it serves as “proof of concept” for similar efforts in other cities. In practice, this means violently encroaching on low-income neighborhoods—a significant dilemma, but one that has an awful lot in common with the plots of Frank Miller’s scripts. This is one of the tensions in Citizens Arrest: it both leans into RoboCop’s suitability for social comment and reads like an admission that there’s too much money in RoboCop comics to stop rehashing these stories.

The story begins with a problem not far removed from that of Dead or Alive: RoboCop is once again unable to use his firearm, this time because OCP has overwritten his programming. Citizens Arrest resolves Murphy’s inability to draw his weapon by having Leo Reza—briefly a cop, before the end of Detroit’s public sector—and his programmer wife effectively jailbreak RoboCop. (Which, if a story’s doing phone stuff, is not a terrible move.) Leo also becomes the nexus of the comics’ social commentary. The first issue begins with him and his wife learning they’ve lost their health insurance as she’s about to give birth. It’s a scene with only a modest satirical bite, but it establishes the plight of these characters and by extension Detroit’s working people. What’s strange, in the pages that follow, is the selectiveness with which the story picks its concerns.

“I just want to be a cop,” Leo tells his wife, explaining his inability to overlook OCP’s injustices. But the story doesn’t explore what this represents specifically for Leo, a person of color. In a story that otherwise invites readers to note its social relevance, the absence of a dive into what policing means to communities of color is conspicuous. And Wood’s writing short-circuits, on any level of allegory, once Leo falls into the new OCP’s hands.

Citizens Arrest’s tech-guru villain determines his current approach to social control is missing something. Robots “are incapable of choosing to be deliberately cruel,” he says, “and sometimes what you need is a cop that goes out to crack skulls.” He selects Leo for the job, despite the story having established Leo as a civically minded family man not inclined toward cruelty. Wood acknowledges this to a degree—OCP has to hook “empathy blockers” up to Leo—but his plotting makes less general sense than that of Miller’s screenplays, which put established psychopaths in the role.

In addition to Wood’s repeating of the replacement RoboCop thing, his explanation for turning Leo into a cyborg doesn’t suggest much real consideration of structures, power, and people. From hostile architecture to racist algorithms on social media, the idea that systems are insufficiently cruel without active human pilots is easy to contest. In fact, the best bits in Citizens Arrest contradict this premise, depicting automated kinds of antagonism. OCP’s ponderous new R/cop robots ask, “What are material possessions, anyway? You still have your health” as they raze a community; smaller R/cop drones hover around a little girl seated on a fire escape, scolding her en masse for being reckless.

Among the good, the bad, and the worst RoboCop comics, one takeaway is that a sense of humor doesn’t diminish a story’s resonance (and the comics reliably suffer without one). The best and most consistent works, which understand this well, are also the earliest: those of Alan Grant.

* * *

The first RoboCop comics (outside a direct adaptation of the original film) came courtesy of Marvel in 1990, with Grant serving as writer. A 2000 AD alum, Grant had already written for Detective Comics in the late eighties, and he would become better known among readers of American superhero comics for his work on Lobo and Batman: Shadow of the Bat. But his twelve issues of RoboCop are more in the tradition of 2000 AD. Effectively Judge Dredd stories in the guise of a monthly Marvel book, they embrace that character’s themes of totalitarian overreach and absurdity around the corner. Working off an R-rated film property during the Comics Code era, Grant and his collaborators make various concessions to the format, but they also know what to do with the gaps this creates, heightening RoboCop’s comedic elements in the absence of ultraviolence.

Lee Sullivan, another UK creator (who would later draw several Dredd stories), pencils RoboCop throughout Grant’s run. His cartooning in these comics is house-style stuff, the same sensibility a reader of the time would have found in an issue of Web of Spider-Man or a Marvel annual back-up story. This often works to the comics’ advantage, with Sullivan playing straight man to Grant. His RoboCop’s square jaw and stiff upper lip balance out the wit and weirdness of certain story beats. When an investigation leads RoboCop to a “Kombat” event in which “men in insulated suits [try] to electrocute each other with tazers,” or when he asks a colleague to book a metal-jawed troublemaker for “biting an officer with intent to assault,” Sullivan doesn’t play up the moment, and he doesn’t need to. The stories present, in numerous ways, a world fueled by its basest impulses, and they don’t give any gag too hard a sell.

