Buy This Book: Sonny Liew’s ‘Malinky Robot’
I've been a fan of Sonny Liew ever since he provided the art for My Faith In Frankie, a highly overlooked and underrated Vertigo mini-series about the nature of religion, romance, and how difficult it is to get your personal deity and your best friend into a threesome. There's an incredible expressiveness and charm to his work that's just incredible, so when he offered to send me a copy of Malinky Robot, a collection that Image put out last year and I'd somehow missed, I jumped at the chance.
A few weeks later, when the box arrived from Singapore, I found out for sure what I already suspected: This is a book that's well worth picking up.Malinky Robot collects five short stories starring a pair of "street urchins" -- they're never referred to as anything else, even though one of them appears to be an alien, or possibly a goat -- called Atari and Oliver, set just far enough into the future that it qualifies as science fiction. As far as plots go, the stories are deceptively simple, focused on premises like "a robot walks home" or "Oliver and Atari ride their bikes over to a friend's house," or "the kids find some money and go watch a movie," but they're done with a kind of quietly resonant skill that makes them a joy to read.
As a fan of Liew's, the initial draw of the book -- no pun intended -- was his art rather than his storytelling. I absolutely love his style, full of sketchy figures that are defined as much by color placement as they are by their outlines. It's a technique that you don't see all that often, and when you do, it's very easy for it to end up giving the pages a washed-out, unfinished look. In Liew's work, though, the blending of the smoky sky and dirty buildings of San'ya, the near-future city the stories are set in, adds a grimy depth and adds to the characters' expressions. As cartoony and exaggerated as his figures get, nothing ever looks flat on the page.
And surprisingly -- to me, anyway -- the same goes for the writing. Those simple plots that he's working with have a depth of their own, and it's something that's really difficult to explain. It's a feeling, a combination of that expressive art and the way that Liew chooses which moments to show over the course of his story.
There's never really a twist in the stories that are collected here. Well, there's one -- the first story revolves around a pretty hilariously disgusting poop-eating "stinky fish" that may or may not have gone extinct -- but for the most part, they're straightforward almost to a fault. I mentioned above that there's one where a robot walks home, and that's literally all there is to it. No twist, no real conflict to speak of, just 11 pages of a tiny robot that was accidentally left at a New Year's party walking across a city, occasionally stopping to ask for directions.
And yet, while you wouldn't exactly expect that story to be a thrill ride, it's never boring. Part of it just springs from Liew's talent as an artist. His pages are just fun to look at, and there's nothing static about them -- just look at the different angles he uses in the page above and imagine an entire story with that much variety in showing such a simple action, with different backgrounds and the sky changing color to chart the journey and the passage of time.
But the other part of it is that Liew has a gift for very subtle characterization that's engaging on an almost instinctual level. As pretentious as that might sound, it's the only way I can describe it: Characters are immediately sympathetic, even though they rarely ever express their desires, or even seem to have desires to begin with. The robot story -- "New Year's Day" -- might be the best example. The robot is never forlorn and never expresses a trace of anguish about being forgotten at the party -- in fact, he seems perfectly cool with it and completely confident in his ability to walk home even when passers-by advise him to take a bus -- but there's something that feels lonely about it, even when he's walking through a cheerful crowd of people. There's an emotion to it, even in eleven pages without a single turn in the plot.
There is, however, an exception to the straightforward stories, and it ends up being an incredible showcase of Liew's talent. The story is built around Oliver and Atari meeting one of their (non-urchin) friends for hamburgers, and as the kids sit around talking to each other, their conversations are represented through comic strips that shift Liew's style into a completely different format.
It's actually pretty unexpected -- I was so enamored with Liew's signature style that I didn't even think about whether he could mimic a super-hero crossover or a black-and-white 'zine...
...but when they start discussing the backstory of one of the supporting characters, Liew represents it in the form of a newspaper comics page, parodying everything from Calvin & Hobbes and the Far Side to the Spider-Man newspaper strip and The Lockhorns. It takes a minute to realize what's going on, because despite the format, it's one of the few times where the book dips into something that's truly dark. The end result is something that's genuinely depressing and unexpectedly poignant.
The fact that it's Oliver's section of the story, a visual representation of how a lighthearted child thinks of a deeply tragic event, just adds to it. Honestly, the worst thing you can say about it is that it's exactly the sort of thing they're looking for when it comes time to hand out Xeric grants, which might be why Liew got one to go along with his Eisner nomination.
In short, it's a great collection of some truly excellent comics, although the pages of sketches from the as-yet-unreleased Baloon Bomb Factory OGN are downright taunting in how much I wanted to read that after I finished with this volume. If you're one of the few who missed out on it when it originally came out, it's still available -- as is his beautiful Wonderland book from Disney and SLG -- and it's more than worth your time to check it out.