Dr. Robot Special

by Bernie Mireault

Published by Dark Horse Comics

32 pages, 2000








Is There a Dr. Robot in the House?

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


Recently, there's a been a small number of quality stories for kids of all ages revolving around the adventures of giant robots. Most famously, there was the animated feature film The Iron Giant, hailed by many -- including this critic -- as a likely candidate for best feature-length animated film of the 20th century. There was also The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, a comic book by Frank Miller and Geof Darrow that was turned into a Saturday morning cartoon for the autumn 1999 television season. One newer entry in this genre is Bernie Mireault's charming Dr. Robot, which first appeared in 1999 as a back-up feature in Mike Allred's Madman Comics. All of those stories, along with a previously unpublished episode, have now been collected in a one-shot comic book from Dark Horse Comics entitled Dr. Robot Special.

Dr. Robot is the name of a kindly old Japanese scientist who built a giant robot ("No. 1"). No. 1, in addition to being the doctor's metaphorical son, is in many ways an extension of Dr. Robot himself. No. 1 isn't a remote-controlled machine or an independent artificial intelligence. Dr. Robot must climb inside No. 1 to operate him. Yet, despite No. 1's dependence on the good doctor, his system configuration includes gauges for motivation, self-esteem and loneliness. No. 1 is simultaneously alive and inanimate. It's an absurd ambiguity that contributes to the fairytale aura of the series. In one episode, the doctor builds No. 1 a "female" companion to cure him of his loneliness. In the previous episode, Dr. Robot himself, with No. 1's help, had found his true love, Dr. Ingrid, so it was only fair that the doctor share his newfound romantic bliss with his mechanical doppelganger.

Although there is some sparsely scattered text -- signs, newspapers, sound effects -- the Dr. Robot stories are told entirely without dialogue or captions. Mireault is a wonderful storyteller and words would only mar these "silent" tales that evoke the pre-verbal relationship of young infants to the world. The art is not only gorgeous to look at for its own sake but is also perfect cartooning: the narrative is sharp and crisp, with never a confusing scene or sequence.

Mireault's previous work -- for example his signature series The Jam (whose tag line, "A working class hero is something to be," is borrowed from John Lennon) -- was not aimed at children, but it did, like Dr. Robot, espouse a willfully naive optimism. Much like, say, Bugs Bunny, his protagonists win out over the forces of brute stupidity because of their quick wit, sense of humor, and unshakable conviction of their right to individuality. In what is the collection's finest moment, Dr. Robot and No. 1 stop a gigantic subterranean monster from tearing up the iconically named City by teaching the giant invader a card trick. The monster then climbs back down into the center of the Earth and amuses its monster brethren with this novelty.

In tone and spirit, the Dr. Robot stories are a little reminiscent of Nick Park's Wallace & Gromit short films. They have a similar goofy innocence and absurd sense of fun. However, Mireault's creation is more utopic. There is no bickering. The City which Dr. Robot and No. 1 protect is a cheerful place where people of diverse ethnic backgrounds mingle without tension. Love is straightforward and generous. And the father figure, Dr. Robot, both tenderly needs and responsibly pays attention to his creature, No. 1. The robot is like a very young child: he can't go out into the world without his parent and he feels a full range of emotions and needs which he can't articulate and yet must trust his parent to recognize and satisfy. In Mireault's bright world, the fulfillment of these expectations can be taken for granted -- unlike in the much sadder real world. These stories will plant tiny seeds of compassion in their readers. Perhaps some will find fertile ground, or maybe not. If reality were a Mireault story, all the seeds would sprout and all the people would live life in peace. You may say Mireault's a dreamer. But he's not the only one. | April 2000


Claude Lalumière -- a January Magazine contributing editor -- is a freelance writer, editor, translator and publishing consultant. He's the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop.