I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Overlords


Robot Overlords - 2014
Written by Mark Stay & Jon Wright
Directed by Jon Wright
With Callan McAuliffe, Gillian Anderson & Ben Kingsley

I'm kind of geeking out right now.

Thirteen months ago, I wrote an article about Grabbers; an entertaining horror-comedy film by Jon Wright that, I felt, evoked the adventurous sense of fun represented by classic 80s cinema.  So while I'm certainly geeking out that Robot Overlords is an entertaining sci fi-adventure-comedy, the only thing that geeks love more than finding something new to geek about is, well, something new to bitch about -- but the only thing they love more than that is being proven right.  Doubleplus thanks, Jon Wright!

Once again, the British Isles face an inhuman threat from outer space.  This time, it's mechanical.

Now, let me just say how nice is was to see robots as a menace again.  It's been zombies and supervillains for a while, and unabashedly campy giant robots from outer space came as a breath of fresh air.  I realize that Transformers exist, but they're abashed in their campiness.  There's no wink, no sharing of the joke.  Think real Star Wars versus prequels.

It's funny, when I wrote about Grabbers, I specifically noted how Grabbers seemed to have tapped into that 80s film vibe, while at the same time making a complete end-run around the gang of foul-mouthed kids save the day bit of business.  Here, Jon Wright has come right back with a big fat "Oh YEAH? Well just you watch THIS!"

Eleven years after the robots invaded, humanity is still on house arrest.  The film opens with one man's unceremonious dispatch for "breaking curfew" -- being out of doors without permission -- right in front of his son, Connor.  It's tragic, but with a glint of black comedy.  The local human representative (read: collaborator) of the robot order, Robin Smythe (Ben Kingsley) is able to intervene at the last possible second, to save the son from the same fate, and allow the boy to relocate to the home of Kate (Gillian Anderson), a neighbor who has already taken in a brother and sister pair along with her own son.  Ladies and Gentlemen, meets your rowdy kids.

The robots have only one rule; stay indoors.  They promise that they will leave the Earth in peace once they have completed their research, humanity is assured via regular broadcasts from the Mediator, a super-creepy robot clearly meant to look like a child.  The rest of the robots are function-driven, lacking any sort of personality, not that the Mediator is remotely personable.  He's just human-appearing enough to get his dictates across -- you know, like the automated Ken & Barbies on Fox News.  Filling in for the machines in the menace department, we instead have Ben Kingsley with the vindictiveness and passionately issued threats.  It's a wise distribution of villain duties.

While the mediator represents the robots' best effort to bridge the gap between robots and humans, they've also attempted to bridge humans to robots by implanting each person with a tracking node at the base of their skulls.  This allows the robots to know in an instant if anyone has strayed out of doors.  One night, while dabbling with a little home electronic repair, the kids discover that they can disable their trackers with a little incautious self-electrocution.  Naturally, this is key to evading and resisting the robots, setting them on a course to discover the fate a lost father.  Of course this kind of resistance can't help but to bring them into direct conflict with the entire robot hierarchy.

One thing that really struck me as I was watching Robot Overlords was the story structure.  This is a refreshing change of pace from the standard 21st century action-adventure story formula.  The story has a natural way of unfolding, necessitating the progression from Point A to B because that's the next thing they have to do.  It avoids many of the modern contrivances such as the first big loss followed by a restatement of purpose, and training sequence and ultimate thumping victory.  Our heroes have become too strong in the post-9/11 no-way-can-I-appear-weak era and our hero formula requires an equally overpowered thumping just to check off the "remember folks, he's really human" box.  The kids don't need that.  We know they're no match for the robots, and it's a step-by-step fight for survival for them, with each one getting the opportunity to lend their unique abilities to save the rest at one point or another -- not unlike the Goonies.  Refreshingly, these kids are much less obnoxious than the Goonies.

