Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest - Atomic Robo #4

Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Brian Clevinger
Scott Wegener, Zack Finfrock
EDITOR'S NOTE: Atomic Robo #4 will arrive in stores this Wednesday, January 16.

Matthew J. Brady 4 BULLETS

The first few issues of new publisher Red 5 Comics' Atomic Robo have been great fun, combining big action, knowing humor, and just the right amount of heart to make for some highly enjoyable comics. The third issue saw a bit of a hiccup, ending abruptly with an explosion, not even being considerate enough to throw in a "To Be Continued" caption. But that was just about the only misstep the series has taken so far, and it's rectified for the most part with this issue, which begins with that same explosion that the third issue left off with.

In the midst of trying to combat a runaway pyramid in the deserts of Egypt, the aforementioned blast has left the titular character’s team of “action scientists” at a loss, trying to revive him using an atomic battery. You see, he is actually 80 years old, having been created by Nikola Tesla in 1923. This gives him a rich history that can be told in flashbacks, and previous issues have already dipped into that backstory here and there. We get another one of those memories in most of this issue, as Robo recalls the year 1976, when he was recruited by Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking to accompany the Viking probe on its mission to Mars.

It’s a bit of a departure from previous issues, which concentrated on big action. Instead of bombastic fights against monsters or supervillains, Robo ends up struggling against the boredom and tediousness of a two-year trip across the vastness of space. It’s pretty low-key, relying on conversations and expressions to convey humor. And it’s pretty funny, especially when Robo seems to lose his mind wandering around on Mars, making “dirt angels” and stacking up rocks in humanoid shape to have conversations with.

Artist Scott Wegener gets an opportunity to forego the usual punches and booms (although there are some of those in the non-flashback scenes, so he’s not going to get rusty or anything) and focus on character moments. Luckily, he’s as good at that aspect as he is at the action; Robo has a mostly expressionless face (narrowed eyes are just about the only variation he can manage), but Wegener still manages to effectively convey emotions like surprise, exasperation, and boredom through body language; it’s pretty impressive, especially since it seems so natural; you have to be looking for it to even notice how well he pulls it off.

So, it’s a pretty good issue overall, continuing a trend of fun action and revealing flashbacks. For added value, there’s even a flashback backup strip in which Robo fights the ghost of Rasputin which has been conjured by Thomas Edison in an effort to sabotage his rival Tesla. Funny stuff. The main story ends with the promise of crazy action next month, so while we had a bit of a breather here, we’ll be back to the large-scale violence soon. I for one can’t wait.

Ariel Carmona Jr. 3.5 BULLETS

Red 5’s Atomic Robo of Mars is a satisfying blend of intelligent storytelling and amusing dialogue with impressive visuals. Clevinger makes the premise of Nikola Tesla inventing a robot with automatic intelligence pay off by making the protagonist a likeable and compelling character whose adventures are set behind a background of historical events.

What grabbed me initially about this title was the artwork; Weneger’s pencils and Pattison’s colors bring the little fellow and his supporting cast to life in vivid action panels. The artists’ use of a different color and design for his speech captions, for example, adds to the distinctive look of the titular character in this comic. This is a fun read, nothing too cerebral but a sci-fi inspired romp in the tradition of Hellboy and other quirky comic book characters of his ilk.

This comic starts in the present day with Robo and the action scientists of Tesladyne on a mission dealing with the Egyptian government and then transitions into a flashback to 1974 where Robo volunteers to help NASA out with their unmanned space exploration program.

The only problem with the comic is that sometimes it is difficult to follow Robo’s motives as a result of the time shifts and also as a result of the fact he makes some puzzling statements when he is trying to be funny.

However, the book’s pacing is at times slow enough to establish Robo’s interactions with his superiors and those he interacts with while at other times it’s brisk with outrageous explosions and situations occurring at every turn and with fantastic visuals oozing out of multiple panels. This is the comic’s greatest asset: an ability to juggle both these story telling elements with equal success.

The contemporary comic I compare this book to the most is Dark Horse’s Umbrella Academy which also boasts of impressive visuals but unlike that book, this isn’t a team book, which allows the writer to focus on its single peculiar protagonist. Weneger also isn’t as skilled as Gabriel Ba at crowding the pages with extrasensory information, preferring a more straightforward style but both comics are examples of great storytelling, featuring whimsical characters and well researched plots.

I recommend Red 5’s Atomic Robo of Mars to any reader who likes their sequential fiction mixed in with the perspective provided by historical hindsight. This comic feels and reads like a nod to an era where comic book characters fought Nazis, terrorists and other mundane threats in addition to extraterrestrial and supernatural threats and there isn’t a damned thing wrong with that.

