Endearing and heartfelt, in Everyday Hero Machine Boy Irma Kniivila and Tri Vuong have created a wonderful graphic novel for the middle-school-aged reader that adults will enjoy reading, too. Strangely nostalgic and amusingly quirky, familiar themes of adolescence are explored through the eyes of a lovable alien robot in an eccentric world of domed cities and anthropomorphic animals. It reminds me of many comics and cartoons I enjoyed in my childhood.
In fact, I just couldn’t ignore all of the influences and references that must have been the inspiration for many parts of this book. Does that make Everyday Hero Machine Boy derivative? Maybe a little. But sometimes, when an original story is created by mixing together the best parts of some of the most loved comics and cartoons ever made, well, it just works. Moreover, Kniivila and Vuong add a few fascinating ideas that spark the imagination.
One immediately sees familiar influences from manga in the art style, especially in the character design of Machine Boy, who could’ve been taken straight out of Astro Boy or The Powerpuff Girls. The colors only reinforce this feeling; every image pops off the page.
And make no mistake; this graphic novel is driven by visual storytelling. Many pages, and almost all of the most emotionally touching sequences, are wordless.
This includes the very first page, an obvious homage to Superman’s origin that switches out the alien super-baby for a young teen robot and farmers in the Midwest for an elderly pair of karate instructors in the domed city of MEGA-416.
The initial chapter of the alien robot’s story reminded me immediately of The Iron Giant. Both teens and adults will relate to the theme of destructive predetermined programming and changing one’s fate. This theme follows Machine Boy and his friends throughout the graphic novel.
The resulting personality of Machine Boy made me think of other altruistic, lovable robots like Baymax from Big Hero 6. You will end up rooting for Machine Boy during his adventures and caring for him in all of his misadventures.
Other universal themes important to teens and pre-teens are presented in a real and emotionally authentic way, even within the weird world of Machine Boy.
Unexpectedly, I was often reminded of Pixar’s film Up, with its exploration of loss, grief, childlessness and the meaning of family. Furthermore, the idea of loss and grief motivating heroism should be familiar to all fans of Spider-Man.
Everyday Hero Machine Boy also takes on other well-known themes common to Spider-Man and other comics and cartoons featuring adolescents. Machine Boy must learn how to deal with being an outsider, facing bullies both in school and out. All the while, he only wants to make friends and help everyone. He also has more than his fair share of “Parker Luck.”
The best thing Everyday Hero Machine Boy has going for it is just being so much fun. The world is full of characters such as Karate Grandma and Grandpa, Mr. Hound (an actual dog) and Bea Sharpe (a teen girl with a mysterious past). Kniivila and Vuong have littered nearly every page with humorous, subtle and sometimes silly pop-culture references of everything from the Beatles to Archie Comics, reminding me of cartoons like Animaniacs. And spaghetti appears often in the book as a central symbol; there is even a recipe for spaghetti and meatballs included at the end.
On top of all this, everyone in the city of MEGA-416 is crazy for the pop music idols, Orphan Universe, who also happen to be the city’s super-hero team. I absolutely love the idea of battling against existential threats with the power of music, which Kniivila and Vuong cleverly visualize in graphic form. What teenager hasn’t sought refuge from and found answers to their own existential questions by putting on a pair of headphones and listening to their favorite songs?
I can definitely see myself giving Everyday Hero Machine Boy to my kids when they reach middle school. Hopefully they’ll want to discuss its many relatable and touching themes with me. I’m sure they’ll find Machine Boy, Karate Grandma, Karate Grandpa and Bea Sharpe as lovable and endearing as I did. And they’ll definitely enjoy the quirky, fun, sci-fi world as much as I did.
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