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“Darkness! No Parents!” Batman sings after rescuing the hero of The Lego Movie.
“Batman’s a true artist,” his girlfriend adds. “Dark and brooding.”
I love that moment because it skewers the mopey, self-absorbed, grim stories we’ve been dealing with since the dark age of comics in the 80s. Atomic Robo is a comic series created intentionally to reject the angst of many superhero stories.
Developed by the team of Brian Clevinger (writer) and Scott Wegner (artist), Atomic Robo is built on a five-point pledge which starts with “No Angst.” Through the ten collected volumes of the series so far, the story has more than lived up to its promise.
The title character is an atomic-powered, self-aware robot built by Nikolai Tesla in the early 1900s. The Robot’s lifetime is presented in a non-chronological fashion, a kaleidoscope of stories that include saving the world from mobile pyramids, Nazi brains-in-jars, and otherworldly horrors from beyond time. Robo faces every challenge with courage and humour.
In one story, he and his team of scientists are called upon to defend the city of Reno from an invasion of giant ants. While Robo is on the ground battling the ants, his team hovers overhead in a chopper debating exactly how such insects could even exist. Frustrated both by his team’s lack of focus and his inability to defeat the ants, Robo says, “Guys, can we concentrate? Guns aren’t working.” The team answers back that the only way to defeat the bugs to is understand how they came to be. While they keep arguing, Robo grabs a handy Buick and smashes the nearest ant to jelly. “Automobiles have been the best melee weapons to us against giant monsters since the 50s,” he says. “It’s a science fact.”
It’s that freestyle mixture of respect for science, off-the-cuff humour and direct action that makes Robo such an appealing read, and reminds me of the importance of joy in my life.
Not that the stories don’t have their moments of melancholy and regret. Living as long as he has, Robo has made and lost plenty of friends. In a touching moment in the first book, he writes a letter to the granddaughter of a pilot he flew with in World War II. He ends by telling her, “Charlie was a good solider and a good man. I am proud to have called him a friend and will miss him greatly.”
For me, half the fun of reading (and re-reading) the series is watching how deftly the stories manage to be emotionally engaging without resorting to cheap tricks. Angst is easy—all you have to do is deal your lead character some emotionally crippling blow and then sit back and let them brood. Add some dark, angular art, add a few heavy shadows, and you’re done.
Except that angst isn’ta healthy way to live—not for fictional characters and definitely not for real people. The world can be a terrible place and we all experience frustrations and disappointments. In the face of that it is so simple to just shut down, snipe from the sidelines, and refuse to fight back.
When I’m tempted to give in to that darkness and start moping, I can look to Robo for encouragement. As a Christian, I’m called to be a person of joy. That isn’t to say that every day is a picnic (or that I should treat it like one), but it does mean I should meet each challenge, setback, opportunity, and accomplishment with the same even temper and dash of humour that I find in Atomic Robo.
In 2011, I watched my father die from cancer. It wasn’t easy, but I found moments of grace and even humour throughout the tragedy. Once, near the end of his life, a medication designed to calm Dad spilled on the floor. I looked at the orange puddle on the beige carpet for a moment and thought, Well, at least now the rug is relaxed. Am I a horrible human being for finding the comedy in that moment? Maybe. I choose to think that God granted me the grace of a slightly different perspective as a way of helping me choose joy even in the darkest of circumstances. While happiness is a feeling, joy is a choice. Choosing joy gave me access to moments which I will cherish until I see Dad again and can reminisce with him about them.
Bound by his strong sense of duty, Robo always seeks the good of others even when it may cost him greatly. He balances his quest for knowledge with practical action and never loses his sense of humour. Like all of the best fictional characters, he is a role model for good.
If Robo can face the dangers of the vampire dimension, battle against a Lovecraftian nameless horror from beyond time, and join forces with Science Team Super Five to combat kaiju in Japan, then I can maintain an attitude of calm in the face of minor trials like challenging work assignments and major catastrophes like illness and death.
He has been married to an extraordinarily patient woman for more than three decades and they have two adult sons. Kevin also has entirely too many DVD boxes with the words "Complete Series" on the cover. He enjoys exploring themes of faith through his fandoms.
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