Chris Murman: 4.5 BULLETS

“Stephen. Hawking.”

This title continues to deliver smart, funny dialogue. and even though there’s a world crisis happening in Egypt and our hero is in peril, witty flashbacks again rule the day and provide a story arc that’s one of the best I’ve read in a long while.

What creators Brian Clevenger and Scott Wegener continue to do well is grab the reader right off the bat. Instead of taking a few pages to recap what happened in the previous issue, in effect wasting pages of exposition, they take one page and two measly panels to explain what was going on. Mechanical pyramid on the move in a foreign country; pyramid goes “boom.” End of story, and what else do you need to know what is going on? This team has shown that the reader is smart, and each issue can be accessible no matter what point the story is at.

Granted, all the Hawking jokes in the world shouldn’t distract us from the main event, our intrepid robot-action scientist flat on his back showing no signs of life from his run in with mechanical mummies. If you think he’s going down that easily, well I’ve got some awesome creek-side property in Ballinger, Texas to show you. I’m guessing what happens will carry us to the end of this first series, but that’s not the entire reason to keep reading this story.

I was fascinated to hear the exchange between NASA scientists and our hero as he takes a Sunday drive to the planet of Mars. Being the typical nerds they are, the space program’s finest engineers deem that a robot wouldn’t need much to occupy him for the long ride to our neighboring rock; or he could just shut himself off if he was bored. Going from that to a discussion on “robot pornography”… actually there’s nothing I can say to that. The line speaks for itself. We then have AR leaving a huge “kick me” sign on Mars before departing (Chairface Chippendale eat your heart out!). That and the four minute delay in radio communication provide plenty of light moments that are a microcosm of what this book is about. If that sequence isn’t enough to make you giggle even a little, this title just isn’t for you.

When I think of ways to describe Wegener’s art style, I think of simplistically beautiful. I mean that as a compliment, because each panel doesn’t try to accomplish too much. Backgrounds are laid out to draw attention to great character depiction and not take away from it. Expressions are fitting, and as I have said in previous reviews Robo is drawn with such care and consideration. Colors accentuate those very traits I just described, and Red 5 is leading the pack with print production. They have made quality their top priority.

I continue to be amazed at this book that wasn’t intended to be the publisher’s flagship title, but it is becoming just that literally overnight.

Christopher Power: 5 BULLETS

I find this book really incredible for a number of reasons. First, it consistently brings a smile to my face, and in places leaves me with tears in my eyes I’m laughing so hard. The book is cleverly written to hide jokes until the punch-line is revealed. The scenes of Robo on Mars in this book are some of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Second, in an age of cheesecake art and gritty violence, this book manages to use a style more suited to a Sunday comic strip to create images that complement the script perfectly. There is excellent construction, with proper perspective and deep background detail. Wegener also manages to infuse his characters with immense emotion from just a few pencil strokes and slight changes in expression. Whereas some artists cannot communicate emotion properly in facial expressions, Wegener produces a deep range of emotion in a robot and he only has two eyes to work with for said expressions. Astounding.

Third, the presentation of the story is very clever. Knowing that this series is only 6 issues long, Clevinger is managing to find a way to not only tell a modern day story, but intersperse the history of Atomic Robo into the main story. With this, Clevinger crams a huge amount of story into a short comic. This avoids the feeling of the story about Egypt (which is relatively simple) being dragged out for issue after issue.

Going back to the art, the presentation of these history stories are immensely respectful of the time period in which they are taking place. For instance, when the story is presented in 1975, Stephen Hawking is presented as he would appear during that time period, with some upper mobility still present. The space equipment and computer systems are time relevant, looking as they should for the time period. It would be very easy to put this book in a falsely advanced past, given that we have an atomic robot as the main character. But the artist and writer clearly want to ground Robo in the real world, and make Robo, and his allies and enemies, to be the exception instead of the rule.

Finally, there are wonderful little gems in the book. In the backup story Edison uses the greeting “Ahoy-hoy” before using the traditional “Hello.” This is a wonderful poke at the dispute between Edison and Bell on what the greeting on the phone should be. Also, in a book littered with robotics and computing science references you have a woman named Ada, which is just too cute a double meaning to ignore.

Overall, I love this book. Clevinger has managed to create a character and series that is reminiscent of Hellboy, which is high praise indeed, but takes it and makes it his own with a unique style and voice.

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