Since his early days on the long running webcomic 8-Bit Theater, Brian Clevinger has excelled at telling entertaining adventure stories with a healthy dose of humor. He currently writes the Eisner-nominated series Atomic Robo, which debuts the first issue of its sixth volume, The Ghost of Station X, tomorrow, Wednesday, September 7 and which you can read our review of here.
Recently, Clevinger was kind enough to chat with Comics Bulletin about the details of that story, how to make comics accessible to anybody, and some of the projects he’s got up his sleeve for the distant future.
Chris Kiser: For starters, Brian, what can you tell our readers about what's in store for them in the latest volume of Atomic Robo?
Brian Clevinger: We bring Robo back into the modern day on this one. He's got to rescue some astronauts trapped in a deteriorating orbit and I guess the least spoiler-y way to put it is that EVERYTHING GOES WRONG. Robo quickly finds himself in the fight of his life FOR his life. It's like he brought a box cutter to a gun fight where everyone else has rocket launchers.
Kiser: Given that the book snaps back to the present day, I guess it's safe to say that this is quite a different Robo, personality-wise, than the one we saw in the last volume, which took place in the 1930's and was very much an origin story. How do you see Robo growing or changing throughout the different eras in which you've written him?
Clevinger: It's a lot of fun, as a writer, to visit Robo as a naive youth all the way up to grumpy old man. I almost said jaded, but Robo's really not. It'd have been too easy and too obvious to take him down that road. The more interesting choice is to let him keep that youthfulness and to watch it become tempered by wisdom as he grows older.
Old Robo has a better sense of humor too. He's been doing action science since before most people were born, so he's the grizzled old veteran. He's seen it all a hundred times, and he was already tired of whatever mad scientist hoopla he's [currently] up against before it ever got invented. He's got the mental time to quip. It's like a kung fu master toying with a pupil — Robo already won the fight, and he's going to let you know about it when he's ready. The core of who Robo is remains the same, but how he expresses it changes over time. It lets us have Robo reflect the gestalt of whatever era we're dealing with. And we get to do so while staying true to the Robo we've seen in stories that take place before or after it.
Kiser: Judging from some of the solicitations I've seen online and a few of your own comments on Twitter, it seems like the release date of Ghost of Station X #1 was in flux for quite some time. What goes on behind the scenes to create such uncertainty, and is it frustrating at all for you as a creator?
Clevinger: Basically it's been years since we've been able to know when Diamond will release our comics prior to the weekend before they magically come out. It's incredibly frustrating because you cannot build customers with the message: "Buy our comics! If your store has them! It might be West Coast only! Or East Coast! Or next month maybe!" It makes our jobs harder and it gives retailers one more reason to overlook an indie book in favor of a "sure thing" like Avengers.
Kiser: So, not only are you facing a huge promotional challenge, but now your book ends up shipping the same week as a whole bunch of OTHER hotly anticipated first issues, namely the first wave DC's New 52. What's your outlook on having your debut occur simultaneously with such a major set of releases from one of the Big Two?
Clevinger: If it means more people in shops, then it's a good thing. We're such a small book that the majority of our sales come from shops that're already going out of their way to direct customers to it. These retailers trust our track record of delivering one of the highest quality books on the shelves and they know our ability to gain traction with new readers. I suspect when folks come in for the DC relaunch, those same shops are going to push Robo as strongly as ever. So, who knows, maybe it'll be fortuitous for us to have a brand new series waiting for these folks. You can jump into Robo anywhere, but jumping into a #1 has a psychological edge.
Kiser: Even though the issue being released this week has a "Number One" on the cover, it's also the beginning of the sixth volume of the series. Any advice for folks walking into comics shops this week who've never read Atomic Robo before?
Clevinger: Buy any Robo trade paperback you see. Vol 1? Vol 3? Vol 2? Whatever! Each series stands alone and they are meant to be read in any order. We jump back and forth across Robo's life, so there's no right or wrong order.
Our number one goal with this book is ACCESSIBILITY. And yet we're able to build an increasingly complete picture of Robo, his world, and their histories as we add more stories to the stack.
Kiser: Speaking of accessibility, the conventional wisdom seems to be that comics, at least the mainstream superhero ones, are largely impenetrable by those who haven't been reading them constantly for ten to fifteen years. Is this a problem you see in the industry at large?
