What Can We Steal from Issue 2 of “Atomic Robo Presents Real Science Adventures”?

Title of Work and its Form:  Issue 2 of “Atomic Robo Presents Real Science Adventures,” comic book
Author: Written by Brian Clevinger (on Twitter @bclevenger).  Art by Ryan Cody, Rob Reilly, John Broglia and Zack Finfrock.  Colors by Matt Speroni.
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The issue was published in April 2012 and can be purchased at any fine comic book store, including Oswego, NY’s The Comic Shop.

Bonuses:  Here is the title’s entry in the Comic Book Database.  This is the official Atomic Robo web site.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
In a different world, I would have written a lot of comic books.  (Yes, yes, there is always the future.  We’ll see if I ever write another script for one.)  While I’m not what you would call a “comic book person,” I love all storytelling media, especially one that has such strong roots in the United States.  From time to time, I have assigned students to read and write about comic books because it’s the kind of thing that you need to do at least once.  How do you know whether or not you like comic books unless you read one?

I picked up Issue 2 of “Atomic Robo Presents Real Science Adventures” on a whim while at my local comic book store.  Please forgive me, friends, if I get some details wrong.  Part of the reason for this essay, I think, is to demonstrate the effect of serialized writing on someone who doesn’t quite know what is going on?  What does Mr. Clevinger do to capture the interest of an Atomic Robo virgin?

The issue contains installments from four adventures, who of which are self-contained: “To Kill a Sparrow,” “Monster Hunters,” “Leaping Metal Dragon” and “Atomic Robo vs. Rasputin’.”  Atomic Robo is a robot who was (in this fictional universe) created by Nikolai Tesla, the super genius scientist guy.  The titular Sparrow is a British spy.  Bruce Lee even appears in the third story!

To Kill a Sparrow

Well, it looks as though the spy is in trouble; she’s being chased by a whole bunch of bad guys.  After a nighttime firefight, she and her sidecar passenger find themselves in a dead end and outgunned.  Mr. Clevenger makes use of the timeless (and effective) textbook CLIFFHANGER.  The hero is in big trouble; several men with big guns are about to train their weapons on her.  The “to be continued” is the best kind of tease…what will happen next?  Well, you have to wait until the next issue is released (unless you bought the trade paperback.  Then you can just turn the page.)  There’s nothing at all wrong with these kinds of cliffhangers, but bear in mind the writing advice we received from Annie Wilkes, the hero of Misery.  The cliffhanger cannot be a cheat.  If the hero is in the car and the car goes off the cliff, you can’t retcon the story (change the previous established events) and tell folks that the hero rolled out of the car just before it went off the cliff.  “To Kill a Sparrow” establishes the right kind of cliffhanger: Sparrow is stuck in a dead end and must find her way out of the pickle she’s in.

Monster Hunters

So Atomic Robo wants to take custody of the “Yonkers Devil.”  (I’ve been in Yonkers…it’s not so bad.)  A team of tough-looking men agree to help.  Three days later, there’s a pretty cool battle as the strike team and Robo attempt to take the Yonkers Devil prisoner.  Mr. Clevinger and Mr. Reilly put together a pretty cool comic book battle, but the important part comes at the end.  The character we thought was Robo is actually a human.  (Remember, I don’t know the series.  I’m sure it’s an established character.)  The man takes off his fake Robo helmet and tells someone on the phone that, “It’s done.”  In the next panel, he says, “No.  Robo will think they went without him.  He’ll have no reason to suspect Majestic’s involvement.”

Mr. Clevinger is making use of a technique that some folks have problems with, particularly in playwriting and screenwriting.  Phone calls can be tough!  On one hand, it’s hard to release exposition because most people don’t say every word they are thinking when they have a phone conversation.  On the other hand, it can be super boring if your character has a boring phone conversation.  “Hello?…yeah…okay…sure…yep…uh huh…that’s right…cool.”  Mr. Clevinger tells a newbie like me a great deal.  Apparently, Robo is having problems with an agency called Majestic and that Yonkers Devil creature is important to Majestic.

Leaping Metal Dragon

Robo was friends with Bruce Lee!  Artist John Broglia uses an old-timey lots-of-dots comic book style to depict a training sequence.  Robo wants to learn to fight, even though he’s very tough and is a robot.  Robo is beginning to learn that fighting evil and defending good is not just about brute strength.

I’m not ancient, but I miss the way that comics were printed in the seventies and 1980s.  The paper was cheaper and the coloring was more obviously provided by the little tiny dots.  Mr. Clevinger and Mr. Broglia made a great choice in using the old-time style.  After all, the section of the comic takes place in the past.  (Bruce Lee, sadly, died decades ago.)  In order to create something new in your chosen genre, you need to understand the state of your genre in the past.  Mr. Broglia, no doubt, is perfectly capable of creating more creative layouts, but he made the choice to keep the layout of the panels very simple, because that’s the way comics looked in the past.

Atomic Robo vs. Rasputin

This story goes all the way back to 1924 in the Big Apple.  Atomic Robo is trying to study and has finals to take in the morning.  Unfortunately, the spirit of Rasputin (who died in 1916) interrupts him.  Robo uses some kind of device to SKZKOW SKOOOM the spirit, but causes lots of unintentional damage.  Other folks plan on pinning the damage on Robo, “Tesla’s infernal atomic robot.”

Atomic Robo seems like an interesting character because he’s not a typical robot.  He attempts to understand what it means to be human (yes, like Data) and needs to get an education the old-fashioned way and acts like a young person.  There are about eleventy billion robots in fiction.  Mr. Clevinger makes his special without removing his robot identity.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ honest cliffhangers.  Go ahead and tease your audience, but make sure you make good on your promise.
  • Ensure the phone conversations in your work have a point.  There should be a reason your audience is hearing or reading one side of a phone call.  Exposition, characterization…we need something.
  • Educate yourself in the history of your field.  Nonfiction writers should know all about Gay Talese.  Comic book writers and artists should know all about Steve Ditko.  Novelists should know about Jane Eyre.  (They don’t have to like that book if they don’t want to.)
  • Differentiate characters who might otherwise seem common.  What makes the spouse abuser in your story different from the cliché?  Why should people care about your dragon protagonist?

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2 Comments

  • Great analysis of the issue I’ve been a big fan of Clevinger for years and he does work very well in the short story format. Regarding the Yonkers Devil characters it’s a tribute to the characters of the Team Fortress 2 video games. Essentially two teams of RED versus BLU that work to defeat each other in cartoon combat. If you ever watch the ‘Meet the Team’ videos for each character you’ll get a good idea of the tribute (Valve is also excellent at game writing).

    • Ian, thanks for the information. As I admit in the essay, I am not at all an Atomic Robo expert and I am more than happy to have folks like you contribute to the discussion. (And to school me!)

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