Jan 20 2009

Comic Reviews: Atomic Robo 1-5

Published by at 12:13 am under Atomic Robo,Comic Book Reviews,Comic Books

Atomic Robo is OK.  The writing is occasionally stylish but mostly forgettable.  Artistically, the main character is done pretty well and everyone else looks kind of awful.


  • Brian Clevinger is more capable than this.  I’m not a huge fan of 8-Bit Theatre, but it’s far more witty and likable.  With the exception of a few witty one-liners, the writing of AR feels like it’s been stripped from a summer war movie.
  • It took ten pages to get to a laugh-line.  Nor does the writing shine in some nonhumorous way.  Placing this story in WWII-Europe, possibly the most cliche historic setting, doesn’t help.
  • The WWII arc is totally not working.  The writing tends to be far more stylish and enjoyable in the mini-stories at the end of each issue.  Clevinger is much better when he’s not constrained by his “war is hell” message.  (Uhh, yeah.  Cutting insight there).  The zany robotic antics are much, much better and make this story into something more than just a WWII action movie with robots.
  • The writing is unfocused; the camera spends too much time with soldier extras.
  • The fight scenes are decent.


  • The good:  The lettering is very serviceable, and Robo’s expressions are great (even though they are far more cartoony than anything else in the story).
  • The OK:  the rest of Robo.
  • The ugly:  Everything else.  I’ve included a typical panel below.  In the comic, this panel took the top third of a page.  If I gave a panel that much space, it would probably be because I needed to show off something interesting, like a carbomb.

  • I think the coloring here is notably subpar, but this panel was screwed well before it went to coloring.  These characters have not been inked particularly well and it’s difficult to conceive of a more boring way to frame this shot.  This really was not interesting enough to deserve that much space.  Also, couldn’t we at least get mountains or something in the background for a little bit of flavor?  I’ve seen Garfield strips with more setting than this. Finally, what the hell are those white puffs?

17 responses so far

17 Responses to “Comic Reviews: Atomic Robo 1-5”

  1. Brianon 20 Jan 2009 at 1:18 pm

    I’m not trying to convince you of anything, but here’s another point of view…

    It took ten pages to get to a laugh-line.

    As Atomic Robo is not a comedy book, I’m not sure I see the point?

    Nor does the writing shine in some nonhumorous way.

    I’m sorry that ordinary soldiers speak like ordinary soldiers.

    Placing this story in WWII-Europe, possibly the most cliche historic setting, doesn’t help.

    It’s absolutely a cliched setting and I’m beyond tired of seeing stories set in it. But ignoring that Robo would necessarily be involved in WWII would be idiotic. It’s perhaps the most important political moment of our century. Just about everything you see on the news today that involves politics has its origin in the conflict or resolution of WWII. To not address it directly would have been like having Robo built in Philadelphia 1770 and then never talk about the Revolutionary War. If we ignored WWII, then someone with a blog would always be crying about how we skipped WWII. I guess we figured it’d be less of a hassle to deal with people whining about doing a WWII story for a little while than to deal with whining about not doing a WWII story for the rest of our careers.

    Clevinger is much better when he’s not constrained by his “war is hell” message. (Uhh, yeah. Cutting insight there).

    We felt it was important to maintain some kind of respect for the men and women who served in the conflict. We know that Atomic Robo is a comic about a robot who punches things, it’s not the place to be all serious. Which is why there is no “war is hell” message, there is no “message.” We just put our ridiculous fictional robot into a war in a way that seemed consistent with then current military strategy. Some people died around him. That’s what happens in war. In the previous volume, when Robo goes to Mars on the Viking I mission, the most important thing to me was that Robo did not “take” anything from the scientists and engineers who were responsible for the amazing technical achievements and subsequent discoveries of the Viking mission. And if you read that comic again, you’ll note that Robo doesn’t “do” anything. The mission goes off without a hitch, history does not hinge upon his action. Robo is not Forest Gump. History doesn’t revolve around him, he’s just in it.

    The zany robotic antics are much, much better and make this story into something more than just a WWII action movie with robots.

