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James Robinson

Creating a Metaphysical World

May 25, 2012 DC Universe Bookmark and Share

SPOILER ALERT: This feature contains some spoilers for Earth 2 #1, which is available now.

DC Comics’ much-anticipated Earth 2 landed in stores this month as part of the Second Wave of the New 52. The book’s cataclysmic debut issue ends with a massive worm hole being punched through the titular alternate world and Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman dying during the great battle against Apokolips’ parademons.

Series artist Nicola Scott (Birds of Prey, Secret Six) paints the loss of Earth 2‘s Trinity with bold strokes and writer James Robinson’s dialogue is just as sharp as his prior work on Starman or his current run on The Shade. The veteran scribe, who re-imagined the Justice Society of America and the All-Star Squadron once before in the Eisner Award-nominated Golden Age, is striking out in a bold new direction for this postmodern reboot of the classic series.

The new superheroes on Earth 2 assemble around Alan Scott (Green Lantern), Al Pratt (The Atom), and Jay Garrick (The Flash). Also, Batman’s daughter Helena (Robin) and Superman’s cousin Kara (Supergirl) leave Earth 2 through a portal and find themselves on Earth Prime for Paul Levitz’s World’s Finest as Huntress and Power Girl.

Robinson spoke with Under the Radar on the phone about the his big plans for Earth 2‘s metaphysical environment, the historical allusions in his latest work, the day-to-day struggles of being a comic book writer, The Shade, and his thoughts on friends Geoff Johns and Sterling Gates.

Kyle Lemmon (Under the Radar): You’re now living in San Francisco, correct? Are you enjoying the Bay Area?

James Robinson: Yeah, I live in San Francisco now. I lived in Los Angeles for over 20 years and I decided I should move up to San Francisco. I met my wife when she was working in New York and we decided we needed a fresh start and moved here. If I ever need to do any film or TV work it’s only a short plane trip down to L.A.

How are you enjoying the Bay Area?

Oh, I love it! We’re already been here four years now. Time flies. It’s a fantastic city. I wish I had moved here 20 years ago.

Do you try to stay away from the Internet when every minute aspect of your stories is being scrutinized by hardcore DC fans?

Writers always say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter what people think. It’s just opinion.” We all check the Internet and see what people say. I was interested in what people would say about the news regarding my involvement with Masters of the Universe. I’ve been really surprised by how supportive everyone has been so far. I’ve said it in other interviews that I don’t want to write down to the level of the original animated TV series. I’m trying to be serious with this, but not come across in a way that disregards what came before as childish or inconsequential. I have an idea about Masters of the Universe and this goes back to me as a little boy watching Thunderbirds. Do you know that TV series with the puppets?

Yes! It was, uh, interesting.

I was talking to a guy who grew up around Speed Racer. I remember that show being aired on MTV back in the day. For me, all I saw were bad and silly Japanese animation stories from the ‘60s. This guy I met only saw the most amazing car races that anyone has ever filmed. All he saw about Thunderbirds was goofy movements and strings. Well, I saw the most spectacular action sequences I’ve ever seen in my life. So, there’s a certain age where no matter how wonky the show is, you only remember enjoying it. I want to try and respect that. There are a lot of people that are crazy-mad for Masters of the Universe. I never want to make them upset.

So, I’m primarily here to discuss Earth 2 with you. You’ve been a fan of the early Justice Society of America comics since you were a young kid. What did you glean from them, that experience that you saw as the essence of those characters and through-lines? Everyone is initially attracted to the “what if?” scenarios that a parallel world presents readers with, but I think there’s something deeper there.

Yeah, the challenge with the Earth 2 book is multifaceted. It’s very easy to do an alternate Earth where the baddies won or where every man is a woman and every woman is a man. Those types of alternate Earths are fairly easy to write. I want to do a story where we recognize elements from our own world and our wars, but also make it different enough from the main DC universe. Another part of the challenge is that it’s a reboot. These are young versions of the old characters. The premise that I couldn’t reveal for so long in interviews is that five years after the Apokolips War there’s a new threat coming in the future and the heroes of Earth 2 have to fight it without the presence of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. They have a different foundation than Earth Prime.

So, you have Alan Scott stepping up as Green Lantern, but he’s also going to be the embodiment of Superman in many ways. You have Hawkgirl who is the savage Hawkgirl we all love, but she is also the embodiment of Batman. It’s a world where these young heroes have to learn how to be heroes. What I enjoyed about the old 1940s stories was that they were set in America and the heroes were in that war-torn world. World War II was in the background, but the kids buying those comics could have a father that was fighting overseas in Europe or the Pacific.

The sense that the war was a constant of day-to-day life was intriguing. And shifting to Earth 2, even though the heroes of that world have beaten Apokolips for now, there are still baddies on the loose. There’s Steppenwolf, who is fashioned after the WWII German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. He was called the Desert Fox and was finally taken out by Generals George S. Patton and Bernard Montgomery. Erwin was considered one of the great military leaders. Steppenwolf is like that on Earth 2. He’s also a little bit like Osama Bin Laden (to use a modern day comparison). The heroes are looking for him and he’s surviving somewhere after the catastrophic events of issue one.

