Scud: The Disposable Assassin was a series of comics created by Rob Schrab, first published between 1994 and 1998. It was on hiatus for ten years before a long anticipated grand finale in 2008.
Schrab is perhaps better known these days for his work on The Sarah Silverman Programme, directing episodes of Community and Parks and Recreation, a Lego Movie spin-off and his association with Dan Harmon (whose Harmontown podcast was how I came to Schrab and his work). In recent years he has become known for the practice of ‘Schrabbing’, a sort of droll trolling (‘drolling’?) which is much funnier than it should be.
The Scud comics are set in a deeply dystopian hyper-reality future, in which those with a grievance can purchase an intelligent robot assassin from a vending machine at a cost of 3 Franks. To avoid leaving any incriminating evidence, the robot will thoughtfully explode once the target has been killed. Our hero is Scud, a Heart Breaker Series 1373 model assassin, who goes rogue on his first mission.
For reasons not made clear until much later, Scud is sent to kill Jeff, a female monster with arms for legs, mousetraps for hands, a US style electrical plug for a head and a giant squid strapped to her chest. This pretty much sets the tone for what is to come. There is no explanation or acknowledgement of what Jeff is for much of the comic’s run, which suits me down to the ground.
During the assignment Scud accidentally notices the cigarette packet style warning label on his back bearing the text:
ATTENTION! THIS UNIT WILL SELF-DESTRUCT UPON TERMINATION OF TARGET.
Suddenly aware of his own mortality, Scud decides to merely hospitalise Jeff and begins to freelance in order to pay her medical bills, thus keeping them both alive. It’s a marvellously silly but interesting premise and I couldn’t resist buying the compendium, The Whole Shebang.
People who actually know about comics will doubtless be able to point out precursors to Schrab’s style, both in terms of art and the ‘hyperkinetic’ story telling (other writers on the book included Harmon and Mondy Carter), but there is something wonderfully comedic and appealing about the perverse visual world he created. (For his own part, Schrab cited Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi and Batman The Animated Series as influences on the style). It is certainly rich and the writers revel in their freedom to create, and dispose of, ludicrous characters every couple of issues. There’s something joyous but not gratuitous in the weirdness and violence.
The forward by Kate Freund (Rob’s wife) notes that the series was not the product of a happy time for Schrab.
“The truth is, Scud’s creation was born from rejection. There’s no coincidence that the protagonist adorns a broken heart on his chest. Rob was dumped by a girl he dated for less than a month. Instead of wallowing in his own pity, he decided to draw a comic to impress her. Ironically after the completion of the first issue he had completely forgotten about the girl. For the next five years Rob kicked out twenty issues until he met someone new who inevitably broke his heart again. This time the rejection was too painful to work through, and Scud was abandoned on a gut-wrenching cliffhanger.” – Kate Freund, Foreward to The Disposable Assassin: The Whole Shebang
And gut-wrenching it is. It seems hard to believe that one might care or feel invested in the characters in such a frenetic and intentionally absurd book, but nevertheless I was rather moved at the end of issue 20. The themes of heartbreak, nihilism, and perpetually teetering on the brink of destruction play out throughout the series. There are numerous nods to a fate worse than death for supporting characters and there is a sort of neurosis underpinning many of the maniacs in the book. Hershell, the spineless ‘company man’ who first visits the vending machine and sets our story in motion, is a nervous wreck, unable or unwilling to take ownership of his actions (actively aiding a faceless corporate boss he describes as ‘the worst’). He is a caricature of us, the modern day wage slaves.
In addition, Scud is essentially an anti-hero, acting purely out of selfishness for much of the story, reaching epic proportions in the belated climax (issues 21-24, produced in 2008). Primed with Freund’s background insight, it’s hard not to see Schrab’s unhappier moments pervading the work. Is the eighteen-page opening battle between Scud, replete with broken heart motif, and the monstrously inhuman Jeff, allegorical of the artist’s anger at a villainous woman. The heavy cliff-hanger five years later can easily be read as a depressingly fatalistic ‘it was all for nothing’ take on life and love, mirroring Schrab’s fresh heartbreak and his dissatisfaction with the direction of the comic.
The artist’s dissatisfaction notwithstanding, there’s so much to recommend STDA. The supporting cast are marvellous, from the villainous Voodoo Ben Franklin to the adorable oddity that is fan-favourite Drywall (a sort of anthropomorphic childlike sack of infinity, which stores anything and everything).
