Astro Boy, whose adventures are consistently light, playful, and full of robot fights, has an origin story that is dark enough to be turned into a ghost story. A scientist loses his son in a car accident and tries to recreate him as a robot. After realizing that his boy robot ultimately lacks what he might identify as his son’s soul (or even a human soul), the scientist, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, abandons his creation. Astro Boy is mistreated again but is eventually adopted by a more loving father, becomes a superhero, fights monstrous robots and aliens, and ushers in the age of modern anime.
In Patron Saint, Sam Alden does not alter any details of this story except one crucial element that becomes the key to understanding the rest. The little robot is not born into a world of hostile enemies. Astro Boy is ready to rumble but, alas, he has no challengers.
Astro Boy now exists as an apparition, inadvertently summoned by a production assistant dissatisfied with her boring tasks. She curses her job in protest, tossing her beer can into the ocean. The ghost of Astro Boy appears in the distance (in Japanese folklore, water is a pathway to the land of the dead), portentously silent. Will he grant her wish?
As the bored and depressed defender of the planet, Alden’s version of Astro Boy becomes the patron saint of people who hate their jobs. In a remarkable sequence at the climax of the minicomic, the drawings turn Cubist, and the production assistant is given her robot battle.
Alden adopts Osama Tezuka’s most beloved character and uses him as a piece of comics language. Astro Boy’s iconic status allows this mutability. Comics is built on iconography and Alden relies on our understanding of Astro Boy to give his representation a new meaning. By changing its context, the cartoon icon’s definition is altered like the same word in a different sentence.