Clevinger & Wegener: Wake Me Up Before We Robo

A comics interview article by: Chris Murman
Let’s get the nose shining out of the way: Atomic Robo was a surprising success and a welcome addition to my longbox. The best part of the story is I’m not the only person drinking the Red 5 Kool-Aid. Creators Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener brought an incredibly likeable character to life and reminded readers what it was like to laugh for a change. They did all of this without any need to show cleavage, skin-tight outfits or gratuitous violence anywhere within their pages. Of course, they’d show the action-scientists all in skin-tight leather for one panel next issue just to prove me wrong, but that’s what makes these two so likeable.

Now that the first mini-series has wrapped and the trade on the way in June, I took the chance to hear reactions from Brian and Scott about how the series was received, their mindset in creating the character, and the possibility of robot love in the future.

Chris Murman: It would be really cliché to ask this question first; then again we deal in comics, so why not. Can each of you speak as to the level of success you've achieved with this initial mini-series? What's this ride been for both of you so far?

Scott Wegener: To have people react so strongly and in such a positive way to a book that we have both poured out hearts into…it’s very hard to find the words to describe that feeling. Deeply gratifying is the best I can give you.

The fan reaction has been insane – in the best possibly way. First of all, the very fact that we actually have fans that are not related and/or married to us is sort of mind-blowing. The people I have met at the conventions this year have just been so wonderful. People are giving us fan-art, asking to be drawn as Action Scientists, and so on. To see that people are into Robo as much as Brian and I are is pretty wonderful.

It’s also kind of humbling. It’s as if suddenly people are watching and have expectations of us, and I would feel really awful if we suddenly let them down.

Overall it’s been great.

Brian Clevinger: Oh, sure, it’s great until one of the private jets is downed for maintenance for an hour. Some of us would like to get to Jamaica while there’s still some sun, okay?

CM: So Robo defeats his arch-nemesis for the umpteenth time in issue #6, saving humanity yet again. I found it hilarious how he and his science nerds approach each life-threatening even with a certain amount of indifference. Why are these guys so blasé with protecting the world?

SW: I think when punching zombie cyborgs in the throat is “just a day at the office” its going to become routine to a point. No matter how strange or horrible something might be, if you are exposed to it again and again you get acclimated to it. Not all the action-scientists are cool little cucumbers though. I think it was Bernard – the bald guy with the hipster glasses – who freaked out pretty badly in the last few issues.

Once we start to explore Robo’s early years you’ll see that he too was an excitable young adventurer back in the day. But in the more modern stories it has become old hat.

Besides, if you were built like a tank you’d probably be a bit cocky and over-confident too. Robo stays crisp in milk.

BC: Well, of course they’d have completely mundane reactions to impossible situations. Like Scott said, this is the kind of stuff these guys deal with all the time. I wouldn’t say they’re bored with it, but maybe they’re inured to it? I mean, like, for you guys. The first time you interview, say, Mark Waid, that’s really cool. By the sixth time, he’s still Mark Waid and it’s still cool, but you’re an old hand at it. This is especially the case for Robo. He grew up in Tesla’s laboratory, and then he traveled the world, and then he went to war, and then had a lifetime’s worth of weird science adventures, and THEN it was 1990. Y’know? He went to Mars! You’ve got to go a long way at this point to impress Robo. And, frankly, giant bugs and megalomania just don’t cut it.

CM: I know the issue is long past, but I need to ask about the Stephen Hawking bit. Jokes like that were what made this book so successful in my book. Where in the world did that come from, and how do you two continue to crank out the yucks?

SW: Mostly that’s just how Brian works. The massive quantity of psychotropic drugs he takes only adds to the humor. When it came to laying out that gag where Robo realizes that Hawking has gotten the better of him I thought that visually it would be funny to make it a play on that classic moment in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, where Kirk gets stranded inside that asteroid and screams into the comlink. Only instead of cutting to Ricardo Montalbon and his greasy man chest we cut to Hawking being rolled around the peaceful grounds of Oxford.

If you are referring to the message Robo left on Mars – I hate that joke. I was talking to Brian about it earlier actually. For me that sort of stuff is so zany that it strains my ability to believe in Robo as a character. But that’s okay. I think I’ve talked Brian out of quite a few moments that I was uncomfortable with and he has forced me to lighten up and relax where this stuff is concerned. I think that’s part of what makes us a good team. If we were the Mythbusters he’s be the Adam to my Jamie.

BC: Yeah, I thought I was a bitter old sourpuss, but Scott’s got me beat by miles. But it’s a good balance. I have a tendency where, if I think of a joke, I absolutely have to execute it or my head will explode. He’s pulled me back from that brink a few times. We have this interesting dynamic where we really trust and respect each other, but we also don’t hesitate to tell each other “That’s stupid.” This is truer with Scott because he’s a Yankee and they don’t have manners up there. Also, 9 times out of 10 I’m still too busy going “Eeeee, there’s Robo and he looks cool!” to articulate anything more complex. And, let’s face it; it’s easier for me to re-write a brilliant scene around Scott’s artistic butchery than it is for him to draw another page with his feet.

CM: Scott, at first glance...Robo's team would appear to blend together and not stand out as individuals when compared to their fearless leader? Was that intentional, and do you plan on delineate the team a bit in the next series? Was this directed at all in the script Brian?

SW: Visually I’d have to argue that the are all pretty unique; we’ve got a skinny bald guy from the Mid-West, a stocky Hawaiian, a muscular South African, a British redhead, a petite Japanese lady, and an afro-rockin’ kid from Philly. What the hell else do you want from me!?! [laughter]

There are not enough large breasted women in chain mail bikinis…that is what you’re saying, isn’t it? Be honest.