    Finally, something to agree on. The series starts in “real” WWII to establish a baseline level of respect to the real people who served in it because, like the scientists from the first volume, we felt it was important to make sure Robo didn’t “take” anything from real people. Every issue then moves further and further from that reality. Things become more and more sci-fi, and the action gets more and more out there. I freely admit it may have been a mistake to structure the series this way — it was an experiment! Then again, reading all five issues back-to-back serves that structure very well, so maybe the trade format will vindicate it. I don’t know!

    I’ve included a typical panel below.
    That’s not a typical panel and you know it. Yes, it takes up a third of the page. Because the first Act of that issue shows three different concurrent scenes and can be read down one page and then down the next; or across the top of one page, then the top of the next page, then the middle panels, then the bottom panels. Taking this particular panel out of that context to criticize its size is, well, dumb. It’s not big to be exciting, it’s big to fit into the presentation of three POVs and quickly building to their intersection. Yes, it’s a “boring” panel. They just finished eating a nice meal and they’re talking to 1) cover important events in the three month gap between the events of the previous issue and this one, 2) hint at the rest of the volume’s adventures, and 3) plant the seeds for two future volumes. It’s “boring” as a contrast to the other two sequences of Robo and The Sparrow closing in on them throughout this portion of the book.

    The background is “boring” because, if you look at the first page, depending on which side of the train they’re on you’d either see a big rocky blur without any detail, or relatively blank sky. That’s basic continuity. Then again, on your car bomb page you’ve got a mailbox in panel 6 where one is explicitly shown to not exist in panel 2, and in any event it’s put where you’d never see a mailbox in real life (the middle of a sidewalk, really?).

    Finally, what the hell are those white puffs?

    Steam from the coffee (or tea?) that is shown to be in her cup throughout this sequence. The topmost puff is probably too much though.

  2. B. Macon 20 Jan 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks for your feedback, Brian! I am generally a big fan of your work.

    It’s not a comedy book, but I don’t feel that the action is really good, either. Also, the stories at the end of each issue are genuinely funny, particularly the one where one of Robo’s employees goes to the Carribbean.

    I know Robo would be involved in WWII. But if the story has to be historical, I think his involvement in any number of other events (wars and otherwise) would have led to a fresher story that feels less like, umm, every other WWII story. But I feel that the story only excels when we see Atomic Robo in the present. The writing seems to come alive and the action is less hackneyed. If you’re concerned that people will complain about not having a WWII story, you could maybe have done it as a mini like you covered Korea.

    I think the WWII arc really does have a message about war, although a noncontroversial one (war is hell). It’s mostly conveyed through the art (grim tones, the occasional use of dead bodies), but the characters also repeatedly note how awful war is. I understand that you want to keep it realistic (people really do die in war, obviously), but stylistically it’s much less fun and enjoyable than the modern minis. For example, the Caribbean one has crazy amounts of death (off-camera), but there’s no message. This seems to me to be an issue of comparative advantage. I can get better WWII and war stories elsewhere, but the Caribbean ministory is probably the best story I’ve read in a comic in the last year.

    As for the panel I included, I think it really is typical. I’ll try to come up with more examples from that issue to show that.

    As for the mailbox, I think it’s an acceptable flaw. Realistically, we should probably see the mailbox obscuring his legs in the second panel, but that would detract from the point of the panel, which is focused on the protagonist running. Good eye, though.

  3. Brianon 20 Jan 2009 at 2:44 pm

    The characters do not repeatedly note how awful war is. The only mention that war is bad in all five issues is in a letter written by one of the characters. The text of the letter is shown in two different scenes separated by about twenty pages. And the second use of the letter sets up a gag making fun of the fact that there are robots at all in WWII. So, even in its one repetition, the message subverts itself. This is the first time I’ve heard anyone bring up letter or its repetition as a negative, so I’ll just chalk this up to different tastes.

    I’m not sure that Robo works better in the present, he’s just more “fun” when he’s allowed to be a loose cannon. Again, referring to Issues 3 – 5 of Vol 2, he becomes more removed from “real” history in each issue, and each issue is more frantic and fun than the previous one. If you read the fourth and fifth issues of our WWII volume without liking them, I’m sorry, but there’s something wrong with you. Four of the five issues of our next Volume are historical, but they all occur in contexts where Robo is able to cut loose. See? Lesson learned.

