Written and/or Illustrated by Jose Luis Ágreda, Jeff Amano, Paul Azaceta, Gabriel Bá, Hilary Barta, Frank Beaton, Nate Bellegarde, Ivan Brandon, Ryan Brown, Chris Brunner, Eric Canete, Benito Cereno, Becky Cloonan, Dave Crosland, Farel Dalrymple, Jonathan L. Davis, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Rami Efal, Matt Fraction, John G, Rob G, Brandon Graham, Miles Gunter, Phil Hester, Mike Huddleston, Adam Hughes, Rian Hughes, Frazer Irving, Paul Lau, Jasen Lex, Sonny Liew, Vasilis Lolos, Andy MacDonald, Jim Mahfood, Alex Maleev, Paul Maybury, Fábio Moon, Tony Moore, Melissa Oeming, Mike Oeming, Dan Panosian, Leland Purvis, Rick Remender, Esad Ribic, John Ney Rieber, Eduardo Risso, Jim Rugg, Neal Shaffer, Lakota Sioux, Mark Andrew Smith, James Stokoe, Rick Spears, Ben Templesmith, Frank Teran, and Danijel Zezelj.
Edited by Ivan Brandon
Image Comics; $24.99
This was a hard review to write. Not because I’m conflicted about the material (though I am), but because I was so completely off in my expectations for the book and it’s taken some work to align myself with what it really is.
When I say that I’m conflicted about the material, it’s not that I don’t know whether it’s good or not. Like any anthology, 24Seven follows a strong bell-curve in terms of what I liked and I was pleased to find that the creators who brought me to it are the ones whose stories I enjoyed the most. So there wasn’t any real disappointment in terms of the individual tales. Where I ran into trouble was with the concept of the book as a whole.
I heard “robot stories” and I expected science fiction. Or at least fantasy. Actually, for me, fantasy is preferable. I’ll take Robbie the Robot and Gort over Asimov every single time, but really, I was prepared for Asimov here. Even excited for it. And there are stories like that in 24Seven, but they’re the exceptions.
For the most part, it’s an anthology of New York City slice-of-life stories, all of which substitute robots for the human characters to varying degrees of effectiveness. I’m all about giving up my expectations when I’m reviewing a book – I’ll always choose to judge the work based on what it wants to be, not on what I want it to be – but that’s such a huge jump with 24Seven that I have to admit I struggled.
It’s starts off promisingly enough with a Rick Spears/Vasilis Lolos piece about some robot cops hunting a robot vampire. Awesome concept, but there’s no story to go with it. There’s no characterization, no plot, and no reason to care about any of it. It’s a sketch of an idea, but at least it introduces us to a robot vampire, and a really cool one at that. Lolos’ designs and setting are – pardon the expression – electric. All of the art in 24Seven is energetic and gorgeous, but some of the illustrators could’ve been a lot more imaginative in their robot-creation.
As an example, I had to look closely at Paul Lau’s conjoined-twin DJs in the Miles Gunter-written “Musical Differences” even to tell that they were robots. There are some seams and rivets in there, but for the most part they look like heavily stylized people. (On the other hand, Lau draws an awesome robot fish.)
I don’t want to single Lau out though, because there’s a lot of that going on in the book and not just with the art. Robot characters talk about their feelings and their parents and race relations. They drink, they smoke, they snort cocaine, they have sex, and they eat hamburgers. The idea that these are actually robots is simply unbelievable. It’s like most of the writers didn’t really want to write robot stories at all.
A couple of paragraphs back, I connected these humanized robots with a lack of imagination, but really that’s not fair. Certainly my favorite robots are the crazy-looking ones like Lolos and Paul Azaceta and Alex Maleev and Nate Bellegarde designed for their stories. But it’s not accurate to say that the more human-looking ones reflect a lack of artistry any more than it is to say that a story about a robot-vampire is intrinsically more creative than the ones about breaking up or contemplating suicide. Especially since – for example - Kelly Sue DeConnick’s story about a woman dealing with a break-up is so much more touching and satisfying than Spears’ vampire one. If I’m going to cut that kind of slack for the writers (and I so do), I’ve got to do it for the illustrators too.
Again, it’s a case of readjusting my expectations. I like realistic, slice-of-life stories. I like connecting to characters through shared experiences like meeting girls, playing video games, and hanging out with friends. None of that is remotely what I thought I was getting into when I opened this book, but taken for what it is, I like it enough (again, again, with the caveat that some of these stories are much more effective at it than others).
But the question remains: why robots?
I would’ve had such an easier time with this book had I known that Kelly Sue, Adam Hughes, Phil Hester, Matt Fraction, and Rick Remenber (my reasons for wanting to read it in the first place) were all contributing stories to a life-in-NYC book. I would’ve bought it anyway and I’m pretty sure I would’ve liked it more without having to struggle with the concept.
Not that I mind struggling with a concept if there’s a reward for doing it. But if there’s a reward for trying to figure out why these New York City residents need to be robots, I’m missing it. A few of the stories wouldn’t work without robots, but most of them (some of my favorite ones in the book, too) would be just fine with all-human casts.
In an attempt to figure this out, I went back and read Ivan Brandon’s NYC Mech. He told Publisher’s Weekly that he didn’t specifically ask his contributors for NYC Mech-type stories, but I thought it would help if I could figure out where he was coming from. And it does some.
NYC Mech shares with 24Seven the concept of telling life-in-NY stories with robots instead of people. Even if Brandon didn’t mandate that from the 24Seven creators, enough of them are obviously fans of that conceit and wanted to do something similar for their stories. But the problem is that the point of it all is as difficult to grasp in both versions. I thought maybe it was just me, so I went looking for other reviews to see if someone could explain it to me. What I found was that other folks, some of them really smart people, were as clueless as I was. I read a lot of wondering if there isn’t something being said about how people are like robots, but even as they were guessing it, no one seemed to be believing it.
The most helpful review I read was at the Graphic Novel Review where an analogy is made with Disney’s duck comics. “Just as Disney and Barks don’t try to make us believe in the world that Donald Duck inhabits — they don’t really imagine the society that ducks would create if ducks could talk — NYC Mech doesn’t try to explain its own weirdnesses and inconsistencies.” They’re robots, the reviewer says, because robots are cool and that’s all the reason you need. It’s not a satisfying answer, but it’s the best one I’ve seen so far. Who said you don’t learn anything from reading reviews?
So, with my vision of 24Seven firmly shifted from “Robot Stories” to “NY Stories That Happen to Be About Robots,” I could finally start sorting through what I liked and didn’t. Even with my new, hard-won outlook, some of the stories are still little more than scenes or thoughts. Many more are easily shrugged off as you move on to the next. But there are some that are beautiful and sweet and funny and exciting and scary. There are some wonderful, human stories in this book. They just happen to be about robots.
And even if I don’t fully understand why that is, it’s telling that the first thing I did after finishing it was to order the next volume. I suspect that – knowing what I’m getting into – I’ll enjoy it a lot more.
Three out of five robot seeing-eye dogs.