Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, opened once a month to champion a book that we adore. This week: ‘Robo Sapiens: Tales of Tomorrow’, available now from Seven Seas Entertainment.

by Arpad Okay. If I forget, are you still part of me? You know from the title that Robo Sapiens: Tales of Tomorrow is going to be flush with classic subjects that serve as the pillars of science fiction—and yeah, no it is. But Toranosuke Shimada keeps going, much like the story, not resting where we’ve been but stretching time out until the infinite is unavoidable. From the point in the future where all traces of humanity have been updated, Shimada questions what the past is worth.

Robo Sapiens is the story of four robots navigating the human world long after humans have left it. Superpowered artificial beings who live to an unimaginable, fantastic age in their jobs as guardians of people and planet. The dangers they protect the human race from are of its own making, a response to global repercussions that will never be felt by man. In real time, in isolation, these four custodians watch their world and everything that it resembles recede. Everything but memory.

If a “free” robot can fly there in time, they can remotely download the experiential toolkit required to tackle any situation where there’s a person in need. If there’s a pinch, a bind, they take the call. Cue android identity crisis. Who are you if you can constantly download the ability to become anything: what you’ve done, what you perceive yourself to be, are either of those really what you are? Memory being the measure of one’s life takes on interesting proportions when given to robots, a finite concern as experienced by infinite beings.

Whether or not “it was worth it” is a statement about the past, an achievement measured against the limited time one has to achieve, but something can’t be wasted if there is an endless supply to draw from. What you do with the time you’re given is what makes your life valiant or tragic. Lost opportunities are what makes time running out sad, just as the good we do with what we’ve got makes it mean all the world. The four robots, this is them, their good work is contradiction and it is grace.

What’s worth it, what satisfaction means to a robot, is another golden age debacle Shiamda uses to speak to gnostic concerns. Is the closed circuit that turns the power on, when it does its job, complete? Can a robot be satisfied by carrying out a task it was programmed to do? We struggle to find the line of validity between experiencing something emotionally and experiencing it intellectually, searching for what makes things real. Shimada’s characters go through both, through more, and more and more, and the author’s hand never really tips to where that line is, or if it exists at all. The story’s fire burns its brightest within the gray area between person and programming.

The art style in Robo Sapiens, a throwback to postwar manga aesthetics, is well suited for a tale of retro future; smooth, elegant lines play to visions of science fiction utopia. But it’s a tomorrow that is built on what becomes yesterday’s outdated concepts, and (like the pulps) the direct storytelling-austere linework hides conceptual depth that stays with the reader after they rip through the read. Shimada’s art channels innocence, the inherent optimism of before. Its striking resemblance to the masters of the draughtsman era, when comics were stepping out of the newspapers, from Japanese Mighty Atom to Franco-Belgian Spirou to American Alley Oop, makes seeing the future melt all the more fun to watch. Robo Sapiens moves from a representation of a world I could picture living in to a world where humanity is hardly recognizable; after that, shedding the final vestiges of the past left and right, turning into a society beyond mortal conception, it still looks like Ub Iwerks making a Cab Calloway cartoon.

There’s a similarity to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince that comes out in the artwork and then proves itself with the tenderness and concern for life that permeates the book. As time exacts its inevitable price on all things of our world, mountains to dust, the eternal innocence succumbing to decay becomes all the more alarming. Shimada’s style evokes zine art (and all the profound surprises that come with it), an independent sensibility maybe more at home at Drawn and Quarterly and oddball small press than among modern mainstream manga titles. If you’ve read John Pham’s Sublife, you need to read Tales of Tomorrow. However, the layouts and the staging, the perspective of the reader, are thoroughly contemporary; they remind me of Kenji Tsuruta’s renegade filmmaker’s shot book doing Wandering Island, but again with the look of Getter Robo. The old new, only recognizable as our future in contrast to the last few traces of the past that are left to survive in it.

Much of the atmosphere would be impossible without the hard work of the localization team. Shimada’s world is crowded with screens, inside and outside, information scrolling across or counting down or identifying purpose on each object’s surface. The omnipresent information communication is integrated seamlessly into the artwork, kept as multilingual cyberpunk overload by translator Adrienne Beck and made bespoke in font style to match the overall Tezuka look by the above and beyond lettering of Nicky Lim. Somehow, a Geof Darrow or Darick Robertson level of urban visual clutter can get crammed into a page or panel and things stay so spare you’d hardly notice. Manga is for letterers, y’all, I can’t emphasize that enough. The words and art are truly inseparable in the story Shimada is telling and Seven Seas have preserved its complexity without compromise.

Dense philosophical quandaries hide behind a classic golden age pulp veneer that hits as smooth as chrome. They cling together in space, eyes opening from a memory reverie to their spaceship ripped from them, survival now dependent on partner, grip, and fate. Despite their planned longevity, each of the four stands fragile against the vastness of time, rendered as temporary as anybody, as the reader. The relentless arrow of age pierces the cycle of life and what we know slides into what might be. Rather than drawing the line between what humanity is and isn’t, Robo Sapiens examines the essence of what gives being human meaning.

Seven Seas Entertainment / $19.99
Written and illustrated by Toranosuke Shimada.
Translated by Adrienne Beck.
Lettered by Nicky Lim.
Published by Seven Seas Entertainment

‘Robo Sapiens: Tales of Tomorrow’ is available now. For purchasing information, click this.

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“The Death of Speedy Ortiz”: Comics’ legendary pulp romance, breaking hearts since 1987

Don’t dare miss Hiroaki Samura’s challenging, poetic ‘Blade of the Immortal’

Sebela & Sears satirize faux-spooky Reality TV in the riotous ‘Dead Dudes’