I recently had an opportunity to connect virtually with Cullen Bunn to chat about his upcoming project with Nelson Blake II, Byte Sized from AWA Studios.
Here’s what AWA tells us about the book:
‘When two young siblings excitedly unwrap their final Christmas presents, they discover toy robots unlike anything they have ever seen. And with good reason. What the kids and their parents don’t know is that their quaint suburban home just became the beachhead for these self-aware ‘bots that have begun to explore the outside world. And when one of the ‘bots breaks bad, it’s going to take a Christmas miracle to stop him.’
Brendan Allen: The way AWA describes Byte Sized is ‘bots breaking bad.’ Reading the first chapter, I can see that, but I’m also picking up some Short Circuit and Small Soldiers vibes. Kind of that ‘misunderstood monster’ trope, updated for the AI technology age. Before we dig too deep into this thing, let’s hear the elevator pitch.
Cullen Bunn: You have a keen eye for robotic tropes! Stories like that most certainly informed this comic, as did Gremlins and Batteries Not Included.
The elevator pitch I came up with for the series was pretty simple. A group of highly advanced military robots escape from the lab that created them… and hide out in the home of an average American family… on Christmas Eve.
Brendan: You’ve mentioned R2D2, Muffet, Twiki, Peepo, and several other sentient bots as inspiration. How did you bring that 70’s Scholastic Book Club obsession everyone had with robots into a modern story?
Cullen: Well, as much as nostalgia was important to me in the creation of this story, I didn’t want modern readers to need to lean on that too much. So, I tried to push that aside as much as I could during the writing. It was far more important to me that kids could connect with the human characters, the dog character, and the robot characters on an emotional level.
I wanted the sense of fun to come across loud and clear long before the first robot showed up in all its glory. I figured that would get the reader to be a little more concerned for what was coming next. I want them to be anxious to get to the next issue! And the next!
Brendan: The robot designs are fantastic. Nelson Blake II really did an amazing job making them each unique, and equal parts menacing and adorable. That’s a hard balance to hit, but it seems like a pretty important element for the story moving forward.
Cullen: Nelson did such an amazing job with the AI-O-Bots (that’s the name our little robots were given by their creators. Only one of the robots is featured in our first issue, but you can see the designs of the others in the backup materials.
I sent him descriptions of the robots when we started, but they were pretty high-level and focused more on the bot’s utility function (each robot has a special talent) rather than looks. I thought it was important that most of them didn’t have humanoid silhouettes. I want to say that at one point I suggested that the bots be thought of as intelligent Roombas. But, yeah, Nelson really did wonders making these characters both fun and, at times, creepy.
Brendan: And while a couple of the Byte Sized machines do appear humanoid, there’s also at least one four legged, dog-like version in the concept art I saw. Dogs are an interesting biological model for sentient robots. During the domestication process, dogs picked up a lot of human expression and learned to participate in complex human social interactions. There’s a sort of built in affection we have for the beasts, and an ingrained willingness to look past the brutal killing potential to find the soft, squishy bits and love on them.
Cullen: That’s a great point! And it’s something that the family in Byte Sized will have to wrestle with. In fact, it’s something BOTH families (if you think of the little group of robots as a family) will have to come to grips with.
Brendan: I really like the family dynamic in this first chapter. It seems like everyone is so quick to go to the ‘broken’ family model in stories like these. Workaholic/emotionally unavailable parent, loss of a spouse/partner/parent, loads of emotional strain before the story even kicks off…
It’s refreshing to see a reasonably functional family get hit with the robot invasion. You don’t necessarily need to have life already in shambles to be stressed out with little killer robots. There’s plenty of room to work with where the situation itself will drag ‘normal’ existence into that space. And there’s really nothing saying that the cracks won’t start to form or that those cracks won’t expose something dark down the line.
Cullen: Oh, yeah. I want this story to be fun. It’s not meant to be a heavy piece of fiction dealing with family issues. Those kind of stories are important, but that’s not what we have here. Instead, this is a family not unlike one you might have seen in E.T. or Poltergeist or Gremlins. Their home may be in a perpetual state of chaos (and that’s only going to get worse) but it’s mostly a “normal” life that’s getting interrupted.
Brendan: I’ve seen a couple quotes that suggest this is just a small part of a much larger world in the making. I’ve only read the first chapter, and I can already see some of the building blocks forming. Is there something actively in the works, or are you just leaving that door wide open for future opportunities?
Cullen: I have wheels turning to further develop the story. It will all depend, of course, on how well this series is received!
Brendan: Right on. Thank you for spending time with us here today. Is there anything you’d like to leave readers with?
Cullen: I wanted Byte Sized to be a book that kids and adults could enjoy together. My hope is kids who already love comics will get a kick out of this, and kids who have never read a comic before might fall in love with the medium here. That first issue makes a great stocking stuffer! And–please–if your family reads and loves it, let me know!
Byte Sized #1, AWA Studios, releases 09 December 2020. Written by Cullen Bunn, line art by Nelson Blake II, color by Snakebite Cortez, cover by Rahzzah.