Writer Top Five: James Robinson

I started the ‘Writer Top Five’, with the first one on Greg Rucka back in 2012, with the idea of it being a regular series. As usual with me, it never happened quite the way I envisaged, but that doesn’t mean I can’t eventually persuade myself to revisit an idea and try to revive it.

The idea was to talk about the writers whose work I enjoy (as detailed in a listing, now out of date, of the creators with the most comic books in my collection) and try to give it some perspective and to celebrate the work that meant the most to me. James Robinson was just outside the top ten (and probably still is, because the only real additions have been The Shade maxi-series and the Starman Black Lantern tie-in, although I’m giving The Saviors a try) but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the books I purchased.

A brief career overview: Robinson started out in 1989 with London’s Dark, an original graphic novel with art from Paul Johnson. He produced work for Dark Horse (The Terminator: One Shot had great art from Matt Wagner and a great pop-up page, and the six-issue Grendel Tales: Four Devils, One Hell had lovely art from Teddy Kristiansen) and did some Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, before the 1993 Elseworlds mini-series, The Golden Age, which would prove to be a primer for his Starman series. There was also the Malibu series, Firearm, in the same year, but it would be 1994 that things took off for Robinson, with the beginning of Starman (he would also find time to write some WildC.A.T.S. issues with lovely Travis Charest art). During this time, he would also write more Batman: Legend Of The Dark Knight, the Vigilante mini-series, a spin-off mini-series for the Shade, the delightful Leave It To Chance at Image, and even a Batman/Hellboy/Starman crossover. After Starman finished in 2001, Robinson drifted into screenwriting, writing and directing Comic Book Villains (2002), and famously scripting 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, which I shall refrain from discussing further. He would return to DC in the mid-2000s, writing Batman and Superman and the Justice League of America (and the infamous Justice League: Cry For Justice), before returning to The Shade with the 12-issue maxi-series in 2011 and Earth-2 in 2012. However, Robinson left DC and will be working for Marvel on the Fantastic Four and an Invaders series, plus his own series at Image, The Saviors. Now, on to the books I enjoyed the most:

5. The Shade (12 issues, 2011)
Let’s start with the most recent. Perhaps this should be included with Starman (see later), but I think it warrants its own entry. Ten years after the end of the Starman series, Robinson returned for an adventure for the breakout villain character, the immortal and morally ambiguous Shade, in a story about family and origins, with a fantastic roster of artists (Cully Hamner, Darwyn Cooke, Javier Pulido, Jill Thompson, Frazer Irving, Gene Ha). The stylised language of the Shade, the globetrotting style, the introduction of great new characters – it all made for a very enjoyable return to the world of Starman.

4. The Golden Age (4 issues, 1993)
I grew up with Marvel superhero comic books, so the history of DC comics meant nothing to me. Until The Golden Age, an Elseworlds tale that detailed the adventures of DC superheroes after the second world war, and the return of a supervillain leading to a battle in Washington, DC. It had fantastic art from Paul Smith (who would team up with Robinson for another entry on this list) and a rich collection of characters and the heritage of the DC universe – I was so absorbed by the story that I wanted to read the annotations that the internet kindly provided. Robinson’s love for the rich history of the DC comic books shone through and made me understand why he loved it.

3. Firearm (18 issues, 1993–1995)
I think it was the old rec.arts.comics. forums that put me onto this, and I was very grateful. Firearm was about Alec Swan, a former British covert agent for The Lodge with the codename of ‘Firearm’, who left to become a private investigator, ending up in Pasadena, California. His cases tend to end up involving ‘ultras’, the Malibu equivalent of super-powered individuals, which would provide plenty of excuses for John Woo-style balletic bloodshed (I had recently discovered John Woo’s films). Swan even got his own Moriarty in the personage of Rafferty, a killer of ultras. The series was a great mix of the PI and crime action films, with some lovely art from Cully Hamner, with a nice romance storyline between Swan and an ultra called Ellen, and it had one of my favourite Robinson lines: ‘He was a Touchstone guy in a Walt Disney world’.

2. Leave It To Chance (13 issues, 1996–1999, 2002)
Thirteen issues of this comic book weren’t enough, especially as the last issue set things up for more stories that never happened. Leave It To Chance was an absolute delight: beautiful art from Paul Smith telling the story of Chance Falconer, who is the 14-year-old daughter of Lucas Falconer, and her pet dragon St George (Smith always drew a great Lockheed in his Uncanny X-Men days). Her father is the famous paranormal investigator and ‘protector’ of Devil’s Echo, a city full of supernatural elements (magic, fairies, goblins, ghosts, demons); it is a family heritage but Lucas thinks it is too dangerous for Chance and won’t teach her (because he lost his wife to those dangerous elements) but Chance refuses to acknowledge this and winds up having adventures of her own. It was utterly charming and rightfully deserved the Eisner awards for Best New Series and Best Title for Younger Readers, and is exactly the sort of comic people talk about when they want to give something to their daughters to read.

1. Starman (1994–2001)
What more needs to be said about Starman? The 1990s were a tumultuous decade for the comic book industry, and the material tended to be grim’n’gritty. But not Starman. It was one of the gems that shone. Along with Mark Waid’s run on The Flash, it was the book that explored the idea of heritage heroes in the DC universe. It was part of the DC universe but seemed to exist in its own little pocket, in the fictional Opal City, which Robinson made into a character in its own right. Jack Knight was the classic reluctant hero, who didn’t wear a costume, who was more concerned about collectibles for his shop than fighting villains, and had a complicated relationship with his father, Ted Knight, the original Starman. Tony Harris’s art, with all its little extra curly lines on faces, the fantastic sense of design and a unique style, was a great palliative to the flashier style of the ascending Image books. It may have not have been great to the end of the run (the book was co-written with David Goyer for the last third), but it was a great series that saw Robinson become a ‘name’, the creation of a character who was allowed a retirement, the reclaiming of the villain, Shade, into something much richer (‘the shadowy, shadowy man’), and the poignancy of the Talking With David issues (David Knight was Jack’s older brother, who was killed on his first night as the new Starman and from whom Jack took over the role). Even though it was many years later, issue #81 (a tie-in to the Blackest Night crossover) still had that Starman magic. A wonderful series.

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