25 March 2012

“Robin Is a Shadow of a Shadow”

The last weekly Robin looked at two ways DC Comics responded to the unexpected popularity of its new Robin character in 1992. This is about a third, known as Robin 3000.

The project originated with Byron Preiss, a New York book packager who loved comics and sci-fi and constantly juggled a lot of projects. Among the titles he commissioned were Bruce Coville’s My Teacher Is an Alien series and Sherwood Smith’s recent Oz sequels. Preiss died in a car accident in 2005, still juggling.

In the mid-1980s, Preiss approached the comics artist P. Craig Russell with the idea of producing a futuristic Tom Swift comic for Simon & Schuster, which then held the license for that technophilic teen. Preiss wrote the script with Steve Ringgenberg.

Russell recalled the project at length, as quoted on this webpage about his work:
It was around ’85 or ’86. . . . after just having finished adaptations of works by the likes of Maeterlinck, Kipling, and Wilde I thought it would be fun to draw a space opera with all the sorts of hardware and futuristic backgrounds I had not drawn since Killraven. A lark. “You know...for kids.” . . .

I had never worked on a project in which the script was being re-written in the course of drawing it. I also had never had to deal, albeit second hand, with such a hands-on art director as I had at S & S. I would send in pages to Byron who would take them to S & S, and then relay to me the needed changes. . . .

…it was finally finished, 58 pages and a cover designed by [Jim] Steranko (an 8 by 11 xerox layout that looked like he tossed it off in a matter of minutes and was absolutely spot-on in its dynamics and composition. I followed it exactly). Nothing happened. It was slated for S & S’s Spring schedule. It was slated for S & S’s Fall schedule. It was slated for Spring. Then Fall. Finally it was slated for bupkis! S & S was not going to be publishing graphic novels.
Preiss’s business model meant he constantly had to sell new titles to pay the costs of current projects while waiting for royalties on those that hit big. So he couldn’t afford to let Tom Swift 3000 die. He held onto Russell’s finished pages waiting for an opportunity.

And then the Tim Burton Batman movie was a huge hit. Tim Drake as Robin was a big hit. The comics market exploded with speculators buying lots of product, especially if it combined an established brand name and a #1 issue.

So Preiss sold DC Comics on the Tom Swift material rewritten to be a variant Batman adventure—what the post-Crisis publisher calling “Elseworlds,” meaning “stories that don’t count as part of our official continuity, even though less than a decade ago we wiped out everything but our official continuity.”
Tom Swift became Tom Wayne, descendant of Bruce Wayne and protégé of Bruce Wayne XXVIII, who had taken up the mantle of Batman a millennium on. Tom Swift 3000 was now Robin 3000! (Officially, the two-issue miniseries is titled Batman: Robin 3000, but the biggest logo on the cover was the same one created for the Robin series.)

Russell explained the necessary changes:
Tom would be re-incarnated as Robin in the year 3000 and new material would be added to incorporate Batman and bracket the story. And why is this guy running around who is now called Robin but is not dressed like him? Um... ’cause he’s undercover... yeah, that’s it, he’s undercover, that’s the ticket. So I called back my ‘Tom’ model, now married, a daddy, and a good 25 pounds heavier and drew the new 18 pages and produced a new cover for the second volume—my Wally Wood/EC Comics/Sci-Fi homage.
The result looks nice, with a mid-1980s MTV vibe on good paper, but it doesn’t read well. It doesn’t draw on the traditional themes of the Robin saga, such as coming of age, inheritance, and justice. Instead, the story’s heart is definitely in Tom Swift territory, all about fantastic flying machines.

Furthermore, the lettering shows how Preiss’s staff crammed the “Tom Wayne” name into existing word balloons. (In addition, Ringgenberg’s name was written poorly enough that many websites credit “Stevev Ringgenberg.”)

As with the Robin miniseries of the same vintage, copies of Robin 3000 are relatively common in US comics shops; more recent comic books are harder to find because, once the comics market bubble burst, they were printed in much smaller numbers.

No comments: