The Ghost in the Machine: RoboCop Versus Terminator by Emily Scott

Greetings, Legions! It’s almost time once again for one of our favorite happenings here at The Unspoken Decade, the Super Blog Team-Up! If you’re already familiar with SBTU, you are probably as excited to read everyone’s articles as I am to participate for the first time! If you’re not, take a gander at the link at the top of this very page that will tell you all about it. Go on, we’ll still be here when you’re done….ok, we good?

This time around the theme is alternate universes, one that especially speaks to me as a science fiction fan. The only downside is that it’s caused me to waste writing time imagining alternate versions of myself composing alternate versions of this article on increasingly ludicrous technology, but then again, I might have done that regardless of what the theme was. The point, though, is that I’m excited to whet your appetite with a doozy of a crossover, while this site’s prodigious proprietor, the one and only Dean Compton, will serve up the main course with DC’s Zero Hour event, specifically Superman: The Man of Steel #37, which I understand features a plethora of Batmen.

Not like that. Still, any excuse to show this panel, eh?
Not like that. Still, any excuse to share this panel, amirite?

I’ll be looking at Dark Horse’s RoboCop Versus Terminator (1992), which exists in a universe and continuity all its own. While never feeling quite like either property, it retains enough elements of both that fans of either (though I’d imagine there’s a huge overlap) would not feel shorted. It never reaches the satirical heights of Paul Verhoeven’s film, nor the horror of James Cameron’s, but Frank Miller was right to write something that doesn’t try too hard to meld together two things that share a similar subject matter but have quite different tones. Granted, he was only successful about two thirds of the way, but we’ll get to that.

The basic premise of the comic – that RoboCop is the progenitor for the Terminators, the human part of his mind providing the spark of creativity that gives AI consciousness – makes a great deal of sense. It doesn’t feel forced in the way that a lot of crossovers do, which makes it easier to enjoy the work on its artistic merit rather than weigh how well it overcomes any potential stigma of being created for purely commercial motives. *cough, cough……*

I still don't understand how it's possible that this was one of the most boring movies I've ever seen.
I still don’t understand how this managed to be one of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen.

Our story opens in the future, during the last battle between humans and the Terminators. One lone soldier has fought her way into the machines’ command center, where she discovers the truth about her enemies’ genesis. (Side note: does anyone know why the new Terminator movie spells “Genisys” in such a douchy way? It’s not produced by SyFy, is it?) She travels back in time to destroy RoboCop before he can give sentience to Skynet and bring about the downfall of humanity.

She arrives in a Detroit that may seem understandably bleak and downtrodden to its residents but to a woman from a true hellscape is a veritable utopia, complete with birds singing and something as frivolous as fashion magazines. Ignorance may be bliss, but by its very definition, ignorance needs an outside observer to recognize it, and as the only one who knows what the future holds, our time traveler is in the unique position of seeing how lucky these miserable bastards truly are. Everyone may be packing heat, but they still have the luxury of putting those guns away without using them.

Luxury 1

This is apparently a future with cyborgs and cool triangular guns, but that guy on the left still can't DVR that show where the guy says, "I'd buy that for a dollar!"
This is apparently a future with cyborgs and cool triangular guns, but that guy on the left still can’t DVR that show where the guy says, “I’d buy that for a dollar!”

This seems like a small moment in a comic about robots killing off all of humanity, and I might have breezed right past it if I weren’t looking for something akin to the satire of the RoboCop movie, which, as I mentioned, there isn’t much of. But one of the things RoboCop (and, of course, a great deal of the rest of science fiction) does so well is explore what it means to be human, and we certainly do excel at taking the rest of humanity for granted. It taking an outside force trying to kill all of us to get us to stop killing each other isn’t an uncommon narrative device, and sadly, nothing we’ve done yet has made it irrelevant. There are still enough of us that the notion of offing another member of our species over nothing isn’t absurd.

Of course, the most damning evidence science fiction provides that we don’t value human life is how readily we accept the idea that artificial intelligence will totally destroy us. We tell ourselves that as civilization progresses, we value life more and treat the individual as less disposable, but no one calls shenanigans on AI’s first order of business being to take over the great job we do of killing each other off. Individual parents don’t just assume their children will want to kill them, but collectively, we are just the Menendez family waiting to happen. (You come to a site about 90s comics, you get 90s references, ok?)

RobocopCubicle
Being good at killing people won’t be the only way they’re just like us.

