Saturday, December 26, 2009

Out of the Vault- The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot

In 1995, Dark Horse Comics released the second collaboration by Frank Miller and Geoff Darrow, The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, in an oversized format (you'll notice I don't scan the entire cover here--my scanner's not quite big enough to handle it).

Miller was still revered for his revitalizations of both Marvel's Daredevil and DC's Batman, but had seemed to be floundering of late. He had mostly given up the pencil to concentrate on writing for other artists, and his work was weird and uncomfortable. For instance, Hard Boiled, his first collaboration with Darrow, a hyper-violent satire with a strangely dream-like quality and the emotional depth of the ring of sweat left by a cold beer mug.

Unfortunately, The Big Guy was much of the same, simultaneously redeemed and doomed by Darrow's ultra-detailed artwork.

The story opens as Japanese scientists attempt to recreate the conditions that brought forth life on Earth. However, their unnatural processes, bringing forth life without a soul, leave their living tissue open to possession by an ancient evil entity, which grows into a giant saurian monster that then sets out to devastate Tokyo. He has fire breath, impenetrable hide, and mutagenic saliva that turns innocent civilians into monstrosities like himself, under the control of the monster's diabolical mind.

Japan responds in typical movie monster fashion, sending helicopters and tanks to confront the beast to no avail.

And here in this panel, we can see both the main attraction and the major drawback to the book (unlike most of my other scans, I've left this one super-extra large when you click it, so you can see all the detail). On the one hand, the artwork features lots of detail and excellent draftsmanship. There's a lot going on in this panel, and this panel is typical of the entire book. Almost every panel features tons of small detail, both in the main action and in the backgrounds, full of logos and ads for non-existent companies.

But it is so hyper-detailed that it's hard to get a sense of it at a glance. There's nothing to differentiate the main action from the background detail, and so the dramatic impact is lost.

After the conventional military forces fail to stop the monster, the Japanese desperately turn to a small prototype robot named Rusty (an obvious homage to Astro-Boy). Rusty possesses the most advanced technology on the planet, with "nucleo-protonic" power and a super-advanced artificial intelligence that mainly serves to give him an inferiority complex. And said complex is well deserved, because Rusty is swatted away without landing even one blow for freedom.

Japan's last line of defense is beaten. And moping.

So the Japanese Prime Minister does the unthinkable. He signals the U.S.A. for help.

And in the second issue, help arrives in the form of The Big Guy, an American "robot" who is actually a pilot in an advanced battlesuit.

The Big Guy fights the monster for thirty pages or so of hyperdetailed action, first disabling the creature with the giant bombs above, then cutting loose on the hordes of mutated human monsterlings (although the dialogue balloons indicate that he's using mercy bullets and anesthetic gas--perhaps a satiric comment on the American tendency to dub in false dialogue over anime to make the plots more kid-friendly).

The monster is defeated and the Prime Minister presents The Big Guy with Rusty as a thank-you gift. The Big Guy is suddenly called away to another emergency and takes off, with Rusty flying after him, begging to be The Big Guy's kid sidekick. The book ends with the words "The End--For Now!"

But they never returned, at least not in comics. The Big Guy made some cameo appearances here and there, but the super team never starred in another comic. However, the concept was developed into a TV series for kids that, for my money, was better than the comic it was adapted from. The nastiness of the satire is toned down, the characters are better developed, they have a worthy nemesis in the evil Legion Ex Machina, and there are some genuinely funny episodes. You can watch them on Hulu here.

But while I didn't much like this comic, or their previous comic together, I did very much like work Miller and Darrow later did separately. Not long after this was published, Frank Miller took a hard right turn, scripting and drawing a stylized noir comic known as Sin City. Geoff Darrow, meanwhile, got hooked up with a couple of brothers, doing concept art for a script they were planning to direct, something called "The Matrix." So, you know, they both landed on their feet.

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