The story is going to have lots of recognizable pieces, but arranged in its own way.  Tweaked one way or another it might have gone the direction of parody or slavish tribute, but the wit and energy with which Wright pulls it all together manage to evoke many of those sensations of 80s action-adventure-comedy in a welcome, fresh way.  Actually, we never had to call those things "comedy" in the 80s.  It was simply understood that things could be funny as well as being everything else that they were.  Things were just funnier.  Jokes didn't have to be translated into international box office numbers.

Jon Wright is a magnificently skilled director.  He knows what he's doing and he delivers taut and energetic cinematic experiences.  Give this guy a real budget and creative control, and suddenly JJ Abrams will be looking like the overrated story-agnostic hack that he is.  Wright can do more with less, and still have a story that makes sense.  I may come to regret this if he ever DOES get a budget, and becomes beholden to the corporate interests that come with it.  By not designing his film as a collection of action set-pieces and by using not-totally-cutting-edge computer graphics, Wright is still capable of telling a story well without having to make those kind of lowest-common-denominator capitulations.

The performances were all good if not better.  Kingsley brought a restrained complexity to the character we knew was going to be "bad," but didn't have to be one-dimensionally so.  Smythe was allowed to be tragic and flawed, but still undeniably a bad guy worthy of comeuppance.  Gillan Anderson was perfectly fine in an essentially thankless "mom" role.  The kids all ended up being much better than expected.  There were a lot of surprisingly likable characters in this film, and that really makes the difference when separating the one-watchers from the repeated-viewers.

There's been a suggestion that one of the robot machines bears some resemblance to the squiddy aliens from Grabbers, and I like the idea that they may be parts of a bigger story.  They certainly share a feeling, and have firmly established Jon Wright as a director with his priorities in the right place... even if that place is 1983.

Finding Bob Miller


The cartoonist Seth made something of a splash in the comics world, nearly 20 years ago, with his less-autobiographical-than-people-originally-thought graphic novel 'It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken" and the revelation that the tale's MacGuffin, the obscure and long sought-after cartoonist, Jack "Kalo" Kalloway was made-up.  I think most students of the craft responded strongly to the story because we've all had our own "Kalo" at one time or another.  I'm sure Seth has had more than one "Kalo" over time, but those searches rarely turn out to be worthy of a story, so he blurred those lines and distilled those experiences.

Since the internet came along, so many of our nagging wonderings have been resolved, if not thrillingly so.  Sooner or later, SOMEone, SOMEwhere has shared some little blurb of information about every obscure thing we've ever wondered about.  That weird cartoon I saw in 8th grade turned out to be made by some borderline-dissident Czech animator in the 70s.  That one member of that band I liked 20 years ago had a long out-of-print side project and some amateur archivist has made it available for download (may no longer apply).  We've gotten used to finding the information we want, with very few outstanding mysteries remaining... but there's still those few.

One of those biggest mysteries for me is the cartoonist Bob Miller.  Who was he?  Was he an individual, or a pen name?  Did he do anything else beside a batch of covers for Charlie Jones' Laugh Book Magazine?  Did anyone ever -- EVER -- laugh at anything IN Charley Jones' Laugh Book Magazine?

It's been more than 20 years now since I first came across the vintage little digest magazines at Periodicals Paradise; Portland's premier place for pound upon pound of printed pulp pages.  The colors were bright.  The style appealed to my own aesthetic like sub-literate blondes appeal to Fox News viewers.  The cheesecake was served up liberally, but with a gooey topping of sillyberry sauce.  The old-school retro vibe was electrifying.  I loved this artist, from Square One.

The rest of the magazine was... up to a lesser standard.  Remember General Halftrack from Beetle Bailey?  Remember how the general chasing his buxom blonde secretary around the desk was BIG YUKS for Beetle Bailey?  Charley Jones' Laugh Book Magazine pretty much picks it up from there, often with crowdsourced jokes from readers.  I'm sure General Halftrack had a subscription.  After all, Laugh Book boldly suggested that you "Send one to someone in the service today!" on the covers of many issues.  As if those guys hadn't suffered enough already.

