In the hour or so that followed the birth, I sat in the corner of the intensive care unit and watched my baby daughter. Nurses hovered, talking in hushed tones to each other, passing tape and tubes backward and forward. I was all but forgotten about – out of the way, not wanting to speak and interrupt the moment. Did you ever play those games as a child, where you’d pretend that someone wasn’t there? It was like that, in a weird sort of way. I was an observer; there was nothing I could do to assist, to help, to proffer advice or comment on. Yet, with the adrenaline leaving my system, I found a solemnity to the moment, a curious stillness that I hadn’t ever encountered before. The soundtrack of background noise dropped down. The camera’s focus shifted. There was a narrowing of attention to one small, helpless, courageous soul. All there was, was her. There is no contemplation of the past or future in that sort of space, just one long inexorable moment stretching on forever, my eyes fixed on my little stop-motion girl, stubbornly grumbling at the unasked-for attention.
It’s said that every million or so years the magnetic poles of the earth flip and realign themselves. The world, in a manner of speaking, turns itself upside down. Magnetic fields form and reform chaotically before finding their new position, and during the transition you would find yourself suddenly, strangely vulnerable to things that you may have taken for granted before. It’s a natural phenomenon, this recalibration, but it creates incredible chaos. Civilisation wouldn’t stand a chance.
I can, in some small way, empathise. Life has fundamentally, irrecoverably altered. It happened both slowly and all at once, and this is what my new centre of gravity looks like.
One of my overriding memories of the minutes leading up to her birth was the sound of her heartbeat from the monitor. Amplified a hundred times strong, it drowned out everything else. A phrase came into my head at that point: ‘the galloping of angels’. I’m not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination, but there was something almost otherworldly about that constant, steady drumming, like hoofbeats.
A miracle coming to see us, the journey almost complete.
There was something heart-stoppingly surreal and slow-motion about the hours that followed. The rush of adrenalin, the ragged emptiness when the Code Blue was called, the unbelievable happiness when we knew that everything, truly, was going to be okay. I know, now, that beneath it all was the feeling of recalibration. It was every atom in my body shifting toward some new magnetic True North, a constant undeniable truth that this, here, is the reason to do everything that comes after.
That discerning fatherly eye has turned, inevitably, to the bookshelf. There are two things at play here. First: gadzooks, I must remove those more precious tomes to higher ground rather than letting them get dribbled and drooled upon and/or fall heavily upon my unsuspecting progeny. Second: what sort of content do they have, and would I really think them fit fare for The Babe With No Name when they grow up? Some items clearly have the answer ‘sweet jesus no’, for all the obvious reasons; Preacher, Scalped and my smattering of Chuck Palahniuk novels will disappear to the higher shelves for many years to come, as will anything else with strong adult themes (I’m looking at you, Lost Girls). Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is a fantastic series, and one I’d be encourage pretty much anyone to read, but it’s not the sort of work that leads to balancing your bubba on a knee to read aloud. That’s not a critique of the work or author – Gaiman didn’t target it at the pre-teen market, and would probably be surprised if you suggested it – but rather an appreciation that its mix of genre might not be right for such an audience. Coraline, Wolves in the Walls, The Graveyard Book – yes. Serial killers with fanged mouths for eyes, not so much.
There are other stories that are a little more age-less though. Let’s call it the Princess Bride Factor; that special mix of action, romance, intrigue and humour that means anyone – young or old, boy or girl – can find something interesting and wonderful to latch onto. Goscinny & Uderzo’s Asterix has that for me; I read it as a kid and can happily read it as an adult, and as such didn’t hesitate to buy a collection of stories for my offspring-to-be. Tintin falls into the same category (and as a side comment I’d be keen to know whether the recent movie manages to capture that essence; I’ll probably find out this weekend, as we have stupidly hot days forecasted and am keen to find somewhere comfortably air-conditioned in which to while away the days).
The Princess Bride Factor is incredibly important for me; I want my child to love stories no matter how they’re presented or what sort of characters are in there. Boys aren’t genetically programmed to despise pink and like blue, any more than girls have any inherent predisposition to Barbie dolls over guns, swords and dragons. What we like or don’t like is learned. The things I read as a child have (mostly) stayed with me through to adulthood, and so that learning starts early.
Which brings me around, rather circuitously, to Atomic Robo. AR is a special sort of story. It is inclusive without pandering to the lowest common denominator. It has that special quality of being equally accessible to a kid or adult. There’s a certain joy to its storytelling that is rare nowadays. It has robots, dinosaurs, strong female characters, ‘adventure science’, gangsters, and lightning battles between Tesla and Edison. It’s not necessarily packed with laughs on every page, but it’s undisputedly FUN.
And, it’s also insanely cheap. If you have a smartphone, iPad or equivalent, go download the Comixology app for free, now. That’s fine, I’m happy to wait here. Okay, done? You’ve now got access to literally thousands of digital comics for incredibly reasonable prices. Atomic Robo has bargain-basement prices – 99 cents an issue, or less than five bucks per collection (a bundled storyline)– and plenty of freebies too. 2011’s Free Comic Book Day tale, for example, has a gun-wielding dinosaur at a science fair who steals the A-Team’s van. What more could you possibly want out of a comic book than that?
So, Atomic Robo it is then. Not for a pre-school jellybean, but certainly it’s family friendly enough that I’d gladly encourage him/her to read them whilst they’re still in single figures.
If you want to know more about Atomic Robo, the website is here. I’d recommend you also read the creative team’s promise to the reader, and their blog entries where they describe their approach and what kids think of their books. And kudos where it counts, various people / sites that put me onto the book in the first place are: ComicsAlliance, where AR featured in their top books of 2011; the crew at NonCanonical, who produce the finest comic book-related podcasts I know; and All-Star Comics, Melbourne’s newest and best comic book shop (hi Mitch & Troy!).
And finally, if you were wondering where this blog’s title came from…