Script and art by Chris Callahan
Flattown, former home of those hand-drawn cartoons that were once the bread-and-butter of the children’s entertainment industry, has fallen on hard times. With the rise of computer-generated animation, the toons’ target audience has turned away from traditional cartoons in favor of the latest, flashiest visuals around. Welcome to the world of Chris Callahan’s RoboChuck.
The central conceit of the book, that so-called “toons”—the cartoon characters seen on the screen—are real, physical (if not quite flesh-and-blood) beings, probably gives you a good clue as to the tone Callahan strikes here. By humanizing and anthropomorphizing these “actors,” Callahan pokes fun at certain aspects of our own entertainment, at corporate greed and artistic legitimacy, at the fleeting, sometimes trivial attention we pay to certain forms of media before moving on to the latest fads.
The title character himself is a CG, though he’s the adopted son of Inksplat Magee, the greatest detective in the world and one of the most well-known “flat” toons, now fallen on hard times. As we quickly learn, though, things aren’t cushy for all the CGs either; we watch as Chuck struggles to get all but the most menial acting jobs, and skirts the edges of a cadre of flats’ conspiracy to take down Toontown. Quite against his will, RoboChuck winds up pulled into the drama that has become the life of little Shirley, a young girl whose mother has been inexplicably kidnapped by unidentified villains.
But despite the thinly veiled (and sometimes totally unveiled) jabs at the CG animation business, RoboChuck could easily be a Pixar movie. The idea of new technology outpacing and overtaking once-popular forms of entertainment has a certain resonance with Wreck-It Ralph (and, at a bit more of a stretch, the Woody/Buzz dynamic in Toy Story).
I would hesitate to call RoboChuck a children’s comic; there are subtleties to the corporate goings-on that might be lost on most kids, and occasional pop-culture references that would fly quite high over many of their heads, but it’s most definitely kid-friendly. There are no grim-and-gritty antiheroes, no too-realistic amoral business executives. The villains are appropriately cartoonish, as are the heroes and everyone in between, and the book as a whole has a comedic style somewhat reminiscent of a toned-down (and not as futuristic) Futurama.
Callahan’s art effectively delineates the differences between the flats and the CGs, and carries the story effectively, providing just enough to dazzle the eye when needed, without ever getting bogged down in detail. The way the flats and the CGs interact (and sometimes clash) visually can occasionally mask just how well-done both are; the art is deceptively simple at times, so be sure to take your time and appreciate the varying depth and flatness of space Callahan creates.
On the writing front, the dialogue isn’t what you’d call realistic, but as you’ve probably gathered, it’s not meant to be, and sometimes dialogue doesn’t need to be to tell an effective story. In the end, that’s exactly what RoboChuck does: tells an effective and lighthearted story with more than enough to keep readers interested. Production quality is seriously through-the-roof on this one, so even if it sounds a bit more upbeat than your typical fare, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t check it out.