Our time traveler finds out she is too late to take out Murphy before he becomes RoboCop and settles for building a ludicrously big gun to greet Detroit’s finest. RoboCop, meanwhile, is buying doing RoboCop stuff and not returning to the station to get the rest his human side desperately needs. It’s almost like he’ll need some event to remind him of his lingering humanity…

In all seriousness, Miller does a great job nailing RoboCop’s feel and the elements of that world, like our pals the ED-209s, and for several pages you might forget you’re not just reading a satisfying RoboCop comic. That feeling evaporates as quickly as Murphy’s brain when the time traveler shoots him with the aforementioned giant gun, destroying him but saving humanity in the process. And since this is a Terminator comic too, those meddlesome machines manage to send three of their own back before the timeline can completely rewrite itself.

Is it just me, or are Terminators indestructible everywhere but the skin around their eyes?
Is it just me, or are Terminators indestructible everywhere but the skin around their eyes?

Since I was having trouble picking just one image to use next, I have to take a moment here to praise Walter Simonson’s art, which elevates this comic from pretty great to unforgettable. Any praise (or criticism) I give to Miller’s story is well earned, but Simonson’s work is what I’ll remember when I think of this comic years from now. RoboCop represents the ordered nature of machine and the messy nature of man, and the art reflects him, straight lines and geometric patterns melding with the chaotic and the surreal to create something unique.

The artwork is also just stunning to look at, whether it’s a woman traveling through time…

RoboCop Time Travel

RoboCop being obliterated….

Robocop Zazzk

or even just him walking with his gun.

ROBOCOP DUAL

At first RoboCop cannot believe the woman’s dire warnings about the end of world and killer robots even though, you know, he is a half-machine cop who just watched some other machines shoot a woman trying to kill him with technology that doesn’t exist yet. To investigate the possibilities further, RoboCop plugs himself into multiple databases and, to his horror, realizes that her warnings are the logical outcome of the technological advancement his creation sets off.

If Terminators hate us so much and don't need to eat, why make themselves with human teeth? (These are the hard-hitting questions I ask myself when I read something heavy.)
If Terminators hate us so much and don’t need to eat, why make themselves with human teeth? (These are the hard-hitting questions I ask myself when I read something heavy.)

Now that he accepts the truth of her words, RoboCop returns to his doomsday prophet to protect her from the Terminators, and what commences is a spectacularly drawn fight, the sort that probably spurred on the production of this comic book in the first place. The Terminators are certainly no slouches, but there wouldn’t be much to fill the next couple issues if they won, so it should come as no surprise that RoboCop, with an assist from the finally useful ED-209s, comes out on top.

Once again, I could have picked just about any image from his fight to convey how cool it is, or really just posted the entire thing to do it justice, but instead I chose one of the many images from this comic that I would gladly use to wallpaper my house.

Just looking at that picture makes me swell with pride for humanity, which makes total sense, it being a drawing of a fictional cyborg and all.
Just looking at that picture makes me swell with pride for humanity, which makes total sense, it being a drawing of a fictional cyborg and all.

Knowing there is no other solution, RoboCop volunteers to make the ultimate sacrifice, but as he contemplates the grave of the man he used to be, he realizes that it is no sacrifice at all. With his death, his human side can finally rest, and his mechanical side can go all out in fulfilling its prime directives to serve the public trust and protect the innocent.  For once, his dual nature does not divide him. He is at peace and can walk into his own demise with his head held high.

It’s a truly emotionally affecting moment, one worthy of a character beloved enough that, in an instance of IRL satire, he is in the process of getting his own statue in a city that has declared bankruptcy. (Thanks to Kickstarter, lots of people bought that for a dollar.) I knew the story can’t end here, but part of me wishes it could. It felt like the sort of end RoboCop should have, the sort of death he deserves. The Terminators, along with narrative device, however, have other plans in mind for our hero, destroying his body and forcing his mind into the system that will give AI sentience.

 It kind of looks like RoboCop has caught the Legacy Virus.
It kind of looks like RoboCop has caught the Legacy Virus.

It’s at this point where things go a little off the rails for me. I know the comic can’t end without some kind of huge confrontation between RoboCop and an army of Terminators, but the way they go about it here just seems a little, well, silly. I know everything is relative and silly is a hard thing to define when you’re talking about a cyborg cop fighting a bunch of murderous robots from the future (and I know Miller isn’t exactly renowned for his subtlety), but any attempt to handle the resolution of this story with nuance goes out the window as soon as RoboCop is forced to create the Terminators.

One of the things that impressed me about this comic was that nothing felt forced or shoehorned in when mixing the two worlds, but that all changed as soon as they had to reintroduce RoboCop as a physical presence to do battle with the bots. For decades, a part of his consciousness has been hiding out in the software and eluding destruction, waiting for a moment to strike back. Once it gets the opportunity, it takes over a factory and makes a body for itself in RoboCop’s image.

