James Robinson was late to his own panel; a panel that started with "an eighth-grade PowerPoint presentation video" that didn't work. "Could we cluster around this laptop?," he asked, setting the scene for a fast and funny panel at San Francisco's Wondercon Saturday afternoon.
He repeatedly thanked the fans in attendance (which included his new fiancee) for their interest in his work, even going so far as to thank individual audience members as they left
The slide show, assembled hurriedly the night before by DC Comics senior story editor Ian Sattler, tracked Robinson's career from the beginning to the future of DC's "Superman: New Krypton" series.
"London's Dark" was his first published work. It was a forty-eight page graphic novel done with Paul Johnson for England's Titan Books (where he was briefly an editor [thanks to Neil Gaiman] in his time between film school and moving to America). Robinson enjoyed working with Johnson, but the latter was making so much money in advertising that he never pursued a career in comics, though Johnson also worked on "Books of Magic" #4 with Gaiman, and a three-part "Legends of the Dark Knight" with Robinson. Robinson wanted to make that story "just like an Agatha Christie story, only with Batman."
Robinson owes his career in comics to Gaiman and artist Dave McKean-though in an unusual way. McKean and Gaiman were doing a series with Titan Books, "and I thought, 'fuck them. I can do this.'" He described "London's Dark" as the story of young girl in the London Blitz during World War II, based on the stories his mother had told him when growing up. "I was a huge fan of Ealing films," (referring to the legendary British film studio of the post-war era, where David Lean, Alec Guinness, and Peter Sellers began their film careers). "Some of them are drama, some of them are comedy, but the idea was to do an Ealing film that had a supernatural feeling."
"How do you get into comic books?," Robinson asked himself. "Get something published. I was lucky enough to get this published, which got me noticed by (DC Comics editor) Archie Goodwin and (writer-artist) Mike Wagner."
His first book for DC was an issue of "Secret Origins." His story was the secret origin of Dinosaur Island; an origin that remains a secret because the book was cancelled before the story was published and artwork was lost.
From there, Robinson moved on to "Grendel Tales." "Grendel" creator Wagner told him: "I'm going to take a break from 'Grendel;' I'm eventually going to do Grendel Prime, but would you like to write "Grendel?" Robinson "jumped at the chance, but by the time it came out, there had been a relaunch of 'Grendel' and it had to be published as a miniseries. "I had a real relationship with (editor) Diana Schultz" who taught him the basics of "how to write comics; how many panels can you put on a page, and how many words you can have in a panel." (The answers, for those who wonder, are no more than nine panels per page or forty-four words in a panel) "You even have to pay attention to the space between words in a balloon."
Robinson returned to DC for his "The Golden Age" miniseries. "Archie was constantly trying to find me work. But he couldn't because of editorial policy. We came up with an idea to do one of the things that always bothered me about comic books; there were things I liked that had an adult edge and things that had a softer edge. I wanted to do something in the middle. I'd always loved the Golden Age (of the 1940s). Some people collected comics by artists or writers; I collected all the Earth-2 stories (featuring DC's characters of the 40s). For one reason or another, it became an "Elseworlds," but Geoff Johns and I consider it an official part of DC history." He commented on the coloring by Richard Ory, and the fact that it "might be the last blue-line fully-colored book. It was painted full-color, rather than done digitally."
On his "Firearm" series for Malibu Comics: "I originally I wanted to call it 'Swan,' but they wouldn't let me; now you can apparently call a book 'Dance' (referring to DC's upcoming "Final Crisis" follow-up) and get away with it. They wouldn't let me do it because it was too strange. I wanted to do a guy who wants to live the life of a Philip Marlowe but is constantly frustrated because he's living in a world of superheroes."
