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Comic book thriller set in 1980s Irvine imagines a master-planned city replacing its bad kids with robots

"Electric Youth" is a new comic inspired by co-writer Kyle Robert's move to Irvine in 1989 before high school. It imagines a sanitary city where the perfect kids seem too artificial to be real.
(Courtesy of From Beyond Comics)

Kyle Roberts remembers moving from Philadelphia to Irvine in the summer of 1989, before his freshman year of high school.

He was excited for a fresh start — and for the opportunity to live with his dad, who he had previously only spent summers and holidays with. But living in the ultra-idyllic, meticulously engineered neighborhood was a culture shock.

Irvine might still seem like a sanitary city today, but Roberts says back then, other than these master-planned rows of housing, there were only a few strip malls and grocery stores. It was mostly orange groves, eucalyptus trees and a lot of undeveloped land.

“It felt like we always had to go somewhere else to have fun,” says Roberts. “We’d go to Tustin to go to the movies, Newport to go to the beach, Anaheim to play miniature golf … Parties would get broken up by 9 p.m. So it just felt like a good place to set a story where bad kids were being replaced by robots to be perfect children.”

Roberts recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing of the first issue of his comic “Electric Youth,” a coming-of-age thriller that takes place in “the ideal place to raise a family, [though] some might say its a little too perfect.”

The introduction of the coming-of-age comic "Electric Youth" shows 1989 Irvine as a beautifully-engineered neighborhood that was pretty boring for high school boys looking for fun and trouble.
The introduction of the coming-of-age comic “Electric Youth” shows 1989 Irvine as a beautifully-engineered neighborhood that was pretty boring for high school boys looking for fun and trouble.
(Courtesy of From Beyond Comics)

Described as a cross between “Stand By Me” and “The Stepford Wives,” the story follows four male teenagers inspired by Roberts’ own group of friends at Irvine High School.

“Our life paths just mirrored each other,” he says. “We all kind of got married at the same time, we all had kids at the same time, and one particular friend James was kind of our touchstone. Through him, we all connected.”

The teenagers of the comic "Electric Youth" are loosely based on co-writer Kyle Roberts and his friends (pictured, L-R), Matt Schatz, James Stalter and Jonathan Orduna, from Irvine High School, class of 1993.
The teenagers of the comic “Electric Youth” are loosely based on co-writer Kyle Roberts and his friends (pictured, L-R), Matt Schatz, James Stalter and Jonathan Orduna, from Irvine High School, class of 1993.
(Courtesy of Kyle Roberts)

The comic’s brash ringleader Danny is a tribute to James, who died in 2012 at the age of 38 from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The opening scene, where the hormonal protagonists are dumpster diving in search of adult magazines, is based on a story that one of his friends told on their last gathering before James passed away.

“[He] told this weird crazy story about dumpster diving that he thought was our story, and we were like, ‘That wasn’t us; we don’t remember that,’ ” Roberts says, laughing. “But it felt like something we would have done.”

At first, Roberts planned to write a simple comic that was a “Mission Impossible”-style comedic take on the strategies of dumpster-diving, but later decided to use the story as a launching point for something more fictional and sinister.

“I thought it’d be funnier if they go in for one thing but find something else,” he says.

In "Electric Youth," set in 1989 Irvine, the protagonist finds what looks like a dead kid in the dumpster. But at first, his friends don't believe him.
In “Electric Youth,” set in 1989 Irvine, the protagonist finds what looks like a dead kid in the dumpster. But at first, his friends don’t believe him.
(Courtesy of From Beyond Comics)

Roberts, an art teacher at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana and freelance illustrator who publishes under his imprint From Beyond Comics, usually does his own art for his comics, but for this one, he did the cover art but wanted to find artists who were better at drawing children.

He developed the story with his co-writer, Arkansas-based Clay Adams of Fried Comics, who he met at San Diego’s Comic-Con. Colorist Emilio Pilliu is from Italy, and pencilist Rafael Dantas is from Brazil.

The title “Electric Youth” not only worked as a reference to artificial children, but it’s also a nod to Debbie Gibson’s best-selling album of the same name, also released in 1989.

“The nostalgia element of the story is important to me,” says Roberts. “Maybe some of it is me hitting mid-life and thinking back and reflecting on my friends, what those relationships meant and still mean.”

An innocent dumpster dive for adult magazines leads the teenage protagonists in "Electric Youth" to suspect there might be something sinister going on in the picture-perfect city of Irvine.
An innocent dumpster dive for adult magazines leads the teenage protagonists in “Electric Youth” to suspect there might be something sinister going on in the picture-perfect city of Irvine.
(Courtesy of From Beyond Comics)

Though he pokes fun at Irvine, Roberts, now based in Yorba Linda, quickly acclimated to Orange County and now can’t imagine living outside of Southern California.

Irvine has also evolved a lot in the last 30 years. He points out that the Irvine Spectrum didn’t open until 1995, when he was already a college student at Cal State Fullerton studying arts education.

“At least now, there are places where you can go to get a cocktail,” he says. “Back then, it didn’t seem like you could do that. Unless you maybe went to a Bennigan’s.”

“Electric Youth #1,” the first of the two-book series published by From Beyond Comics, is available for pre-order at kyleroberts.bigcartel.com for $6. It will officially be released in May.

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