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Playtime Featured Artists: Team Robo

15 November 2010 2,987 Views No Comment author: Matthew Kessen

In a world where adventure comics seem to consist of nothing but grim, tortured heroes fighting grim, tortured villains for grim, tortured reasons, Atomic Robo is a comic with the apparent – and unthinkable – goal of making its readership smile. Oh, there’s violence, and vampires, and Nazis, and all sorts of that kind of thing, but they’re there in service of excitement and thrills, rather than the battling of inner demons. Its creators have described it as “a combination of Indiana Jones, Buckaroo Banzai, and the Ghostbusters.” It’s the story of Atomic Robo, a mechanical man built by Nikola Tesla in the 1920s, and his subsequent decades of adventure in the name of “Action Science.” And it may well be the best new comic of the last ten years.

Brian Clevinger had been working on the ideas for Atomic Robo for about ten years when, in 2006, he met Scott Wegener via the Internet. He knew immediately that this was the artist he wanted; Wegener set to work on refining Clevinger’s ideas, of getting them down to their basics. Soon, the artist had contributed so much to the concept that Clevinger asked him to take co-creator credit. They have worked hand in glove ever since; Clevinger writes, Wegener draws, but both contribute ideas.

I caught up with Team Robo at the 2010 New York Comic Con, where we discussed Atomic Robo’s future, fanboy minutiae, Carl Sagan, and gratuitous nudity.

Matthew Kessen: Why in God’s name would anyone get into comics?

Brian Clevinger: I was a huge nerd, that’s why I got into it – there was nothing else.

Scott Wegener: Pretty much.

MK: What comics were you into?

Clevinger: I started collecting comics in the ‘90s. What a terrible idea that was. I was all into the X-Men and Punisher and X-Force, all that crap. And that didn’t last but a couple of years ’cause it was just really, really terrible. But I always had a love of comics, just not necessarily of what I was seeing out of comics.

MK: What got you back into it?

Clevinger: Really, the fact that trade paperbacks started to appear in Barnes & Nobles, Books-A-Million, that sort of thing, so I just started seeing them more. So it’s like, “Oh, I can pick up a full trade, get a full storyline, and check it out,” and I noticed the quality was a hell of a lot better. This was around like 2001, 2002. Stuff like Planetary, Authority. I was really into Planetary, which kind of shows in Atomic Robo. A little bit. You know, the secret weird history.

Wegener: Roughly the same reasons, although I was always into the goofy indie comics as a kid. The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Grendel, stuff like that. Alien Legion was my big Marvel book at the time, a really fun sci-fi book. And then I also got into superheroes kind of later on, in the ’90s, right before it all got really horrible, and lost interest for the same reasons.

MK: What got you back?

Wegener: I love the art form, the idea of telling whatever story you want. All you needed was an imagination, some decent writing skills, and a pen and paper and you’re good to go. So yeah!

MK: Did anything specific prompt the “no cheesecake” rule?1 Are there any particularly egregious examples you want to talk about?

Wegener: Every single comic book out there?

MK: People argue with you about this online!

Wegener: Oh, yeah, they do. Well, you know, the thing that really killed comics for me – the last comic I almost bought. I was in a local shop, I was in college; I was drifting away just ’cause I had nowhere to store ‘em, and I was busy with college. I was a huge fan of Joe Mad’s2 work. I’m still a huge fan of Joe Mad’s work. But I picked up a copy of Battle Chasers. And it was nothing but giant tits and gratuitous ass shots, and it was like there was no story, it was terrible. It was absolutely terrible. I was embarrassed. I started looking over my shoulder to see if anyone saw me looking at the comic. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But it was kind of everywhere in comics. You still see it today with guys, you know, light-boxing porno mags to do their superhero stuff. I have no problem with adult content, comic books aimed squarely at adults, either “mature themes” or straight-out whatever porno comics, that’s fine, that’s what they are. But when you’re hiding it in something that’s theoretically for children -

MK: When that’s the only depiction of women that you get.

Clevinger: Right.

