Mills says he was asked to run with the premise of a superhero version of classic puppet adventure show Thunderbirds, and he half-delivered, the resultant strip being premised on a robot version of Thunderbirds, although rather than straight action adventure, it would be something of a social satire, with a robot odd couple at the center.
It must have worked out just fine, as Ro-Busters survived the collapse of Starlord (getting folded into 2000 AD), some of the characters survived into later Mills creation ABC Warriors, and the work still holds up remarkably well in 2008, as you can see for yourself in The Complete Ro-Busters (Rebellion), a 330-page brick of a collection.
Like The Thunderbirds, Ro-Busters was a disaster squad called in for dangerous rescue operations at the scenes of natural disasters and catastrophic accidents. The company’s leader Howard Qwartz (nicknamed “Mr. Ten Per Cent” on account of the fact that he was 90-percent robot after a series of operations swapping out his human body parts for sturdier mechanical ones) staffed his team with robots because they were more expendable than humans. And he chose the most expendable of them all: De-commissioned robots slated for destruction, kept under constant threat of being scrapped by the sadistic robo-destroyer Mek-Quake, also on the payroll.
Our stars are retired war droid Hammerstein, a humanoid robot with tank-treads on his feet and huge hammer where a right hand would be, and former sewer sanitation droid Ro-Jaws, who looks and functions much like a sentient garbage can, albeit one with a huge mouth full of pointy metal teeth.
According to Mills’ introduction to the volume, the main robots were all designed by Kevin O’Neill, who also draws a great deal of the strips, and the chunky, clunky look of the robots goes a long way toward defining the tone of the book. It’s set in the future, but a future that’s a quarter-century in our past, which gives the ‘bots a lot of their charm (Mills refers to them repeatedly as “Muppets” in his intro, and they certainly seem as much Jim Henson as Geoge Lucas), and their looks reflect their personalities and points of view the way all good cartoon character designs do.
The disaster squad idea is never completely abandoned, but Mills seems to approach the strip as first and foremost a sort of character-based comedy, as the bickering best friends find themselves serving as body guards, going undercover to bust-up an anti-human murder plot, going rogue, relating their memoirs about their lives before Ro-Busters and, in a thirteen-part climactic strip, joining the robot resistance to help smuggle their fellow Ro-Busters off-planet.
As with most of these Rebellion collections of 2000 AD strips, the credits are full of familiar names to American fans. O’Neill, Dave Gibbons, Steve Dillon and Bryan Talbot are among the artists who contribute, and the “Bonus Material” section includes a few strips by Alan Moore, one an ABC Warriors kinda sorta crossover and another a crossover with Thunderbirds analogues called “The Stormeagles.”
Perhaps the strongest strip is one that is completely Hammerstein and Ro-Jaws-free, however, a four-part story illustrated by Dave Gibbons entitled “The Terra-Meks.” In it a gigantic robot named Charley works in Northpool Harbor, functioning a sentient lighthouse of sorts that can safely tow ships to shore no matter the conditions. But Northpool is scheduled for demolition, and Ro-Busters has the contract, so Qwartz sends in his gigantic Terra-Meks to level the joint, unless the townspeople can convince the peaceful Charley to fight for them.
It’s basically just your good man pushed too far story, but it’s given new life by the fact that it involves, um, giant robots. And Gibbons’ inspired designs and mastery of scale and choreography and his always stately line work sure help elevate the proceedings, as does Mills’ portrayal of the maniacal robots.
It’s a departure from the rest of the book, but only in terms of focus, not quality. The individual strips may vary wildly when it comes to quality, but because of the serial nature of comics (be they strips or books), stories and characters build momentum as they go on, so even if plenty of individual strips seem weak, by the time you reach the end, Ro-Busters seems like an incredibly strong work, or, at the risk of perhaps over-praising it a bit, maybe even a powerful one.