Photo by Constance MonaghanDAMAGE: SOME OF US LOVE L.A. NOT DESPITE ITS ROCKIN' disasters but because of them. My people. Blood 'n' guts, sparks 'n' smoke -- give us any sort of terror, be it a fizzle from a shorted wire, a wildfire in Duarte or the mosh pit at Spaceland. Never mind that most of us get our daily thrill just by merging onto the Pasadena Freeway from Avenue 26. Obsessos carrying beepers that go off at the first sign of a slow-speed police chase: These, too, are my people.
DANGER: Demolition derbies, monster-truck pulls, the Barneys New York warehouse sale . . . and now, BattleBots. The warring robots' maiden outing in the Southland was staged last month by Trey Roski (son of L.A. Kings owner Ed). Trey traces the phenomenon back to Marx's Rock 'em Sock 'em Robot toys of 1966, as well as a 30-year tradition of Japanese robo-sumo-wrestling bouts. American kids who played with fighting 'bots went on to make Lego gladiators with motors, then enrolled at MIT or Caltech, where "task competitions" to build the best robot for, say, moving Ping-Pong balls evolved into full-scale battles. San Francisco's Robot Wars in 1994 were "pretty much the first time it went to another level," Roski says, "with fans invited to watch." BattleBots will tour several cities in the U.S. and Canada before returning to Long Beach next year.
THE SCENE: Cal State Long Beach's blazing-blue Pyramid arena, the mere sight of which evokes images of exotic rituals. The 48-foot-square 'bot fighting floor is boxed in by 20-foot-high walls of inch-thick clear plastic, surrounded by bleachers. Notwithstanding the injury waiver I had to sign to get in, I fear there's no chance of any real damage here. For those who witnessed Survival Research Laboratories' 1980s show in an empty downtown-L.A. lot, at which the jam-packed audience stood crammed up against a mere rope while huge, fuckin'-scary-mean iron machines lunged at each other with spiked balls and razor claws, this seems all too tame. Tidy, even. The bastards!
THE CREATORS: At one end of the hall are long tables piled with metal junk, wires and tools, where the robot makers show their stuff. They fondle their machines. They bang and tinker. They happily pose with their contraptions. And they hold forth about CADD programs and the sprockets and motors that make their personal destructo-gizmos run. They seem like civilized enough fellows -- friendly, even. They just happen to like smashing the shit out of the other guy's creation.
An exception to the general blood lust is Peter Abrahamson, a 32-year-old Valleyite who creates puppets for theme parks and movies when he's not working on Ronin, who is "designed partially to maim, partially to survive." The gigabot (165 to 300 pounds, the largest of three weight categories) is a simple beauty -- a sleek pair of treads straddling a slicing blade, set off by three red Japanese-charactered flags. "The other opponents have big swinging hammers and giant saws. But I wanna have the coolest-looking fucking robot, so I went for form rather than function," says Abrahamson.
Ronin, the Japanese word for a samurai without a master, suggests Abrahamson's Zen take on what he ã considers to be performance art: "I realized the destruction of the robot is just as acceptable as the creation of the robot," he says. His wife and 5-and-a-half-year-old daughter are here supporting him. "I'd love for her to grow up and make robots," Abrahamson says.
Without any apparent spiritual take is Jim Smentowski, a big fella whose Nightmare is a vicious-looking 200-pound spinning steel disk designed "to do the most immense damage." And Nightmare does, in the ring with a 'bot called Frenzy. But before he finishes Frenzy off, there's a touching moment as Nightmare moves the littler fella off the spikes on which he has him impaled. Nightmare then pushes Frenzy directly into ripping saw blades that pop out of the floor. (The spikes and saw blades are thoughtfully provided by management to ratchet up the madness.) Oh, how the audience eats it up!
Ian Lewis, a champion monster-masher from Dorset, England, says that his job as an electrician comes second to tinkering with Razer. The steel-beaked critter, he tells me in a delicate, lyrical accent, can tear a door off a car or crush a TV. Tea and crumpets, anyone? Robot battles are huge in England.
THE ACTION: "Five, four, three, two, one . . ." the crowd joins the rough-voiced ring announcer, "Kick 'bot!" One of dozens of battles, projected live on big screens near the ceiling, features a pair of kilobots (the smallest size bracket, 25 to 83 pounds) facing off. Twelve-year-old Lisa Winter's Tentoumushi has a ladybug top that's awfully cute. Unlike the guys' rip-and-riot machines, Tentoumushi overpowers her opponent by trapping him under her shell and smothering him. I wish this weren't so. Must the metaphor be so clear? Already? At her age?
The kilobots are zippy, spinning, zigging, raising crusher arms, guided by their remote-control masters. To win, brute force is good, but so is sex appeal -- a scary-looking machine with, say, an ax attached. Since only occasionally do the 'bots manage much damage, it's up to the spectators to pick the winners by whoops and applause; this audience seems to appreciate killer aesthetics as much as raw aggression.
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Be it ever so crude, the basic strategy of a 'bot battle is: a) bust your opponent to bits b) disable him, perhaps by flipping him over, or c) maneuver him to the spot where the spinning saw blades and metal daggers erupt. Should the saw blades fail to whir viciously as they rise, the mob starts up a raucous, stomping chant: "Fix the saw! Fix the saw! Fix the saw!"
THE SPECTATORS: When Son of Smashy, an ax-wielding megabot (84 to 164 pounds), disables the spinning blade of the mean little Ankle Biter, the crowd "oohs" and "aahs" gleefully at the ghost of smoke rising from his metal guts. It's an attractive bunch of intelligent-seeming punks and moms, granddads and students; hungry for blood but willing to settle for limp pizza at the concession stand.
Just like the ring announcer, who refers to the robots as "he" -- as in "You know him, you love him, let's give it up for Turtle Roadkill!" -- the spectators occasionally seem wistful for the sight of real men fighting. Far up in the stands, a woman with a lovely, vaguely Swedish accent regularly calls out, "Keel him!"
Analogies and metaphors abound for the fighting-robots phenomenon: The 'bots are modern gladiators, fulfilling our vestigial need for violence and gore, etc., etc. But the point may be simpler. As spokeswoman Lynn Hasty says, "It's the sport of the future, combining brains and beauty with the ability to destroy."