Atomic Robo and the Fightin’ Scientists of Tesladyne Volume One, Issues 1-6 by Brian Clevinger (author) & Scott Wegener (artist)
Atomic Robo is a fast-paced story about a robot who was invented in 1923 by the great mad scientist Nikola Tesla. Therefore, though the story is set in the present, Atomic Robo looks like people in the 1920s thought a robot should look like. He’s roughly humanoid, with large clunky-looking arms and legs and large blue eyes with functioning metallic eyelids that the artist uses to express much of Robo’s emotions. Though he has a clunky look, Robo is an agile fighter who relies just as much, if not more so, on his might as on his computer brain that has kept up with the latest updates in science — only his body and his personality are retro. His love of old radio shows and actors makes him a man out of time, much like Captain America. And also much like Cap, many of Robo’s friends and loved ones have died through the years and in the wars he’s been a part of. There is a touching component to the comic, but only in rare moments.
Though the comic is set in the present, many of the stories take place in the past and are told to us as Robo’s memories. The first story is about Nazis and takes place in 1938 when Robo single-handedly takes on the Nazi Helsingard in his science laboratory-like bunker. Helsingard is trying to use science to become a superman, and when the transformation takes place, confronts Robo in all seriousness by claiming as he floats in the air in a blue glow, “Behold, the Helsingard! Behold, the dawn of the Superman! My will is made real!” And though the words are delivered by the character with a straight face, the readers get that author Brian Clevinger is putting a writer’s elbow to the reader’s ribs as we laugh at the super-villain clichés. In fact, Robo — and his team in later adventures — will usually laugh at villains who take themselves seriously. As a result, this comic is heavy on irony, as many current action comics must be, and it operates on multiple levels to prevent the reader from merely rolling his eyes.
Robo doesn’t just fight Nazis, though he will be forced to confront Helsingard again in the final issue of this volume: He fights giant ants next, and then later, at the request of the Egyptian government, his team helps stop a pyramid, which has gone mobile in its entirety. We also are told the story of his trip to Mars. So, basically, we get your typical pulp-style stories that are clearly the main influence on this comic. But what makes this comic better than just borrowing pulp stories from the past? I’d have to say that the main reason I like this comic is that it’s just really funny. It’s got a Hellboy sense of humor (Start with Volume One: Hellboy: Seed of Destruction). I can’t imagine the author wasn’t influenced by the writing style of Mike Mignola: the dialogue, the action, and the dialogue during action scenes all remind me of Hellboy.
Like Hellboy, Robo has a certain physical strength that makes encounters with normal humans funny. For example, when Robo attacks Helsingard’s bunker, he keeps telling the soldiers to stop shooting at him because he’s built like a tank. They ignore him and do everything they can to kill or at least subdue him. His response to being shot at by a group of soldiers? “Jerks.” This sort of understated reaction to what would be death-delivering violence to human beings is also reminiscent of Hellboy. It’s mainly visual humor with little verbal additions, but it works.
As the stories progress, I think the humor improves because the humor doesn’t rely so much on the visual aspects of the comics (though that’s still there): The writer seems to quickly get into a rhythm by the second issue. As Robo is beating the stew out of giant ants, his team of “Action Scientists” are arguing over the possibility of giant ants even being capable of existing, with the consensus being that they cannot exist. Realize that they come to this decision while looking at them. Finally, one scientist demands they are possible based on Imaginary Physics, which receives skeptical responses, of course. A panel shows Robo pounding a giant ant with the speech bubble of a scientist in the background showing the words of this scientist throwing a mini-adult tantrum: “Imaginary physics is a perfectly legitimate field of inquiry!” Their petty squabbles that do nothing to actually aid Atomic Robo continue throughout his entire physical battle. Most of the words are put on the panel with Robo and with the scientists out of sight. This text-to-image technique works quite well in this sequence. It’s the equivalent of having in a movie the voice-overs from off-camera characters during an action sequence with the main character.
The entire team of action scientists is a funny idea: One scientist reveals his background and his studies at the doctorate level: “Solar deathray design was my doctorate thesis [because] I figured the threat of radioactive fallout meant there’d be a market for environmentally friendly means of mass destruction.” So are they ACTION scientists or action SCIENTISTS? Their reputation seems to be based more on ACTION. The Egyptian president wants them to non-violently stop the pyramids, but of course, seems to feel the need to clarify. Robo tries to make his team understand the importance of this request: “Egypt’s enjoyed a long history of not blowing up pryamids. I think they aim to stick to that.” Read the book to see how well Robo does in meeting the demands of this request.
My favorite part of the comic is the character of Robo himself: He’s got a serious side combined with a sense of humor. For example, he tells one of his overworked team memebers: “Vik, c’mon… I need a fresh team out there. You’ve been awake for over twenty-six hours now. I can read your brainwaves with my fancy robot eyes.” “Really?,” replies Vik. “Of course not. The mere fact that you’d believe that tells me you’re in no shape for fieldwork right now.” So he’s funny, yes, but he’s got heart as well. He seems more human than robot and wants to be treated that way. He only takes on Helsingard because the government offers him “full legal status as a human being and American citizen.” Before this offer, he had refused to do as asked, so ethics, patriotism, and the loads of money the government offers him are not enough. But the chance to be recognized as human? That’s the key to Atomic Robo’s character.
This first volume is good, but there are about six more volumes available now. They are all consistently good, but I like some of the others that take place in the past during other pulp eras that allow Clevinger a chance to play with noir as well as science fiction. And Scott Wegener really seems to have fun dressing up Atomic Robo in period clothes for the different stories. Part of the visual humor is having Robo look exactly the same from the 1920s until the present except for his clothes, from science outfits to Hawaiian shirts. I also like the later stories dealing with his inventor.
Though the first volume really has a sense of completion, I would imagine most readers will want to pick up volume two when they are finished with this first volume. This is a funny, entertaining, and light read. Atomic Robo is like going to see a great action film that was made for an intelligent audience. You don’t have to be brilliant to read it, but it doesn’t talk down to you either. I’d imagine some teenagers would like it as well, but if you’re a parent, you might want to check the violence and language-level for yourself.