Jan's Atomic Heart certainly wasn't written as a fusion of typical "indie" stuff and intricate, unironic space shit, it seems more like artist/writer Simon Roy sought to retain the stirring wonder of sci-fi and inject a very important, down-to-earth sense of reality in there, but something like Adrian Tomine grows a pair or Dan Clowes loses the contempt for the world and one or both write a story that Bilal will draw, to be published in two consecutive issues of Heavy Metal circa 1979, is a good pitch.
This sense of our-world realism meets space comic craziness comes through in the first interaction between Anders and his friend Jan, currently occupying a robot body while his real body recovers after being struck (along with his car) by a train. Anders' first response to seeing his friend Jan as a robot is, "Holy shit, man". Jan then proceeds to complain about dressing his dumpy robot buddy: "This morning was like forcing a t-shirt on an oil drum...that's why I'm wearing these fucking sweats--they're all I could get on." This isn't a particularly hard trick, to write characters in a sci-fi story like regular dudes, but it's a really daring move and in direct contrast to the way-too stringent genre rules that even the best authors feel the need to obsessively follow--cursing and sweatpants jokes go a long way.
When the story gets more heated and immediate--not a dude in a jogging suit and robot chatting over coffee--they speak in the same confused, bursts of surprise and frustration (lots of curse words and exclamation points); personalities don't change, but the stakes of the world around them are raised a great deal. While it doesn't go this far--Jan's Atomic Heart is very much a sci-fi fable/parable--it's a partial answer to thoughts I've had about the nature of sci-fi: What if say, Woman Under the Influence took place in space? Would it have the same emotional resonance?
Still not sure of the answer to that but indeed, injecting a little of that raw reality into this comic really works. Because the sci-fi genre is often allegory and generally just kind of grand, characters are as much symbols as they are fully-formed and as a result, there's not always that much emotional resonance. Roy's punchy bro-talk works wonders for the dynamic between Anders and Jan and when the comic builds to a betrayal, you don't only feel it, but you're sort of upset it happened and maybe start the book over unsure that Roy just sent the narrative in that direction.
There's the right kind of whimsy to Roy's art too, shaky but confident lines--turn to the first page of the comic, a desolate urban landscape, in the left corner Anders runs, notice the disinterest in a straight-edge on the building's porches--and dashed-off inkwash, lend to the casual, informal tone of the comic. It's the art equivalent to the sand-scraped and battle-damaged ships and armor in Star Wars or the Nam' speak injected into Haldeman's Forever War.
Roy also avoids the strict formalism of science-fiction, as you never see the gears turning in the narrative and there's no obnoxious sense of parallelism or anything that really kills a lot of sci-fi. The story, despite building to something very global and political, and even employing a sci-fi "twist", feels like a chunk of something larger, be it both characters' lives, the world in Roy's "far-ish future", or the impending sense of terrorism. It ends before it really needs to, abruptly but not ambiguously--hitting it's logical conclusion and forgetting the extraneous sense of closure genre stories obsess over.
Science-fiction could learn to chill-out a little, to get in touch with reality in direct rather than indirect, metaphor-laden ways, and Jan's Atomic Heart does just that, returning to some of the trippy-smart, fine-art/comics blurring that defined early Heavy Metal and merging it with the naturalism and emotional availability of "comix" minus the coffee and cigarettes sad-sack self-seriousness. One of the best of 2009.