The Future of Robot Warfare According to Fon Davis

If you enjoyed Band of Brothers, if you were a fan of G.I. Joe and the Transformers, if you wanted more robot brawls in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, if you’re old enough to recall Robot Jox, and recall it fondly, if you’ve always wanted a Sergeant Fury / Voltron mash-up, if you like movies based on Tom Clancy novels but you wish they had giant robots, if you’re still reading, then allow me to introduce you to MORAV, or for not-so-short, Multi-Operational Robotic Armored Vehicle.

MORAV is a kickstarted franchise-in-the-making about robot warfare in the modern day. At a glance, MORAV appears to be a cheap adaptation of War of the Worlds but with manned robots instead of tripods. However, the adage about book covers and reserving judgment remains true here – I’d argue (based on the material that has published so far) that MORAV is more than just action-adventure filler. Instead, the project explores the divergence of a soldier between his personal morals and his “programming,” or trained obedience to the tactical conceits of superiors. In MORAV, the conflict manifests on an exaggerated scale with the introduction of 30-foot tall automatons, muddying further the distinction between man and machine.

Behind-the-scenes is miniatures and practical FX designer Fon Davis, whose professional work includes Starship Troopers, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Pearl Harbor, Galaxy Quest, Coraline, and series such as Star Wars and The Matrix. Davis has also been a regular contender in Battlebots where he achieved a pseudo-cult following with his pink roomba-based battler Mouser Mecha-Catbot. In 2000, Davis founded FONCO Creative Services, a company that fabricates and designs a hybrid of practical visual effects, including building movie miniatures and sets, using stop-motion, and creating computer graphics (Babler). It should come as no surprise then that MORAV is the brainchild of a technical genius like Davis, combining his passion for cinema with his passion for designing automatons.

In fact, Davis is as much a draw to this project as the content itself. MORAV isn’t the product of a distant corporate executive or a weary screenwriter, but an industry working man with the first-hand knowledge and expertise to produce a blockbuster – if he just had the budget.

But that’s where the project stumbles. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, MORAV hasn’t made much of an impact in the public market; so far its only manifestation has been a paperback graphic novel. According to Davis’ website, the franchise won’t be constrained to a single-volume for long, as creator Fon Davis and his crew are producing a direct-to-DVD live-action series, drafting more issues, and designing a toyline. Yet none of these ambitions, some of them years in the making, have come to pass, because the frustrating reality is that MORAV doesn’t have the financial backing that comes with a corporate sponsor; it’s an independent project that relies on donations (especially those of the Kickstarter variety) and volunteer work to persevere. While that grants them unprecedented freedom in design, it severely limits their output.

Luckily, Davis has built a team of industry-regulars like himself. The graphic novel alone employed writer Zachary Sherman (a diligent series writer for Dark Horse, Image, and Radical), children’s book artist Pudi Setiawan, J. Brown (an artist who has worked for Dark Horse, Marvel, and DC) and concept artist Roel Robles (founder of RokuToys). The live-action project also includes Grant Imahara of Mythbusters fame.

Nonetheless, it’s been a few years since the project raised $40,000 on Kickstarter, and we still haven’t seen anything being sold past the comic. There exists a teaser trailer for the live series, consisting of a news cast about a riot and some shaky-cam moments, but it’s paltry stuff compared to what Fon Davis is promising. Production takes time, and post-production double that, but without something concrete besides the graphic novel there’s this lurking potential that the project will fizzle.

At its core, MORAV revolves around the design of its titular robot, which is both a strength and a weakness to the property. The plus side is that the MORAV is a compelling and well-designed mascot for the series, crafting intrigue while promising consumer escapism. The drawback is that there isn’t much narrative implicit in the design other than mecha warfare and the impossible and desperate battle of infantry versus machine. The meta-narrative doesn’t have to be as simple as The Transformers or Robocop, both capitalizing on the archetypal journey of Christ-like figures and an audience predilection for explosions, but MORAV will have to develop more than just glorified toys if it’ll want to stick around.

Fortunately, Fon Davis seems well-aware of this challenge, as a lot of his interviews and posts have emphasized how MORAV will really focus on building memorable characters who will have to navigate the world of these massive machines. The graphic novel focuses on soldiers whose consciences clash with their orders, and while the undercurrents of the live action series remains a mystery to all but the production team, MORAV: Missions will center on a crew of one of these armored vehicles. Undoubtedly the show will investigate the lattice of internal conflicts every military unit must navigate in combat, now at a escalated scale due to the potential for greater destruction.

