Robocop: Prime Suspect

Christopher Owens reviews a world that is rapidly becoming a reality.

With the 1987 classic turning 31 this month, and news of a new film being in the pipeline, it's time to revisit one of the finer tales involving the man/machine hybrid.

First published as a four part comic book series in 1992, Robocop: Prime Suspect is a very traditional "whodunit" in it's construction. But the writing, characterisation and setting makes this tale come alive.

Insane Izzy, a guy running an electronics store in Old Detroit, sees his business totalled as a gang of hoods drive a lorry through the shop so they can claim to be the ones who have destroyed Robocop. Although Robo saves Izzy and kills the hoods, Izzy blames Robo and immediately launches a campaign to have him scrapped "before Robocop scraps Detroit."

Although he is considered somewhat of a screwball, opinion is swayed when Izzy is shot dead. Quickly determining that the ballistics match Robo's Auto 9 (a weapon only he can fire), the authorities (Detroit Police and businessman Matthew Zieske) find Robo guilty, which leads to him going on the run. Zieske reveals his latest invention, ZED 309, designed to hunt down Robo. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Zieske is involved in a conspiracy, one that could swallow him whole.

This relatively taunt tale in terms of plotting and action has a much wider reach. The framing an innocent for corporate needs will always be a compelling storyline, but the motifs of mistrust and self doubt run through the tale, as Robo feels he cannot trust anyone, either the people he's programmed to protect, (as they turn on him despite saving their lives) nor himself (especially when he discovers his memory of the murder period has been blanked).

There's one image where Robo is lurking in the sewer, looking up at the grate that's letting light in. While it's an obvious image in many ways (the notion of the ultimate misfit in the gutter but looking up at the stars), it works well in the context of the tale, and is actually quite poignant, despite its obviousness. Perhaps this is down to the art, which captures a Robo with no expression. Stoicism or programmed duty. You can decide.

What I've always loved about the world that the character inhabits is that it's a society that has deliberately been run down by mega corporations in order to further their own gains. This Reaganite/Thatcherite wet dream turns the already mean streets of Old Detroit into a place of unfettered nihilism, where life means nothing and those struggling to survive are living on borrowed time. 

Albert Schweitzer once said ‘humanitarianism consists in never sacrificing a human being to a purpose.’ Bear that in mind when reading the panels where sadistic thugs drive an articulated lorry through a store in order to earn bragging rights about destroying Robo. Or nuclear plant protesters using an RPG on him, also taking out unemployed people desperate for work. This isn't just Tex Avery style comic book violence thrown in for the OTT factor, this is violence carried out by characters for whom freedom means the freedom to destroy, without any thought as to why they want to.

Indeed, this notion of uncaring humans comes through in the character of Insane Izzy. The irony of a man who makes a living persuading people that his electrical goods will improve their life, subsequently mouthing off about Robo being a monster who can't care about human life (despite saving his) is quite rich. His hatred of Robo seems to awaken a primal instinct in him (he is shown with an office dedicated to his cause, with no mention of his business), and his final walk seems to suggest someone who has come to terms with his unpopularity, but feels he must continue his mission.

In a certain way, it reminds me of the following quote from Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club where, after a convenience store worker is nearly killed and then let go, the narrator says "...your dinner is going to taste better than any meal you've ever eaten, and tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of your life."

The same thing undoubtedly happened to Insane Izzy. After losing his livelihood, but retaining his life, both characters have re-evaluated the directions they are heading in and have now tapped into their true selves. Which, in the case of Insane Izzy, is hatred for the person who saved him. 

Where standards drop, however, is the artwork. Although it does the job by and large, certain sections are so blandly coloured that the reader would be forgiven for ignoring them (this is especially noticeable in panels with no action and lots of dialogue). Maybe a rejig of the art and colouring for an anniversary edition would amend this issue?

For a character who hasn't been well served in comics over the last number of years, Robocop: Prime Suspect stands tall as a thriller and an insight into a world that is rapidly coming to reality. 

John Arcudi, John Paul Leon and Jeff Albrecht, Robocop: Prime Suspect 1993 Dark Horse Books ISBN-13: 978-1878574879

➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

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