Plot: Action heroes meet cute.
Comments: There is no reason Atomic Robo should work, at least on the surface. For those unaware; Atomic Robo is a sentient robot created by Nikola Tesla in the early part of the 20th century. He does covert ops during World War II, battles Nazi mad scientists, fights monsters, plays a secret role in historic events, founds a team of scientist/adventurers and roams the world dealing with weird fantastic crap.
Off the top of my head I can name similar comic set-ups including Hellboy, Men in Black, Gemini Division, Buckaroo Banzi, Indiana Jones and Doc Savage. Atomic Robo doesn’t seem to be breaking any new ground and such pulp material can seem quaint at best, corny at worst. Atomic Robo shouldn’t work. But it does work. Atomic Robo not only succeeds but spectacularly so - bringing heart, smarts, great stories and art, a grand sense of fun and just damn good writing. These elements breathe life into a sub-genre that thrives on weirdness but can easily fall into cliché. There is a thin but distinct line between imitation and homage. Imitation just apes the surface look of the original material. Homage holds the inspiring material close to its heart but wants to make something new. Atomic Robo clearly falls on the homage side of the line. It’s no surprise that Atomic Robo has some Hellboy DNA (both the art and the stories are heavily inspired by Mignola) but Atomic Robo understands what makes its influences tick and builds off of that understanding, creating something shiny and new but with deep pulpy roots. Atomic Robo makes the smart move of bringing a heaping dose of its own playful personality along for the ride.
And what a fun ride it is. The whole of part three of Dogs of War goes off track to take place on a speeding train full of Nazis and their wicked experiments. Robo infiltrates the train with the intent of capturing his arch-nemesis Otto Skorzeny. Simultaneously (and unknown to Robo) a British secret agent, the Sparrow, sneaks aboard the train with the intent of capturing her arch-nemesis Vanadis, a female Nazi super scientist. The arch-nemeses are having a pleasant dinner and talking evil super science shop until Sparrow and Robo both smash in at the same time and get in each other’s way. Sparks, bullets, fists and snappy dialogue fly. The pair of arch-nemeses escape and Robo and Sparrow team up to capture them. The bad guys get away, of course, leaving Robo deactivated, mutated Nazi cyborgs closing in and the train careening towards a yawning chasm just down the tracks. The entire set up has a familiar feel to it, but that familiarity comes off as comforting and not derivative. Clevenger knows where homage ends and originality begins; yes there are evil Nazi geniuses, but they gossip about other evil Nazi super scientists over wine. Yes, there is an instant Tracy/Hepburn chemistry between Robo and Sparrow and it would become a romance if one of them wasn’t a robot.
A back up story focusing on one of Robo’s Tesladyne team mates, Jenkins, takes homage into new territory; the highlight reel. Jenkins goes on a forced vacation to the Bahamas. The four page story plays like a movie trailer that includes ninjas, a beach full of assassins, a sexy reporter, a car chase, exploding helicopters and an overconfident drug lord named Ramirez that Jenkins has history with. The Jenkins story doesn’t need to bother with the details; it confidently bets on the assumption that the reader knows this type of story. The result is something close to parody but still bursting with action. The story comes across like more of a loving tribute to the action movie genre than a mockery of it.
Final Word: Clevinger understands where all the clichés are and nimbly avoids them with smart sharp dialogue, tight pacing, flawless execution and an easygoing charm you can’t fake. Wegener’s art is distinctive and fun packed with clever detail but still looking like a super cool Saturday morning cartoon. Atomic Robo has quickly jumped to the top of my favorites list. I can’t really recommend this book highly enough. Even though the main character is a robot, this book has a heart.
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