Fair Trade Comics is an ongoing series where Comics Bulletin looks at creator-owned comics that you can read without guilt or moral compromise. Why are we starting this series this week? No reason at all.
In light of all sorts of controversies, it's growing increasingly difficult to negotiate the morality of reading corporate superhero comics. But, if you can live with the fact that Batman will be nowhere to be found, there are other options to get your high adventure, lasers and punching. Once upon a time, "indie comics" meant that you were likely reading something that was in black and white, idiosyncratic, and possibly autobiographical. That's just not true anymore. At this point "indie" just means anything that isn't a superhero comic published by Marvel or DC — in other words, the actual vast majority of comics.
Take, for example, Atomic Robo, by the creative team of Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener, Ronda Pattison and Jeff Powell, and published by Red 5. If you're reading superhero comics and bemoaning the faux-mature rapey grimness and/or straight-faced HBO-style moodiness in favor of something bright and fun, Atomic Robo is the comic book you've been waiting for: a story about a talking robot whose actual name is Atomic Robo battling various large-scale threats (giant monsters, Lovecraftian horrors, Nazi hordes) with his team of "action scientists."
I've been pitching Atomic Robo to friends as "Hellboy with science," which is sort of true beyond its transmission as a series of self-contained miniseries. Each volume of the series takes place in a different era of Robo's life, with lots of teases and references to his past, and an ever-changing cast of sidekicks and cohorts, some of whom are real-life scientists. No surprise that Nikola Tesla invented our hero, but in the decades-spanning Volume 3 (Shadow from Beyond Time) we see Robo team up with Charles Fort and H.P. Lovecraft in one issue and Carl Sagan in another.
On the comic's official website, the Atomic Robo creative team offers a simple series of promises — no angst, no "cheesecake," no reboots, no filler and no delays — and deliver on those promises. There are moments of pathos but never any instances of overwrought alleyway sobbing — for example, the end of Volume 1, Issue #2 humanizes Robo without turning him into the insufferable "robot who wants to be human" archetype. There are female characters but they don't exist to up the boner factor for male readers who don't have girlfriends. Each miniseries tells a complete, planned-out story so there's no sudden fill-in issue. And, since it's a miniseries, the team stays on schedule for a handful of months, takes a break, and then comes back with more, unburdened by all the factors that many ongoing monthlies can't seem to shake in getting out quality product on time.
But, as we know, consistency only goes so far. As a piece of entertainment, Clevinger and Wegener offer an unpretentious adventure comic experience that gives readers exactly what they want. Robots punching things. Jokes. Snappy dialogue. Loads of action. Just rereading the first issue, we get lots of Nazi-punching and the promise of a villain made up of a brain in a jar on top a mechanical body. And then, in issue #2, Atomic Robo fights giant ants. It's engaging fun in the way that something like Raiders of the Lost Ark is fun — it's not high-art and fully aware of it, but takes great care to make sure all that matters is you're a blast reading it.
And it's an all-ages comic! Which isn't to say that Clevinger, Wegener and co. are making pure kiddie stuff. Atomic Robo is all-ages in a way similar to how a Pixar movie is "all-ages" — it's totally safe for the kids to read, but it's clear that Clevinger and Wegener aren't condescending to their audience. Instead, they actively strive to create the exact comic they want to make. For some readers, "all-ages" is a dirty word that evokes inoffensive, dumbed-down stories, which is a pretty old-fashioned way of looking at things. In the 21st century, a time where Adventure Time is a children's show beloved by kids and hipsters alike, it's time for us to reevaluate what "all-ages" means.
Google around a little bit and you'll be able to read all about the problems people have with superhero comics these days — the confusingly convoluted continuity, the darkness disguised as maturity and the overall lack of "fun," among others. The answer to these problems are comics like Atomic Robo, which are instantly accessible (I started with the pulp-influenced Volume 5 and immediately "got" it) and maintained by a number of people small enough to keep from there being too many cooks in the kitchen. Nothing about the book feels editorially mangled to fit in with another comic, or crapped out to make a deadline. It is the pop comic at its best — perfectly consistent, enjoyable, and legit. Atomic Robo is a comic book made strictly out of love for the game.
You can find Atomic Robo at your local comic shop if it's cool, but if not you can buy issues digitally from Comixology. The first issue is free, and the collected editions are very reasonably priced.
For more Fair Trade Comics, check out our other features in this series:
- Introducing Fair Trade Comics
- Fair Trade Comics: Atomic Robo
- Fair Trade Comics: Pussey!
- Fair Trade Comics: Our Ever Improving Living Room
- Fair Trade Comics: The Bulletproof Coffin
- Fair Trade Comics: Dracula World Order
- Fair Trade Comics: Local
- Fair Trade Comics: Liz Prince Will Swallow the Key to Your Heart
- Fair Trade Comics: Monsters
- Fair Trade Comics: Cow Boy
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.