    As for the “acceptable flaw” of the mailbox…Let’s just say I isolated my comments to the mailbox because I didn’t want to seem like I was dog piling on that page in a misguided act of internet nerd revenge. I honestly looked for items from your critique to take to heart and to keep in mind in the future, so nerd revenge is the last thing on my mind, but every panel of that car bomb page is bad.

  4. B. Macon 20 Jan 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Hmm. Yeah, there’s no need for nerd revenge, even though I think your assessment of the car-bomb page is totally off. 😉 How would you have done it differently?

  5. Brianon 21 Jan 2009 at 11:53 am

    Well, okay. First I want to make clear that I’m not saying any of this to be a jerk. This is an honest professional opinion and I’m sharing it in the interest of seeing your work improve. I noted that this page is to be part of a pitch? If this page resembles the others, please take the following to heart, because you’ve done nothing but produce pages for an editor to throw away.

    Panel 1: This panel’s relatively inoffensive. Nice, dynamic composition. The reflection on the window is a great touch. The perspective’s a little off on his arm, it’s become far too short.

    Panel 2: The perspective of this whole panel is awkward. The house is at an angle to the reader, which is fine, the problem is that the section of roof over the front porch is at a different angle to the reader. See those little windows on the sides of the door in the background? They’re shown to not exist in Panel 1. Further, the lower pane shown on this panel does not exist in Panel 1. The main character is a big problem. There’s no indication of speed. He doesn’t “read” as running, he looks like he’s taking a very long stride for no reason. I think this is partly due to just how far apart his feet are. It’s more like he’s doing a split than running. Since he casts no shadow, we have no sense that he’s bounding over the sidewalk. And since, as I said, there’s no feeling of speed, the reader isn’t necessarily going to know that you meant for him to be running. Moreover, an editor looking at this isn’t going to think “Oh, I know what he meant to do here.” He’s going to go to the next submission in the pile. The door is far too small to have admitted a human. Especially our main character, who, if he’s to make any sense within the context of this panel, has grown to about twice his original size while his head has grown by an additional 25 – 33%.

    There’s more wrong here, but we won’t find out what until panel 6.

    Panel 3: The lighting is nice and subtle. I think it’s a little overboard on the suitcase though. I mean, yeah, different materials are going to reflect light differently, but it looks like that one corner was dipped in butter. The pose here is a little awkward, he has no weight or center of gravity. It’s even more jarring in comparison to panel 2. It’s difficult to reconcile the former pose with this one as the result of logical, continuous motion.

    Panel 4: There’s something very unnatural going on with his mouth and the bread. It’s also unusual that his arm shrunk more than the perspective warrants. Further, we shouldn’t see his glasses like that from this angle.

    Panel 5: The background is gray for some reason. Judging from the angle in the previous panel, we should see a blurry representation of the car, it’s window, or the sky back there. Also, the butter from the briefcase is all over his thumb now.

    Panel 6: H’okay. We’ve got to go into a list.

    1. We’ve addressed the mailbox, but let me bring it up again. That’s not an “acceptable mistake”. If it is, you might as well do a scene inside a car with the steering wheel in the center of the console. It’s that basic a mistake and, again, an editor isn’t going to go “Well, I know what he meant.” The mailbox adds nothing, it was explicitly shown to not exist previously, and it makes no logical sense to exist where it is shown in this panel. That’s three strikes, and you only need one. Take it out.

    2. The house has changed color, but maybe that’s due to the light from the explosion. That really shouldn’t happen at that distance or to that degree.

    3. The house has dramatically different windows now.

    4. The hedge running from the street to the house in this panel is shown to not exist in panel 2.

    5. The tree in his front yard has grown or changed shape so that its branch is off panel. Numbers 2 – 5 here, on their own, probably are acceptable mistakes. On their own. But combined with each other and the mailbox? Not to mention the problems with the door between Panels 1 and 2? They’re just more reasons for an editor to go to the next submission. Editors aren’t interested in what you meant to put on the page, they’re interested in your ability to tell a story through sequential art. Maintaining continuity between panels is a huge part of that, and being so casual with it isn’t a good idea. Think of visual continuity as the artistic version of maintaining the same verb tense in a sentence. You don’t switch from past to present tense in the same way that you don’t add a mailbox.

