Stand on a street corner in any Asian city, and you can feel the life and energy pulsing around you. Masses of people press by, transportation noises fill the air, the voices of shop owners carry, and the smells from restaurants drift by as you struggle to absorb it all. The first pages of Sonny Liew’s Malinky Robot transported me back in time fifty or sixty years and dropped me into a city reminiscent of Tokyo (There are references to the Sumida River.) peopled with a smart-mouthed, cigarette-smoking urchin, Atari, his anthropomorphic animal friend Oliver (I initially thought he was a sheep, but his family name is Oliphant.), and their friends. The result was a feeling of déjà vu as I mentally stood on that street corner taking in a world I almost recognized but that was just different enough to intrigue me.
Creator Sonny Liew first began writing the Malinky Robot stories in 2001, but various tales of Atari’s and Oliver’s adventures appeared over the years. This compilation brings the stories together along with sketches and a guest gallery with amazing pin-ups of characters. For me the overarching theme of the stories is examining the wonders of ordinary life, even if the setting has dystopian and sci-fi elements. Atari and Oliver “borrow” bicycles to visit a friend, eat at a tongue-in-cheek-named fast food establishment, want to watch old movies, and love video games. Every so often, something more obviously futuristic, such as Mr. Nabisco’s adorable house robot, pops up, but it blends so seamlessly into the world that everything feels just a slight step away from ours. Atari and Oliver fill the protagonist role admirably, because while they don’t always behave ideally (I blocked out Atari’s smoking for the first several pages since he looks like he’s ten.), they have a joie de vivre missing from some of today’s comics. The boys aren’t facing a horrible evil, their world is not going to end, and no one thinks they’re hiding the answers to salvation; they’re just two youngsters having fun in the poorer part of a rundown city and experiencing life to its fullest.
Most of the art work in Malinky Robot looks like soft watercolor, and the palette is heavy on browns and neutrals. Atari and Oliver’s world generally isn’t intense, so the soft colors and muted choices match their youthful adventures perfectly. The loose pencil work may not appeal to everyone’s tastes, but it’s very distinct. I doubt you could confuse Liew’s style for someone else very easily, and when details matter they can be found.
I found Malinky Robot utterly and completely charming, and I devoured a story a night before going to sleep. My favorite installments are probably the first piece, “Stinky Fish Blues,” and the robot-centric tale, “New Year’s Day,” because they made me smile and laugh and warmed my heart as I wound down from the day. I strongly recommend the collection to anyone looking for something quirky and fun with Asian flair. You may hold your head in shock at some of Atari and Oliver’s antics, but at least you know you won’t be cleaning up their mess at the end of the day!
5 Large Denominational Bills out of 5