Let's start with a quick questionnaire. Do you like:
- Buckaroo Banzai
- Indiana Jones
- Doc Savage
- Hellboy (movie or comic)
- Science, especially when it is followed with an exclamation point or preceded by the words "violent," "adventure," or both
- Nikola Tesla
- Beating up Nazis
- The pairing of the words "lightning" and "gun"
- Big Robots
- Really Big Robots
If you answered "yes" to even one or two of these, I have a suggestion for you, and his name is Atomic Robo.
I just got back from San Diego Comic Con and I'm going to mix things up with a handful of reviews that focus on some of the best "color funny books" I've either been reading or just started. After some soul searching, I decided to start with Atomic Robo, because while it might not be a traditional capes-and-spandex comic or deep and introspective storytelling, it is fun and instantly accessible for pretty much anyone. Right now, the hardest part about reading Atomic Robo around my house is finding the damn books, because everyone from me to my seven-year-old daughter takes off with 'em and tucks into hidden reading nooks where their snorts of laughter won't be detected by other family members looking for the same book.
So What Have We Got?
In 1923, Nikola Tesla reveals Atomic Robo, a robot with "automatic intelligence," and the world is never the same.
Really, that's pretty much all I needed to know, but the trade paperback collection offers a lot more, following Robo's adventures (in no particular chronological order) as he (and the Action Scientists of Tesladyne) become the go-to defense force against the weird, unexplained, and nefarious. Nazis? Check. Giant ants? Check (complete with action scientists complaining that such things are impossible). Clockwork mummies. Mobile pyramids. Cyborgs. And of course, Baron von Helsingard, his recurring nemesis.
Atomic Robo is an ever-so-slightly out-of-control car chase through a world infused with the best parts of pulp and science fiction, pulled together into a unified story with great, surprisingly believable characters. The dialogue is funny, full of the mid-action quips that so many writers try to pull off and so few actually manage, but still blessed with depth, especially when it comes to Robo, his humanity, and the ever-growing burden of immortality.
It would be easy to describe Atomic Robo as "Hellboy with more science," but that's really not fair to either title, or much help to the potential reader. Robo does focus on a non-human protagonist living in a world populated by humans that frequently misunderstand him or try to manipulate him, but where Mignola pulls his story threads from a tapestry of fables, fairy tales, and myths, Robo is a film-edit amalgam of pop culture and Saturday matinees. And in case I didn't mention it, it's fun. I like Hellboy and the BPRD as much as the next guy, but the Robo creators never let their book drag with too much navel-gazing and angst. In modern comics, where every major publisher seems to think a title is improved by jamming the word "dark" in somewhere, Atomic Robo is a breath of fresh air. You'd be hard-pressed to find a comic more entertaining, or easier to recommend and loan to your friends.
Now, just in case you check out the first book and decide you want more, you're in luck: there's a total of seven collections in all (so far), and since the stories in each collection range from the early 1930s to 2023 (again, presented in no particular order), you can pretty much grab any one you like and dive right in. Most readers will naturally go for volume one, but volume five (The Deadly Art of Science) is a treat, as it focuses mostly on Robo's first adventures, teamed up with crimefighter vigilantes Jack Tarot (reluctant mentor) and the charming mechanical whiz Nightingale (his daughter). Watch for the guest appearance by Thomas Edison, mad scientist!
If you need one more recommendation before you finally cave in and buy everything this creative team puts out, let me point you at Atomic Robo and The Flying She-Devils of the Pacific, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the book right in the title, except for one thing.
Well, no, that's not everything. This is story set in 1951. The post-World War II Pacific is the new wild west, and Robo finds himself in a crazy situation at a singular point in history. Times are changing, and in a weird way the She-Devils represent the way women's roles are evolving. Through the explosions and aerial hijinx, Robo's recurring astonishment at the simple fact of the Flying She-Devils is a great running joke that manages to be entertaining without belittling either Robo or the She-Devils themselves. The story is a blast, the art is fantastic (it's good in every book, and this one - the most recent installment - showcases the artist's growth beautifully), but what I admire the most is the fact that the story is always about one thing ... and then something else. Something kind of sneaky.
Something that'll make you think.
When it comes down to it, Atomic Robo is just good old-fashioned storytelling, and you owe it to yourself to check it out and have a little fun.