I'm not quite on time.

*This came out the other week. I liked it.

Malinky Robot: Bicycle

Industry update - apparently a smaller comics publisher can release a 48-page pamphlet-format book, a little under half of it in full color, with glossy pages and generally high production values, all for only $2.95. There’s concessions, yes: the entire package is digest-sized, ten pages of it constitute reprints, and the rest of the material has already been released for free online. But really, the art doesn’t suffer too much from the size reduction, and even if these stores have already appeared elsewhere in some form, it’s good to have a nice, compact, well-produced collection devoted entirely to the material, which is not perfect but increases exponentially in quality and promise every time it rears its head.

I’m talking about Malinky Robot: Bicycle, the follow-up to writer/artist Sonny Liew’s Xeric-powered 2003 one-shot Malinky Robot: Stinky Fish Blues, which the creator self-published. This one arrives courtesy of Slave Labor, in the attractive format described above. Liew is perhaps best known to most readers as providing art (with Marc Hempel) for the 2004 Vertigo miniseries My Faith in Frankie, though he’s had experience in comics since 1994 (as writer/artist of a daily comic strip for a Singapore paper), working in animation and gaming concept design as well. His most recent (and high-profile) project as a solo creator has been his contribution to Flight 2, the 2005 edition of Image’s much-discussed anthology; that piece, Dead Soul’s Day Out, is presented here as the reprint mentioned above, though it acts more as a supplement to the main story rather than as a simple value bonus. The effort is appreciated - Liew is clearly interested in providing a seamless tonal experience, and he succeeds at that, making this little book seem uniquely attractive as its own unit, a single demonstration of theme and character.

The main story, however, is Bicycle, adorned with pleasing visual variety and light formal experimentation, a suffusing mist of romanticized childhood drifting upward from every page. Note that ‘romanticized’ does not mean ‘idealized’ in this context; the plot does, after all, concern a pair of impoverished street kids, Atari and Oliver, who spend their days running around the vaguely rusty future steam city of San’ya with no discernable parental presence, smoking cigarettes, panhandling, and stealing bikes. The latter activity is referenced in the title of the piece, the two of them ripping off a nice pair of wheels to visit their more monied pal Misha, who’s moved away to neighboring Sanreo with his parents; it is implied that Sanreo is a nicer place than San’ya, and that Misha will get himself an education there, although the young cast of characters do not quite grasp the class distinctions at play in the background.

Mostly, the three hang around Liew’s elegantly-sketched b&w environments, lines left rough and thickly-hatched in that familiar, immediacy-saturated ‘unfinished’ (yet quite obviously complete) state favored by some creators. It works here for two reasons: the scratchily unsolidified visual presentation both matches the youthful personalities of the cast (their identities not quite developed), and provides a nice counterpoint to the story’s constant visual digressions, as the three lapse into a discussion of what their adult friend Mr. Bon Bon did in his past. Naturally, their imaginations prove far more solidified than the transitory nature of their actual youth - so it goes for a lot of kids, me included. Considering that the story is, as I mentioned, available for perusal online, allow me to get into a slightly more detailed examination of Liew’s handling of these sequences (and note that there's a few differences between the online and print versions - for one thing, there's no sepia in the printed book, as appears in the web version).

Naturally, each kid’s version of what went down in Mr. Bon Bon’s youth is different, and reflects their own personalities. It’s a good avenue for indirect character exploration, and Liew’s excursions are generally worthwhile. The incrementally more sophisticated Misha envisions a monologue by Mr. Bon Bon’s corporate arch-rival, who stole his ideas and used them to put himself on Big Business easy street. He wanders through rotten hallways to his rotten office, then he dies and continues his confessional monologue as he goes to hell. “And for a shining moment I was a god amongst men. They gave me an office! They gave me a car! And a hat to wear for when it got windy,” he concludes, ascending to the head of a gigantic demon, Liew’s b&w art now solid and shadowed, elegance stripped away for grit. Given Misha’s earlier comments as to his parents being at the office (is he left alone a lot?), one has to wonder how many of their own stories he’s absorbed into his fantasy life.

