Writer James Robinson has had two careers in comics. The first was about a decade or so ago, with one of DC’s seminal series Starman. The second started relatively recently, as Robinson started working whole hog on DC’s superhero books, including the last run on Justice League of America before the upcoming reboot.
Though there was a sparse crowd for the early Spotlight panel on the author, Robinson and DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio had a spirited discussion about his career in comics… Which we’ll recap for you right here, so take that. Before DiDio arrived, though, Robinson briefly talked about his impression on DC’s "New 52":
“I think it was an adjustment for everybody, though ultimately it will be fun,” said Robinson. “Stuff I’ve written no longer exists in continuity. It’s been tricky for us writers… Gail Simone is quite vocal about this… On Twitter. Once all the ducks are in a row in terms of continuity, it will be a good thing. Flashpoint #5… It all ties together rather nicely.”
Then DiDio entered, kicking off the panel proper, asking Robinson for a recap of his career:
“I was always a fan of comics,” said Robinson. “My mother always read comics to me, that’s how I learned how to read. I drifted out of it, I thought I was going to get a career in film. In the course of doing that I learned to do storyboards, basically the rudiments of comic book storytelling. At the time, Neil Gaiman was getting Violent Cases published. He would swing around with his sunglasses, and I thought, ‘I can do that too.’ So I wrote this book London is Dark, and that led to me working with DC.”
DiDio then asked if he got any advice from Gaiman, to which Robinson responded, “Everyone was so young – Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison – they were all just these young guys. The main advice was Dave Gibbons. We would have a monthly comic mart. Fans and professionals would turn up in Westminster. As long as you were cool, and not a dribbling sycophant, you could chat with anyone. I would just go over Brian Bolland’s place while he was doing Killing Joke.”
“So Dave Gibbons was the guy who gave me his start, and to this day, he swears I owe him ten percent of all my earnings.”
DiDio then asked whether Robinson whether he was jealous of Gaiman, which spurred him on to write. Robinson clarified, “Envy is different than jealousy… Jealousy is like, ‘I don’t want you to have that nice car, I want it instead.’ Envy is, ‘Oh, I would like a car just like that.’ So seeing [Gaiman], I wanted a career like his. And I haven’t had a real job since, I’ve been very lucky.”
Robinson then talked about working on smaller books for DC, as well as never writing for 2000 AD – he was told he would never work for that book by the Editor – and then DiDio asked, “Why DC?”
“When I was growing up, I read Marvel and DC, but I’ve always gravitated to DC Comics. I think DC Comics in a way, back then, there was almost a blandness to the characters which allowed you to put your mark on the characters. With Marvel, there was so much in Spider-Man, and the others than you couldn’t make your mark as much. At Marvel, I loved Dardevil. Daredevil, and Black Bolt.”
“You liked the Black Bolt dialogue?” joked DiDio.
“No, it was the costumes. There’s some costumes that I just like,” said Robinson.
“The interesting thing about Black Bolt is… The wave of OMAC’s hair is the underarm of Black Bolt,” said DiDio. After a pause, he quipped, “Okay, this is your panel, right?”
“At DC, I loved Ralph Dibny,” continued Robinson. “You killed him! And Batman, obviously. And very early on, as a boy, I became fascinated by Earth 2. Of course, when you’re a kid you don’t get each issue. You get the second part, it takes you years to find the first part of the second part. I got a second part… It had a text piece on the Alan Scott Green Lantern. The fact that he existed, and had very little green in his costume… That fascinated me."
Robinson then told a story about how his first work for DC was a Secret Origin story, which promptly got lost, including all the art… So his first real work was The Golden Age, a JSA story.
“I was always attracted to the darker aspects of the DC books,” said Robinson. “At this point, you had this very very dark Vertigo stuff. There was nothing like what Frank Miller was doing with Daredevil. I got asked to pitch a Doc Savage book… And I pitched this dark book, which got rejected… And so I turned it into Starman. It was originally supposed to be a four part mini-series.”
Talking more about Starman, Robinson said that the title was sort of a black sheep of DC before he got his hands on it. “There was no sense of lineage,” said Robinson. “At the time there were three group Editors, and they had to sign off on each other’s issues. They didn’t like the book… At the end of issue three, there were these three cliffhangers, that was me deliberately saying, I want to keep this going.”
DiDio then asked who influenced Starman. “Grant Morrison at the time, he was a huge influence,” said Robinson. “I was talking to him at a Burningham convention, and he said, “There’s not enough honesty in comics,” and I really took it to heart. So I put as much autobiographical info in that book as I could. A huge influence on the book was Tom Waits. I really tried to give the captions, that was me really trying to channel Tom Waits and his lyrics.”
Discussion then moved to when Robinson knew Starman would end. Robinson said, “Around about where he first started going into space, I was going through some bad personal stuff at the time. Archie [Goodwin] had died, and Tony Harris was leaving, so I thought, “What if I just ended it there?” But I hate when writers leave stuff hanging. So I started to use all the ideas I had, and work towards an ending. It was about halfway through that I started heading towards the end.”
DiDio then complimented Robinson, saying that Starman is one of those stories they just want to leave as is. “That’s something I’m very grateful for at DC,” said Robinson. “It rarely happens, and it means the world to me. Frank Miller had an agreement at Marvel that no-one would touch Elektra, but they revoked that at some point. I feel a magician shouldn’t reveal his tricks, or do them twice. If I brought Starman back, I might mess up. If you pick up the scab, you never know what you might find. Ironically, I live in San Francisco now… There is one little story I haven’t told about Jack’s past, and Tony Harris and I talk about it. I don’t know if he exists in modern continuity?”
“I think that’s up for you to decide,” said DiDio.
