Friday afternoon at the FanExpo Canada convention in Toronto, DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio moderated the Spotlight on James Robinson panel. Precisely at the panel’s noon start time, Robinson promptly greeted the audience, introducing himself and calling the assembled group of fans as “small but colorful.” Robinson began the panel himself, telling the crowd of his excitement for the New 52, even though it was a huge adjustment for everyone at DC.
“I think once all our ducks are in a row in terms of continuity, we’ll be all right,” Robinson said.
DiDio moderated the panel with ease, asking Robinson (who has a background in screenwriting) about how he got into comics in the first place.
“My mother read comics to me growing up, and then I wanted to read,” Robinson said his British accent lingering. “I learned how to read at a very young age because I wanted to read comic books.”
Robinson said his time in film school, which was not as successful as he’d envisioned, taught him the rudimentary basics of how to script comic books.
Neil Gaiman was noted as a major inspiration, not specifically due to his work, but because Robinson knew right off the bat he could develop the same type of career upon watching Gaiman’s grow. He expressed a playful envy towards Gaiman’s career, which he clearly stated was without resentment. These feelings ultimately pushed him to pursue his own career in the comic book industry.
“I was just happy I was one of the guys who could write,” Robinson said, recalling the excitement he felt in his youth, going to the shop in England, before solicitations and preview catalogs, to pick up favorite 100-page issues of titles like “The Brave and The Bold” and “Detective Comics” — especially issues featuring Manhunter.
“Manhunter was a huge, huge, huge influence on me,” Robinson said. “The art, by Walt Simonson at the time, was really unlike anything that had been seen in comics.”
The story itself was wonderful, Robinson mused, but then, “he killed the character at the end.”
It was because of this particular series that Robinson began following Archie Goodwin, a writer who became editor of “Detective Comics” in the ’70s, replacing Julius Schwartz. Robinson referred to this time at DC as a tight-knit one among editors.
“It was very frustrating. I was trying to get into DC, I kept trying to get into DC and it wasn’t until Archie got in that I got in,” he said.
Growing up, Robinson read both Marvel and DC comics, but felt he always gravitated towards the latter. He compared DC characters to blank slates a writer can mold, naming this as part of the attraction for him.
He said the blank slate-style of DC’s characters allow the reader flexibility, because it affords them enough space to project their own representation onto them. “If you give characters too much personality, and it doesn’t match with what the fans have in their heads, you’re in trouble,” Robinson said.
Writer Grant Morrison was also mentioned as a large influence on Robinson. At a Birmingham comic book convention, Morrison told Robinson there’s not enough honesty in comics anymore, writers don’t really give up any their real selves. “I really took that to heart,” Robinson said.
Robinson tried to put as much of himself into his Eisner Award-winning book “Starman” as he could, including his love for musician Tom Waits, whose moody lyrics influenced his writing style.
Robinson recalled that “Starman” was hated upon its initial release, telling the audience, “I don’t remember people coming up to me with loads of ‘Starman,’ but get that now. I don’t know where those people were when I was writing it.”
On the subject of bringing Starman back as a part of the current DC relaunch, Robinson maintains his long-standing reservations. “I do feel that a magician shouldn’t reveal his tricks or do them twice. If I brought Jack back, A) I might mess it up and B) if you pick a scab, you don’t know what’s going to be underneath,” he said. “I’m just glad he’s retired.”
Despite that, Robinson maintains he has one Starman story left to tell regarding Jack’s past. “Tony Harris and I talk about doing it. But I don’t know, I don’t even know if he exists now,” Robinson said of the Starman character post-relaunch. “That’s up to you,” DiDio countered.
Robinson described the story as a Jack Knight adventure in Japan, but he made it clear that the narrative won’t see the light of day unless Harris comes on board for the project.
Robinson said it means the world to him that DC has left the character untouched since his run. “I’m grateful you guys allow me that kind of respect.”
Between 1997 and 2009, Robinson went on hiatus in so far as his comics career was concerned. During this time, he wrote the screenplays for “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which he admitted was a terrible film but a wonderful screenplay, and “Comic Book Villains.”
Most recently, Robinson was the writer on “Justice League of America.” He said working with a cast of B-list characters freed him up to delve deeper into personalities while at the same time trying to come up with big, interesting adventures for the superheroes.
“I didn’t have Hal Jordan, and I felt my approach was probably the right way to go,” Robinson said. “I loved writing Donna Troy and I never lost touch with the fact that I was writing Dick Grayson and not Bruce Wayne. I loved trying to give him his own unique voice. I tried to make him his own Batman.”
The panel then moved into its Q&A portion and fans question Robinson about his work in movies, most notably on The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and Comic Book Villains.
Robinson fondly remembered his time working in the film industry, noting how easy it is for a screenplay to be turned on its head by a film’s director. In the case of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” the actors and director didn’t get along. “Connery would come up to me and be like, ‘Come to my trailer, I want to go over some lines,'” Robinson said, imitating Sean Connery’s accent to a tee.
He called hanging in Connery’s trailer, which was as big as the convention room he was addressing the audience in as “pretty cool.”
A lifelong collector of everything from comics to china and from View-Master slides to vintage collectables, Robinson called his habit “out of control.” This was something he tried to capture in the “Comic Book Villains” screenplay.
“If you neglect enjoying the world and your life, you’re doing yourself a disservice,” Robinson said of becoming overly absorbed in collections. “I feel it’s unhealthy for anybody to collect to the point where its affecting everyday life,” he said. On a personal level, the writer said he has minimized his collectables to a more manageable size, keeping only those items dearest to him.
When DiDio asked which of his works he’s most proud of, Robinson responded that out of all the books he’s written he wouldn’t want to do “Starman” again and is most proud of “The Golden Age.”
Coming up for Robinson in October is “The Shade,” which revisits his popular “Starman” cast member. The storyline involves the Shade’s family, something the one-time villain didn’t know he had.
“Whenever I write the Shade, I feel like I could just put the character on, like it’s some kind of comfortable old coat,” Robinson said before stating he’d love the opportunity to one day write one of the big characters, like Batman or Superman. “Thinking about DC, I really feel that that’s my home.”