James Robinson is Up to No Good with "Airboy"

When writer James Robinson and up and coming artist Greg Hinkle decided to bring Golden Age aviator Airboy out of obscurity and into a modern comic, they knew it wouldn't be any ordinary relaunch. Part autobiographical, part fiction, with a dose of inspiration from Hunter S. Thompson, "Airboy" intends to be an experiment in excessive behavior blurring the lines between our world and Airboy's.

With a tender yet vulgar touch, Robinson's latest work explores the ideas of obscurity and what it means to be a creator. Fueled with drugs, booze and sex, Robinson and Hinkle are transported into Airboy's world where he fights Nazis and protects America -- except he has no idea that people aren't reading him anymore.

After Robinson left the stage at Image Expo 2014, he sat down with CBR News to share more about his uniquely meta comic and how it isn't just a book about wild debauchery, but also a story with heart (along with the drinking, drugs and sex).

CBR News: On stage, you mentioned that the themes for your new book "Airboy" are "drink, drugs, and indiscriminate consensual sex." Is there more?

James Robinson: That will definitely be a theme that runs through the book, the monumental excesses that Greg and I get up to while we are attempting to come up with ideas for this character that we, at first, have no affinity for. We do enough drink, enough drugs and enough sex that we begin to enter Airboy's dimension and talk with him and experience life from his perspective.

When did you realize you wanted to pull this character out of the public domain and put him into a book?

I saw "Adaptation," and I began to get ideas. I pitched it to Eric [Stephenson] and explained what I wanted to do in terms of showing me and Greg doing things that people don't generally want to be seen doing, and he loved the idea. I wanted to push it all the way.

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Why do you think these characters sit, relatively unused, in the public domain?

Some people don't realize they're public domain, and sometimes there's a reason why they became irrelevant. You can only do so many serious, grim and gritty reinterpretations of public domain characters. The big group of them, Nedor [Publishing], which is where Alan Moore took a lot of the characters he put in "Tom Strong." Dynamite with Alex Ross also did that [in "Project Superpowers"]. But those characters are kind of lame, so you can only take lame characters and make them grim and gritty so many times before people call B.S. Really, a WWII boy aviator in a plane with flapping wings called "Birdie" -- well, I guess it's kind of amazing when you put it like that actually -- but it's a character that has an appeal to a certain kind of reader and not to everybody.

It sounds like it would be pretty easy to take these characters that were once very sincere and serious and pull them across the irony threshold to become a laughable caricature -- but it doesn't sound like you and Greg are doing that. It sounds like you're taking him seriously and treating his emotional reactions about his relevancy in the world with dignity.

You take someone like Batman, who has changed and evolved over the decades. If they'd stopped publishing "Batman" at the height of the Dick Sprang stories he would've been quite a campy, silly character, fighting villains on giant props and all of the things back then that Batman was known for. I could see how you could poke fun at that, too, but you see how a character can evolve when it grows with the culture who reads it. For today's reader, Batman is a very sophisticated character and you can add that sophistication if you want to. With Airboy, the idea of this young man that finds himself in our world when he was fighting to keep it free from fascist tyranny, and we haven't really changed for the better. Those are the questions we've been asking.

What has Airboy been doing since he last appeared in comics?

He's just been in his world, fighting Nazis and thinking everything is fine. We take him on a drinking tour of San Francisco; the gays in the Castro think he's adorable. You know, he's got to experience all of [our world] before it drives him crazy and he has to go back to his world -- and we go with him.

How did you meet your artist, Greg Hinkle?

I met him when he was doing fanzines. He's finishing up a fantastic 120-page graphic novel with Jason McNamara called "The Rattler." Having seen what he could do, and seeing his art evolve to this very singular, beautiful style, I couldn't wait to work with him. When I showed the first piece of artwork that you saw today, he did [that] to show Eric what he could do. That got him the gig and we're off to the races.

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With all of the mayhem, do you think it will follow the same trajectory as "Sex Criminals" in terms of availability through Apple?

I'm sure Apple won't let it through. It'll be a challenge. And, you know, there is a real heart to it, it's not just us living this excessive life, there is an emotional thread running through it -- but no one wants to hear that. They just want to hear about the sex and drugs.

I want to hear about it! I like emotions!

The emotional thread is that I'm a writer that's been in the industry for a couple of decades, Greg is a new guy starting out, and it's that fragile thing that exists when creating characters. Sometimes people don't like those characters or care about them, and in the comic I sit down and tell Airboy that he's a public domain character that no one cares about anymore, that aviation heroes are no longer interesting. It's quite difficult. Everyone flies now. When he was a hero, flight was this thing that either brave men did to fight the enemy, or people would put on their best clothes and to do. Now you're lucky if people wear pants to fly. So he has to deal with those changes, so there's this emotional thing between the three of us. It's about us helping each other through to the end of the book.

Image Comics will release "Airboy" later in 2014.

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