James Robinson: Writer Without a Superman

In the 1990s, James Robinson revolutionized superhero comics with his groundbreaking magnum opal "Starman." Using Jack Knight as his conduit, Robinson delivered a story without rival to an industry desperate for not only a new voice, but a new take on superhero comics. Over 81 issues, Robinson made Starman, essentially a re-imagined reboot of the all but forgotten Golden Age hero in the form of his reluctant hero son, into one of the most memorable characters of the past two decades.

So what would Robinson do with an extended run writing an icon?

Readers thought they'd get an answer when Robinson was announced as the new writer on DC Comics' "Superman" in early 2008, but two arcs into his and penciler Renato Guedes' run and the Man of Steel was off to New Krypton. Consequently, the Eisner Award-winning writer was left with two heroes who made Starman look like someone worthy of pushing Wonder Woman out of DC's Trinity - Mon-El and the Guardian.

Mon-El is an explorer from the Planet Daxam, blessed with Superman's powers but cursed with a fatal weakness to the lead in Earth's air. Trapped in the Phantom Zone for years, Mon-El was freed by Superman just as the thought-to-be last son of Krypton was heading off to find his roots on his people's new planet.

The Guardian is a clone of the 1940s hero Jim Harper. Now field commander of the Metropolis Science Police, Guardian has no superpowers but carries an indestructible shield.

In this, the first installment of a three-part interview, CBR News explores a world without Superman with James Robinson and finds a writer who couldn't be more pleased with his replacement heroes. Robinson also speaks exclusively about the Captain Atom co-feature he's writing with Greg Rucka for "Action Comics," and reveals which version of the classic hero fans are going to get.

CBR: In "Superman" #687, Guardian says of Mon-El, "He's not as elegant as Superman in the way he handles things... but he gets the job done." Do you think that pretty much sums up the character?

James Robinson: The one thing, unfortunately, that really isn't going to be a big surprise is that at some point, down the line, Mon-El is going to have to face the Phantom Zone, so that he can be the Mon-El that we know in the 30th century. Now, it occurred to me that it seems very inconsistent. Mon-El is actually an explorer. He's not a superhero. He arrives on Earth and he's almost immediately put into the Phantom Zone. And he's stuck in there and when he appears in the future, and I know this is comics, but he's pretty much fully formed as a Legionnaire. So this explains how he left to become the hero that he will be.

Metropolis of the 21st century is Mon-El's training ground to become the legendary Legionnaire of the 31st century?

Yes, this is his training ground and it takes, through Superman, his powers, his abilities and the experience and wisdom of Jim Harper, the Guardian, to prepare him to just about fill Superman's shoes. And you'll see how, as book goes on, he becomes more and more the hero we know him to be in the future.

When you first signed on for "Superman," did you know how soon you would be losing the big guy as your main character?

Yes and no. I think it was something that Geoff [Johns] and I and [DC Executive Editor Dan DiDio] talked about quite early; how this was all going to go down and which books was going to have which character appearing in it and all of that. It wasn't a surprise to me. In fact, it's exciting to be given such a challenging assignment.

One of the things they wanted me to do was, how should I put it, Opal City-ize Metropolis. I think it's a criticism, and a valid one, if God came down with a giant hand and plucked away the Lex Luthor Building and the Daily Planet, there is nothing else distinctive about that city. It could be anywhere in America. And one of the things I am trying to do -- and you'll see with the "Secret Files" we have and everything else we have planned -- by the time I leave the book, which won't be for quite some time hopefully, you'll really get some sense of what Metropolis is and a little bit more of its history and everything else.

The book you've created has the feel of a team book. You've got Guardian, Mon-El, Black Lightning and Steel. Superman's shoes are big ones to fill, but are you having fun with all these other toys from the DC sandbox while making them into a de facto team protecting Metropolis?

It's a lot of fun. At the moment, it's me getting all the pieces in place. Mon-El falling out of the sky at the end of the issue you just read ["Superman" #687] has ramifications that will make him a very different character. I place a lot of the credit on the shoulders of Dan DiDio. He didn't want me to just write a Mon-El book. He asked me what is it that makes Mon-El unique? What makes him special? What makes him interesting and not just a watered down version of Superman? He really sort of set me some challenges. And I think I rose to the occasion but it was really him sort of pushing me to do more. As you see with the next issue and as we're building to the crossover in August there's more shades to this character than you might have thought.

