Atomic Robo and the Ghost of Station X #5 comes out this week, at the good shops, anyway, but I have had the blessed opportunity to read it before its dainty paper flesh can touch store shelves, and boy howdy, is it a doozy. I figured this would be a fine time to look back on this latest installment of the World’s Greatest Science Adventure Magazine and figure out just what makes Atomic Robo better than all the other comics. (Warning: there are graphs.)
Just like Before Watchmen, only uncontroversial and universally beloved! It’s…
Monty Python’s Flyin Atomic Robo and the Ghost of Station X
Red 5 Comics
Written by: Brian Clevinger
Drawn by: Scott Wegener
Colored by: Ronda Pattison
Lettered (and armed) by: Jeff Powell
Edited by: Lee Black
Pleasured by: Yo Mama
When last we spoke, I proclaimed ARatGoSX #2 to be the best comic of 2011, and I admit, I did jump the gun some, because #3 was even better, and things being what they were, #4 was purty damn good, too. It’s lucky for those issues that #5 slipped to 2012, but it’s bad for all the other comics that are going to come out this year, because this last issue is spectacular.
Atomic Robo as a whole reads like a love letter to technological and scientific progress and the drive to invent, discover, and be totally rad, but this particular mini-series brings all that together and ties it into Robo’s humanity. The very first scene opens with Robo’s futile attempts to work a touchscreen Apple product with metal hands, but it weaves its way through rocket science, badass guns, number stations, computer brains, ham radio, and more. This particular chapter in the Robo saga features old school technology, systems, bureaucracies, and the strange relationships among them, which of course leads to Robo teaming with a veiled US-1 homage and a bunch of CB enthusiasts to track down the bad guys and hijack the unstoppable (well…) might of the U.S. postal service. And then it gets really good. We see Robo’s sentimental connection to his old Webley, his Action Scientists’ loyalty to him, and Robo’s loyalty to humanity in general. It’s a story about learning machines, but of all learning machines, his was the most human of all.
In terms of both plot and page structure, Clevinger and Wegener turn this series into a masterclass of pacing mechanics. For instance, here is how a “normal” story is structured in your usual book, movie, or television show, where “Plot” is the level of “excitement” or “things happening”, and time is the chronological progression from beginning to end:
Basically, in most stories, especially ones that have to keep one eye and a few three-piece-suits on the budget, you will have a story in which incidents of a more heightened, visceral level will occur– the “action” bits– but will be bookended by slower moments during exposition or character moments are taken care of. With this mode of storytelling you still receive a net escalation, where bigger and bigger moments occur over the course of the tale. Modern-day superhero comics, however, tend to look more like this:
Here, there is far less escalation of incident. The big moments all end up capping off at about the same level of excitement, punctuated by sharp valleys, where sometimes entire issues go by with no forward narrative momentum.
Meanwhile, Atomic Robo and the Ghost of Station X looks like this:
It starts, and it keeps going, and going, and you see where I’m going with this.
From page one of the first issue, the clock begins ticking, and the tension ramps up over the course of the issue until it explodes. Issue two picks up immediately and continues that onward and upward escalation as Robo’s team maneuvers to keep him alive, opening with a stunning rescue sequence. The third issue almost tricks you into thinking this series suffers from “third issue syndrome,” a problem affecting a lot of 5 or 6 issue arcs, but then the massive action/chase scene begins and continues into the fourth issue, pushing onto the climax and conclusion. Despite being heavy on text and exposition, the fifth issue never lets the tension dip, and despite the fact that we know Robo is going to make it out of this one, we still feel the stakes, and I don’t think that tingle up my backbone is just another flare-up of Writer’s Spine. Meanwhile, Clevinger dangles the “big reveal” in front of our face just about the whole series and we don’t really notice it, but we’re with the characters every step of the way as they piece the plot together.
When the big action scenes hit later in the series, the pages get denser, the panels smaller, more cramped, 8 to 10 frames per page, because that’s the only way to fit in more stuff happening. Nothing feels cluttered in any way. Wegener and Pattison’s clean lines and colors provide the reader with a keen sense of the environment, and make the small panels feel bigger, with not a detail wasted. It’s fantastic storytelling. Remember the 60s, when Lee and Ditko would put in huge action scenes in Spider-Man and still fit 9 panels in per page and about a thousand words? It’s sort of of like that, with a heavy visual density but a dynamic sense of in-panel storytelling and panel-to-panel page progression that neither overwhelms nor lulls the reader.
I really dig this comic, you guys, and I think your girlfriend, mom, son, daughter, colleague, mistress, cousin, enemy, igloo, hut, lean-to, or geodesic dome will dig it, too. It has action science and science action, writing sharp enough to poke your eye out and art beautiful enough to kiss it all better. It is as awesome as a high five on a sunny day. It does everything that all other comics should be doing, but then does it better than those comics would if they did all that stuff anyway. Atomic Robo is my comic, but it’s okay, I’m a nice guy, I can share. Go forth and buy it.
For the “tl;dr” among you: Oof urgh nnnf splat. Buy it.
Twitter users! Here, have some of this Kool-Aid, look deep into my eyes, and follow @bclevinger, @Scott_Wegna, @rleep, @jeffcpowell, @red5comics, and some handsome bastard with a piercing gaze named @billreads.