Grant and Sullivan’s take on RoboCop is broader than that of Verhoeven, Neumeier, and Miner, and it lacks Verhoeven’s ferocity as a storyteller, but the best issues hold up surprisingly well three decades later. Grant’s last story arc depicts the fallout from The Detroit Vigilante, a reality TV show (and OCP branded content) in which a new costumed hero confronts minor offenders. The show inspires a plague of incompetent copycat vigilantes, and their unlicensed attempts at street justice drive crime rates up. In a series of throwaway jokes, Grant creates some of the funniest wannabe superheroes in that subgenre’s long history, including General Power, who rescues a civilian from muggers and then accidentally electrocutes him; Doc Chainsaw, a reactionary lunatic in a red baseball cap; and the vocationally oriented Warehouse Guardsman.

As good as these gags are, no one enjoys superhero parodies more than superhero readers. “War,” from a few issues earlier, is the story arc that reads as though Grant’s getting away with something. In “War,” Spain has set up a blockade to prevent famine-struck refugees from North Africa from crossing its borders, stoking armed conflict between Spain and Algeria. (The issues sometimes use Algeria and North Africa interchangeably, and although it’s often obtuse American newscasters conflating the two, the dumbing-down of the region’s geography is still a blot on the story.) Seeking to avoid further negative publicity, the Spanish military leases RoboCop from OCP and sends him to disappear an enemy leader known as the Desert Hawk. What happens next is predictable—to a point.

The first chapter of “War” is not subtle about the morally dubious nature of RoboCop’s mission. Before he departs for North Africa, OCP has to wipe his nobler directives, and a pair of OCP executives gloat that “every army in the world will want to lease him from us!” And although readers first see the Desert Hawk as a menacing eye-patched villain, it’s no great surprise when RoboCop’s impression of him changes during a firsthand encounter. “He does not act like a war criminal,” RoboCop notes. In fact, the Hawk has been overseeing an underground hydroponic agriculture project in hopes of ending the famine.

As a reader might expect, RoboCop changes sides, fighting Spanish cyborgs and a military-grade ED-209. The story’s conclusion, however, involves a turn worthy of the first film. With Spain poised to wipe out the Desert Hawk’s rebels and an explosive device poised to destroy RoboCop, news of a truce arrives. “Calling for an immediate end to hostilities,” a broadcaster announces, “OCP has pledged to fund all of North Africa’s water supplies on credit—in return for a half-share in the country’s new hydroponics venture!” Salvation comes, in other words, in the form of some next-level war profiteering, with OCP, after intensifying the hostilities, taking a stake in Algeria’s economy and extending a form of help that puts its people in the company’s debt.

Sullivan’s cartooning doesn’t frame this as less than a win for everyone involved, and Grant’s dialogue maintains face-value functionality and a current of irony underneath: “The publicity will do wonders for our image abroad—even if we do suffer a short-term fall in arms sales!” It’s this tension that makes Grant and Sullivan’s work the best of RoboCop’s many comics stewards. While other iterations sell their ultraviolence unexamined, use characters’ in-story deference to their worst impulses as a reason to indulge their own, or simply settle for retelling an existing story, Grant and Sullivan’s run stands apart from the rest of the Marvel series and the many works that came after it.

The comics don’t have a solution to the larger problem of even good RoboCop stories—Benjamin and Nelson’s concern (mentioned in Part One) about experiencing humankind’s ruin as aesthetic pleasure. And Grant and Sullivan don’t have anything to match, say, Miguel Ferrer’s committed smugness as a rising OCP exec or the laughs Verhoeven gets out of RoboCop’s clanking gait. But they’re smart enough to recognize what works best in the source text and in the medium through which its adaptors operate. Still cheap and plentiful in back-issue bins, their comics are a reminder that however often a story’s social commentary loses out to the chance to sell a dozen diminished returns, the message can still carry a charge.

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