Developing that tract a little further, I think MORAV‘s archetypal niche might end up being a series of impossible moral paradoxes in which characters must choose to either give up their lives or give up their souls. The individual’s wrangle with military and civil obedience is nothing new, harking back to the Ancient Greek. Within the rhetorical history of the United States, Henry David Thoreau, that fraudulent transcendental monk, laid out an argument for individualism in “Civil Disobedience” in which he described society men, like politicians and soldiers, as soulless automatons who possess “no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense.” Meanwhile, a minority of “heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers” serve “with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist [the state] for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it…” His list of revolutionaries includes Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, and to emotionally qualify his argument to his American audience, the “rebels” George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

The consequences can be just as drastic in the modern military, where disobedience to “lawful” orders can be met with criminal charges, or worse. From the first day of boot camp, obedience is the soldier’s highest authority, not conscience or self-interest. To obey or to not obey is the soldier’s question, escalated in contemporary conflicts by the reach of globalization and the progress of wartime technology. There do exist counter-measures. The Nuremberg Principles established that a soldier could disobey orders that would commit crimes against peace or against humanity. This was elaborated further in the Tokyo War Crimes trial, which added that anyone possessing “knowledge of illegal activity and an opportunity to do something about it is a potential criminal” unless that person actively takes measures to prevent the crime (Mosqueda). In effect, a soldier must follow lawful orders and disobey unlawful ones, but in wartime the definition of what constitutes “lawful” or “unlawful” can be somewhat ambiguous.

MORAV, then, could act as an illustrated guide to the crossing leylines of noncomfority, injustice, laws and outlaws that have muddled in the contemporary world. Just look at the epistemology of the MORAV itself – its composition is mostly metal yet it harbors a small nucleus of human pilots. In itself, the MORAV is an ambiguous pairing of an individual and a tool of warfare; an exaggerated but accurate portrayal of the conundrum of the soldier.

I’m no prophet. The graphic novel, a prologue to world war, explores the criteria for ethical decision-making by portraying a character whose morals hold him accountable for his behavior. In-story, jet pilot Lieutenant Michael Okeda disobeys his superiors (and complies with his conscience) by leaving his patrol and tactically striking a horde of enemy troops. His actions save lives but leads to his demotion and removal from the Dragon Army’s air force program. The subplot justifies Okeda’s actions, revealing that his orders to disengage came from officers under the payroll of a shady corporation that’s trying to promote its robot prototypes. Moreover, the narrative promotes the superiority of critical-thinking over the efficient but inhumane decisions of the MORAV operators. Okeda, however, must suffer for his decisions. In-universe, akin to Thoreau’s predictions, the conscientious soldier is polarized, even demonized.

The volume isn’t without flaws. The quality is a mixed bag, although mixed in Davis’ favor. Its action sequences are wonderful to look at; making use of darker hues and shadows juxtaposed to flash fires and explosives. There’s also an incredible level of detail where marines and MORAV are concerned. The dialogue is sometimes quite bulky, and it feels like the artist tries to compensate by including odd angles and tilts to energize the conversations. The result can be nauseating instead of entertaining as the reader is jerked about the place. Story-wise, the narrative, focused on two rather unimportant Pacific islands, feels somewhat confined, maybe even claustrophobic, for the scale that Fon Davis envisions. The story is less of an epic and more a monster-in-the-house scenario, but I think that’s actually a plus. The effect of following a jungle-bound squad of soldiers trying to escape swarms of giant robots has all the nostalgia of a Vietnam War movie (replete with the paranoia and desperation of overwhelming forces) and all the grandiosity that comes with science-fiction.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of the consummate fan waiting anxiously for more MORAV, in other words me, there’s a certain limbo that one must accept for the moment (and by moment, I mean the undetermined amount of years that it will take to see the live-action series and more comics). The graphic novel and the show’s production stills have left us craving for more, but it’s an ache that’s been dulled by the long wait. Yet, we, like the project we admire, persevere. I already have a signed copy of the graphic novel on my desk shelf. I look forward to the day when I can place beside it MORAV: Missions and a MORAV Gen. 1 miniature.

Works Cited

Babler, Jason, et al. “Making Movie Miniatures with Fon Davis.” Youtube. Make: Believe, 5 Dec 2012. Web Video. 15 Feb 2015.

Davis, Fon et al. MORAV: The History of Robotic Warfare. Insight Editions: San Rafael, CA, 2007. Print.

Mosqueda, Lawrence. “A Duty to Disobey All Unlawful Orders.” Counter Punch, 27 Feb 2003. Web. 6 February 2015.

Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience and Other Essays. Dover Thrift Editions: New York, 1993. Print.

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When Desmond White is not blogging out of both ends, he’s stunt doubling for a bear or actually doing his job -- teaching literature at a Texas high school. A loose definition of genius, Desmond’s goals in life include making yerba mate sound appetizing (“It’s grass... that you drink!”) and writing about comics. Check out his blog, which is dedicated to bad writing advice for the aspiring bad writer.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for raising awareness about this comic! I had no idea that this comic even existed, but it sounds really appealing for a mech-fanatic like myself. It is really disappointing that giant mechs are not really popular in the U.S. (just look at Pacific Rim, for example), and growing up with Gundam and Zoids really makes it all the more painful, so I eat up everything that comes out involving mechs. I will definitely check this comic out!

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