Episode 145: Atomic Robo as the counterpoint to mainstream comic book storytelling.

The Case for a Nonchronological Continuity

While the comic book industry is almost synonymous with DC and Marvel, there are many other publishing companies that make graphic narratives. One particular work that takes a very different approach when it comes to continuity is Atomic Robo by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegna. Originally published by Red 5 comics but now on its own, this comic book showcases the adventures of the titular protagonist, a hyper intelligent and super strong robot made by Nikolai Tesla. The premise of the story is fairly commonplace by comic book standards; the sentient robot known as Robo fights off enemies and conquers challenges with his[1] intelligence, wit, strength, humor, and the help of his friends. However, the storytelling premise done by Clevinger and Wegna goes against the conventions of serial publication. You see, the narrative in Atomic Robo is not told chronologically outside of major events during a particular storyline. During Robo’s century long life span the story does not go in a linear path from creation until his eventual destruction. Instead, we see one adventure from any moment in that timeline being told in installments with no need for narrative filler between the most important events. In fact, Clevinger and Wegna have specifically stated that their comic will not contain filler.

Why should we devote a month of our short lives to creating an issue if it isn’t worth reading? And then why should we try to sell you an issue that isn’t worth buying? The main source of filler issues seems to be due to moving set pieces from the aftermath of one event to set up the next one. Since we have no reason to follow Robo’s life as a linear chain of events, we’re free to jump straight from one adventure to the next. Maybe Robo fights a sea monster. Maybe we follow the lives of Action Scientists when off duty. But it ain’t filler.  (“About” Page)

Now, without a particular chronological order, this publication format resembles an episodic model like the one used during the Golden Age of comics. And yet this is far from the truth as Clevinger and Wegna have actively tried to maintain a strict continuity throughout their years as the creators and authors of Atomic Robo. They even have a “No Reboot” rule that reads as follows:

They [reboots] [a]re frustrating, unnecessary, and a jarring reminder that all fiction is a thinly veiled series of lies. The major events of Robo’s lifetime were plotted years before we worked on the first page of the first issue. Anything Scott and I add to that has to fit organically into the existing framework. If it doesn’t fit as naturally as if it’d been there all along, then we skip it and move to the next idea. Everything that happens will fit into the larger mythos; everything that happens will happen for a reason; and nothing that happens can be “undone.” (About Page)

This dedication to continuity is further cemented by the presence of a timeline feature on the main Atomic Robo website. There one can follow in chronological order the events contained in each of the current installments, including in which ones they took place, and even events that are set to occur in future publications that are currently marked as “Top Secret” with the future volume number of when it will take place. The inclusion of a timeline demonstrates an authorial performance of transparency in continuity, wherein major moments are permanent in time and current gaps might soon be filled up with stories yet to be told. However, with the readers having definite knowledge that Robo will survive any ordeal prior to the last point in the timeline (2013 as of the time of this writing) be invested in the story? The experience of engaging with the text shifts, from the classic premise of “if the hero survives” to one where we determine “how Robo succeeds”, with each installment or with each volume (compilation of a set of installments usually revolving around one major story arc).

The storytelling in Atomic Robo goes in a different style but so does the authorship. Brian Clevinger is the lead writer and Scott Wegna is the lead artist but both are considered the co-creators to the work. As mentioned in the quotes above, they have been working together to make the best possible story long before the first installment was published. Both share the title of author, just like Shuster and Siegel almost 80 beforehand. While one may be in charge of words and the other of art (according to the title page of each installment), it is their joint work that creates the text. Of course, it’s not just the two of them; however it’s not nearly the amount of personnel that either of the two big companies. Clevinger and Wegna, according to their about page and the covers of their documents also employ a colorist, a letterer, an editor, and someone to work on the cover of each installment. Red 5 Comics was in charge of their publication and distribution until February of 2015. According to a recent blog post by Clevinger, he says that they let their contract with Red 5 comics run its course until the end of its term so that he and Clevinger would have sole distribution rights. Their current plan is to continue to sell print and digital editions of their already available material and to publish new installments of Atomic Robo as a webcomic with trade paperbacks being sold as a compendium every so often. The webcomics model of authorship is discussed in depth in the next chapter but it is important to note that while other forms of serial fiction publication in comic books add more layers of authorial influence, Clevinger and Wegna are taking a back to basics approach.

One additional authorial performance worth further analysis is the communication that both of these co-authors have with their readership. Both Clevinger and Wegna have used various social media platforms before coming together to work on Atomic Robo and they continue to do so till this day. They are most vocal through Twitter where they share updates on shipping problems to distributors, other people’s reviews of their most recent installments, what new storylines were in development, in addition to the general ramblings of someone on the Internet. The most interesting feature comes when one follows them both and you can see the creative process in action. Their interactions are highlighted by the fact that they use Robo’s face as their icons (Clevinger’s facing to the right and Wegna’s to the left) which gives a nice visual element to the back and forth banter between the two. This communication usually comes in the form of jokes but every so often one finds hints at future storylines through comments about their current “research”. Since Clevinger and Wegna live far enough apart that speaking face to face is impractical to say the least, using social media makes sense. However, the fact that many of their exchanges are visible to the general public demonstrates an authorial performance of transparency into their narrative production as individuals but also into their collaborations as they work together on their continuously developing study.

[1] Gender identity in robots is a very problematic issue. Considering that Robo’s physical design is male and that many characters refer to him as a “he” rather than as an “it”, I will refer to the character as male as well.

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