Slightly dopey Oliver details Mr. Bon Bon’s life as a truck driver, told in one of the more familiar formal conceits among sequential stories: the (color) Sunday Funnies page that forms a single story, leaping from style to style, subverting the simplistic gag structure of each strip by making them substantively cumulative. It’s all here - the Lockhorns parody, the Calvin and Hobbes parody, the puzzle page parody, etc. - and all of it forms a portrait of the past. Being from a rougher background than Misha, Oliver can’t help but allow more grit to seep into the seemingly happy, childish confines of the Sunday page. It’s a simple, potentially simplistic idea, but a good deal of it works fairly cleverly: in one panel, a WordFind puzzle is printed on Mr. Bon Bon’s back as he stands in the unemployment line, the instructions asking that we locate three jobs in the mass of words - it’s impossible to find even a single job, of course. A ‘Spot the Differences’ puzzle consists of one panel of a happy family standing with their young child, with the next depicting the same couple standing by the boy’s grave - blunt, but effective.

Atari then goes completely over the edge with his own story, producing the obligatory (also color) superhero parody. This is the weakest of the three vignettes, though Liew tries hard to adapt his style to a muscular, glossily-toned sci-fi action setting. The problem is that it’s not very interesting, with overmuscled characters spouting melodramatic dialogue and corny platitudes whilst cracking heads and spilling blood. There’s even mock footnotes relating the reader back to nonexistent back issues; unfortunately, I rarely see these things in actual superhero comics anymore, which kind of impedes the effectiveness of the parody. It all feels sort of stale, though at least there’s some character insights lurking within: Atari seems to realize that stealing is wrong, though a convenient justification quickly appears, handily matching his waking-world excuse of just ‘borrowing’ things. A pretty deft, nearly invisible bit of character work there.

The bonding agent connecting these three detours is wistful childhood imaginings, tinged with darkness. Note that all three of these stories involve loss and defeat; the realities of the world cannot be ignored by these children, despite all frolic and storytelling. But the trick is they don’t seem to recognize things as ‘dark’ - they recognize them as part of the natural state of being, and they keep on playing. One gets the impression, as the children split up and head back to San’ya, and someday they’ll become wise to everything going on around them. Liew is not interested in getting into that, however, maintaining his story’s focus on that moment before the difficulties inherent to one’s social position and lot in life quite register. “Even in the hardest days, we always relied on ourselves and remained hopeful, forever aspiring after and cherishing that precious share of joy that belongs to us.” So goes this book’s introductory quote by Ni Ping, though Mr. Bon Bon offers his own concluding restatement of the story’s theme at the colse of events, the wizened soul murmuring “Bicycles,” as he appreciates the blissful (ignorant) state of these kids. Romanticized, then. Not idyllic - cruelties are present, but ineffective thus far.

The also-included Flight reprint solidifies this, as Atari and Oliver (in an earlier day) accidently score some money and blow it all on movies and things, forgetting that it’s Misha’s last day in town. They catch up with him, and he gives them a gift (he has the money for that, after all). Not much else happens. Liew’s standard scratchy style is in warm, soft color here. Atari maybe begins to comprehend the ephemerality of things, as his friends leave and he smokes in the rain, content yet suddenly distracted by Liew’s lovely sky. But again, he is only a child.

So yes, this book is worth your attention. It’s probably going to register more with those attuned to hushed, atmospheric moods in lieu of rapid-fire plot events or specific character revelations. Certainly nobody really learns anything over the course of the book, but they don’t have to when we can. What we’re told about these kids is indirect, and we can only comprehend their state of life by virtue of our own maturity, but it’s just that which give rise to the work’s effectiveness. Some may find the plot light, or meandering. There’s no question though that Liew’s world is personable and beautiful, though, and I responded well to the messages it sends to his characters, all of them softly missed and left to float upward.