Dec 29

Under the Funnies: Nate the Robot

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1: pencils

In this interview series, I speak with other comic creators to learn about their work! Here, I have a conversation with Jim Haas of Nate the Robot.

Travis Blair: Hi, Jim! I would first like to say that I enjoyed reading your thoughts under just about every comic published on your site. That said, I would like to know your thoughts right before you created the first comic. How did you decide to draw Nate the way he is portrayed?

Jim Haas: Before starting my comic, I had been searching for a hobby to consume my time. I was looking for something cheap and easy, and I had been trying to build my own robot but it just kept getting more and more expensive (both time and money) to try and do what I wanted to do. I used to draw comics a lot in years past, so I figured that drawing might meet my needs of “creating a robot” as well as “provide a fulfilling hobby”.

I went through quite a few iterations of how I wanted Nate to look, unfortunately even after I had started drawing it. My original thoughts were that Nate was built in a garage out of things just lying around. I have sketches at home where Nate’s body is a toaster, others where its a microwave, and now I think it looks most like a TV. I always pictured his head as a coffee can. I think as I progressed I decided to move away from the scrap pieces and just settle on a simple geometric design.

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Travis: Robots can go through upgrades! You went from attempting to build an actual robot to creating one for a comic. What do the two processes have in common? What is the first step for each?

Jim: I think my engineering nature makes me try and figure out for my characters how I’d build them, so certainly that is very common. If I were to ever put up sketches of robot designs that I wanted to build, I think you’d see pieces used in each of my robot characters, so that’s always kind of fun. A lot of people don’t realize just how complex our bodies are and how difficult it is to make a robot that can execute even a small fraction of what we’re capable of! The other thing is I always wanted my robot designs to “hide” all the wires and motors and stuff, and so I’d spend a lot of time thinking about ways to do that, and I try to incorporate that thinking into all of my characters.

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Travis: You realize that I now want to see these sketches! I’d also like to see schematics of your characters. So what got you interested in robotics? Was it the degree alone, or did your attention focus on something more specific?

Jim: I tried really hard, but all I could find here at work were boring sketches of how to try and mechanically make a good hinge using a hobby servo…

Way back in middle school, in the early 80s, is back when George Lucas started releasing the “How it was made” series of shows regarding the Star Wars movies. I was fascinated by special effects, especially animatronics, and that’s what I wanted to do. I think as I got older, that realistically there just weren’t many jobs out there for that, especially not in the midwest, and so I thought that robotics was pretty close to doing what I wanted to do. In the end, my undergraduate degree dabbled a bit in both artificial intelligence and motor controls, although at an undergraduate level there’s not much exciting there (at least there wasn’t then). I ended up getting my master’s degree in a completely different area, dealing with binary addition.

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Travis: It sounds like Nate the Robot has become your virtual workshop. Where did you get the idea of him trying to fit into the workplace? I like to think that there’s some irony to it. And OK, I gotta ask: what is binary addition?

Jim: One day at work I was reading an article about how a lot of american engineers were unemployed because the jobs were being contracted out over seas, like to India. The article read almost EXACTLY like an article I remembered reading as a kid about how “in the future” robots would replace our jobs, and so that struck me as a bit of irony that I wanted to capture.

Binary is the number system of computers (all 1s and 0s), and adding numbers is a very common operation in programming and fundamental in how processors work. I came up with a new way to add numbers in binary.

The great binary joke is “There are 10 kinds of people in the world, those that understand binary, and those that don’t”.

The joke is that in binary, “10” is how you represent the number 2.

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Travis: Classic geek joke, and the only thing I know about binary code! Speaking of things I know little about, the robots in your comic have names based on what I’ll refer to as, “techy stuff”. Feel free to use my term in any of your professional documentation. Do you come up with the character, and then look for something that acts like them, or the other way around?

Jim: I think it’s a bit circular. Originally, Nate’s name was “Roy” but I felt like it was a bit overused, and at the time I had just started reading Order Of The Stick and didn’t like that I used the same name as a lead character. Somewhere in there while I was doing it, I had the idea of the last name being “Moss” as a play on “MOS”, which is a type of transistor. Then I researched to see what was out there, and the NMOS kind of stood out as “matching the personality” I wanted. Once I had that spark of interest, the idea of using “techy stuff” ( ® Travis Blair)as names really caught on, and so I worked on Chana’s parents. He hasn’t come in yet, but Chana has a brother named “TT” (TT Logic is an older type of computing chip).

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Travis: I like it, because I like learning about the characters and also get to learn some about computers. So you have at least one new character planned. Any new type of robotic design planned, or will he look like family?

Jim: I haven’t designed TT yet, no. But I do have 1 or 2 new designs done, but it (or they) may not make its (or their) appearance for another 9 months (IF you’ve been following the current storyline =).

I need to get Nate back to Gears again (the bar parody of “Cheers”), it’s been awhile since we’ve seen the characters there!

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Travis: I have! And now that you mentioned it, I’m curious about whether this will unfold in real time. With that and with Gears, you definitely have some material to work with.

Thanks for sharing! I’m glad to have learned more about how Nate the Robot operates.

Jim: You’re welcome, and thank you!

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Check out Nate the Robot here!