Ryan Kelly Battles the Giant Robots

A comic book artist takes on America's military machine

Ryan Kelly knows his robots. Lumbering juggernauts bristling with weaponry, Kelly's creations look like surplus hardware from the '80s TV cartoon The Transformers, or perhaps decommissioned extras from old Godzilla movies. Which isn't to say Kelly doesn't bring a certain amount of whimsy to the metal monsters in his first graphic novel, Giant Robot Warriors: A Canadian robot, for instance, has a broken front tooth and carries a hockey stick; a Japanese-made model is covered with advertising slogans; and a beret-wearing French machine attacks New York City with what appears to be a baguette. Even more impressive is the fact that Kelly has managed to marshal this Rube Goldberg menagerie into a smart, funny lampoon of gung-ho militarism.

Answering the door of his St. Paul house wearing a tan shirt with epaulets and a fedora, Kelly looks less like a political provocateur than a Pretty in Pink-era Jon Cryer. On the porch is an empty baby stroller and an overturned ashtray. Smiling sleepily, Kelly leads the way to his small second-floor studio, where he's just settled in for the day's work. The room is decorated with Kelly's paintings. One, which he made in art school, is of a bucolic suburban streetscape with an A-bomb looming overhead. There's also a Ringling Bros. calendar, and, taped to the wall above Kelly's drafting table, a cutout newspaper photograph of a grinning George W. Bush.

That last might seem a strange decorating choice for an artist whose work aims a satirical sucker punch at the Bush administration's rationale for waging war in Iraq. But, Kelly is quick to point out, "I'm not Thomas Friedman or David Brooks or George Will. It's a story about robots. I ask myself, Would my conservative uncle pick it up? There's a lot of ideas in it--but it's all told through a, you know, robot lens."

Indeed, Giant Robot Warriors, which Kelly created with veteran comics editor and writer Stuart Moore, reads less as agit-prop than as a thoughtful political fantasia. Set in an alternate, though recognizable, America, Giant Robot Warriors imagines a world in which robots--GRW, for short--have become the WMD du jour. Naturally, the advent of robot technology sparks a renewed arms race. As one of the robots explains to the comic's hero, a maverick robot engineer named Rufus, "When you don't want to use nukes, you use bioweapons! And when you don't want to use bio, you go chemical! An' when you don't even wanna go that far, you use Giant Robot Warriors."

"It isn't an antiwar book per se," Kelly says. "I mean, Stuart and I both have our views about things, but we're not wearing our hearts on our sleeves here. What the robots are are a kind of personification of any arms race--WMD or missile defense, or whatever.

"I'm not what the guys on talk radio would call a Bush-hater. I mean, I am insofar as I disagree with him on a lot of issues...Wait, maybe I am a Bush-hater."

Kelly slides into a chair behind his drawing desk, where a half-finished splashpage awaits. "I've been drawing since I could hold a pencil," the 28-year-old Minneapolis native explains. "I guess maybe I had some raw skill--nothing exceptional. Comics really helped me pick up on aspects of design and how to tell a story." Although Kelly used to hang around comic-book shops as a kid and collect X-Men issues, he assumed he'd eventually become a traditional fine-art painter. (One of the early paintings hanging in his studio, a realistic forest landscape, has recently been painted over with frolicking Muppets.)

After graduating from MCAD, Kelly began picking up a few odd jobs illustrating for magazines and newspapers (including this one). He also got an occasional comic-book commission: Once, for instance, he was hired by Vertigo to draw a page that a honeymooning artist had left blank. His chief enterprise at present, however, is Lucifer, a spinoff from Neil Gaiman's popular Sandman series that concerns the adventures of Satan in Los Angeles. In a traditional comic-book-world arrangement, another artist, Peter Gross, draws most of the principal characters; Kelly then inks in the backgrounds and draws the occasional monstrous villain.

"I dream of putting 100 percent of my energy into painting or comics," Kelly says. "But because I'm an opportunist, I just take whatever falls into my lap." Still, Kelly shows admirable devotion to his craft: In a dramatic example of giving the devil his due, Kelly was scrambling to finish an issue of Lucifer in the Fairview Hospital waiting room while his first child was being born next door.

It was also Kelly's work in Lucifer that caught the eye of Moore, Giant Robot Warriors' author and a former editor at both EC and DC. "I liked that his characters are all a little on the caricature side," Moore says from New York. "The characters looked exactly as I pictured them, only more so. And he does some absolutely lovely robot stuff."

In fact, it's Kelly's loopy, fluid pulp style that sells Giant Robot Warriors' political pasquinade. Treading somewhere between cartoonishness and hard-boiled sci-fi, Kelly creates a world that's recognizable, though slightly off kilter--perfect, in other words, for a Strangelovian satire. The novel's villainous Middle Eastern despot, for instance, becomes a porcine sendup of Iraq's deposed leader. Best of all, the novel's American president, a braying megalomaniac, is clearly inspired by the photo on Kelly's studio wall: The president's shit-eating grin when he sees his first giant robot warrior is itself worth the price of admission.

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