Wegener: Yeah, and it’s such a juvenile, immature approach to it. I’m a monkey, I like sex just like everyone else, but when I see that, it’s just embarrassing – I’m embarrassed for them. When I decided to get into comics… I have a wife, I’ve got a daughter, and I was like, I want to make comics that maybe she wouldn’t enjoy, ’cause she’s her own kid and she’ll like what she likes, but I wanted her to at least be able to – I wanted to be proud of what I did, and wanted to have no problem showing her what I did for a living. And then Robo just fit the bill when Brian and I hooked up.

Clevinger: For me, actually, it crystallized with what got me out of comics in the 90s. It was one specific – I don’t remember what the issue was – but it was an issue of X-Men, and there was some big-ass fight, like there always is. And I realized on this page, you know, it was Cyclops, Wolverine, Gambit, whatever, they were doing the big fight, there was some huge explosion, they’re all fine. And then it does this reaction shot of Psylocke and Jean; they weren’t even really in the fight, but for whatever reason all of a sudden their clothes are completely destroyed except for bikini-style. And I’m like 13 or 14 at this point and I’m already, you know, I’m ready for that kind of thing, but at the same time I’m thinking, “Is this what they think of me as an audience that they have to resort to this; it’s just so obvious and gratuitous. I like seeing this, but…”

Wegener: It’s insulting at the same time.

Clevinger: It’s insulting, that they would just automatically default to this for no reason. So it’s just like, “Uhh, all right, if this is what they think of me as a customer, I’m just not going to be a customer anymore.” So when we were gearing up for Atomic Robo that was a very important thing to not contribute to.

Wegener: Right. We both had a conversation about – well, we both decided we didn’t like comics anymore. We also both for some reason decided that we’re getting back into comics, why are we doing this, and what is it that we don’t like, so we can avoid those pitfalls again.

Scott Wegener and Brian Clevinger

MK: What’s your favorite part about the job?

Wegener: Not wearing pants at work, I dunno.

Clevinger: My favorite part is when he does put on pants. Which would be today; that’s the first time I’ve seen Scott in pants in a long time.

MK: What do you hate about it?

Clevinger: The money. It would be nice if it paid more.

Wegener: (laughs)

MK: Specifically for Scott: What visual references do you use for the science objects? One of the things about Robo is that all of the equipment looks extremely realistic and yet very stylized at the same time.

Wegener: Well, it depends on the era. If we’re talking historical era, I’ll research real machines and technology from that time and then just kind of do it in my style. And then because we’re dealing with the Atomic Robo and weirdness I’ll usually embellish on it. When it comes to more modern stuff, I guess I’ve just looked at enough pieces of reference photos that I can just kind of wing it and it looks like it might function! (laughs)

MK: Brian, there’s a lot of science in Atomic Robo, a lot of legitimate, real science, and a lot of –

Clevinger: Some of it’s slightly made up.

- Some of it’s a little weird, yeah. But even the stuff that’s pseudo-science is actual pseudo-science that other people have proposed. So do you just know all this stuff, or do you have a research process?

Clevinger: A little bit of both. When I was a kid, in third grade, fourth grade, all the other kids were into baseball and football stars, and getting the football cards and all that crap, and watching all the games. I was into Nova and Cosmos.

Wegener: Oh, God, I love those programs.

Clevinger: So, for me, it’s just something that’s always been a part of my life. I’ve always been interested in science, always been reading these sorts of things, and I guess I’ve just built up this library of useless, weird information. And this is an outlet for it.

MK: Now, there’s a tremendous balance between real science and gonzo craziness in Atomic Robo. An example I’m thinking of is that the Vampire Dimension is justified with the Many-Worlds theory of quantum mechanics.3 Which comes first, the Many-Worlds theory or the Vampire Dimension?

Clevinger: Usually we will come up with whatever story thing we want, and then find a way that it makes sense.

MK: Okay.

Clevinger: Quote-unquote makes sense.

MK: What’s your favorite issue of Atomic Robo, or at least a most representative one?

