Back in 1992, people still had some degree of respect for Frank Miller. He had a seemingly unassailable position at the comics vanguard, using his clout to stand up for creator rights and co-found the Legend imprint at Dark Horse with John Byrne, Mike Mignola, Art Adams, etc. His name wasn’t yet synonymous with “whores whores this” or “I’m the goddamn that.” Back in 1992, Walt Simonson was not only in active circulation, he was enough of a star to be given the covers for half of Valiant’s Unity crossover. (That may not mean a ton now, but in 1992, Unity was a huge deal, trust me, okay.) Licensed comics were enjoying a renaissance under the aegis of the crossover — Batman vs. Predator, for example, had been issued barely a year previous.
Miller was easing into his role as a writer, mostly on the strength of cherry-picked collaborations with amazing artists — 1990 saw Hard Boiled with Geof Darrow; 1991 Martha Washington’s Give Me Liberty with Dave Gibbons. (1991 was also the year that the first Sin City story was serialized in Dark Horse Presents, and that the hardcover OGN Elektra Lives Again came out through Marvel.) This was arguably when Frank Miller truly began fulfilling the brief of a comics auteur, with all of his pieces starting to form a greater whole once assembled, rather than simply being “one project, then onto the next one.” With each successive work, he continuously honed a set of narrative tricks and tics — a process of refinement that Sin City kicked into overdrive.
Nowadays, it’s descended into schtick, but viewed in the context of 1992, Frank Miller’s usual shenanigans were novel enough. The easiest comparison, beyond even the callbacks to leather-tough pulp crime novels, is to film: Samuel Fuller, or Jean-Pierre Melville. Miller took the tools and language of traditional action comics and fractured them, splitting the narration into terse little wiggles and blurts, stripping any detail or subtlety out of the equation. Here’s another irrelevant comparison: Frank Miller’s writing in the early 1990s was the comics equivalent of the Ramones’ first album. If you get it, good. If you don’t, just consider the panel in Robocop vs. Terminator where Miller describes the tone of life in Detroit:
When writing is this pared-down, there’s not a lot of room for moralizing. There are good guys, and there are bad guys, and that’s just the way the world works — indeed, while Miller has stretched this approach to a breaking point in the years since, back in the day he perhaps more judiciously chose where to apply it. Who better to fill the role of faceless, facetless, unrelenting wave of evil than a hive of evil robots from the future determined to exterminate humanity for no adequately stated reason? Who better to fill the role of grim, unambiguously heroic and unflinchingly violent protagonist than a police officer with half a head full of hardware? Robocop vs. Terminator fit Frank Miller like a glove, and vice versa.
Handed these pieces, Miller ratchets them up into absolute absurdity. We spend an entire issue in the company of anti-Terminator time traveler Flo (shades of Martha Washington, or perhaps a butcher Ripley) only for another time traveler to interrupt and retcon everything we just read. ED-209, klutzy WMD of the Robocop films, appears as doddering robo-halfwit, opening fire at anything it can find an excuse to. Terminators mug blind people and stadiums, and impersonate little boys, who Robocop proceeds to shoot in the face without hesitation. The entire thing teeters close to grand guignol, minus the blood — especially when Robocop travels to the future to take Skynet down on its own turf, which is in and of itself an almost farcical escalation of the scenario. Tellingly, in the midst of all of this violence, we don’t even learn Flo’s name until, like, the fourth issue. Who has time?Continued below
With Miller setting those wheels in motion, it’s the job of the artist to find the right pitch between the primal power of the series’s overpowering violence, and the absurdity of its ham-handed approach. Enter Walt Simonson, naturally. His landmark Thor run was behind him, and he’d just finished an epic stint on perhaps the most absurd sci-fi super-team short of the Doom Patrol, the Fantastic Four themselves. Simonson’s artwork can barely be mentioned without also breathing the rarefied air of Jack Kirby — like I’m doing in this sentence now — but Kirby was never as, er, manic as the relentless Robocop vs. Terminator. Like Miller’s approach to writing — field-strip the arsenal and use only the necessary parts — Simonson here borrows from Kirby’s exaggerated dynamics and psychedelic tendencies, but adds to it a howling force all his own. One can imagine him angrily slashing his brush across the pages, making the art with the same visceral physicality it depicts (despite being mostly cold, unfeeling robots!). It’s like watching someone play the piano with a hammer, and still managing to bang out a great tune.
Miller! Simonson! All you need, right? The real star of Robocop vs. Terminator is the letterer. It’s rare that this can ever be said about a comic book, but it’s true that in the 1990s, just before hand-lettering seemingly died out, the lettering could dictate the tone of the book just as much as the art. Chris Eliopoulos’ lettering on the X-Men and X-Force books helped showcase the histrionic tone of the stories. Here, though, the greatest letterer of all time works his magic — it’s doubtful anyone would think of Walt Simonson half as fondly if he wasn’t paired with the likes of John Workman. Workman’s letterforms — lean yet blunt fonts that splay out like scattered sticks or compress into heavy blocks — convey noise better than anyone else in the business. Try to imagine some of the fight scenes in Robocop vs. Terminator without sound-effect lettering, or with more conventional biff-bang-pow balloon letters. Being able to truly evoke cacophony in a soundless medium is the realm of virtuosos. Comic-book lettering virtuosos.
For whatever reason, Robocop vs. Terminator has never really seen a proper reissue or collection. That’s a shame, because unlike most of the stuff that I blather on about in these columns, it’s actually pretty excellent. Miller hadn’t yet dribbled into self-parody; Simonson and Workman were a tighter team than Bootsy and Catfish. If you’re interested in any of the three, you owe it to yourself to check it out. (A major online retailer has all four issues for $1.10 apiece.) Both Robocop and Terminator were no strangers to the comic book scene (and had even attracted major figures like Alan Grant, Mark Bagley, Paul Gulacy, and even Matt Wagner) — but when they rammed into one another head-on, it’s the best they ever got.