By Sonny Liew
128 pages, color
Many years ago, I first encountered Sonny Liew’s comics thanks to a Xeric Grant funded comic called Malinky Robot: Stinky Fish Blues. It was inventive and entertaining, and instantly made Liew a creator that I would plan on watching out for in the future. He’s gone onto a lot of great comics since then (like My Faith in Frankie, Re-Gifters, and an adaptation of Sense & Sensibility) but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Malinky Robot. With the release of Malinky Robot: Collected Stories and Other Bits, now you can get a chance to see just why he’s a creator whose work I’ll always keep an eye out for.
Malinky Robot follows a pair of friends, Atari and Oliver, through a large, bustling metropolis where they go on a series of adventures. And by adventures, it means anything from finding a fish that keeps the waters clean by eating sewage waste, to stealing a bicycle for the afternoon, to a little robot trying to find its master. In many ways it’s a series of slice-of-life stories in a strange setting with is a cross between our own world and a science-fiction one, but one where if you squint it’s hard to tell the two apart.
It helps that the stakes are always low in Malinky Robot. The city isn’t being threatened by destruction, even people’s homes and lives are safe. Rather, it’s just about getting by, one day at a time, making the best of the world around you. My favorite moment in the first comic was seeing that after a potential money-making scheme had gone awry, to have Oliver and Atari just head to the local arcade and start playing with the amusements there. Life goes on, you raise your head high, and follow a different path. Conflict can be over if Mr. Nabisco’s robot that he created is really a proper robot or not, since he doesn’t have lasers that shoot out of his butt, or the ability to fly through the air and punch other robots. (Instead he just does the cleaning, feeds the cat, and makes rain noises for when Mr. Nabisco goes to bed.) It’s a down to earth series of stories that enchants you less with their plot and more through their easy-going and inviting characters, and the continued sense that the city of Malinky Robot would be an awfully interesting place to visit, even if for just a couple of days.
Part of what will also pull you into Malinky Robot is Liew’s approach to the art. His art style is brings the comic’s city to life in a way that few other comics do. It feels like a real place, with its tall buildings, bustling marketplaces, ragged signs, and garbage and dirt slowly accumulating. This isn’t the pristine streets of Metropolis, but rather a place that would fit right in alongside real-world locations like New York, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur. His characters fit in well there, too, with discarded jackets, funny hair styles, and grimy faces. Liew shows off his versatility here, too, switching his style to ape popular comic strips and superhero comics for one story where it makes sense to jump into a different mode and take on comics. (Liew’s renditions of the art styles of Calvin & Hobbes and The Lockhorns, in particular, are spot-on accurate without being carbon copies.) It’s a fun visual way to mix things up, but also accomplishes an actual storytelling goal and is more than just a gag.
If there’s just one story in Malinky Robot that you could read to hook you, I’d push "New Year’s Day," in which Mr. Nabisco accidentally leaves his robot at a bar while celebrating the switch to a new year. It gives you a grasp of the world of Malinky Robot, and the sort of quiet, gentle stories that Liew tells here. As the robot walks across the city, stopping to interact with those around it, it’s hard to keep from becoming utterly enthralled with what on the surface is a simple story. That’s the charm of Malinky Robot, and the skill of Liew’s storytelling abilities.
Malinky Robot is more than just a collection of short stories; it’s a passport to a vibrant, living city full of characters that you’ll want to visit again and again. Liew’s collection of Malinky Robot stories is set for an August 2011 publication, and I am delighted that once again, people will get to experience the joy of his comics.