In turns out that androids dream of cute things, electric and otherwise.

Robot Dreams

This is the second book First Second’s got coming this month, 208 color pages for $16.95. It should be in comics stores very soon; I noticed that my local Borders already has it (and Gipi’s Notes for a War Story) out for sale.

Robot Dreams is by Sara Varon (of Sweaterweather and Chicken and Cat), and it’s one of those bright & cheerful comics with anthropomorphic characters that actually deals frankly (if metaphorically) with adult anxieties and pain, while also attempting to not lose its grip on its all-ages visual appeal. In other words, it’s the sort of comic where a cute little doggie character builds a snowman, who springs immediately to life, to be his friend in the winter months - later in the book, when the Spring arrives, a penguin walks up to the doggie and hands him a knapsack, which contains the snowman’s coat and scarf and carrot nose, and the doggie can’t quite look at it. That kind of comic.

It’s also a no-talking book (I can’t say ‘wordless’ since there’s actually a lot of signs and labels and such), so the weight of storytelling is squarely on Varon’s visuals - she does nicely, sticking to simple page layouts, and short mini-chapters divided by white pages, sometimes with a single summary or set-up panel planted in the lower right corner. This ably conveys the passage of time, although Varon also breaks up her larger, ‘formal’ chapters with the names of months, and even sometimes lets days pass invisibly within her vignettes. The result is a strong sense of time marching forward, sometimes quickly (as in good times spent with friends), and sometimes deliberately, with bogs of white space spread between incidents. Not a bad concept, and Varon’s cute characters are good little actors, moving smoothly through the various anecdotes, as can be seen at First Second’s typically large preview.

The story itself involves the aforementioned doggie, who has a habit of literally ‘making’ friends - as such, he (who’s not necessarily male, by the way, although I’m a male and the reader is clearly meant to identify with ‘him’) sends away for a robot-building kit, and whips himself up a mild-mannered robot pal. Things are nice for a while, but the doggie clearly hasn’t read the robot instructions very well, since a trip to the beach results in the robot getting rusted in place. The doggie panics and slinks away home. As misfortune would have it, the beach is all closed up for the year by the time the doggie gets back to help his friend, so he stares through a locked fence at his pal fused in place on a towel yet still alive, and then leaves.

I understand this is all supposed to represent the walls that become erected between friendships, especially new friendships, but it did make me kind of wonder why the doggie didn’t try to find another way onto the beach, which seems extremely accessible to an awful lot of incidental characters despite the fence. Actually, why didn’t he just take the robot home with him in the first place? I presume we’re meant to realize that the doggie doesn’t actually care about his friend all that much, and that even though he sometimes feels guilt about being mean, it’s never so much that he’ll exert himself much to right his wrongs, even though he’ll hop to action once it’s easy for him. Kind of an asshole, this doggie.

So anyway, the doggie goes through the rest of the year either ‘making’ friends or just drifting in to friendships, while the robot lays in one spot and dreams about various things. First he dreams of being with his doggie friend again, but those dreams soon become charged with feelings of abandonment. So then he dreams of being in a happier place - napping with a giant walking flower, cuddling with a cloud and riding a snowflake, etc. But all the gets are people ripping off his parts, and maybe the occasional bird nesting by him. Is it off to the scrap heap? Will the doggie ever find a lasting friendship? How do the animals feel about eating meat? Ha! Varon seems to have thought of that one - everyone only eats grains, fish, candies or insects. Am I the only one who looks for things like that?

It’s a very cute book, and sort of sad, and works somewhat efficiently in prompting the reader to identify with both of the main characters, placing themselves in both the role of ‘somewhat irresponsible’ and ‘sadly immobile.’ Varon is a generous author, and it’s no shock that both personalities find a sort of happiness by the end. Much of the fun in this book isn’t in the pep of Varon’s vignettes -- honestly, most of them feel cursory -- but in sorting through the different types of friendships she presents, the differences between mere tinkerers and those who build from the heart. A very quick, small-scale comic, but brightly presented and emotionally authentic. Your zest for this kind of comic will probably dictate how strong your reaction is.