The Song Remains Insane! (Robo-Hunter: Volume Two)

2000 AD: The Ultimate Collection #15. Originally serialised in 2000 AD Progs 259-265, 275-281, 283-288 & 297-307.

It’s April 1982. Yup, it’s time for another round of robot-detective shenanigans with Sam Slade, Hoagey and Stogie. Looking back on my look at Volume 1, I essentially ended up with the view at the end that it was all good fun, with some nice art by Ian Gibson, and some jokes that really haven’t stood the test of time. If I was in the mood to keep this review to one sentence, there’s a real risk I’d just say “the same, but in Brit-Cit”. That’s a bit unfair of course, but it’s also not exactly inaccurate.

I pointed this out back in Volume 1, but Robo-Hunter manages to successfully deflect a lot of critical analysis because it’s just having so much fun. Highlighting its flaws seems almost mean when you can just as easily be swept along with the mad characters and insane plots. But that doesn’t mean it’s all deflection, as a collection overall this is a good read. John Wagner and new writing partner Alan Grant make a couple of big decisions that refocus the story after nearly two years of the series being rested.

31bfa576-3c8b-4087-a8aa-eeaf1861b6d8The obvious big change is the move to Brit-Cit, which allows the strip to essentially be ‘rebooted’ as Slade has to set himself up from scratch in a new city. Watching the detective con his way into the Presidential Suite at the Savoy, and a new office for his agency, without any cash is huge fun. After the two epics we had in the first collection, it’s fun to just see Slade doing his job as its set out in the series. It provides a much stronger frame for this set of stories, which dials back on the 20+ episode lengths and tells some more straightforward “case of the month” tales.

The second shift is really dialling up the humour. Robo-Hunter has always been good for a laugh (even if they’re lazy laughs, and to be clear there’s no shortage of those here in Volume 2 either), but in the two previous stories there felt like a more even split between humour and action. The balance tips substantially towards humour here, not just in the overall plots (Agatha Christie parodies, Margaret Thatcher droids, a World Cup farce), but in the pace and frequency of quick gags and one-liners in each episode. It’s a good call. With a whole bunch of series under their belt now, Wagner and Grant are working hard to give each of them a unique identity. ‘Robot action with some fun’ would have seemed a bit bland without the emphasis on comedy. The jokes themselves are often hit and miss, and aren’t exactly subtle (and reading them in one go, rather than week-to-week, doesn’t do them any favours), but it keeps things moving along nicely. The best joke is of course Slade himself – who despite seeming fairly competent and intelligent still manages to end up in insane situations he has almost no control over. I love the regular look of exasperation that Gibson manages to give him as he’s once again in over his head.

The collection covers a pretty consistent run through 1982, starting off with “The Best of Blackheart Manor (1982)”. The Brit-Cit setting is used effectively to riff on Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes motifs, with Gibson delighting in drawing stuffy robot butlers and gentlemen inside old Gothic manor houses. Wagner and Grant deliberately stuff the story with excess – the idea that nearly 400 guests have been killed yet tourists still turn up is utter insanity. Yet you’re taken along and encouraged not to sweat the details. There’s some nice set up to the Brit-Cit context, with almost all the “humes” living it up on seaside holidays (which pays off in the last story of this collection).

(Side question: So with the introduction of Brit-Cit, Robo-Hunter explicitly takes place in the same world as Dredd now? But the Brit-Cit we see here doesn’t really square with what we know from Dredd. To be fair, we’re still a while away from Brit-City first being mentioned there.)

“The Filby Case (1982)” does a good job of digging into the series’ noir influences, with Slade filling the role of so many noir heroes who are caught in the middle of multiple sides of a case – and all of them willing to do him damage. The idea of a telepathic robot is interesting, and a lot of humour is wrung from Slade’s many beatings! The insanity lever is pushed forward with “The Killing of Kid (1982)”, which sees the return of ‘nasty guy in a baby’s body’ Commander Jim Kidd from “Verdus (1978)”. This character is clearly too much fun for Wagner and Grant not to play around with, and he pops up throughout the rest of the collection. I mostly enjoy him as a foil for Slade, who just adds him to the list of bizarre stuff he now has to put up with. Having Kidd set up a rival detective agency is a fun move.

“Football Crazy (1982)” was produced to run alongside the World Cup that was happening at the time, and beyond a few amusing takes on commentators and the management of the sport, it’s the real dud of the collection for me. The story is fairly obvious and straightforward, but the different nationalities taking part allow Wagner and Grant to really fall victim to their tendencies towards stereotyping and mocking of ‘foreign’ speech patterns. Episode 3 in particular is almost unreadable today, with Japanese football fans caricatured appallingly. I may as well mention the depiction of Stogie as well here, as his ‘Mexican’ dialect often causes some wincing throughout.

(Another sidenote – the three Brian commentators look like they’re depictions of specific people. I thought possibly John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra for two of them? I may be on the wrong track here.)

But things end of a high note of sorts (pun intended) with “Play it Again, Sam (1982)”. The idea of a ‘comic’ opera is a great one, and the little box-outs with “to the tune of…” are a brilliant way to get the reader to do the work with the printed lyrics. I didn’t know quite a few of the songs, but the ones I did know made it surprisingly fun to mentally sing along to. Iron Aggie is also another great 2000 AD satirical character, although Wagner and Grant are suprisingly not that harsh with their take on Margaret Thatcher. To be fair, there’s a lot more of the 80s to go… At 16 episodes it’s probably twice as long as it needs to be, but there’s enough in each episode to enjoy that they just about get away with it. The subplot of Hoagey becoming smart for a few episodes is great fun as well.

If my spreadsheet (and Wikipedia) are correct, we’ve got one more Volume of Robo-Hunter stories still to come. I’m looking forward to it – the collection here does a great job of highlighting the premise of the series itself: a noir-inspired detective in a world of crazy robots. It was great to see Slade and his team actually on some cases, rather than epic and intense quests. Here’s to more in the next Volume.

Next time: I didn’t think I’d have to time to read through and review this Volume, but I did – so Fast Food will now be up for review next week.

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