5 Reasons to Read: Atomic Robo / by Patrick Smith

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About three years ago I was still in the middle of my reentry into comics and in a lot of ways I was still trying to figure out where my sensibilities lay as a reader. So one Wednesday I was talking to the owner of my shop at the time and he asked me if I had ever read Atomic Robo. I told him no and asked him what it was about, to which he replied: "It's the story of a snarky robot built by Nikola Tesla who regularly goes on adventures with his team of action scientists to investigate and stop the use of mad science against the world." In that moment I knew exactly where my sensibilities as a reader were and promptly bought the back issues to the recently completed miniseries "Atomic Robo and the Shadow from Beyond Time." I read them all as soon as I got back home and upon completion I promptly read it again, something I had never done before, as I was simply amazed at the level of craftsmanship in both the writing of Brian Clevinger and the art of Scott Wegener  and how it combined to create such an incredible reading experience. Now its three years later and I've since read more comics than I'd like to admit, but Atomic Robo is still a title that I reread on a regular basis and one of the handful of books I try to get everyone to read.

I would assume, and assumption is all I really have to go on, that Atomic Robo does well for an independent creator owned comic but if it were up to me every issue of Atomic Robo would be pulling down Avengers numbers. Its a legitimately fun book that anybody could enjoy and is preacticcly designed for each volume to be new-reader friendly while rewarding readers that have gone back and read every volume. So I now present to you my humble attempt to get a few more people to add this to their pull lists with Five Reasons that you, the Spandexless reader, should read Atomic Robo.

1) A Great Protagonist

I suppose this would have to be the first thing I talk about as the book is named after the guy. The easiest way to describe Robo as a character would just say he's a snarky robot that really good at punching things in the face and leave it at that. Of course Robo has more going for him than some one liners and a penchant for hitting things over the head with Buicks…alright he’s ninety percent one liners and hitting things with Buicks but we’re going to focus on the other ten percent. One of the most important things to remember about Robo right up front is this: He's a Robot. Obvious I know but bear with me; Robo is a robotic artificial intelligence that zipped right past the singularity and right into obtaining free will and a sense of humanity. Robo goes out of his way, doing a job for the United States military just to earn his full and legal rights as a human being in the eyes of the government. Those rights are well worth it as Robo has a legimate human core that is often at odds with his mechanical nature. This is most potently apparent early on when we realize that living for nearly a century means that people he has grown close to eventually die while he keeps on kicking. These people can be as important as his creator Nikola Tesla or an old war buddy from the Korean war. Either way these deaths mean the same thing to him: He's still here so he might as well make the world a better place. Of course "making the better place" means spending equal amounts of time running the world's foremost super science think-tank, Tesladyne, and fighting monsters and mad scientists while throwing out more one liners than he does bullets.

2) An Ever-expanding Universe and Mythology

The stories within Atomic Robo are told in a non-linear format, often with time periods changing from arc to arc and sometimes issue to issue. The main reason for this is, like I said before, that Robo was built in the 1920s and his lifespan goes right on up to modern times. This allows a big marvelous playground that the creative team can use to tell stories. The non-linear aspect of the storytelling lends itself for to a built in mythology, often times referencing events in one arc and the then going back in time in another arc to reveal how they happened. Sometimes even a small throwaway line or image can come back and be revealed to be incredibly important and even lay the seed for its own story altogether. For example, in one arc we see the picture of a masked man on Robo's desk and meet the ghost of an important figure from Robo's past, in the next we meet both of these people and learn just how they impacted Robo's life. The book's inherent mythology also helps define Robo as a character. The shifting time periods from story arc to story arc allow you to see Robo at various places in his life and his subsequent character development. Over the various arcs you see what Robo was like as a young and inexperienced lab assistant, which juxtaposes nicely with him in modern times where he’s a cranky veteran adventure scientist. It’s those moments in between that make you want to read the book so you can see what eventually made him who he is today and ultimately what makes him a character worth reading about.

There are also the numerous other characters within Robo's world alongside him in adventures. They recently went and created a second book called Atomic Robo Presents: Real Science Adventures just to have a showcase for all those characters and stories the main book just couldn't get to. These are not just throw away adventures, they add to the universe Atomic Robo inhabits and whenever a question arises you can be sure you will get an answer somewhere down the line (unless it's finding out what Operation Paperclip was because I am still waiting on that one).