As characters yes, they are all sort of the same right now. Not to me and Brian but to you guys for sure. Eventually we will focus more on developing the action scientists to give them some depth. But so far there just hasn’t been time. I mean what would you have preferred; that extra page of Robo beating the snot out of Giant Ants with a mail box and a street sign, or deeper exploration of the secondary characters?

I also sort of like the fact that they are a little under-developed right now. As I mentioned before several people have asked me to draw them as action-scientists, either in sketches or in the actual comic books. I know one guy who just wants to be a security guard at Tesladyne. Its fun stuff.

BC: Well, think of an episode of Law and Order. The focus of any given episode is the job. What we learn about the characters is filtered through the lens of their job: how they go about their work, how they interact with others, what they talk about it, etc. That was the basic approach to characterization in this series. I felt it was a good match for the episodic nature and the different time jumps we had on deck.

It will actually be a while before we see those Action Scientists again. Right now, the next three planned arcs take place in different eras between 1920 and 1960. So, they haven’t even born yet in those stories. I’d definitely like to get into the heads of the Action Scientists, past and present, a little more. But, like Scott said, we can’t do it all at once!

CM: There's a certain amount of silliness to this question, but it begs to be asked because of Robo's likeable personality. Is there any kind of romantic interest possible with him as a character or is he destined to live out Green Day's anthem and "walk alone?"

SW: You have no idea how many people want to know the answer to that question. Robo certainly has the capacity for love and craves companionship just like the rest of us do. Granted – his parts may not be compatible with most other people’s bits. But then again, they make those crazy AC/DC adaptor things that let you use your hairdryer in any European country when you’re on vacation, so who knows?

Robo is certainly capable of having a non-sexual romantic relationship with someone. Much like Brian and me…er…

BC: Robo has had several relationships over the years, but he was more prone to it in his earlier life. Not to be Captain Morbid and bring the whole room down here, but he’s figured out that he has a nasty tendency to outlive everyone he’ll ever meet.

CM: The two of you as a team seemed to be the most efficient so far for Red 5, finishing your series before the other two initial launches. Is Scott just that fast or is there something more?

SW: I’m not particularly fast, no. We just had this wacky idea that maybe (maybe!) we should get a big chunk of the work done before soliciting our book. Is the rest of the comic book industry going to read this? I hope so. I HATE waiting on late books you jerks! Knock it off! I can understand how a monthly title can slip from time to time. People get sick, or get their writing/drawing hands mangled in farm machinery, etc, etc. But late seems to be the new way of making comics. It’s just absurd. Get that work finished and then call Diamond, folks.

This is why there will be gaps between Atomic Robo mini-series. We want to get enough issues in the can so that we know we can get each mini-series out on time.

BC: Yeah, basically, we didn’t go looking for publishers until we had about three issues done. Something like that. So, when Red 5 found us, Scott and I were nearly done with the series while the other titles they were working on were only just gearing into production.

CM: Let's talk about the creation of Robo's look for the series. From my understanding, Scott wasn't the original artist set to work with Brian. Did that have an impact with the character's design, and how did the process work from there?

BC: Scott is completely responsible for Robo’s look and final functionality. All I did was offer that Robo’s only facial features should be big goggle-y eyes, that he should be “retro”, and wear clothes. Everything about how that came together is Scott’s doing and it’s terrific.

SW: Pretty much the only thing that was set in stone when Brian pitched the idea to me was that he must have “big goggle-y eyes”. I really resisted that until I integrated the big cut-outs into his shoulders and elbows.

Before Robo, I’d found robots of any sort to be incredibly intimidating to draw. That intimidation factor seemed to be multiplied by a factor of ten after a few days of trying to design a “stocky robot, which wears clothes, and has big goggle-y eyes”. Especially since it was several days into the job before Brian said “Oh yeah, he’s kind of short and should wear clothes.” So the 20’ tall, six armed death machine was not going to work out after all it seemed.

It was when I started thinking of Robo as a person, and some ridiculous robot I had to figure out, that things began to click. At the time, I was working on an idea for a pulp adventurer who worked for FDR during WWII and on a whim I put Robo into this guy’s army belt, fatigues, and combat boots and that was when things started moving. That was also when the initial concept of who Atomic Robo was started changing – not his core personality, because Brian had that worked out years ago. But, somehow, putting this stumpy robot into a pair of muddy combat boots and giving him an old Webly revolver did something to both of us. Robo was kind of stripped down to his essentials, some excess baggage was dropped, and the running dialog with Brian about it really helped solidify his design. It was really energizing to see the visuals transformed by the narrative and the narrative affected by the altered designs. It was probably one of the coolest collaborative things I’ve done.

Visually, most of what you see on Robo is inspired by the art deco work of the ‘20s and ‘30s. I got the idea for the little fins on his head and arms from some buildings I was studying, and the power core adaptor thing in his stomach is inspired by a Studebaker. His head was a nightmare because while it was just like the Rocketeer and the Iron Giant insofar as it was mostly a blank shell, I somehow had to make Robo’s blank face clearly different. I’m not sure how successful I was, but to me it looks like a big steel marshmallow with some eye holes cut into it.

CM: Lastly, we know there is a second series in the works. When can we expect to see it on shelves, and what is in store for our action-science team?

SW: Last I heard we were soliciting for an August release. The art is done for the first issue of Vol.2 and I’m working on the second one right now.

BC: Yup. We’re currently on schedule to have the first issue of the next series hit in August. We originally planned four issues, but it’s looking like five now. This series is all about some of Robo’s adventures World War 2. Each issue works as a stand alone, but they also form several loosely connected story arcs. Basically, you can jump in at any time without missing a beat, but the more issues you read, the more you’ll learn about how these events fit with the past and the future.

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