Like many cartoonists who popped up in the ‘90s, Mike Allred has had immense success through the decades. In his case, notoriety especially ensued after iZombie was turned into a beloved show.
Since then, Mike Allred has worked on different small projects, but he’s trying to make a comeback with this new series, X-Ray Robot, which purports to tie into his OG Madman work. Alas…this is underwhelming in every regard.
As our protagonist, we’re given mild-mannered scientist, Max Wilding. I would describe what he’s researching, but why not let some embarrassing exposition do the work for me? In Max’s words: “Who could have known Dr. Hubble Zelzer’s research in health, longevity, and efforts to increase human lifespans would result in a robotics lab on the verge of interdimensional travel?”
Basically, long story short, something goes wrong with a robot, and Max bonds with a machine that can travel time, space, and all that jazz. Granted, that’s not a bad premise, but the execution really kills X-Ray Robot’s potential.
Most likely, Mike Allred is trying to play into B-movie, camp territory with such excruciating dialogue and flat characters. Every beat is corny as possible. However, here’s the thing about referencing B-movies and the like: you need to do something to change things up. Otherwise…it’s just a rehash of bad old content. It becomes kitsch.
To fix stale camp, there are several options available to smart artists. A big one, especially common for sly ‘90s cartoonist, is humor—playing up the absurdity of the melodrama present in retro media. Unfortunately…X-Ray Robot isn’t funny. Of course that comes down to taste, so you, dear reader, could find this comic hilarious. But even so, this isn’t a jokey comic. I think it’s supposed to be charming?
Another option is to put a modern, progressive spin on things. And there is some of that here. Unfortunately, it’s not well handled. For instance, a female scientist, Marnie, is sexually assaulted by her boss, Mr. Reynolds. Zack pops in to try and help, but that compels Marnie to physically assault Mr. Reynolds as payback. Yay? #feminism?
I could go on like this, but the point is, Allred doesn’t push himself as a writer here to rise above the schlocky premise—so he’s just perpetuated the bad writing of the past in a stale, unimpressive way. X-Ray Robot isn’t even entertaining in a wink-wink fashion.
But now for the part of the review I’ve been dreading: the part where I talk about the art. I don’t at all want to undersell how talented Mike and his family are and how many awesome, trippy comics they’ve produced. So that being said: X-Ray Robot’s art is…not good.
First of all, the linework isn’t as thick as most of his other work, so the inks look scratchy and not as full, refined, and sweeping as they usually are. This whole darn thing takes place in a research facility, and that would be a cue for many a cartoonist to go ham on designing the building. Instead, the backgrounds here are an ugly dirge. Many panels lack defining details and resort to sloppy lines in the background to vaguely hand-gesture to weird machinery Allred didn’t want to design.
More depressing are the colors, which never cease to paint the backgrounds in the ugliest greys and browns imaginable—despite the characters popping with vibrant colors.
But problems even strike the character designs and perspective. In panels with several characters, and there are many, size and proportions are frequently off-kilter. Characters will often look like they’re not really standing and instead floating above the ground at angles that seem to indicate they were dropped into the panels with Photoshop.
In moments that are supposed to be peaceful, Allred gives characters the zaniest, most maniacal expressions possible. Yet, in scenes that are supposed to be intense, characters’ body language indicates nothing more than slight disturbance. The only time the art truly comes alive is when our protagonist travels through space for the first time, although the scene is heavily reminiscent of the trippy time travel of Dan Clowes’ Patience (which you should totally read or re-read instead).
As much as it hurts to say, Mike Allred delivered a dud with this corny throwback. I enjoy a good retro spoof as much as the next guy, but X-Ray Robot #1 isn’t innovative or entertaining enough to elevate the silliness.