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Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot

There was a time, back before Busiek’s Conan and the acquirement of the publishing rights to Star Wars and many Japanese comics, when Dark Horse was a place where you would find some of the most odd combinations of talent and concept that ever appeared in comics. Stan Sakai’s samurai rabbit Usagi Yojimbo and Paul Chadwick’s classic Concrete are some fine examples of Dark Horse’s penchant for publishing the strange and wonderful of our comic book industry.

But one rather obscure title from Dark Horse’s early days have been one that I have always been on the lookout for, and which I have finally found, is Frank Miller’s and Geof Darrow’s Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot.

Japan, after playing just a tiny bit of God, is under attack from some malevolent force in the form of a giant lizard, but it doesn’t have the tender disposition of Godzilla. This beast has it in mind to destroy humanity and wipe its stench from the planet by converting all human genetic matter into replicates of itself. When all conventional methods are exhausted, Japan sends in its prototype military breakthrough, a small red headed robot named Rusty. When even Rusty fails to cull the threat, Japan calls in its last hope: the US-made Big Guy, a colossal metal warrior who may be the planet’s last possible hope.

Some may remember the brief but entertaining Big Guy and Rusty cartoon that ran on Fox Kids a few years back, and I’m sure even more remember the teaming of these two artists on the super-violence pastiche of Hard Boiled, so one might expect the comic version of these two metallic monster fighters to be something of a middle ground between those two works. In many ways it is; the artwork Darrow produces here is more grotesque and far more graphic than that of the television animators, but the dialogue, as written by Frank “Sin City” Miller, remains much the same as the television show designed for children. It’s tame, subtly ironic, and only slightly mocking of the “Giant Monster Attacks City” genre that it tends to work both as a parody of films like Godzilla and King Kong and as a decent adventure story.

The design by Darrow is what is the most impressive and is far more representative of complex issues than Miller’s somewhat simple plot and storytelling. Darrow is one of those rare artists that can draw breathtaking full page landscapes, as well as technical precision and facial detail, and make all of them work in the same panel. The grotesque nature of the monster juxtaposes nicely against the clean, straight lines of the city of Tokyo. It highlights the struggle that Miller is beating to death in his monster dialogue: that of nature versus technological power.

Darrow's designs for Rusty and Big Guy are also telling and representative of more than just robots. Rusty’s design, which makes him appear as a large-headed child with an air foil on his head, is reminiscent Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy. This is obviously intentional on Darrow’s part, if for no other reason to demonstrate the difference between a Japanese and an American design for a robot. Astro Boy (or Tetsuo Atom for purists) was one of Tezuka’s earliest works, and it became common after that seminal work for robots to be depicted in manga as somewhat humanoid. This became something of a tradition in manga, and it is very different when compared to the American robot. The picture of an American robot is historically drawn form the pulp science fiction tradition, where they were odd combinations of wires and dials and gears. Our robots, for whatever reason, appear more mechanical than Japanese robots.

Darrow’s design of Big Guy highlights these differences well. The Big Guy has no mouth, square “eyes,” and is colored white with blue metallic piping all along his chassis. He looks like a pulp fiction robot. In drawing these characters in this manner, Darrow seems to be trying to comment on the differences between our two disparate societies, and he brings up some intriguing points with his art. The Japanese, who have made leaps and bounds ahead of the US in terms of technological development, dream of robots designed to appear more human. Honda’s Asimo is a fine example; watch it kick a soccer ball or dance like a person. The Big Guy is designed to look like a machine or maybe a suit of armor. Darrow implies that American robots are meant to be machines and just machines; that to make them more human in function or appearance might weaken them.

But one revelation that occurs later in the book leads us to question if humanity is a negative or positive factor in this big monster tussle. Because Rusty, the human robot, cannot defeat the monster, but the Big Guy can stand against it, raises all manner of questions as to what truly can confront the onslaught of nature, in this case a giant multi-armed lizard that can breathe fire, better.

I’m impressed that I actually got this much deeper meaning from a story about two robots beating the hell out of a more talkative version of Godzilla, but Darrow’s artwork takes the reader to several very interesting places. Unfortunately, Miller’s writing doesn’t really live up to it. Miller has done great things (Dark Knight Returns, Sin City) and some awful garbage (DK2), and this is not his worst piece. In fact, much of what he writes is very good, especially the satirical, All-American dialogue of the Big Guy. However, he forgot to complete the story.

Miller takes the time to introduce his characters, but really gives nothing to define them. This is not horrible, as it seems clear to me that he is striving to lampoon some of the funnier aspects of the “Big Monster Attacks” genre; it even works well to eliminate Rusty, the least interesting character early on, but problems arise here. Miller leaves the reader with the fight to focus on, which would be fine if he had managed to add more of an actual fight. Both narrative boxes and the over-the-top ramblings of the monster in question, as well as the unnecessary dialogue of those affected by the monster’s replication process obscure the scenes of battle.

Almost all this extra wordiness detracts from Darrow's artwork by covering it up, and adding very little to the story. The amount of unnecessary exposition makes the story feel slower. If the action is all there is to focus on, something that is not all together bad, than the action has to take center stage and not be made murky by superfluous verbosity. Issues of Warren Ellis’s Global Frequency did this expertly. Miller did not do it here.

All in all, Miller’s lackluster writing does not help this book, but Geof Darrow’s artwork alone is worth the cover price of $14.95. In addition, Dark Horse publishes this trade in an oversized format (about 9’x 12 ½ ‘) so Darrow’s art is on fine display. There is also a cover gallery from other issues, or what might be mocked up issues, in the back along with two splash pages of the Big Guy and Rusty battling monsters alongside the likes of Spawn and Ash, for some reason. The story is barely there, but enjoyable, and the art is top notch. Plus, where else will you find a story about robots, monsters, and societal concepts of technology? Other than on Robot Wars, I mean.

Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot

Robert Sparling

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