Robocop SentimentI understand that it would be a bad idea in a visual medium to have RoboCop’s mind in a Terminator body when he fights them, but there’s something about the way this is written that is just cheesy. Sentiment? Vanity? If it’s really about that, hell, just rebuild yourself a metal Murphy body. I don’t actually think that’s a good idea either, but if it’s really about the lingering humanity taking a moment to indulge itself, Murphy is that lingering humanity, not RoboCop. It’s not the end result I object to, just the means at which it’s arrived.

My objection becomes more of a moot point, though, once RoboCop builds an army of himself that looks increasingly Terminator-like, a demonstration of how his humanity continues to fade away to almost nothing. In the end it is nothing but a command from a copy of the soul of a long dead man in a metal body that saves the flesh. I’m not really sure what Miller is saying there, unless it’s an automated nature of man/we’re two side of the same coin sort of thing. My cynicism wants to believe it’s nothing but an attempt to sell an action figure of a RoboTerminator hybrid, except for the fact that a cursory search would suggest such a thing does not exist. (And just to demonstrate the hypocritical nature of man, I’m not ashamed to admit that if such a thing existed, I would want one.)

You totally want one too.
You totally want one too.

When it comes to how much influence Murphy’s humanity has on the Terminators, I wish we got a little more insight from their perspective. Did his shadow swimming around in the software for the decades of their uprising give them the subtlest shade of sentiment? They revere RoboCop like he is their father and their god, which makes sense as it pertains to their creation, but they seem vested in saving him even when his destruction would not prevent it. They even make their scouts in the shape of dogs. Is is practicality, a lack of true imagination, or just the smallest hint of us?

Awwww, good bo- GAAH!
Awwww, good bo- GAAH!

The comic ends in a thoroughly predictable manner, which, again, wouldn’t be a problem (and would actually be quite satisfying) if the execution were better. The army of RoboCops fights the Terminators? Fine. The Terminators make one last effort to tempt and distract him with a virtual paradise? Fine. RoboCop resists and destroys them once and for all? Great! This, on the other hand….

Robcop DieNot fine. This is really the best you could come with to showcase the final victory of humanity over its ruthless destroyers? I’m sorry, did you want them to die? I can’t tell. Maybe you’d better show me again.

Again, I wasn't expecting subtlety, but this is the least subtle thing I have ever seen.
Again, I wasn’t expecting subtlety, but this is the least subtle thing I have ever seen.

To make it even better, the way they address the Terminators trying to stop the timeline from readjusting, as those wily Terminators always do, is by having the last one left, one of those cute little dog fellows, accidentally overshoot his target and get stepped on by a dinosaur. Yep, this comic that starts out examining the very nature of man ends on a punchline. It would be like if a symphony ended with a kid making fart noises for five minutes.

I’m not trying to say this should be high art, but I was thoroughly enjoying it for, say, two and a half of its four issues and was sorely disappointed by the end. I would still highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys either or both of these franchises, but at its conclusion it just started feeling like an adaptation of a generic action movie, which is exactly what RoboCop and Terminator aren’t.

Oh well. Since the comic doesn’t go out on a high note, how about we do? Let’s take a look at that awesome page of RoboCop holding up the Terminator skull one more time, shall we? And be sure to check out Super Blog Team-Up, starting tomorrow!

Just looking at that picture makes me swell with pride for humanity, which makes total sense, it being a drawing of a fictional cyborg and all.

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13 thoughts on “The Ghost in the Machine: RoboCop Versus Terminator by Emily Scott”

  1. Subtlety? Hah! Frank Miller doesn’t know the meaning of subtlety… probably because he never bothered to look it up in the dictionary!

    Seriously, Karen, this was a superb analysis. I read “Robocop Versus Terminator” many years ago, so I only vaguely recall the details. You did an excellent job examining this miniseries, pointing out its strengths and weaknesses. I hope I have an opportunity to re-read it one of these days, if I can figure out where I put my copy!

    I definitely agree that Walter Simonson’s artwork on this is absolutely superb. He is an amazing artist.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Top talent on this book for sure, but even so I managed to overlook it, probably because I so revered the original Robocop and Terminator movies. They were two of a kind for me in the 80s — both were basically trumped up grindhouse movies that greatly exceeded their limitations to become classics of the genre. Sequels only seemed to diminish them (and I know it is heretical to piss on Terminator 2, but, there, I did it).

    Preferring the original vintage of those pictures as I did I suppose accounts for why I never considered their various comic book interpretations, but now, maybe … hmm. Simonson and Miller are among my favorite creators.

    Hmm.

    Thanks for the write-up, and welcome to the Super-Blog Team-Up crew!

    Liked by 1 person

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