    A. The cat. This isn’t a numbered part of the list, because I don’t know enough about the context to know if it’s a mistake or not. If this is a slapstick or farcical work, then yes, the cat works and it’s the best part of the panel. If this is a work like, say, Indiana Jones where there is comedy but it’s not the focus, then you need to lose the cat. In this case, the cat subverts utterly any dramatic tension from the explosion. There are times, places, and ways to do subversion properly, but this is probably not any of them. Sticking with Jones, imagine adding blooper reel sound effects to the face-melting scene. That’s what you’ve done here. If we are meant to take the explosion seriously in any way, you have to lose the cat. If the work is meant to be played straight with very little comedy, dear god lose the cat.

    6. The car. It shrunk since Panel 4, its perspective is way off, and the explosion is too “weak”. I suspect the intent was to capture the explosion as early as possible to better link its immediacy with the main character using his remote keys in the previous panel. Choosing how much time to allow to pass between your panels is one of the hardest things to figure out. And there’s a million exceptions for any rules that might guide your decision. In this case, if you show a character pushing a button in one panel and then show a fully “matured” explosion in the next, the reader will understand the connection, and he will understand that the connection was instant/immediate even though it would logically take several seconds for the explosion to reach that state. This is just something you have to figure out through practice.

    Alternatively, it may just be a poorly drawn explosion, but I’m giving your artist the benefit of a doubt.

    B. Why does the car explode when it’s unlocked by the remote, anyway? Most people unlock their cars while still a fair distance from them at least some of the time. Anyone honestly intending to kill this man would not go through all the trouble of setting the explosive only to have it hinge on such a fickle trigger. I’m not adding it to the official numbered list on the off chance that the assassin did this on purpose (say, the bomber knows this guy is invulnerable, so the explosion is merely a gesture from any distance).

    7. The bystander. First, that’s a terrible font. Second, that’s a terrible thought balloon. Third, that’s a terrible line. This is partly why I can’t tell if it’s a comedy. The cat indicates that it is. This man’s reaction is clearly meant to be a joke, but it’s so meaningless and bland that it can’t be taken as one. If this lettering is typical of the work, then please remove all lettering from the pitch. If the “joke” here is indicative of writing for the whole work…y’know, I was lucky to have a series of wonderful English and Literature teachers throughout my high school career. Terrific people, hilarious, engaging, passionate, just amazing educators whom I honestly miss even 12+ years later. But being a great teacher and knowing the rules and being able to communicate them to others is not the same as being a writer. There’s some great writing advice on this site, especially for people just starting out, but there’s a big difference between knowing what ought to be done in a general sense and how to pull off a specific moment. If this line was an honest attempt at, well, writing, then the person who wrote it is a bad writer.

    Why do we see this guy at all? He contributes nothing to the panel. The force, danger, and impact of the explosion is not improved by his presence. In fact, it’s hampered. The incorrect mailbox is shattered by this explosion. The magic tree’s swing is tossed aside by it. This guy ought to be blown back or at least react to what we’re being told by everything else in the same panel is a powerful shockwave. But no, he’s fine. He’s beyond fine. He just saw a car explode, presumably in his neighborhood, and his reaction is…what? He’s not scared. He’s not even nonplussed. He looks exactly as if this is something he sees every day on his morning jog. It’s as if the exploding car is no more meaningful or annoying to him than the fact that his neighbor is running late again. Why are we privy to this guy’s thoughts anyway? Is he a recurring character? He’d better be if we’re taking time to read his inner monologue. He’d also better be a total bad ass or the bomber himself to have such a casual reaction to an exploding car.

    Additionally, and this is hilarious given the reason why you linked to the page in this article to begin with: he is the focus of the panel. He’s in the foreground, he’s wearing garish clothes, he’s on top of the speed lines, and he’s got the only dialog on the page. These all draw attention away from what the panel is supposed to be about. Hell, look at how much of this panel’s critique is centered on him. You’ve made him that important.

    Lastly, he’s facing the wrong way. He can’t see the car, so the content of his thought balloon makes no logical sense.

    8. The art in general is just bland and uninspired. This looks like any random deviant art user drew it. There are technical problems all over the place and basic perspective seems to be particularly vexing for the artist. What is there about this art that is going to make an editor choose this project over another? It’s not interesting or even polished.

