Welcome to a new recurring feature on Ill Diablo Loves Comics. As you probably guessed from the title, it’s called GOT THAT INDIE FEELIN’!!, and it’s about, um DUH, indie comics. I realize that I spend a lot of time talking about stuff that mostly pertains to Marvel, DC, or Image, or broader topics about comics in general, but haven’t spent a lot of time discussing many of the kick-ass indie books I’ve loved over the years.
That ends now! I’m doing a disservice to you, my readers, by not broadening your horizons, to myself for not thinking about those horizons sooner, and frankly, to the creators I’m giving a fist-bump to who have given me so many hours of entertainment over the years. Not cool. Not fucking cool at all.
Today I’m going to dive into the topic of Rob Schrab’s outstanding, yet erratically shipping, 1994 to 1998 (and 2008, more on that shortly) series Scud: The Disposable Assassin. If you haven’t heard of Schrab, he’s the rather esoteric genius behind channel101.com, the extremely underrated kids’ movie Monster House, a writer and occasional director on The Sarah Silverman Program, and a few other various and sundry things over the years. But before all that, there was Scud.
Scud was about a hyperkinetic, crazy-as-fuck future world where a person could purchase a robot out of a Scudco vending machine to exact vengeance on a someone. Anyone, really. Once the target was destroyed, the Scud robot self-destructed, its mission fulfilled. Right off the bat, Scud is hired by a Mr. Spidergod of Marvin’s Mannakins to assassinate a hideous creature named Jeff who’s been murdering his employees. Jeff, who by the way is female, has a giant plug for a head, tentacles for arms, mousetraps for hands, a tiger torso with a squid strapped to it, and legs with mouths on the kneecaps and hands instead of feet. Oh, and she only speaks in quotations from film, TV shows, video games, and other various pop culture.
En route to assassinate this weird-ass fiend, Scud discovers his impending death upon the successful completion of his mission to kill his primary target, realizes he wants to live, and sets out to incapacitate Jeff however he can without murdering her and thus hastening his own demise. He succeeds by shooting all her limbs off, and has her placed into a life support tank not dissimilar to the one Luke Skywalker was floating in on Hoth after Han found him out in the frozen wastes. But the hospital bills required to maintain Jeff’s homeostasis are epic, so Scud embarks on a life of assassination for hire in order to pay the ongoing tab.
And that’s just the first issue.
Schrab’s world is the most craziest, most completely random mish-mesh of anything and everything ever put to page. The corpse of Jack Kirby wishes he could cram as much tight-knit lunacy into one comic. Most of the world’s denizens are robots of some sort, awesomely thrown-together mutant creatures such as Jeff, or shit that can’t even be designated such as Scud’s buddy Drywall. Drywall looks like a vaguely-human shaped living blanket with zippers all over him, from which Mickey Mouse hands emerge with whatever item he needs from the infinite storage space contained within him. Characters who could otherwise be pale throwaways are made all the more interesting visually by the sheer amount of unhinged imagination Schrab put into them: take Nathan Twist, for example. A drug dealer who’s secretly cut a deal with the mayor of a small country town, Twist is virtually no different from any other hardass drug lord since Tony Montana. But the fact that the guy is a flying giraffe with a tiny spaceship for a head that shoots a devastating laser immediately sets him apart from the crowd. Another typical Schrab creation is Pavlov, an associate of Twist’s, who is a man with a dog for a head. Not a dog’s head on a human neck, mind you–an entire dog plopped on his frame! There’s the Grittities, a cult of personality who worship TV and movie cowboy personality Hank Gritt, and give heed to “manliness and unnecessary explosions.” Other great Scud characters include:
– Tony Tasty and La Cosa Nostroid: robot Mafiosos who, in Schrab’s own words from the Scud: The Disposable Assassin – The Whole Shebang omnibus, are “Voltron as directed by Martin Scorsese.” These characters briefly spun off into their own series, which lasted nine issues and was written by Schrab writing buddy Dan Harmon.
– Drywall’s brothers, Mess and System: the former a walking pile of drawers who is a first attempt at the technology that created Drywall himself, and who is also Drywall’s brother due to the fact that they both share the soul of the miscarried baby their creator lost; and the latter is the Drywall storage technology (read: tesseract) perfected and taken to its utmost, dispassionate extreme. System actually manages to “store” Satan inside him and takes over Hell. Both characters are crucial to the series’ finale.
– Sussudio: Scud’s would-be girlfriend, another assassin for hire who can only be sexually aroused by robots thanks to a freak incident with her nannybot when she was a child. This, however, works out well for Scud.
– Oswald: The ultimate smooth-kiiller badass, this older model Scudco robot resembles a giant bunny-man, but cross him at your own risk. He also has a serious love of porn and the fairer sex. Oswald and Drywall starred in their own spin-off series that only saw two issues published.
– Voodoo Ben: The series’ other heavy outside of Jeff, this is Benjamin Franklin, “master of sex and voodoo,” to use the character’s own words. Although it’s never explained how he’s still alive, apparently at some point he turned to the dark arts–which generally involves raising zombies of whatever the hell dead thing is around him, such as cattle or dinosaurs–and is out to help his lord and master, System, rule the world.