“It would be Jack’s adventure in Japan,” clarified Robinson.
Robinson followed up Starman with a long break, before he got invited back to write Batman: Face the Face. He was then talking to Ed Brubaker about doing an Elongated Man back-up in Detective Comics, the idea being that Ralph Dibny would get closer and closer to Gotham, until the two stories tied together… And then Identity Crisis happened, killing off Sue Dibny, the Elongated Man’s wife.
“It kind of put me off working in comics for a while,” said Robinson. Continuing, he said that it was Geoff Johns who convinced him to come back and write more for the publisher. He eventually ended up on Justice League, which he had mixed feelings about.
“I think I may have made a mistake getting so into their personalities and characters,” said Robinson. “They want gods fighting these big, big… I didn’t have Superman, I didn’t have Hal Jordan. So I loved writing Donna Troy. Congorilla and Starman, I would love to do more with those guys,” said Robinson, looking directly at DiDio to laughter from the audience.
Talking about the somewhat negative fan reaction to the book, Robinson lamented reading message board comments. “Before I started writing [Donna Troy], she had no personality, I think I gave her one. It’s that blank slate, readers put their personality on. If what you write doesn’t agree with them, they get upset,” said Robinson.
Turning to audience questions, a fan asked if there were any interesting stories about writing the League of Extraordinary Gentleman movie.
“The original script I wrote was set in New York, which is why Tom Sawyer was in it,” said Robinson. “Mark Twain wrote more Tom Sawyer books, and he never aged. He was like a comic book character. It was set in New York, and the macguffin – they said they needed a threat that would resonate in the present day, but make sense in the past. So I had this flesh eating gas… The big mystery was, this group was going to kill people. How are they going to kill all of New York? The subways had already been excavated in turn of century New York. So that was the script Sean Connery read. If he hadn’t agreed to do it, it would have gone to Anthony Hopkins. And if he hadn’t agreed, it wouldn’t have been made.”
Robinson then talked about how – given that there were poison gas attacks in Japan – the script had to be rewritten, as well as due to notes from Connery, the Director, and more. “When I wrote the script, I tried to put in as much of the visuals of Kevin O’Neill as I could, and the Director decided to do this different version. The car – it was supposed to be this hot rod, because Tom Sawyer was a kid, and kids love cars, it would be a chase with a car and a stagecoach in New York. And somehow it became this 1920s car in London.”
A few quick hits:
- Asked about international heroes he’s created, Robinson lamented that most are just the broadest swathe, like how every Canadian hero has to have a maple leaf.
- Talking about "New 52" title The Shade, Robinson said, Von Hammer will show up in issue one and two of The Shade, though he won’t be the grandson of Stony Foster, because there are no more Golden Age heroes. In issue five and six, there’s the female character Lesandre, and tied her origin into The Shade. In issue eleven, “We basically have these gigantic Egyptian god attacking London, Frazier Irving is drawing that. I wanted to have these British heroes reacting to it.”
- Robinson has an entire Justice League Africa worked out, including their powers, origins, and where they come from.
- “I just wanted to direct a film,” said Robinson, when asked about his self-financed movie Comic Book Villains.
- Talking about a stunt in the movie, Robinson said he had to do a car crash, as well as a fight scene and more all in one day. For the car crash, he only had one take at it, and it was the most exciting part of filming.
- Asked about one of the key ideas of Comic Book Villians, Robinson said, “I used to be a pathological collector. I feel it’s unhealthy for anyone to collect to the point where they’re neglecting other aspects of your life. It’s about for me, when I got divorced, divesting myself of all the comics I collected. I used to collect viewmasters.”
- Robinson didn’t regret making the movie, but prefers comics, because of the immediacy and ease of doing them.
- Robinson would do more Leave it to Chance, as long as his collaborator was up for it.
- Asked what project he would want to tackle again, if he had to, Robinson would NOT want to do Starman again, because it was such a “huge endeavor.” He’s also very proud of his Mon-El stories in Superman, though he wishes it was in a different book.
- Robinson liked writing The Outsider – he didn’t expect to write him so much. “I don’t know what DC’s plans are for the character,” said Robinson. “Neither does DC,” said DiDio.
Didio then asked what Robinson would like to do in the future. “I’d like to write an iconic DC character, because I haven’t done that in a while,” said Robinson. “Also working in the bizarre corners of the DC Universe, so at some point I’d like to pitch you guys the further adventures of Congorilla and Starman.”
The cover to The Shade #1
Getting back to The Shade, Robinson gave a rundown of the series.
“I came up with a storyline involving the Shade’s family, which we didn’t know he had,” said Robinson. “He has to make things right with this family. It starts with Opal City, but takes him all over the world. It allowed me to do these three issue arcs, and then Times Past, the first in Paris, the second in 1902, and the third the origin of the Shade. It allows me to work with different artists, which I kind of ripped off from Grant Morrison on Batman & Robin.”
Continuing, Robinson said, “The first three issues, I’m having Cully Hamner do them. It feels fresh and unique, it’s not what you expect. Darwyn Cooke has done his issue. So has Jill Thompson, actually. It might be the first time an entire twelve issue series has been written before it comes out. Oh, and Tony Harris is doing all the covers.”
Robinson first thought of The Shade as a more interesting character while reading a funeral issue for The Flash, which had the character lamenting how the hero had “them all running in circles.”
“I can just put that character back on like a comfortable coat. His quippy way of talking, the irony that he sees in every situation. I could write The Shade forever,” said Robinson. Continuing, he said that he’ll do twelve issues of The Shade, and if it sells well he’ll come back and do another mini-series, though he feels the character is better in short bursts than as an ongoing series.
And that was it! We’ll see you back here for plenty more from FanExpo!