Robo-Hunter: The Droid Files vol. 1 – John Wagner, Alan Grant

3 out of 5

I really just wanted to know: what’s up with the robo-cigar? That was what encouraged me to hunt down early 2000 AD title Robo-Hunter, starring Sam Slade as the titular detective-for-hire type, who specializes in blastin’ rogue bots.

There isn’t much to it, of course, which could be said for most of Robo-Hunter: Sam Slade takes a case, it goes on for a while with some repeated jokes – his assistant robot Hoagy doesn’t understand anything and blows their cover; Stogie (the robo-cigar) starts making threats to whichever goons and gets Slade in above his head – and then everything explodes and Sam comes out on top. But that’s okay: the primary emphasis in RH is on fun, playing around with a rogue cop trope to do some social satire and get some good action in, with Ian Gibson doing a mesmerizing job of animating chaos across this first collection’s several main stories.

The two opening Wagner-scripted tales – Verdus and The Day of the Droids – are somewhat similarly structured, extending their core cases out by coming up with prog-by-prog hijinx to extend the conclusion for however many more weeks. This does get a little tired, because it’s way too clear that said hijinx have nothing to do with the core story, but it’s also fun to see / feel Wags figuring out the right tone for his tales, stripping away initial side characters – Kidd, Sam Slade’s pilot, regressed into the body of a baby; and Cutie, his “Robometer” unit affixed to his belt, which, for no real explained reason is shaped like a slice of pizza and has boobs – and replacing them with Hoagy and Stogie, just as Sam himself moves from tuff-talking Clint Eastwood type to more of a hapless, one-liner hero; and there’s John’s general endless wealth of inventive ideas, brought to zany life by Gibson. So even when we’re belaboring The End, the book is still entertaining.

Both of these stories deal with robots taking over – Verdus, an entire planet; Day of the Droids, back on our planet – and when Grant picks up the strip for The Beast of Black Heart Manner, he moves things to Brit Cit and starts making the satire much more direct, able now to pick on British culture. Grant also tightens things up significantly, though, sharpening Hoagy’s and Stogie’s personalities a bit such that they can be used more effectively in the tales – still an idiot and Sam-worshipping rabble-rouser, but just with a bit more sense of their roles in the dynamic being fleshed out – and he knows to keep Wag’s focus on comedy adventuring, so the humor tends to land well alongside that. Gibson’s art becomes much cleaner at this time as well; by the time we get to the return of Kidd in the last multi-part story, the strip really feels like it’s hit a groove where a move like this makes sense – the tone and pace are fully established, so time to go back and explore the stuff Wagner set up.

It’s all definitely a bit silly – Stogie speaks with a forced Mexican accent, and his “role,” initially, is to help Slade quit smoking… but he was actually just a censor-mandated addition so Sam wouldn’t be actually smoking in a kid-read book – but it’s the engaging, inventive kind of silly at which 2000 AD excelled. While the first half of the book has a lot of padding, and ideas that you’re happy are shed as we go along, the second half is consistently fun, and earns some laugh out loud moments.