After becoming frustrated with anime offerings on television, Robert Wollstein, who was diagnosed with autism at age 7, decided to create his own comic book. GRACIE BONDS STAPLES/gstaples@AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This Life with Gracie: He’s on autism spectrum but manages to write a comic book

All too often people with autism are stymied by life’s disappointments, unable to move past the frustrations of being let down.

Dr. Tyler Whitney, an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine with an active practice in Alpharetta, knows how that happens.

“With most of the people who are on the autism spectrum and are past high school age, the problem becomes their intense area of focus,” Dr. Whitney said. “Getting upset and using avoidance can be more typical.”

That makes 30-year-old Robert Wollstein of Alpharetta pretty unique.

When the long-running USA Network TV series “Psych” was canceled four years ago, Wollstein was devastated.

USA show "Psych" brought its two leads James Roday (left) and Dule Hill (right) to UGA in early November to celebrate how so many college students like the light-hearted romp of a show packed with pop culture refererences.

If you don’t care for comedy-drama, that might seem like an overreaction but to Wollstein losing the series was like losing a best friend.

“Psych” had long been his favorite.

“I loved the show,” Wollstein said recently. “It was witty and full of hilarious characters.”

Critics referred to it as one of the rare cable dramas to surpass 100 episodes, with a legacy that included a two-hour musical, a 10-city college tour and five appearances at Comic-Con.

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When “Teen Titans,” the animated superhero television series based on the DC Comics characters of the same name, began airing on the Cartoon Network, Wollstein was hopeful but it wasn’t what he expected.

He had had enough.

“I decided to write something I liked, something I’d have control over,” Wollstein said.

He drew inspiration from Japanese manga or comics but the lack of diversity in them unnerved him.

Plus, he said, all the characters were “badly designed with big lips, beady eyes or were really mean looking.”

“I wanted to come up with a design that didn’t just include black people but black people who were approachable,” Wollstein said.

But how?

Wollstein, who goes by the pen name Nexik, was well aware of his limitations.

He’d known at least since age 12 that he had autism, a developmental disorder that makes it difficult for him to see other’s perspectives, communicate effectively, develop relationships and understand social nuances that are regularly seen by other people during interpersonal interactions.

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Since graduating from Northview High School, he’d spent most of his time doing menial labor at his mother’s fabric shop. And though he’s come a long way in gaining insight into his emotions, he’s been under Whitney’s care for almost as long as the clinical psychologist has lived in metro Atlanta. He’s become more independent and even has a girlfriend who’s also on the autism spectrum.

Managing a big project that he is passionate about, Dr. Whitney said, has helped tremendously in that growth.

“That he’s been able to lead his project is remarkable,” Whitney said. “He has persevered, dealt with his frustrations and emotions, relied on his support system, and ultimately created his story for all to read.”

Wollstein searched the internet for a local artist and found Venisha Penland.

Robert Wollstein of Alpharetta gives a thumbs up after completing his first comic book, “Boundless.” Gracie Bonds Staples/AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Can you help me design a black character in animated style, he asked.

Together they came up with the book’s main character Karsu, based on Wollstein’s best friend, a black kid named James; then Mura, a female character of mixed race and, then Ronin, the antihero in the comic book he titled “Boundless.”

It’s a familiar story of girl meets boy and a second boy comes along and, well, ruins it all. Or tries.

“Ronin likes to hang out with Karsu but Mura and Ronin don’t like each other,” he says. “They are polar opposites.”

The idea evolved from there.

Wollstein began jotting down notes, forming the beginning and end of his story.

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He knew he needed help exploring all the social issues he wanted to give voice to like racism and bullying and equal rights and, well, you name it.

He tapped writer Leo Langford and John Miller, a backup writer and fight choreographer, both of whom share his love for anime, to help it all make sense.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For the next year or so, they collaborated. “Boundless” took shape, with each character representing a part of Wollstein’s personality: Karsu is his “id” or the person he’d most like to be; Mura’s his ego, his struggling childhood and innocence; and Ronin his super ego who, rigidly moral, is very angry and doesn’t want to be told what to do.

Wollstein took the lead, making sure his vision made it on every page. He promoted the final product, even hosting a voice actor reading early last month at the Atlanta Central Library and taking feedback on the project.

That was huge.

According to Whitney, people on the autism spectrum like Wollstein can struggle mightily in day-to-day tasks, especially when managing a project over years.

Wollstein started small, asking others to check his texts to his team, and grew into helping with marketing to the public and interpersonal interactions, such as a newspaper interviews.

And he isn’t done.

He hopes to launch a kickstarter campaign in September to fund a pilot of “Boundless” and eventually turn it into an animated series that will wow Japanese audiences.

“I’m making something I love and want to move this forward,” he said. “Right now I help my mom at the fabric store but what I really want to do is earn money doing what I love.”

That’s in all of our dreams. It won’t surprise me if Wollstein’s comes to fruition.

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