“We’re all the bold explorer, we all seek gold and fame, out asking for directions to the house that knows no pain”
Tintin casts a long shadow over pop culture in general and comics in particular, and while some descendants choose to ignore it, Sean O’Neill leans into it with Rocket Robinson, the story of a tween boy (American this time) who gets in all sorts of adventures. Rocket (not his real name, obviously) has his own quirky, small animal, a monkey named Screech, and he’s assisted not by an adult sea captain (which is a bit weird) but an age-appropriate girl. The book is set in 1933, which is the time of Tintin, and as I’ve noted before, a good time for adventures of this kind – it was before World War II made us realize how truly evil men could be, but there’s enough technology that it doesn’t feel too far in the past. Rocket’s father works for the State Department, so presumably if and when Rocket moves on to a different locale, that will be the reason behind it. By the end of this book, his companion, Nuri, seems to have been adopted by his father, so there’s no reason to stay in Cairo! This first volume is published by Dark Horse and carries a price tag of $14.99, in case you’re wondering.
O’Neill follows a tried and true formula, but it’s tried and true for a reason, and he does a nice job with it. Rocket arrives in Cairo with his father (in many of these Boys’ Own stories, the mother is completely absent, and that’s true here), but his father immediately decamps for Alexandria, leaving Rocket to be looked after by a cranky old woman whom he can easily escape from. Before they reach Cairo, there’s a prologue where the villain – an over-the-top bad guy, to be honest, as he’s German, bald, wears an eye patch, and has a pencil-thin mustache that he might as well twirl constantly – steals something, and then on the train Rocket bumps into said bad guy and the bad guy drops a coded message which Rocket picks up. So of course the villain – Otto von Stürm, which of course is his name – figures out that Rocket has the message, so he sends his two flunkies to find it. Meanwhile, a gypsy girl – yes, I know we shouldn’t call them gypsies, but that’s what she’s called throughout the book – steals Rocket’s backpack, but it turns out she’s just hungry, so Rocket befriends her. Of course the bad guys find them, and they soon realize that the message Rocket accidentally found is the key to a treasure, but no adult believes them (it’s very important that no adult believes them in stories like this). So they decide to find the treasure before mean old Otto von Stürm can find it. The race is on!
O’Neill uses a lot of classic adventure tropes, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Rocket decodes the message, he and Nuri figure out the cryptic clues left in the message, they get captured more than once, Otto has a key that will unlock the treasure chamber once he finds it, and we get a nice little guided tour of Cairo (I’ve actually been to the Hanging Church; I saw it in this comic and thought, “Hey, I recognize that place!”). There aren’t really that many surprises – we know they’ll get captured, and we know they’ll get away, and we know Otto and his gang will be brought to justice, and the only thing we really have to worry about is whether the treasure will see the light of day. As I noted in my review of Crossroads Blues, it’s difficult to have people go after a treasure which we know doesn’t actually exist or would change history if it did, and O’Neill has to work with that problem just like Atkins did, and he comes up with a pretty good solution. Other than that, it’s hard to really give a good review of the plot. It’s a plot everyone has seen, and while it’s not a surprising plot, O’Neill does a nice job getting everything into place and making it plausible that Rocket and Nuri would be able to do what they do and that adults wouldn’t believe them and even that Otto could do what he does. So it’s an entertaining story.
O’Neill’s art isn’t quite crisp enough to be called ligne claire, so in that regard it differs from Tintin (if I want to keep flogging that comparison), but it’s still very clean and strong. O’Neill doesn’t use shading to add nuance and he doesn’t overly scratch the page, so when a character is happy or angry, you’ll know it because they smile or scowl. He uses digital coloring, of course, but the shading isn’t for emotional resonance, just to show where the light’s coming from. He has an excellent sense of style – all the characters dress as you would expect people in the 1930s to dress, and he even remembers to make sure Rocket wears different shirts on different days (they’re just colored differently, but that’s enough!). He does a very good job with Cairo, as well – some of it, I imagine, is from photo references, but O’Neill draws the buildings so there’s no awkward rendered Photoshopping in the book. His Cairo is old and often creaky, but quite clean, which strains credulity just a bit, but given that it’s an all-ages book, it’s fine. As always when something is set in Cairo and we see the Sphinx and the pyramids, I have to remind people that those landmarks are right next to heavily populated areas, but I don’t know if they were in 1933, as O’Neill seems to put them out in the desert a little. Artistic license and all, of course. He also does a good job with the action, both in the way his figures move and the way he blocks the scenes, as he always makes sure that we can understand everything that’s going on, even when several things are happening. It’s a good-looking book, and the art helps the story move along briskly.
Rocket Robinson is an old-fashioned adventure tale with some good updates – the non-white people are not stereotypes, and Otto’s main henchman, despite being a bad guy and not being too bright, is actually fairly interesting. It’s very entertaining and intricate, and it grabs your interest right away and doesn’t let go. It’s not a game-changing comic by any means, but it’s the kind of enjoyable yarn that people often say they want from their entertainment, so here it is! The second volume should be out soon, and you can get both at the Rocket Robinson web site … or you can click on the link below, because then I get a little piece of the action. Or you can order it at O’Neill’s site and use the link below to get started on your Christmas shopping and I still get a tiny piece of it. It’s a win-win!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