Next came the work for which Robinson is probably best known: "Starman." "While I was doing 'The Golden Age,' I was thinking, 'How can I become a really big-name writer? I looked at what Frank Miller was doing on 'Daredevil'-it was a bi-monthly, and about to be cancelled; or what Alan Moore had done with 'Swamp Thing' or Neil Gaiman with 'Sandman.' I realized there's no such thing as a bad character, just characters that are badly handled. I said to Archie, 'I can do this. When ("Starman's") available, get it for me.' I wanted to create an intergenerational saga. I thought the reason Starman never caught on was that every time it was started up again, there was a new set of characters. The reason Green Lantern and The Flash worked was that there was a passing on of the torch-or the lantern, I suppose. I think it's my finest work and I'm very proud of it. He thanked the fans for their steady readership; that the sales of the book were always consistent.
Sattler asked him if there was "a point (while writing the book) when you realized you were going to have a while to go (before it was finished)? Was there a finite ending for it?"
"There was a point when (artist Tony Harris) was leaving, and Jack (Knight) was going into space, and I thought of leaving it then, but I thought I'd be cheating you guys (the fans) and cheating the character, so I decided to keep it going. (The fun was) having all those pieces to play with and being able to put them all together, and keeping them all in your head; like the fact that Jack never says 'I love you' to his dad. I knew early on that I was going to kill Ted Knight. And I was building to that point."
Sattler: "You get asked about this character a lot. Is it weird to have a character take on a life like that; that people keep asking about it?"
Robinson: "It's not. You're worried whether people are going to care about it; whether people are going to remember. Whoever's asking those questions, thank you."
Sattler: "You had such a great supporting cast (in 'Starman'). How did you go about setting them up?"
Robinson: "It was a different world at DC then. Remember this was edited by Archie Goodwin. People still remember Archie; he was a superstar, and he got me a huge amount of leeway. He was a huge fan of Charles Dickens, and we had a cast that you could go in any number of directions, (like) The Shade. I couldn't believe that no one had given him an origin. He was just a top hat and a pair of pixie shows. There was an issue of 'The Flash"-I can't remember whether it was written by Mark Waid or Bill Messner-Loebs-where the Rogues were sitting around talking about Barry Allen. The Shade said 'Barry fooled us, he made us think we were playing a game. If we had taken it seriously, we could have ruled the world.' I found the idea of the Shade saying that fascinating. Or the O'Dares; no one cared about Scalphunter; so I was able to play with reincarnation, and all the other things I was interested in. I knew I could do anything as long as when I reached the eightieth issue, I'd answered all the questions.
"But when (one of the regular 'Starman' characters) appears outside the book, it seems weird. So I knew if I was gonna use Robin or Green Lantern for an extended period of time, it was going to cause problems. So I looked for characters who nobody would mind being used."
On "The Vigilante," his 1996 miniseries for DC: "This is one of the things I'm most proud of. This could not be published by DC today. I pitched this to Archie; obviously I wasn't going to turn this to a Vertigo book or anything weird, but I wanted to do as much of a James Ellroy novel as I could. I think the Vigilante is so incredibly cool. Why he isn't in Arizona or the desert, but in Metropolis, I don't know. I wanted to tell the story of Las Vegas; things like who really killed Bugsy Siegel. I'm very proud of it."
"Leave It To Chance:" "This was my attempt to do Nancy Drew. I don't read Nancy Drew, but where I first got the idea to do a Nancy Drew story was when Frank Miller did (a series of) these cool posters of detectives. There was one of her standing by a grave and it intrigued me, so I went back and read the original 1930s Nancy Drews, with her father telling her not to get in trouble. I saw (Chance's father) as being a cross between Dr. Strange and Sherlock Holmes. We're never going to publish this, so I can tell you, her father isn't dead. He was going to be the next falconer."
And his current work on "Superman:" Sattler: "What James and Geoff Johns started is an era of Superman books that people will look back on. You adapted to being the Superman guy."
