A young robot fights to protect the people of Tokyo from harm — sound slightly familiar? It’s not Osamu Tezuka’s “Astro Boy,” though that would be most comic readers’ first guess, but the creators of the new Image Comics series “Circuit-Breaker” are well aware of their antecedents and embrace them fully.
While writer Kevin McCarthy and artist Kyle Baker — who draws the series in a distinctly manga-inspired style — acknowledge their debt to the manga and animation giant, their plans for the March-debuting “Circuit-Breaker” are entirely their own. The adventurous tale grows deeper as Chiren, the circuit-breaker, learns more about the divide between the humans and the rebel robots.
CBR News spoke with both McCarthy and Baker about the five-issue series and the creative duo expanded on the high adventure of robots fighting, the need to have a little depth to drive the conflict, and how deeply they’ve each dived into the Tezuka canon.
CBR News: What was the genesis of the series? The young robot fighting for humanity, the dedicated police officer, the elderly robot-building genius — “Circuit-Breaker” is chock full of Osamu Tezuka/”Astro Boy” tributes. Was that built in from the get-go?
Kevin McCarthy: What we now know as “Circuit-Breaker” began in a sketchbook of mine sometime in the late 1990s. Back then, I was calling it “Hotwire,” and it was going to be my answer to the “foxy female” character craze of that time. There’s even a Hotwire trading card that was part of Dynamic Forces/Dynamite Entertainment’s Comic Greats ’98 series — a collector’s item!
Since then, there have been like two or three comics (and an online travel agency, and…) called Hotwire, so I changed the name. But my central idea stayed pretty much the same: a young robot hero who rewires evil robots on behalf of their creator. And though the Tezuka influence was always there for me (he’s on my Comics Mt. Rushmore) when Kyle told me he was going to draw the book in a similar style, I knew there would be a change in tone as well.
Kyle Baker: I always tailor my art style to fit each individual job. If I’m drawing Captain America, I reference Jack Kirby. I felt that a story about a kid robot in Tokyo had to be drawn in a Tezuka style. Also, my children are big manga collectors and I wanted to please them.
The paranoia and suspicion between the humans and robots, brimming over into outright conflict now, seems a metaphor for almost any number of religious/racial/cultural divides — but without being specific to any conflict. Is it hard to find the proper balance, to keep the story entertaining and funny without letting the satirical element come too strongly to the fore? Or is it just something that you might read into a sci-fi action-adventure romp if your mind is inclined?
McCarthy: There are probably parts of “Circuit-Breaker” where, for some people, that might happen. If you’re paying $2.99 to see some robots fight, you might not want a lecture about, say, climate change or how Black Lives Matter. And that’s perfectly reasonable, especially if you’re just trying not to think about those things for 32 pages. “Circuit-Breaker” is a “funnybook” after all, and, I hope, a funny book. But our characters need good reasons for hitting each other.
There’s a scene in “Circuit-Breaker #2” where a robot wearing the costume of a Sanrio-type mascot character does something truly monstrous in order to bring attention to anti-robot discrimination. Hilarious! It’s the only time during the entire five-issue series where Kyle was like, “I don’t know about this.” And I think part of his reason for saying so was that this was just after that guy shot up a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” (in July 2012. Yes, “Circuit-Breaker” has been in the works for a long time).
But I was actually referencing an event in Osaka from 2001 — really, the mass-killing phenomena in general, and specifically our collective short memory of them despite (or because of) their seeming increase in frequency. I remember telling Kyle that there would unfortunately probably be a few more by the time the book saw print. Then Sandy Hook happened, et cetera. So our story does have its more serious moments. But there’s a lot more punching than preaching in “Circuit-Breaker,” I promise!
Baker: When working, my main focus is on being true to the story I’m trying to tell. Each imaginary world has its own reality and logic. As a creator, one must focus on the character’s perspective; How does the protagonist feel about this? What does the villain think? As strange as it may sound, my focus is on having things be real for the characters.
How does that human/robot divide affect and also motivate Chiren, who was created to protect humans from her own kind?
McCarthy: Chiren is tasked with dismantling a faction of anti-human terrorists called Prime Numbers, led by a handful of disgruntled robot veterans who once helped win World War IV. Chiren looks just like a human and was “raised” like one, so she hasn’t really experienced firsthand some of what these machines are raging against. Over the course of the series, she begins to see from her unique perspective that there’s right and wrong on both sides, and decides to do something about it. That’s when she goes from just being a robot performing its function to becoming a real hero for humans and robots alike.
Baker: I believe her strength lies in an ability to look beyond self-interest, to embrace multiple points of view and understand that all beings depend on each other for the survival of the world at large.
There’s some action-adventure, some social metaphor, but this wouldn’t be a Kyle Baker comic (even one written by Kevin!) without a good dose of humor — I particularly laughed at the metatextual nod to Tokyo having evolved into “a parody, a perverse Western stereotype.” The exposition of their world’s human/robot society being done via “info-dump” also got me.
