All objects, organic or inorganic, have a period of maximum usefulness. How that period is defined and who is in charge of its definition is at the core of the Boris, Robot of Leisure by Katharine Miller. This series is post-future tale where Boris, a robot that is programmed to be the life of the modernist party, is confronted with what it means to continue on in a time and place that seem that does not have a need for him.
The complete series, available as both a printed collection and a e-book, is the compilation of six individual issues that create a full arc. The titles are simple (“Boris and the Open House”, “Boris Makes a Friend”…) but the ideas are not. In a simple pop style that is a fusion of 60’s illustrations and contemporary indie comic sensibilities, Miller tells a largely non-verbal tale of Boris coming to terms with his robot self and that he is more than the sequences that of programming that he contains.
In the course of the six issues Boris cannot fulfill the tasks that were created for his existence in the planned housing development of Neue Vista Estates because it was never built. As a robot developed to entertain guests, readers see Boris download his task programs and go about completing them with joyful, if slightly awkward, enthusiasm. This excitement does not last long, as Boris comes to understand there are no guests, no community and that he is alone.
It is almost hard to imagine that an existential comic with no dialog about a robot that has a visual kinship with Rosie from the Jetsons could have such an emotional impact. Miller’s use of the deceptively simple framework make it easy to stay engaged even when things become quite complicated for Boris. Storytelling without words is can be very challenging, but Miller handles the progression and pacing well, with small visual cues of soft edge vs. hard edge panels to allow the narrative to slip in and out of third person development and first person robot imagination. During the course of the story we see emotional development as from Boris as he creates imaginary friends, deals with the arrival of another robot, Nigel, and journeys to the Glomco laboratory that created him.
Miller broaches big topics in a warm and approachable way. In “Boris Meets His Maker” and “Boris Versus The Future”, Boris visits the scientist that created him and has to contend with the scientist’s vision of the Boris’ future compared to his own. In “Boris Makes A Friend”, he has to deal with loneliness. Most importantly, there is the recurring theme of what it means to exist and how to constantly bring meaning to that existence. While these topics are the fundamental questions of daily life, in Boris, Robot of Leisure they are always approached with a sense of potential joy and hopefulness. Boris questions but does not stop there; he defines answers for himself. All of this is tackled amongst modernist design, sock puppets and mega corporations; a world like our contemporary society but just more fun and stylish.
Though the series is complete, Boris’ journey is not over. It is easy to imagine the development of additional stories, or as a story that is appropriate for all ages, even taking the existing work and created an animated manifestation. Though objects have a period of maximum usefulness, Katharine Miller has created a work that can endure for quite a bit longer.