I’m gonna start my review of Robocop: To Live And Die In Detroit by copping to the fact that I haven’t seen the rebooted Robocop movie that this comic book is based on. I probably will at some point, in the same way I saw the rebooted version of Total Recall: on cable while too shitfaced to operate my universal remote.
Look, I have established that I am a big fan of the original Robocop, and that I am not exactly thrilled to see a remake of that classic flick. With that said, I have heard a few decent reviews of the movie from sources I trust, so I don’t want to dismiss it completely out of hand, or allow my instinctive disdain for the idea of a new version of the Robocop character to overly color my opinion about this comic. Sure, the original Robocop was a genius mix of action, violence, satire and humor that I can’t imagine anyone improving on, but I imagine there were fans of Batman & Robin that hated the idea of the stylistic mindfucker who directed Memento sucking all the joy out of Batman. If you are one of those people, I hate you and everything you stand for and, oh yes, I will find you, but that’s not the point right now.
So I will try to approach this comic in the spirit that it really is about a character about which I know nothing. It’s certainly not my Robocop (and make no mistake, it really isn’t my Robocop), it’s just a character about a cyborg superhero working in a major American metropolis. So I tried to treat it like a completely new character, and judge it on those merits.
And on those merits? Yeah, it’s not all that great. Even considering it was impossible for me to really put aside the original Robocop.
There is a lost child wandering around on the Ambassador Bridge, with trucks and cars whizzing past her. Local cops tell dispatch that they’re blocked by traffic, but not Robocop, who zips in on his motorcycle to save the girl and a trucker who lost control of his vehicle to boot. The cops who said over the radio that they were blocked off zip up and tell Robocop that they’ll bring the girl, who has what appears to be a corporate logo tattooed on her wrist, in for medical attention, so Robocop fucks off back to headquarters and starts performing data queries on the cops who took the girl. Soon, he intercepts those cops in the midst of simultaneous acceptance of a bribe and delivery of human slave traffic, which at some point included the little girl on the bridge. Robocop threatens the dirty cops to get the name of the kingpin of the operation, who throws all of his men and guns at Robocop to no avail. Then, as he is about to arrest the kingpin, the little girl he saved predictably shoots the guy, and life goes on in Detroit.
Okay, one of the problems with this issue is that, since the Robocop remake came out on the same day as this comic book, writer Joe Harris has to assume that many, if not most, of the people reading this comic haven’t yet seen the movie. Which means this comic book is packed with narrative exposition boxes describing how Murphy became Robocop, and how this version can see data and sort it, and how corporations and the government have come together to use Robocop to try and save Detroit. It’s an understandable writing conceit to bring readers up to speed on a character they almost certainly didn’t even have the chance to see the movie and learn about, but it means there’s a ton of leaden virtual voice-over that slows down big sections of the book.
The second problem is that this little one-and-done requires Robocop to be a fucking moron. We’re told (literally told; a technician says it and Robocop says it later) that Robocop can see and sift through data at will. Further, he was clearly monitoring the radio transmissions going on as he approached the girl on the bridge – otherwise, how would he know where to go? – so why wasn’t he in the least bit suspicious that the cops who radioed that they couldn’t reach the scene were suddenly on the scene a minute later? Further, at one point in the book we’ve got Robocop instantly cross-referencing a dude’s retina scan with outstanding warrants, but he could do a Google Image search on the corporate logo tattoo and trace it back to Jonas Krail or his company? Sure, these little failures give us the chance to see Robocop get information out of a dirty cop by threatening to shoot his balls off, but they make the story almost fall apart in your hands.
It also seems like Harris’s deeper themes and messages, such as they are, are all over the place. Murphy is a good cop, but the only other cops we’re shown are nameless corrupt drones (literally nameless; we’re told one’s named Bobby, but that’s it) who do everything you’d expect a stereotypical dirty cop to do in about three panels, from taking bribes to hijacking trucks to lying each other up alibis to trick internal affairs. Further, the only rich corporate guy we meet is a filthy human slaver who owns a corporation that is literally faceless – we’re not told what the guy or his company does beyond human trafficking – so not only can we not trust the cops, but we can’t trust the corporations, either. And yet Harris gives us a voiceover caption saying that the great hope for Detroit is the cooperation of well-meaning government officials and civic-minded corporations… which exist where in this Detroit, exactly?
I promised that I was going to stay away from the original Robocop in this review, but I just can’t. Because part of why that movie worked was that there were clear delineations of villainy in that story. Sure, the corporations were corrupt and only motivated by profit, and they were in bed with an extremely vicious criminal underworld, and the city as a whole was underfunded and overwhelmed… but the cops were the good guys. They didn’t strike despite being underfunded to the point of cops getting killed daily, and did their best under constantly shifting leadership. The cops being the obvious good guys helped sell Murphy as being a good enough guy to resist his programming – God knows that we got very little in the way of characterization about Murphy beyond the fact that he was married and his kid liked T. J. Lazer – and more importantly, it gave us a reason to give a shit whether Detroit survives or not. The fact that the cops were willing to fight and die to protect a city where the citizens are so brain-dead the idea of a dollar purchase is the height of satire and the government is willing to cash out and have the city razed and rebuilt by corporations gives us at least someone to root for beyond Robocop.
In this comic? The corporations are scum and the cops are dirty and Robocop is a good guy because his name’s on the cover, I guess. And while I guess it’s possible, and maybe even probable, that Harris gets his setting and supporting characters straight from the movie, we’re left with a story where I literally can’t even tell why anyone made Robocop. And I recognize that this is a one-and-done and you can only fit so much into 22 pages, with what we’re shown here, I can’t imagine why anyone would sign off on building an incorruptible police office who can’t be bought. It’s like installing a free robot pocket pussy in a whorehouse that give you syphilis when you use it: it might be a neat engineering feat, but it serves exactly no one.
And ultimately, the biggest problem here is that I can’t get past the original Robocop when I read this book. It happens; I wasn’t able to get past it when Rob Williams had Murphy screaming about “motherfuckers” in a book that was about the original Robocop, so there’s no way I’d really be able to do it now. And Robocop: To Live And Die In Detroit just isn’t good enough to carry the name. We’re shown a hero we don’t know working for people who are scumbags against people who are worse to protect “innocents” who wind up being killers themselves. It is nihilistic, with a main character who doesn’t follow his own internal logic to the point of being pretty stupid, and whose only shown effective superpower is the ability to take a bullet… and we don’t even see him get shot to take that bullet (the bad guys clearly learned their shooting at the Imperial Stormtrooper Academy). So this comic doesn’t even need to be Robocop. It might as well be Frank Serpico, given the quality of the cops we see him working with.
But I am a middle-aged guy. If you saw and loved the Robocop remake, you might love this thing… but I doubt it. It’s just not good enough on its own merits, and if you love the original Robocop, I can’t imagine you’d like this one. Give it a pass.