3) Accessibility

Now all of that talk about mythology and world building might sound a bit daunting but here's where the true genius of Atomic Robo as a book resides: Due to the creators' choice to make each arc self-contained, you can literally jump on at any volume and can fully enjoy the story with little to no previous knowledge of what came before. Think about how many comics try to do that and ultimately fail due to their strict adherence that everything has to fit in with what came before. Because Atomic Robo takes a non-linear approach to its storytelling, it circumvents that concern, it has no obligation to make anything fit until the very end which allows every miniseries to be the perfect jumping on point. Additionally, it is most definitely an all ages book that treats all of its readers with a degree of intelligence and sincerity. That can be a rare trait in some comics, but Atomic Robo just wants readers to sit back and throughly enjoy the experience without excluding anyone from being part of the fun.

4) The Promise

Awhile back the Atomic Robo team posted an update on their official website outlining their promise to both established and potential readers of Atomic Robo. They promised that no matter what issue or what volume you would see:

  • No Angst
  • No "Cheesecake"
  • No Reboots
  • No Filler
  • No Delays

They fully elaborate what they mean here but I can say that they have stuck to every single one of those promises over the six completed volumes of the book. The thing is, if you look at any book from the big two, and maybe even some of the larger independents, chances are they fall into at least one of those categories every arc and sometimes even every issue. So it's pretty refreshing that a book and its creative team is actively trying to avoid them. Ultimately though, the promise also represents something even more important: the potential for a policy like this to influence future comic creators, hopefully finally curbing some of the more annoying aspects of mainstream comics.

5) It's a Legitimately Good Comic Book

I know this sort of seems like a cop out, as most of my previous points have basically already been saying this but here I'm making a point on format. You walk into a comic store and look across the racks or shelves and the majority of them are corporate figures jumping to TV and movies while others seem to just be pitches to networks and studios in a sequential art format. That's perfectly fine and I love many of those books, but you can't get any better than a comic book that actually uses the fact that it's a comic book as a strength. Comics have the capacity to literally do anything within their pages but too often the medium's potential is held back by writers with limited imagination and artists afraid of going too big. Now that's a worst case scenario. Atomic Robo, on the other hand, is written by one of the best writers the medium has produced in years and an artist that can create anything with his pencils. Because of that, every volume reads like it's barely holding in its outright exuberance for the medium an feels like it's going to explode off of the page. This is a book that creates a universe filled with warbots in WWII, a dimension filled with vampires, a super sentai inspired Japanese super-science team, pulp styled vigilantes, a Cthulhuesque cosmic super beas, and a deranged time traveler and/or genetic experiment called Doctor Dinosuar, and managed to pull it off. You would think with all of that craziness the book would constantly be going off the rails but instead all it needs to stay grounded is a sarcastic robot and suddenly the universe they all inhabit just feels natural. If that's not the definition of great use of the comic book format, then I don't know what is. Plus, "Atomic Robo and the Ghost of Station X" got nominated for an Eisner this year. So they must be doing something right.

Where to Start?

Like I said, Atomic Robo is easily accessible from almost any volume, so you may want to consider jumping on when the next miniseries ("Atomic Robo and the Flying She Devils of the Pacific") launches in June. Of course it can't hurt to start at the very beginning with the first volume ("Atomic Robo and The Fighting Scientists of Tesladyne"). However, I would actually recomend just starting with Volume Five ("Atomic Robo and the Deadly Art of Science") which acts as Robo's defacto origin story and supports a lot of what I said about Robo's inherent humanity. Or, if you just want to jump into the non-linear deep end and all the mad science adventuring that entails you can start with possibly the strongest story of the series (so far) with Volume Three ("Atomic Robo and the Shadow from Beyond Time") which covers multiple time periods and genres while telling a complete story. If you don't feel like putting down cash for a collected edition,s Team Robo has also put a ton of Atomic Robo stories online for free and the recently launched Real Science Adventures is a shorter book which still gives you several stories to choose from.

So what are you waiting for? Get to reading.