Robinson: "I was sort of beginning the process of getting back into comics. After 'Starman,' it wasn't that I was fed up with comics; I was just burned out. I'd started working on films like 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.' I wanted it to be good." But when the film failed, he "felt beaten up by films. Geoff talked me into it (writing 'Superman') and the ball started rolling, and one thing lead to another."
He talked about how far in advance the Superman books have been planned. "I think at one (early) point (we knew) we were going to send Superman off into space-it's all been there from the beginning-the Legion (of Super-Heroes) is going to be a part of it. And I have to thank Dan (Didio) for the chance to do the 'Guardian' special. I wanted to do an 80-page giant (with Jimmy Olsen and the Guardian)." Didio allowed him to stretch the story over two separate issues. "I'm very, very proud of the 'New Krypton' book. Working with Greg (Rucka); he's brought a very different feeling to 'Action (Comics).' We had so much planned, and we didn't know what bringing in another person to it would do. Greg was very humble in coming in and not having an agenda. His first issue of 'Action' has a feel (of his own), but 'Superman: New Krypton' has a feel that doesn't feel like the either of us. We're building up to something big in 2010."
The final slide was from Robinson's upcoming "Justice League" book. "This was originally going to be an ongoing 'Justice League' book, but it's now going to be six issues, fully painted. The up-side of it is that it'll have more impact. The ending will affect everything. The best thing about it is that I get to write Congorilla. He and Mikaal (the blue Starman who appeared in Robinson's run on 'Starman') have a real double act." Referring to Tom Stoppard's play about the nature of fictional realities, Robinson said, "I'm going to pitch a 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern' of the DC Universe (starring them), and call it 'Blue and Gold."
Then came questions from the audience.
I'm trying to get a feel for your take on Superman. What's his inner nature. The way he talked down to Zatara seemed out of character.
"The difference between Batman and Superman is that Batman is always Batman and sometime plays at being Bruce Wayne, and Superman is a Kansas farm boy, so his calling Zatara a little shit" isn't a stretch. Superman isn't always Jimmy Stewart; sometimes he's Clark Gable. Wait till you see him on New Krypton."
Would you have done anything differently in "Starman?". Were there any characters you didn't use?"
"There was a painted novel I wanted to do, so there's a little piece of the picture missing, but Jack is no longer in my head and it's too difficult to get back there now, so it'll never get written."
What Superman villains do you enjoy writing?
"There are usual ones like Brainiac, Luthor, and Zod that I enjoy writing, but I want to flesh out the rogue's gallery. I want to make the Prankster a real guy."
Is the Starman in JSA your Starman?
"I introduced him at the end of my run, but he's the 'Kingdom Come' Starman, who became the Legion Starman."
One woman thanked Robinson for his treatment of Superman's dog, Krypto.
"I love Krypto, and I'm going to use him and make him more heroic. I can promise you that as long as I'm writing the book, I will never kill Krypto."
How do you go about creating the worlds you do?
Robinson said he loves the idea of creating a world and making it seem real. In "Superman," he'll be creating "a history of Metropolis's 'Avenue of Tomorrow,' that will look like the 1940s or 50s and Buck Rogers, all the way to the end of the street, where it becomes the world of (Lex) Luthor." His intention is to have Luthor at one end and John Henry Irons, whom he considers the "anti-Luthor; the scientific genius who works for good" at the other.
The final questioner complimented Robinson for his progressive use of gay and lesbian characters fifteen years ago, "ahead of the curve."
"I grew up in working class neighborhood of London. Growing up as a boy, I was a little bit homophobic," but he hung out with a racially-diverse group or blacks, whites, and Indians. "When I went to University, you want to hook up with the pretty girls, so I'd go to the fashion department. I'd ask out a pretty girl for a drink, and she'd say 'Okay, but I want to bring Sandy,' so we'd all go, and eventually I'd think, 'Hey, Sandy is pretty cool.' I got to know a lot of gay people, so I started to write those characters I'd want to hang out with."