Three Years of AI Comic Strips

3 years and 512 completed strips later, Robonk lives on!

Thanks to the Robonk fans.

It’s fun to build out a radical concept as a series. Fun to see that it works. Life is awkward when you’re a dorky guy with an undergraduate degree in communications and you have a comic strip series you don’t write or draw, and here I am. The strangest it got was at a Comic Con last year, where a surprising amount of the reaction to Robonk could be translated to “you ain’t one of us”. Imagine being the outcast to the (often) self-proclaimed outcasts. That happened. Such is life when coming up with the new things. On the upside, creating a new genre of comic strip series is awesome!

Robonk Coloring Book

Preview of the Robonk coloring book look

So what’s ahead for Robonk? A pile of stuff, actually, including…

  • The first Robonk book. It’s done but hasn’t been published yet.
  • Robonk coloring book: That’s right, Robonk coloring book!

Thanks to…

We’re over half way to strip 1,000… …and beyond!

When Artificial Intelligence Writes a Comic Strip

The comic strip series Robonk isn’t written by the creator/editor. Instead, text comes from a 1960s-style artificial intelligence (AI) program responding to online dating profiles. So, about half of it is written (or repeated, anyway) by Chatbot-Eliza-1.06 (modded to state the name as Robonk instead of Liz) and the other half comes from humans looking for sexual encounters.

To date, the script process isn’t too sexy, and I’m doing a lot of copy/paste to get things rolling. At some point, I’ll probably automate out the current rough script process, but I’m not there yet. There’ll be some waste in that process because adding punctuation where the humans failed sometimes makes the difference between a script that works and one that doesn’t. Here’s a screenshot of what the process looks like in June of 2017. This work will most likely result in comics in the #00040-#0005F range.

Lots of copying and pasting to create scripts in June 2017.

[Editor’s note (2019-02-01): Script generation became far more automated after the creation of the Robonkers script generation system in the fall of 2018. The post you are reading explains how things were done early on.]  

If you ever wonder what the text was like in and out of the AI, there is a “source” link with every comic and you can see what the software wrote in response to the human.

Robonk #00042

The script in the earlier screenshot ended up becoming Robonk comic strip #00042.

I keep learning from the earlier strips on what works, what doesn’t, and what can be improved. It’s an odd comic strip in that I don’t write anything, so what I do from a narrative perspective is really, really, really limited.

Robonk is a Portmanteau

An obvious question with a new comic strip is what to name the main character. I didn’t have a name out of the gate, so I had to come up with one. I figured it would be nice to have a name that was:

  1. Distinctive
  2. Memorable
  3. Containing a tie-in with robots and/or psychology
  4. Available as a .com domain
  5. Short

I played around with some names based from famous people in the psychology field, but ultimately ended with a combination of two terms, which makes the name a portmanteau. From the Wikipedia page for portmanteau:

A portmanteau (Listeni/pɔːrtˈmæntoʊ/, /ˌpɔːrtmænˈtoʊ/; plural portmanteaus or portmanteaux /-ˈtoʊz/) or portmanteau word is a linguistic blend of words, in which parts of multiple words or their phones (sounds) are combined into a new word, as in smog, coined by blending smoke and fog, or motel, from motor and hotel.

The portmanteau that is Robonk comes from:

  • Robot: The term robot originated from Czech “robota” for ‘forced labor.’
  • Bonk: A common slang term for sex in the 1970s and 1980s was bonk.

Combine Robot and Bonk and the resulting portmanteau is Robonk.

The Throw Rug and Shadow of Robonk

Sending an idea to a friend for some feedback. Throw rug is a go.

A few of the key design decisions made in the first 48 hours of Robonk included:

  1. Use of Tinkercad for the source 3D drawing of Robonk, the chair, and the clipboard.
  2. Use on screen rendering in the edit mode of Tinkercad for screenshots of the “drawings” used in the comic strips.
  3. Having the shadow come off of Robonk.

I was deliberately going for some character in the drawings, and the screenshot method worked there. After all, the land of comic strips isn’t dominated by 100% reality nor perfection, right?! Exactly.

Some of the character of the illustration style that shows through is the odd nature of the throw rug under Robonk’s chair. That is the workplane from Tinkercad, and if you look closely at the far left corner of the rug when it’s visible, you’ll notice the text “Workplane” is present. Pictured below is a closeup from the bottom left corner of frame 03 from strip #00004.

Before taking a screenshot, sometimes I have to resize the workplane so the shadow will be from Robonk rather than his chair. Shouldn’t it be on both? Technically yes, but this is a comic strip. Any time you add manual intervention and verification to a system, you’re asking for the occasional failure. Here’s frame 02 of strip #00007 as originally released:

Here’s the fix that was released later:

Consistency isn’t as critical with Robonk as other projects (commercial or hobby) I’ve worked on, but it’s nice to have things within whatever standards have been set.

Comic Strip Font, Size, and Proportion

Being new the at comic strip game, something I’ve struggled with a bit is fonts, specifically the faces, weights and sizes.

We’ll start with one of the initial five alpha-level strips.

Robonk strip

One of the first five strips. That’s the font I went with for the human and Robonk.

I chose that size and that font and went at it. I received some feedback that a robot font and/or talk bubble might be fun for the robot. I like the cleaner bubble, so that stayed, but after playing with some computer theme fonts, I found a winner. The human’s text got lost a little though, so I bolded it up. Balance achieved.

Did I pick the best font size out of the gate? Probably not. So, time for some trials. This is strip #00000 with the original font size, everything at 90%, and everything at 80%. This is not a perfect trial because with the smaller type, I might have gone with a different line breaks, but it gets across the basic idea all the same.


Pre-release text trial at 100%
(View larger version)


Pre-release text trial at 90%
(View larger version)


Pre-release text trial at 80%
(View larger version)

I decided that 90% was the winner and am going with that. Time will tell whether that was a reasonable decision or not.

A Brief History of Robonk

Brock at Border Town Comic Con 2017

Brock at Border Town Comic Con 2017 in Ontario, Oregon

A friend let me know a Comic-Con was happening over the weekend and wondered if I wanted to go. I thought it would be fun to debut a comic strip that day, but I didn’t have one. So, I created one.

I started working on Robonk around noon on 2017-03-09 and by noon on 2017-03-11 I was debuting the comic on a small strip of a table in Ontario, Oregon. Some people didn’t quite get it, which is to be expected. Those that did really did like it however, and laughing ensued. This was encouraging. Robonk clearly isn’t for everyone.

A lot was created in the first 48 hours, including:

  • 80 scripts. Wanted to see how viable the concept was.
  • A drawing of the Robonk and the chair in CAD software (Tinkercad).
  • Five illustrated strips to show if it could be done. The title panels were less than ideal, but I was learning and you have to start somewhere, right?!
  • Deciding on the name and reserving which was available.
  • A single sheet of paper (double sided) with the first five strips to hand out at the Ontario, Oregon event.
Robonk strip

One of the first five strips. Something done on the first pass was focusing on how many words could be used and how many panels were needed. This strip was one of the deliberately extra wordy tests.

As I write this first blog entry, the website is being setup, and there’s a facebook page and a twitter account.

Robonk is still less than a week old. We’ll see how things develop as time moves along. Thanks for coming along on the journey.