There’s Tony Tastey the half-robot leader of the Cortese family cyborg mafia (there was a whole spin-off series about these characters, written by Harmon, entitled La Cosa Nostroid) and Hank Gritt, a dead cowboy movie star, deity to the violent Gritties cult that worships “manliness and unnecessary explosions.” There are good guys like Oswald (a previous model robot assassin from ScudCo who looks like a mechanical rabbit) and of course the love interest, Sussudio, a bounty hunter sent to bring Scud in (and a self-declared robosexual who likes having it off with androids).
The drug dealing gang particularly tickled me. Such a wonderful yet short-lived group, consisting of: The Head of Jayne Mansfield (exactly what it sounds like), David Hindenburg (an elephant with a giant alien centipede growing out of its trunk, using fishing rods as weapons), Nathan Twist (a robo-headed giraffe), Pavlov (a suited man with a dog for a head – not a dog’s head, a whole dog as his head) and the brothers Dick and Tom Smother (dressed in barber shop attire: all bow ties, ruffled shirts and hats. But with samurai swords obviously).
There’s also an emotionally charged one-shot back story, telling the origins of Drywall, Mess and System. Their mother/creator is one of the truly sympathetic people in an otherwise insane universe. It is touching and cruel by turn and it made me much sadder than the infamous issue 20 cliff-hanger. Another one-shot side story, Suzy Gritt is Black Octopus, is an amusing superhero pastiche, falling over the thin line those comics tread between serious and silly.
Oh yeah! There is the werewolf that wants to be the first werewolf on the moon, who briefly turns into a black hole and later perpetually explodes and reforms. It’s creative, bonkers stuff. There’s also subtle stuff, often barely in frame, like how Jeff has acquired a grand piano as part of her back at some point or the contents of Drywall.
It’s not without its flaws though and the eagle-eyes reader may have begun to pick up on some. This book is relentless when read in one go. This rollercoaster of a comic may have been diverting and light-hearted when spread out over a period of five to ten years, but the teenage-boy-friendly cartoon violence can be a bit wearisome at times when in compendium form.
What’s more, the whole saga can be seen as: man gets dumped, man writes nihilistic story where Barry Broken Heart shoots shit up for a million pages.
The representation of women, hardly a new concern for the comicbook industry, is questionable. If we discount Jeff (and perhaps we shouldn’t for the reasons given above), we are left with a rather limited and one-dimensional cohort of female characters. Sussudio is all boobs, low-cut vests and a microscopic waist, wielding guns and swords in the classic masculine wet dream mould. She’s even paraded about in a bikini, before being covered up from leering teens by the giant protective phallus that is Scud. Sure she kicks ass, but women in these kinda comics always do. She still falls for our male hero and needs saving in the larger arc.
Black Octopus (admittedly a one shot issue) shows Suzy Gritt as a high school girl with (robot) sex scenes, lesbian kisses and a gratuitous excuse to have her naked from the waist down. The Seraphim are evil female angels, all ugliness and nipples. Alice, the bride of Tony Tastey, is soon stripped down, both literally and metaphorically, to holding a big gun in her skimpy knickers while Sussudio shows a birrov leg. Amy Carthage appears, introduces herself as ‘a good person’ and has her throat slit by a man seconds later for no apparent reason.
The mother/creator of Drywall, Mess and System is a bullied and abused victim. She is, of course, one of the most human characters and we are meant to root for her. Perhaps it is no bad thing to include such a harrowing element to the story: it adds depth and counterbalance to the ‘madness for madness’s’ sake elsewhere. But there is something unsettling about the inclusion of these scenes amidst the largely macho, somewhat throwaway, ‘men smashing each other about for shits and giggles’ that characterises much of the book.
I’m making it sound worse than it is and perhaps being unfair on the writers, but I think it’s important not to overlook these things and I suspect Schrab and Harmon wouldn’t object to such scrutiny. (I doubt STDA would fare well on the Bechdel test for example). In the book’s defence, few of the characters have anything that could be considered a coherent or meaningful conversation anyway and the males are seldom, if ever, painted as anything approaching ‘good’. I couldn’t presume to speak for the artist, but perhaps Schrab has grown as a writer since Scud’s heyday (the first book is 24 years old!).
“I wasn’t in the best place back then. 1997 was the year before I walked away from Scud, unfinished. I took out the frustration of my personal life on my fans as well as my book.” – Rob Schrab (Q&A here)
“Hopefully, I’m a better person. I still have issues but my career is great, Kate Freund is my beautiful wife, and I am so proud of all of my friend[s] — twenty years ago it was the exact opposite.” – Rob Schrab (Q&A here)
In short, this is enjoyable, inventive stuff and if a rampaging robot with a sense of the absurd rows your boat then you can borrow my copy. Just remember, it might self destruct on termination.