McCarthy: First issues can be a drag if you make them too explainy, but it is sometimes a necessary evil, so it helps if you can find an interesting way to go about it. I figured having a hero that’s part computer meant I could get away with her “backing-up older files” to free-up memory for the adventures ahead, while still owning up to the fact that I was being explainy.
Baker: Kevin’s a terrific writer and a supremely creative guy — always full of fun ideas.
How did you two hook up for “Circuit-Breaker”?
McCarthy: Not only does “Circuit-Breaker” mark our fourth time working together — Kyle drew the cover to the never-published third issue of my Motown Animation/Image Comics series “Casual Heroes”; we also worked together on a story for Dark Horse’s “Escapist” anthology, and again most recently for Vertigo’s “Mystery in Space” — Kyle is also the fourth artist to have been attached to “Circuit-Breaker.” I’m glad the fourth time was the charm because he is also on my Comics Mt. Rushmore.
Baker: We’ve worked together many times in the past. I’m very selective about which writers I will collaborate with, and Kevin is on a short list alongside Alan Moore, Paul Dini and Harlan Ellison.
Chicken or egg, Kyle: You’ve adopted a more manga-inspired art style for this Circuit Breaker, and Circuit Breaker is loaded with Osamu Tezuka homages. Did your art style evolve to meet the story or vice versa?
McCarthy: When I sent Kyle the treatment for “Circuit-Breaker” and he told me he was going to take a more manga-esque approach to the art, it definitely influenced me to go a little further in that direction. There are some direct references to Tezuka’s works such as “Astro Boy” and “Metropolis” throughout the series, and I also read Naoki Uraswawa’s excellent “Pluto” (itself an inspired reimagining of one of Tezuka’s best-loved “Astro Boy” stories) while I was writing some of the issues. You’ll also find us riffing on “Tetsujin 28-go,” “Doraemon,” “Godzilla,” and even the Power Rangers. While “Circuit-Breaker” is a straight-ahead sci-fi superhero adventure, it is also a parody and a perverse Western stereotype, to quote you quoting one of our characters.
Baker: It seemed to me the logical creative choice. I’m a tremendous fan of the genre.
When did you each first discover Tezuka? Nearly everyone in comics has been influenced by his work, even if they’re not conscious of it, but do you take anything specific from his work and career?
McCarthy: For me, I’m guessing it would’ve been reruns of the old “Astro Boy” or “Princess Knight” (as “Choppy and the Princess”) cartoons. When I was a kid, coming across any scrap of Japanese comics, translated or not (mostly not) was like finding gold. To be able to read some of his lesser-known works in English while developing “Circuit-Breaker” (Kyle and I specifically discussed “The Book of Human Insects” as I recall) had a huge impact on me and on this series. I suppose the way he seamlessly married the very cute and the very cruel, without talking down to his audience, is what sticks with me most.
Baker: Tezuka was my first favorite cartoonist. As a toddler, I was entranced by “Kimba The White Lion” on television. It was my favorite show. I remember crawling around emulating the run cycle from the titles. As I grew, I continued to enjoy his work and other anime shows. I think his “Buddha” series is fantastic, and I gave it to my kids to read. “The Book of Human Insects” is wonderful. “Cleopatra Queen of Sex” is bananas! The list goes on.
Image has become the go-to publisher for creator-owned work. Was there ever another option for this series?
McCarthy: Way back when this project was called “Hotwire” and had other artists attached (including, initially, myself), it came close to happening at DC Comics’ Matrix/Helix imprint. And then a little later at Dark Horse’s Rocket Comics imprint. I then moved on to other opportunities, but always knew I’d come back to Chiren eventually. It’s very exciting for me to have “Circuit-Breaker” at Image Comics, publisher of my first (significant) professional work, “Casual Heroes.” I probably should have just brought it to them in the first place.
Baker: Image was founded by my friends, and I love working with friends. Any opportunity to spend time with friends is its own reward. I am grateful to know such insanely talented people. The Image Comics crew are some of the best cartoon makers in the world, and I’ve done many books with them, including “The Bakers” and “Special Forces.” It’s a fun, exciting group of people, and I know we’ll do more together in the future.
Beyond this series, what else do you each have in the works?
McCarthy: The project I’m working on now is a supernatural police procedural about a fire marshall investigating suspicious fires in a half-abandoned city. A more personal exploration of the kind of material I visited in “Epoch” for Top Cow and Heroes & Villains Entertainment. I’m hoping to find an artist to draw it soon; otherwise I guess I may have to do it myself.
Baker: I’ve been on focused on my gaming and animation projects for Quality Jollity. My first Android Beta release is in the android store now. I’ve also been reformatting my backlist and will re-launch the Quality Jollity Library later this year, including “Benevolence” (a sci-fi adventure) and the long awaited “Why I Hate Saturn” reboot/sequel.
“Circuit-Breaker” #1 is scheduled for release March 23 from Image Comics.