The Automatic Age is the first in a series of illustrated novellas by Winnipeg graphic novelist GMB Chomichuk. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world where robots rule, humans are nearly extinct, and automated machines trundle on pointlessly, doing menial tasks for the few people that remain.
The novella follows the adventures of Kerion and his son, Barry, as they struggle to survive the challenges of the new world order. While others have succumbed to starvation, illness, and suicide, for Kerion and Barry the most significant and immediate threat comes in the form of autovolts – robotic soldiers with a singular mission to kill humans.
All humans are at risk, but Kerion and Barry have a unique advantage: Kerion is part cyborg. After suffering injuries in a conflict referred to as “the seventh war,” Kerion had various limbs and organs replaced with robotic components. This allows him to thwart most attacks simply by posing as an autovolt. Still, the need to protect Barry makes things more complicated.
While their situation is perilous, it’s not all about survival. There are haircuts at the TrimStar BarberStop (administered by robot barbers, of course) and birthday meals at the Revolving Cosmos Automat. And Barry has recently lost his mother to illness, so both characters spend time grappling with the loss.
Chomichuk has developed a fascinating, complex setting. From the 36-lane highway and its carpods to the bronze statue of the Founder of Genetic Standardization, it’s clear that the author-illustrator has worked out every detail of this world, its destabilization, and the aftermath. And he uses it to explore timely themes of automation, scarcity economics, and robot ethics, while also showcasing his formidable imagination.
Using stark, bold lines, Chomichuk primarily illustrates objects, vehicles, and landscapes. Occasionally, however, the drawings augment the text. When the story briefly flashes back to explain how Kerion lost his legs, Chomichuk relies on illustration to provide a sense of what the seventh war was like.
The Automatic Age’s character development isn’t as strong as its futuristic setting. Kerion and Barry have similar voices, which sometimes makes it difficult to follow the dialogue without double-checking speech tags. It’s also challenging to follow the action, since the point of view occasionally switches from one character to another mid-scene. The illustrations are limited in this area, too – Barry and Kerion are rarely visible in the drawings, and their faces are never shown at all. Each character has clearly defined traits in common: they are brave and tenacious, and they love each other deeply. There are some truly tender moments between father and son, particularly when they reflect on lost loved ones.
By the end of The Automatic Age, the plot is still quite vague, likely because it is only a first instalment in a longer series. While Chomichuk provides plenty of action and a well-developed setting, the inciting incident is cloudy, motivations are still coming into focus, and Kerion and Barry’s goals – with the exception of basic survival – are still unclear. There’s potential for a strong story in this serial, but the first volume doesn’t quite stand on its own.