    This page is so bad in so many basic ways that it honestly calls into doubt your authority to give advice or critique.

  6. B. Macon 21 Jan 2009 at 4:21 pm

    “This page is so bad in so many basic ways that it honestly calls into doubt your authority to give advice or critique.”

    Evaluating advice or criticism based on what the advisor would produce if he were at the reins is a very sketchy business practice. For example, focus groups consist of laymen that usually don’t know how to make a better model themselves. They’re still useful because they can identify problems that might have slipped past an insular group of designers.

    Also, if you didn’t think I had the “authority” to critique you, why bother responding?

  7. Davidon 21 Jan 2009 at 5:10 pm

    Now, now. No need to fight, people. I respect B. Mac’s criticisms; he’s helped me loads and I’m sure he’s trying to do the same for you.

  8. Ragged Boyon 21 Jan 2009 at 5:25 pm

    I’m pretty sure it’s more of a heated debate than a fight.

  9. Davidon 21 Jan 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Lol, ok. No need to have a heated debate then.

  10. Brianon 21 Jan 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Focus groups: You’re absolutely right. But if one member of the focus group provides feedback wildly out of the statistical variance of the rest of the group, that should throw up a red flag. Let’s say there’s a focus group taste-testing a new soft drink. The group expresses a range of responses, mostly positive, a few negative, as one would expect, but one person says it tastes awful and should instead taste more like sand. Well, you can maybe see there’s something off about that.

    You offered criticism of a panel gone wrong and provided an example of what you considered to be a panel done correctly. Whether you were involved in that latter panel’s production or not, as artist or writer, is ultimately irrelevant. It is objectively not a good panel, I think I’ve made clear why, so presenting it as one will make people call into question your ability to identify good or bad panels elsewhere (or good drinks from sand). BUT! I think that’s going too far.

    “…an insular group of designers.”

    I think that’s what happened. I believe you and your team merely have blinders on in regards to your own pages. Everyone’s so excited to finally see the comic start to take shape that no one’s applying a critical eye to it. We have tens of thousands of strangers and hundreds of critics looking at over 300 of our pages. If there were systemic problems with our work, we’d have been told about them long ago from a host of people who don’t have any personal investment in our work or our feelings. But the community behind Superhero Nation as a comic or website? That’s an insular group. That’s how these very basic mistakes slipped by.

    As to why I responded: I would not have responded at all had you not posted the car bomb page. Previous to that, you were a guy with some opinions. But a few clicks told me that you guys were very proud of that page and planned to use it in your formal pitch. Quite frankly, I felt too embarrassed for you to not address what was wrong with it. I tried to ease into it because I didn’t want to be viewed as “just lashing out”. It is my sincere hope that you’ll think about what I’ve said, re-evaluate the strength of your pitch, and act accordingly. Y’know, we need more good independent comics out there. Right now, Superhero Nation is not even close. You can change that.

    If you doubt at all what I’ve said about the car bomb page and what that says about the rest of your pitch, please do the following. One of you must live within reasonable driving distance of a major comic book convention. They routinely have editors available to review sequentials for free at these shows. Print out the pages (preferably inks only, no color) and show them your pages. You don’t have to believe me, but please take what they say seriously.

  11. Brianon 21 Jan 2009 at 6:09 pm

    @David: I’m sure he is trying to help. Our next volume already anticipates some of the critiques he made. His points regarding the ugly art and poor coloring are a matter of opinion, and in this case I’m going to side with the Eisner Committee over him 🙂

    @Ragged Boy: Oh, I don’t think it’s heated. I’m very pleased with the civility of this discussion. I was dreading a big “F U ROBOT BOY” after dissecting the car bomb page, and I’m glad to see that worry was unfounded.

  12. Ragged Boyon 21 Jan 2009 at 6:59 pm

    Hooray for civility!

  13. t3knomanseron 21 Jan 2009 at 7:35 pm

    This has been an excellent read. Brian, B. Mac- really, this has been a really insightful discussion.

    To throw my less adept two cents in, honestly, I never cared for the car bomb page. While I never dwelled on it long enough to form a clear critique of it, like Brian has, it looks like bad webcomic work. Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no ability to draw, but I can tell good from bad. It was bad.

