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Decoding Mr. Roboto: An Interview with Chris Harding

Chris Harding was kind enough to do the February cover art for ComixTalk and it gave me a great excuse to hit him up for an interview.  Harding is the creator of the new webcomic We The Robots which offers a cynical, bemused take on work and family.

I saw the Cold Hard Flash interview with you so I know you're a "34 year old Flash animator living in Kansas City."  I have never been to Kansas City -- what am I missing?

Boy howdy, this is the wrong time of year to ask what I like about Kansas City. It's been five months of dark, cold weather, and I'm through with it. I grew up in Tucson, and apparently when you gestate in the desert, your physiology adapts to that climate. Your blood thins, and your body stops producing heat, because you're better off soaking it in from your environment like a lizard. To paraphrase the gorilla in Nick Park's short, Creature Comforts, "I hate being wet and I hate being cold. And here, I find that I'm often wet and I'm often cold."

Other than the weather, it's great. The cost of living is very reasonable, and are a lot of designers and artists here and there's always stuff going on in that department... Good film community... Good music and food, too... I don't know if it's that exciting to visit, but it's a wonderful place to live. Kansas is often the butt of jokes about dumb, middle America. But the people here are not religious nuts or hicks, any more than everyone in LA is Jeff Spicoli. I just wanted to point that out on behalf of some very cool Kansans that I know (though people in Kansas do tend to get up obscenely early in the morning for some reason that I cannot understand).

 

So how did the inspiration come to do the webcomic We The Robots?

The comic evolved out of two other projects-- an animated short I'm working on, and a project I was doing with my friends Chad Strawderman and Jeff Barfoot, called Robot Family. One value of using non-human characters is that it can kind of trick the audience (and the writer) into feeling like they are looking at something foreign under a microscope, which can be a fruitful way to get some distance as you examine your own everyday life.

Why robots? I was reading about Alan Turing. He was one of the originators of the computer, and devised the Turing Test to determine whether an artificial intelligence has become conscious. There's been speculation that part of Turing's interest in the subject came from fact that he was gay, in a time and place where that could get you in serious trouble. The idea of wanting to escape one's body and become a machine might have appealed to a man who was being harshly persecuted for his natural biological inclinations. The computer scientist Jaron Lanier has speculated that a similar need to escape the flesh (this time out of fear of death) might motivate current strong AI advocates, like Ray Kurzweil. For some, there is hope that combining humans and machines might be a key to immortality. There's a strong desire to use technology to perfect our species.

Anyway, I think part of the idea behind the strip is bursting that bubble a little bit. Even if there were machines that could think, or if humans evolved into robots, (or even if we could build the perfect techno-utopian society) I think we'd still wind up doing the same stupid shit we do now. Maybe there's no escaping nature. (Another good person to listen to on this subject is Bruce Sterling, who has a humorous skepticism about artificial intelligence)

 

I love the satirical attitude of the strip.  How do you build ideas for the strips though - do you start with humor or situations or some target of mockery...?

I wish I knew how it worked-- then maybe I could have more control over it. I do a lot of work to figure out exact wording and pacing, but generating the raw seed of an idea is a mysterious, subconscious process. Part of your brain is always absorbing things you see and hear, and it's always chewing on that stuff like cud. After a while, you sit down and tug at your brain's teats, hoping an idea will squirt out. That's the most disgusting way I can think of to describe it without making a poop joke.

I've heard a few complaints that I don't really do any "robot jokes" in the strip. From a storytelling perspective, I'm not very interested in machines themselves. No matter how it's packaged, fiction is usually  still about the present-day life and times of the artist and the audience. Especially with a comic strip... you have to write so much, it's really helpful if it's more or less about familiar subjects. There might be occasional jokes about hydraulics or positronic brain anatomy, but I like this stuff best when it's in service of some idea about the human condition.

 

I was hoping to get a couple quick reactions on some of your strips.

I don't remember what I was thinking when I wrote the strips, so here are my made-up attempts to interpret them after the fact. Take them with a grain of salt.

 

When I grow up"When I grow up" -- this one seems pretty straightforward (and I laughed and cringed at the same time) but does it apply to yourself?  What did you want to be when you grow up?

A lot of us learn, often painfully, that we are never going to grow up to be a cowboy, or a rock star, or a professional athlete. I think I wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up, but I never thought that was possible. I studied to be an engineer until after my second year of college, just so I could get a job. But I've been pretty lucky and I have actually managed to become a cartoonist, more or less.

This comic falls along the lines of the same recurring themes in We The Robots. It's about plans and dreams being crimped and mangled in the chaos of the real world. The robots, being machines, should happily and flawlessly perform the tasks for which they were built. But it never quite pans out for them, and this is where I think a lot of the melancholy of the strip comes in. If even the best designed creatures –and their carefully designed society– have failings and defects, what hope is there for imperfect humanity? That can be a troubling idea, or it can be kind of soothing, depending on your outlook. I think it's potentially funny.

Anyway, that's kind of the heart of this episode, and a lot of others. That Mikey is convinced he can do whatever he wants when he grows up is so naive, and yet so hopeful. I really root for Mikey to succeed. But if he can't, I'd rather laugh than cry about it.

 

"You've Been Misinformed" -- this is hilarious and a bit of a departure from most of the strips about the main character Bob.  Do you think as the comic goes on you'll spend more time with more of the supporting characters around Bob?

This particular strip got passed around a lot. People were arguing online – sometimes very angrily – about whether it's true or not. Personally, I don't care whether it's objectively, clinically correct that men and women tend to have different sex drives. I wanted to write about a subjective, emotional experience. A lot of people have had the feeling of being sexually mismatched, especially as teenagers. That's what's awkward and painful, and funny to me.

This one feature's Bob's daughter, Sandi. She's been in a bunch of strips, but not enough. I'd like to do more with the supporting characters. I guess my approach has been to focus on a few characters, and slowly branch out a little. I've been doing this strip now for about five months (at 3/week), so that's only about 2 months worth of material for a daily syndicated strip. I've got some stuff written that features other characters and goes off on some far out tangents, but for now I still feel like I'm trying to set the tone. Once that foundation is firmly laid, I'll be eager to deviate from it more.

 

"Things Are Going To Be Different" -- take this one down!  I'm 39 and I swear this exactly how my January and February have gone so far.  Is this one a little bit autobiographical?

39? Yeah, that's probably a big year for New Year's resolutions, isn't it?

A lot of them have some autobiography in them. You try to have overlap between your own experience, and what you think the audience might also have experienced. So the note this one tries to strike is basically, "do you ever get a sinking feeling in the back of your head, even as you're writing your New Year's resolutions, that it is a hopeless and doomed effort from the start?" And if the audience thinks to themselves, "Yeah, I know that feeling. Thanks for bringing it up, you cynical bastard," then I've done my job.

Also, again, is the idea of someone making big plans to exert some control over his life, even though he knows he is not likely to succeed.