Superman has to come back to "Superman" at some point. Is the hope that Mon-El is ready to star in his own book when that happens?

Well, honestly, I personally feel that he only has a certain sort of shelf life before he has to go back into the Phantom Zone. There are some stories that could be very nicely told about him that are less sort of Metropolis-centric. My ideal goal is to make him popular enough so that when Superman does return to the book, Mon-El at least gets a maxiseries or a miniseries that will lead to him going back into the Phantom Zone.

We've talked about Mon-El. What about your other lead, the Guardian?

I take a little bit of pride in what's become of him. Obviously, I'm talking from the position of having written even more issues than you have read, but also knowing what's coming ahead. That character has never had much of a personality. And so I think already I've given him a personality. He has a daughter now. And he has sense of, one of the things that he is going to be doing and he's already sort of referenced it, a little, he isn't sure that he has a soul. And as opposed to our world where we have atheists and people who don't believe in God, I just don't see how if you lived in a world where there was the Spectre and Deadman and all of these other characters that you could possibly think there was no God. So if there is a God and there are souls, the question for Jim would be, "Do I have a soul or not?" And it's going to be building towards him learning the answer to that one way or another.

When I wrote "Starman" there were beats in the beginning that I knew I was going to be playing out later. And this search will be a nice beat for Jim coming down the line as the big action events become more a factor of the book.

Same question as Mon-El, is Guardian a character that could hold down his own series when Superman comes back to "Superman?"

I don't know. There are some characters that are good as supporting characters. And that's just the way they are. They can't sustain a book for more than an X amount of time. We're not getting into it now because it's early days but I do have plans for ways to continue, after I leave "Superman," to perhaps have a little bit of involvement with this guy afterwards. But I'm just having fun with him in "Superman" at the moment.

Science Police is a very cool concept. Have you enjoyed incorporating it into your storyline?

The Science Police were actually first introduced by Kurt Busiek. But I think I'm sort of adding things to it. Metropolis is like the capital of science for the DC Universe. And in the way that you go to Hollywood if you want to be a screen actor and you go to Silicon Valley if you want to get involved in computers, if you are an inventor or a scientist, you end up in Metropolis. So the idea that their police force would be more science based, made complete sense. And the idea that we are looking at the start of what will become the Science Police of the 30th century, is a nice touch.

Before we move on to "Superman: World of New Krypton," which you are co-writing with Greg Rucka, the two of you are also sharing writing duties on a Captain Atom co-feature in the pages of "Action Comics." That isn't kicking off until July's "Action Comics" #879, but can you share any details?

What you'll say when you see the first issue will be, "What in the hell are they doing?" But then you will realize it's all part of this big picture. It just made sense for us to do as much of it ourselves as we could. Because there is already three of us [Robinson, Rucka and "Supergirl" writer Sterling Gates] and to a lesser because he's off doing "Superman: Secret Origin" and "Adventure Comics," Geoff is also involved. So when you have four people adding a fifth element, another creator, it would be a lot. So keeping it contained between made sense so me and Greg have such a good time it's not a stress working together.

[The Captain Atom feature] is actually a lit bit easier because it's actually me writing it. Greg and I are co-plotting it so once I have my chat with Greg and we get out plot down together, I go off and write it so it's a fairly quick thing to write and it's a lot of fun.

I know people are speculating as to which Captain Atom it will be and believe me, I am a traditionalist as much as the next one so I'm not planning any crazy nonsense, it's going to be the Captain Atom that everybody wants to see.

And the art by Cafu is absolutely stunning.

And the Captain Atom everybody wants to see is...?

It's Nathaniel Adam. It's the classic Nathaniel Adam.

And Captain Atom's storyline ties in to what you and Rucka and Gates are doing in the Super-books?

Yes. Well, it won't during the crossover but you'll see... it all makes sense. By the end of the crossover, everything will start to make sense and you'll begin to see where everything's going. Once you see the "Jimmy Olsen" Special, that will explain some other things. It will all just tie together and you will begin to see the big picture.

We've spent a lot of time on this and where we're going and the direction. We have big plans right through next year so this is just the start.

Check back tomorrow for a look at "Superman: World of New Krypton" and again Friday when Robinson goes ape over Congorilla and "Justice League: Cry for Justice."

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