Here's a sample:

The contents of Laugh Book exist wholly within that consciously 50s world of humor, minus any nagging tethers back to reality.  Take the worlds of tail-devouring comic strips like Beetle Bailey, Hi & Lois and Family Circus, so rooted in the past that they've now become like divergent universes.  Laugh Book is like that, except it went the drunken businessman and the farmer's daughter route with things.  Put another way, it's like the cartoons in Playboy... if the jokes were submitted by an assistant manager from the John Deere dealership and some of the comics were drawn with a chimp's dick.

In Laugh Book, every man is a drunken philanderer, but that's okay because boys will be boys.  The wives are burly harridans, unless they're self-absorbed gold-diggers.  Single women are all sluts just barely keeping a lid on their reputations, or else bitter maids jealous of the chesty competition.  Even when you understand the effect of gravity in Laugh Book's world, there's still a good chance you won't understand the humor, and that really says as much good about you as it says bad about them.

I bring all of this up not just to mock our forebears, but to illustrate that there was nothing -- NUH-HUH-THINGA -- to recommend the purchase of these magazines other than the Bob Miller covers.  And still, I bought them anyway.

When the internet came along, I tried to do some research, but thus far, I have learned very little about Bob Miller.  There are a lot more covers online, but no information.  I've reached out to a few comics historians who don't know anything about him either.

He was the primary cover artist for Laugh Book through 1955 & '56, apparently having taken over from Al Wiseman around '53.  Wiseman is best known for drawing the Dennis the Menace comic books in the 50s and 60s.

At this point, I'm going to engage in some vague and unsubstantiated speculation.  I have a pet theory that Bob Miller might have actually been Al Wiseman.  Lemme 'splain.  Wiseman's covers start to dry up in '53 and Bob Miller's name starts showing up.  Wiseman starts on Dennis the Menace in '53.  Early Bob Miller girls were longer, proportioned at about 7 heads tall, but they quickly became the cartoonier style that originally caught my attention.  Later Wiseman covers showed the development of techniques like those which also struck me about Miller; for example, a decreased use of black lines in favor of colored lines and solids

This early Miller cover shows a longer proportioned female, and colored line work rather than black lines...

This Wiseman cover shows his own departure from heavy black lines, as well as the longer proportioned females...

It's just a theory, mind you.  For all the things that make me consider this as a possibility, I notice something else that could set them apart.  It seems possible to me that Wiseman's work on Dennis the Menace could have made it beneficial for him to stop signing his name to the cheesecake covers on Dad's tacky little joke rags.  He may very well have continued under another name because magazine work pays a better page rate than comics.  Then again (and owing to what looks like some alternation throughout 1953), it's entirely possible that Miller was an assistant or studio mate to Wiseman, and he simply took over the reigns as Dennis the Menace absorbed more of Wiseman's time.  I also find it curious that the shift in stylization of Miller's females, from the longer proportions to the cartoonier "big head" style occurs as Wiseman would be learning to ape Hank Ketchum's cartoonier style.  To be fair, a lot of 50s cartoonists were working similar stylistic streets, which has a lot to do with the appeal in the first place.

Not exactly a slam-dunk case, but it would help to explain why these covers are the only Bob Miller work to which I've ever found any reference.

And so, I have scanned my own copies and filled in many of the others with what I've been able to scrounge from the internet, and I am able to offer here, for the first time that I am aware, the most complete collection of the works of Bob Miller available.  If I ever discover any more, I will certainly add them.

If you enjoy them even, say, 20% as much as I do, you should be absolutely delighted.


Just for comparison, I'm including a few more of my favorite Al Wiseman covers.  Their shared adherence to seasonal cover themes (which, as far as I can tell, was only a running thing during their respective stints) also leads me to believe that Bob Miller was a nom-de-plume for Wiseman.  If anyone who knew either of them can fill with facts the gaps that I've temporarily plastered with wild supposition, I would be VERY interested in talking to you.