Exo-1: Huge Robots and Ghost Grandads / by David Anderson


I read once about the difference between how America does giant robots and how Japan does them. Japan loves them to be more organic and solid state, as if they are living. So you have robots shaped like samurai  or people (Gundam/Transformers), robots shaped like animals (Power Rangers/Voltron) and giant robots that are also giant monsters (Evangelion). America, on the other hand, loves their giant robots to be more mechanical and utilitarian, emphasizing them as tools used by the pilots. So you have stuff like Battletech/Mechwarrior, Supreme Commander, James Cameron's Avatar and the like showing anthropomorphic machines as basically walking tanks with few humanlike features.

Action Lab Comics' Exo-1 and the Rocksolid Steelbots, written by Shawn Pryor and Adam Besenyodi with art by Daniel J. Logan, decided to emulate Michael Bay's Transformers more than either camp. Like, literally they transform. Not very subtle, I know, but then I guess if Transformers gets a monopoly on shape shifting robots then about half of all mecha fandoms are hypocrites. It's a fast-paced comic with good art and a tense, if sometimes cluttered, story.

Exo-1 begins by showing us a giant underground facility run by the Air Force in 1984. Within a couple pages it's been annihilated by an experimental creature, but we do get to see some of the giant robots from the magazine cover at least once. A bad guy escapes from an underground facility, and then we jump about 26 years to find a billionaire media mogul named Peter trying to give a press conference when the ghost of his dead Grandpa suddenly drafts him into a fight against a superhuman enemy.

Now, there's a lot to be said for intention. Some people think Jackson Pollack was just yanking our chains about what we considered good art, in a "you suckers will fall for anything" kind of way. Others think he was brilliant and subtle. Some artists try to do one thing and the end product ends up evoking something entirely different--intentionally or not. I think whether something is deliberate or not has a lot to do with quality.

That is to say, at first I wanted to say that this was cheesy and dumb, in that the story was far too ridiculous and action packed. Once I found out that they were deliberately trying to invoke the feel of a Saturday Morning Cartoon, I re-read it and realized that they nailed it, just about. I mean, it feels almost exactly like the type of stuff I'd watch on Cartoon Network on the weekend, except as a comic book. Ridiculously cheesy dialogue, cookie cutter villains, lots and lots of action. You know the drill. Within this context, they did a really good job capturing the feel of all that.

Still, that format isn't entirely laudable for effective storytelling. My main criticism of the story is that it's got way, way too much going on. We have werewolf commandos, bracelets that generate power armor out of thin air, ancient Egyptian stones that helped John Henry defeat a steam engine (Never ever thought I would type that sentence.), the aforementioned robots, and so much more. Characters will be introduced, a montage will flash right in front of us to give us a quick and dirty explanation of this and that character's relationship with each other, and then the explosions start. I mean yeah, this is what the Saturday Morning Cartoon was about, but it needs to be toned down just a little in my opinion. Some characters don't get introduced until halfway through and still play a big role, which led me to think there must have been previous issues of this in circulation considering how fast these characters are injected into the story, but I guess this is the first iteration.

Also, one thing that nags me is that the book cover shows a bunch of giant robots, but those don't even make their debut until the novel is nearly over. Most of the story revolves around this small group of people getting a bunch of biotechnological enhancements from a ghost, which turns them into superhumans with laser eyes and super strength and stuff--why put the robots on the cover when they play such a minimal role? The only object on the cover that plays a part from beginning to end is the wristwatch thing but the cover never makes it clear that most of our reading time will be spent watching the ramifications of that thing rather than the robots that your eye immediately gravitates toward.

All right, so the story could use some work. Since they were going deliberately for that cheesy cartoon feel, maybe I'm being too harsh. Being corny and overwrought is kind of their thing. Still, I think some elements definitely need tweaking.

The art's good, though. I mean, few art is perfect, but first the compliments. It's in black and white, so shading is pretty important, and artist Daniel J. Logan does a good job with it. When he makes things shiny, he does it well. Characters look good too, and the robots are impressive, but I think he needs work on poses and facial expressions. You can tell when a character is sad or mad or whatever, but too often they don't look like they're portraying that emotion strongly enough. I think part of the problem is that the most common expression on their faces is one where they look like they're looking at something above their heads with their mouth gaping open, and every other facial expression is just a variation of that.

Poses need work too; for the most part they're okay, but highly kinetic scenes can suffer. Overall, though, I think the art has a strong base, and just needs some mild improvements to make it really feel fluid.

Since I'm a nerd I'm naturally the type of person who, upon discovering something that bugs me, will just obsess about that blemish to the detriment of anything else positive about a work. And yeah, there's some stuff in here that could be improved. Still though, despite my penchant for obsession, I think they did a good job and both of the creators and the book show some great potential.

TL;DR: If you like fast paced action and can put up with a sugar-addled story, pick this up. Depending on how seriously you take it, you'll either enjoy it or make fun of it. One option might make you a prude, though.

Exo-1 and the Rocksolid Steelbots is written by Shawn Pryor & Adam Besenyodi and illustrated by Daniel J. Logan. An original graphic novel, it is part of Action Lab Comics' signature series. The initial print run is limited to 500 signed and numbered copies, with copies still available. You can as your local comic book shop to order you one with order code DEC110768.

A review PDF of Exo-1 and the Rocksolid Steelbots was graciously provided to Spandexless by the publisher.