The Beginning of Ro-Busters for Real?

I found this story on Sky News today at http://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/other/humanoid-robot-firefighter-tested-by-us-navy/ar-AA91Hqb?ocid=OIE9HP, reporting the testing of a 5′ 11″ humanoid robot by the American navy. It’s an android fireman, and it’s hoped that it will help stop having to send real human firefighters into extremely dangerous situations.

Robusters Cover

Ro-Jaws, Hammerstein and friends

This sounds like the beginning of Ro-Busters to me.

Ro-Busters is a long-running strip in the SF comic, 2000 AD. It’s about a team of robot emergency workers sent in to tackle disasters that are far too hazardous for humans. The main characters are Ro-Jaws, a somewhat crude sewerdroid, and Hammerstein, a former soldier robot left over from the Volgan Wars. Hammerstein, known in his glory days in the ABC Warriors as ‘Old Red Eyes’, has been mentally scarred by his experiences, and suffers flashbacks and depression. He can, however, be cheered up by being given his old head to hold, which usually prompts him to start telling another tale of his military adventures.

Howard Quartz

The group is owned by Howard Quartz, aka ‘Mr 10 Per Cent’, a multi-billionaire businessman and highly shady character, so called because some kind of accident has left him only 10 per cent human. He’s now just a human brain in a robot body, though show that he’s still a member of the British business class by sporting a bowler hat and brolly. Well, you gotta keep up appearances in front of the staff and the proles, haven’t you?

Mek Quake

Ten Per Cent is an extremely harsh taskmaster, and any robot that fails to meet his extremely high performance targets is sent on a one-way journey down to Mek-Quake. This is a giant, sadistic, but immensely stupid robot bulldozer, who tears his victims apart, all the while shouting ‘Big jobs! Big jobs!’ as he does so. While the robot’s brains are discarded, Mek-Quake retains their bodies as a kind of wardrobe. Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein have been sent down to meet him many times, but manage to outwit him, which has made the machine even more desperate to get its grabs into them.

The original idea for the strip was to have a group of robots ‘doing Biggles-type things, like capping volcanoes’ and so on. The strip’s creators, including the veteran comic writer, Pat Mills, took this basic idea and gave it their own, countercultural and anti-authoritarian spin. The robots themselves are courageous with a strong sense of justice. They are, however, slaves, whose very lives hang in the balance according to how their boss feels, and whether their actions match his expectations and balance sheet that day. 10 Per Cent is a very shady character with a background in arms dealing.

It’s repeatedly shown how badly robots are treated, as non-human slaves, by humans. In one story in the 1980s, Ro-Jaws, Hammerstein along with a group of other robots, including a mechanic doctor called Doctor Feeley-Good, attempted to escape, to flee to a free robot colony on one of Saturn’s Moons. The robots there had been gold miners, but had rebelled against their human masters and defeated them all. As a sign of their freedom, they coated themselves in gold.

Robuster disaster

Through Ro-Jaws, Hammerstein and the mechanical comrades, Mills and O’Neil, one of the strip’s artists, explored issues such as corporate power and greed, the British class system, and racism and slavery. All packed into a strip, which had our heroes sent into rescue people trapped in mile-high skyscrapers that had been hit by cargo rockets taking nuclear waste into space, or down into the London Underground to save the passengers in trains. Running through the strip was a subversive sense of humour, which saw Ro-Jaws shouting ‘knickers’ at various points, and scrawling his own rebellious graffiti to take their enemies down a peg or two. In this mechanical double act, Hammerstein was the straight man, vainly trying to keep his errant friend in line and make him behave with at least some decorum.

I don’t believe that the robot now being tested by the American navy is up to the standards of the sentient machines of SF just yet. I think it’ll be a long time, if ever, before they are. But it’s an intriguing development, nonetheless.

As for Ro-Busters, I do feel it would make an excellent movie. MSN news reported at the beginning of the year that there are 25 movies based on comic strips coming out this year. We’ve already had robot heroes in several movies, most obviously transformers, but also Wall-E, and going back to the ’50s, a film starring Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet. It would be great if Ro-Jaws, Hammerstein and their mechanical chums also got a chance at the limelight. Eh, humes?

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