So, that’s a pretty eclectic mix no matter how you slice it. How in the hell did Schrab pull it off? It wasn’t easy, and the earliest issues show that. Despite an excellent sense for John Woo-style action sequences and a mastery of panel placement to help them along, the first Scud issue has some pacing issues otherwise that shows Schrab was still a novice at the art of writing comics. So he quickly brought in buddies Dan Harmon and Mondy Carter to help with the writing duties as of issue two, with them rotating in and out of the credits and occasionally getting all the writing credit themselves.
But they were a potent creative team. Although everything spun out of Schrab’s cracked-out imagination, there was never really a feeling of discontinuity when the writing credits would regularly shift from issue to issue. Scud himself, despite being a robot, has as much heart and lust for life as anyone. He cares about his friends, he’s random and silly and has a great sense of humor, he gets angry. In other words, he’s human. And that’s the glue that holds this whole thing together: no matter what Scud’s up against, be it an army of zombie dinosaurs or a Shakespeare-quoting werewolf who devolves into a black hole, Scud is a blue-collar guy we can all relate to and even like, despite the fact that he kills for a living. Drywall is another great example of this. Despite the fact that his dialogue consists only of, “|||||||||,” through his mannerisms and gestures we get a sense very quickly that he’s just a little kid, and a sweet one at that. We root for him without even knowing a word he’s saying.
But the shift in writing credits, however, was reflective of where Schrab himself was at the time. Scud, you see, was very much an outgrowth of his personal life. The comic was created as a means of working through a breakup he’d recently suffered, but as the series wore on, he was getting burned out both by it and by his poor experiences trying to break into Hollywood. Oh, and he and another girlfriend broke up, making his despondency even worse. So he withdrew more and more from the comic, and its already-poor shipping schedule grew even more erratic, until, with issue twenty, he finally just gave up and shelved the book.
Which in 1998, after four years and only twenty issues, a Drywall origin one-shot, and a handful of other spin-offs to show for it in the four years of the comic’s existence, sucked. Especially since issues 16-20 were so random and unfocused. Especially since #20 ended with such a drastic cliffhanger. And especially since, as time wore on, it seemed to become increasingly apparent that Schrab had no interest in finishing what he’d started, since his Hollywood prospects were beginning to finally take off. As he seethed vehemently over his lot in life, and fell into therapy and antidepressants, he even admitted to hating comics entirely, his own most of all. And although in retrospect it feels like he was being too hard on his creation and his abilities, issues 16-20 are definitely the series’ low point, a fragmented tale involving a robot horse that keeps showing up out of nowhere and teleporting Scud and Sussudio to other worlds for an issue at a time for various misadventures. In the above linked essay by Schrab, he rips apart every aspect of issue twenty as an angry “there is no god” screed with bad art that was nothing more than an ugly reflection of his own life.
And so he just walked away. No more Scud.
Cut to 2008. After a decade away, Schrab finally, finally concluded his story, with Image picking up the publishing rights from Schrab’s own long-defunct Fireman Press, for a four-parter that wrapped up damn near everything.* Wrapped it up as though ten years hadn’t elapsed, actually, which was a great accomplishment on Schrab’s part. Sitting down and reading the Whole Shebang omnibus front to back, I found that the concluding issues synched up very, very well with the rest of the series in terms of tone and continuity. Granted, it helped that Schrab had ten years pass in-story just as it had here in the real world, but still. And he even managed to end the series on a happy note, a welcome affirmation that he had bested his personal demons, or was at least happy enough for his depression to not be seeping into every page of his comic.
Scud was a comic that was a true anomaly at the time of its main publication, 1994-1998. This was the Chromium Age, after all, and although the collectors’ boom allowed for more than a few independent publishers to thrive, most of their successes were brief at best. (Remember Cyberfrog? How about Creed? Me neither.) And although Scud certainly represents a small slice of the comics-reading demographic, it holds up amazingly well nineteen years after it began. It’s funny, exciting, warped in all the right ways, has astounding action sequences, and some of the most freewheelingly imaginative creative flourishes I’ve ever seen anywhere, in any medium. Rob Schrab may not have ultimately wanted to spend his career toiling in the trenches of writing and drawing comics–but he certainly created an original, applause-worthy world that stacks up against anything else out there in terms of originality, characterization, and heart. It’s not a Pinocchio story, either, talking down to its audience by jumping the shark and having Scud want to be a real boy. Scud likes being a robot. Scud loves the crazy-ass world he inhabits. And it’s awesome for me to find out, with my latest birthday looming and my childhood growing ever further away, that I still love that crazy-ass world, too. All due respect and props to Rob Schrab. He’s welcome back in comics anytime he wants.
*A few glaring omissions: Whatever happened with the prison guys who relentlessly tracked Scud for most of issues 5-15? Whatever became of Tony Tasty and La Cosa Nostroid? Why is Benjamin Franklin hundreds of years old and totally evil now? And what the hell is Hank Gritt’s deal, anyway?