    As a side note, this is extra funny because I just started reading Atomic Robo- in the iPhone format. Brian, have you looked at what they’ve done to your comic on that? It’s not that it’s been butchered. First off, I haven’t read the traditional version, so I can’t compare against that. Second, it honestly isn’t bad. It held together and in most cases, it didn’t seem like they chopped up the art to try and wedge it on the screen. Mostly- there were a few times they couldn’t fit a large panel on the screen and split it awkwardly. I don’t know how involved you were with translating the comic over to the iPhone, but it’s a pretty good transition. I hope to see some comics drawn with mobile devices in mind in the future.

  14. Ragged Boyon 21 Jan 2009 at 9:33 pm

    For a young artist (and possibly biased) point of view, both are artistically sound. I doubt a random passer-byer will go into as much analysis as you guys did, although I guess an editor would. Robo looks more realistic than SN, but that’s a matter of personal taste. I can assure Brian that if you didn’t laugh (or at least chuckle) at the carbomb page, you’ll probably find some other jokes funnier. I haven’t red Atomic Robo, I tried to find it, but I was sleepy so my brain wasn’t functioning properly, is ir free? I’m sure both of your works are or will be fun and likeable reads but will probably cater to a different set each. I’m not sure though, I’m only sixteen.

    It’s obvious that you too have strong views on each others works, so that means that there is a high potential of learning that can go on in this discussion. I suspect that both of you will pick some knowledge from one another.

    Eww, I sound like a grown-up haha.

  15. CDon 30 Jan 2009 at 12:00 pm

    “Everything else in the same panel is a powerful shockwave. But no, he’s fine. He’s beyond fine. He just saw a car explode, presumably in his neighborhood, and his reaction is…what? He’s not scared. He’s not even nonplussed. He looks exactly as if this is something he sees every day on his morning jog. It’s as if the exploding car is no more meaningful or annoying to him than the fact that his neighbor is running late again.”

    Well, this is a wacky comedy where the protagonist is essentially the Only Sane Man. So that’s why the bystander’s reaction has to be comically clueless. I’m not fond of the temporary lettering/balloon job we have up, but that’s just temporary and should be pretty easy to fix.

    “Anyone honestly intending to kill this man would not go through all the trouble of setting the explosive only to have it hinge on such a fickle trigger.” I disagree, civvy. Assassins may rig the car to explode as soon as it is started (rather than stick around with a remote detonator) to avoid witnesses. Also, suburban streets are not conducive to a high-speed getaway or a stealthy remote detonation. Most professional assassins are temperamentally risk-averse, so it’d be safer for them to plant a dumb bomb than to stick around to make sure that the bomb goes off. If the bomb doesn’t hit the target, they can always try again later.

    “If the joke here is indicative of writing for the whole work… [I don’t think the writing is good enough to publish].” Comedy is pretty individualistic, of course, but I feel really comfortable about using that line.

    “If this line was an honest attempt at, well, writing, then the person who wrote it is a bad writer.”
    I find you obnoxious.

  16. Brianon 02 Feb 2009 at 10:09 am

    I find you obnoxious.

    I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to help. I don’t blame you guys for resisting it, because you didn’t ask and I’ve said nothing anyone wants to hear. But it’s better to hear it from me now so you can fix what’s wrong before you send it to an editor than to have him think these things while throwing away your submission.

    If you guys truly believe the pages for your pitch can stand on their own, then take them to an editor at a convention for review as I suggested.

    Either way, I wish you guys the best of luck.

  17. Brianon 11 Feb 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I’m sorry for being brusque, but I wanted you guys to have an idea of how an editor is going to approach the pages in a pitch.

    At least it doesn’t insinuate that the author is acting in bad faith.
    It wasn’t “snark”; the line is so awful I couldn’t tell if it was “real” or not. Look at it like this…

    I could easily see myself posting a sample page from Robo with an explosion on it. I could very easily see myself adding “Damn, that’s gotta hurt!” just for kicks. That is in no way an actual joke, if anything it’s an anti-joke. I would put it there specifically to make fun of myself for putting something so bland on the page. Surely you can see how that’s not actually funny? “Should have bought a Toyota” is exactly on that level.

    I mean, I don’t know. Maybe it makes more sense within the larger context of the work, but looking at the page on it’s own, that line falls flat.

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