Clevinger: In the sense that mainstream superhero comics represent over 90% of the sales in this country, yes. Humans are storytellers. It's how we process our lives to ourselves and each other. We've been doing this since before there was language. We're good at parsing stories. Comics have so much history and so many alternative timelines and futures and contradictions and revisions and on and on that it requires effort to decipher it. And, really, not a lot of effort. But more effort than it takes to get into, for example, every other story in every other medium for the last few thousand years.
Think of it like this: would you bother keeping up with a blog that made you copy and paste URLs instead of providing links? It's a trivial effort, but it's even easier to use any other site in the world.
Kiser: Aside from your own work, are there any creators or publishers out there you see doing a particularly good job of making their books accessible to new readers?
Clevinger: Indie titles in general have an advantage since they're focused efforts by specific teams. Webcomics in particular are good at grabbing and keeping new readers because the whole archive is right there, 24/7.
Kiser: It's also widely known by now that you were given the chance to write a fairly detailed pitch to DC for a new Firestorm series that was ultimately passed on. Did the direction DC wanted to go with the New 52 clash with y
our take on the character, or was there another reason behind their decision? Any regrets about the process?
Clevinger: I give up on pretending to know what goes on in that company. I was told, Day 1, "We guarantee you six issues" and "We have no one else in mind." Meanwhile, Gail Simone's tale of how she got Firestorm involves being told that she'd be pitching against another writer who knew he was pitching against someone else. Needless to say: I was shocked to learn the pitch I'd gotten approved and first script I'd been asked and paid to write was no longer going forward. And Gail was quite shocked to learn what she'd been told wasn't exactly true.
And, just to quell even the hint of a rumor, there's no bad blood between Gail and I. We've exchanged a few emails over what the heck happened and, near as we can figure, we're both victims of whatever the hell actually happened. Her victimization just gets her paid more than mine does!
Anyway, about a week after I got kicked off they announced the reboot. This is interesting because my Firestorm project was tied to specific elements of existing continuity. Those were my orders. The reboot Firestorm project, obviously, has no such ties.
Kiser: Glad to know you and Simone are on such good terms after the whole brouhaha. You've actually published the specifics of your Firestorm pitch recently on the Atomic Robo blog so we can all see what we missed out on. Have you heard much feedback from the creator or fan communities since posting that?
Clevinger: A lot of fans were enthused by it, which is nice. I just wanted to put it out there so folks could get an idea of my creative process and maybe help them with their own.
Kiser: Word on the street is that you've got several subsequent volumes of Atomic Robo planned for the future. How far ahead is the series mapped out?
Clevinger: Right now we have up to Volume 14 figured out. Possibly Volume 15 or 16 depending on how a couple ideas play out. We are not 100% sure on what order we'll tell those stories. For example, The Savage Sword of Dr. Dinosaur was originally Volume 11, but then we moved it up to Vol 8, but now we're thinking maybe Vol 9.
Kiser: However it ends up being numbered, you've just sold me on that volume based on title alone. With such a far-reaching plan in place, are you in the habit of foreshadowing future stories before they're written? Should readers be checking the current issues for clues about what's coming next?
Clevinger: Man, we've been doing that all along. There's stuff we set up as far back as the first issue of the first volume you haven't seen pay off yet. We already planted one thing in particular that will, 100% guaranteed, blow the mind of every single reader when you see where it goes.
It's funny. Every time Alan Moore or Grant Morrison releases an issue, and now [Jonathan] Hickman too, people clamor for annotations. Because, y'know, they're known for doing stuff that need annotations. Meanwhile I'm over here on Robo making references in Robo's past that have already had their pay off in Robo's future, but in an event readers haven't seen yet. So, it's like, an Easter egg squared.
One day, someone's going to reread one of these issues, realize we telegraphed big events about 7 volumes ahead of time, do a lot of re-reading, and find the web of references we've been doing since Day 1, Issue 1. It's more interesting to me than playing continuity trivia in the backgrounds of a few panels. The drawback is that it'll take us a while to get to the point where readers will begin to see the larger picture we're painting, but hey, that'll only make the payoff even better for them.
Raised on a steady diet of Super Powers action figures and Adam West Batman reruns, Chris Kiser now writes for Comics Bulletin. He once reviewed every tie-in to a major DC Comics summer event and survived to tell the tale. Ask him about it on Twitter, where he can be found as @Chris_Kiser!