Wegener: Oh, huh. I’m gonna think about that.

Clevinger: All right. I’m just gonna default to Volume 3, issue 4, ’cause that’s our big love letter to Carl Sagan.

Wegener: Yeah, that one was really good. I would say all of Volume 34 in general, really. Volume 3 I think was where we really hit our stride as a creative team. I think it was the first volume where we were both totally on the same page with everything. And it’s got enough of, like you said, the real science and the fake science, and because it jumps all through time you get a taste of all the time periods of Robo’s life. So really the whole Volume 3 is kind of the – if someone doesn’t know where to start, I’ll usually point ‘em at that one, even though you can start anywhere.

MK: What are you most proud of, Atomic Robo-wise?

Clevinger: Jeez, I dunno. I guess what I’m most proud of is that it’s for everybody, without talking down to anybody. Kids can read it, girls, boys. The elderly. There’s something for everyone, and it doesn’t sacrifice anything for it. It’s not like lowest common denominator for everyone, it’s just, whatever the hell it is we’re doin’, there’s something in there for everyone to enjoy.

Wegener: Same exact thing, yeah.

MK: You’ve got it planned out to Volume 14, is that right?

Clevinger: Yes.

Wegener: Somewhere around there.

MK: Now, is that the end, or is that just what you’ve got so far?

Clevinger: That’s just what we have so far. A few months ago it was volume 11 or 12 that we had.

MK: Do these change a lot as you go along, or…

Clevinger: No, we’ve got a pretty solid idea of the broad strokes version of the total timeline. It’s probably how we keep our continuity from getting like it is for Marvel and DC, where there are retcons and contradictions. So there’s an overall outline. It’s broad enough that we have freedom to play with it as we go.

MK: Now, in the B stories, other artists do Atomic Robo. Has there ever been any consideration of other writers?

Clevinger: Hell no!

Wegener: I’ve considered it, but I’m not the writer, so…

MK: Will we ever see the, the Tesla / Wong / Annie Oakley…5

Clevinger: Uh, yes?

Wegener: Volume 15?

Clevinger: We’d really like to do something with them, yes. They were name-checked for a reason, and that reason was to show them off at a later date. We just haven’t decided how or when exactly.

MK: Is there any chance of spinoffs at all?

Clevinger: We keep playing around with the idea of doing our version of the B.P.R.D. series. Sort of a little anthology that can be put out every month or so, where we’d have the stories that were too big for a mini-comic, but not big enough for a full volume.

Wegener: Basically, right now it’s of course the two of us; if it gets big enough where we can actually start to afford to branch out, we can hire other art teams to do stuff like that, or we could take a break from the mainline story so we could do it ourselves and tell the Tesla, or the Magnificent Seven, stories, or, you know, whatever. So it will happen if Robo is successful enough, I guess?

Clevinger: What’s funny is that specifically when the first volume came out, some reviewers were like “Oh, they’re kind of setting up the world, they’re giving us this introduction.” We’re still setting up the world and giving you the introduction. There’s so much history to this thing, that up to Volume 14 I think we only have one recurring villain.

MK: And even in a tiny little thing like “The Yonkers Devil,”6 the Yonkers Devil runs off at the end, as if it could come back.

Wegener: Oh, absolutely.

Clevinger: Oh, yeah, that’s the plan.

MK: This is happening throughout.

Clevinger: Exactly.

  1. Part of Team Robo’s “Promise”: no angst, no cheesecake, no reboots, no filler, no delays. See atomicrobo.com for more.
  2. aka Joe Madureira.
  3. In Atomic Robo, Volume 4, Number 1.
  4. Atomic Robo and the Shadow From Beyond Time, which features a Lovecraftian horror, some weirdness with temporal physics, and Carl Sagan with a science gun.
  5. A team-up of early 20th century historical figures, referenced in Volume 3. Houdini, Charles Fort, and H. P. Lovecraft’s father were also involved.
  6. A B story, collected in the trade paperback for Volume 3.

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