Which is the bad Korea? North Korea, right?

Yeah, North Korea. [Laughs]

There are areas of Earth 2 like that or Saddam Hussein-era Iraq. They are harboring Apokolips technology and villains. There are also areas of the world that are completely destroyed as the series progresses. One of the after-effects of this war is that it’s affecting people in strange ways. I will get to that plot point later. The world has changed. You’ll seeing heroes fighting villains like any comic book, but at any moment the aftermath of the war can affect the story in very surprising ways. It’s challenging to make all of those connections and distill the essences of these old characters and placing those into young and new characters. I still try to maintain that base familiarity with the characters even if the costumes and origins are slightly different.

It was interesting reading all the pre-release interviews with you. Your hands seemed tied as far as divulging details about the premise of the book.

Well, in all those interviews I never said that Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman would be in the Justice Society. I just said their influence would be felt in the book. I always tried to be truthful and I always worried that someone would pick up on that fact, make a deduction, and the secret would be out. I’m happy we kept locked down at DC.

Tell me a little bit about the metaphysical elements of Earth 2. Science doesn’t work in quite the same way as on Earth Prime. How does that setup affect the characters going forward?

It’s not a world full of sorcery. It’s just a place where the world itself is more concerned with its own survival. The Earth is trying to save itself by helping bring about these heroes. The big example of that metaphysical element is the Green Lantern of the world. His origin will be dealt with in issue three. Al Pratt will be The Atom and the last moment he isn’t The Atom is that close-up panel in issue one where there’s an atomic symbol above his head right before a huge explosion goes off. We will see what happened and why it happened through a flashback later on. All of these heroes have somewhat metaphysical origins. Even The Flash does. He’s the most radically different origin from the old story. He won’t inhale hard water anymore.

And The Atom seems to have a science origin like The Hulk, but that’s not what happened at all. He and everyone else around him won’t know that until we reveal it. The story won’t be all magical, magical, magical. Hard science just doesn’t work in the same way that it does on Earth One. I think it will make the book more interesting and give the characters another layer of identity.

I enjoy that your dialogue for the characters is smart. You don’t dumb it down, especially with The Shade. Do you ever find it difficult to balance intellectually appealing dialogue with emotionally appealing dialogue?

It’s easy to overwrite. The Shade has a way of talking that fits the character. If there’s a simple word that he could use he will use the more complicated or less used word. When I switch and write an issue of Earth 2, I have to turn that element off and think clearly. I sometimes worry that I overwrite, but I think it’s good to not dumb things down just because it’s a more dynamic, team-oriented book. The action drives the plot, but the dialogue is important as well.

You’re friends with Sterling Gates and Geoff Johns, correct? What have you learned from them both professionally and personally?

What have I learned about Sterling Gates? I don’t know. You’d probably have to ask him that. I guess I learned how to get drunk and walk around with my pants around my ankles. I have no idea. They were both coming up when I was already writing, so I don’t think I’ve learned something from them. When I was writing Superman, I was definitely looking at how Geoff Johns structures stories. He has a very fluid and natural way of creating story beats. He has a real gift for that. I was just thinking about that last night. I read the latest issue of Aquaman and was struck by the pacing and how clever he is at placing a splash page. It’s often not the obvious, cool image. There’s also an emotional element there. I’m very proud to see what he’s accomplished. I’m trying to incorporate that into what I’m doing with Earth 2.

Sterling I respect as a writer. He’s my friend. You really put me on the spot here regarding him. I look forward to the day that Sterling does teach me something. I’m not trying to be insulting here, it’s just weird to mention Sterling Gates and Geoff Johns in an interview. It’s kind of weird.

Are you keeping the name Justice Society of America for the eventual team or will it be slightly different?

I think it will be just Justice Society without the America aspect since this book has more of a global impact. Geoff Johns is also writing the Justice League and not the Justice League of America. I’m not planning to call the team, The Institute of Justice or something like that.

Issue #7 of The Shade was brilliant, but also very dialogue-heavy so you could get across the decades of father-daughter disdain between The Inquisitor and La Sangre in three pages. What are the challenges of writing for a miniseries versus a slower-paced narrative such as Earth 2?

With The Shade, one of things I want to do, and continue to do, is really get that feel for history. I did the same thing with Starman‘s “Times Past” issues. It also helps the main artist with the book keep up with the schedule by having a different artist come in for one issue. You are afforded the freedom to do that with a smaller series. The challenge is coming up with those concise, three-part story arcs. To be quite honest, all writers want to do the big arc, but those smaller stories are important as well.

I want to keep the stories very concise for Earth 2. I’ve noticed a couple of the other DC books go on and on and on. These are very long storylines. I want to something a little more finite. I want to keep the arcs to four or five issues long. I can keep the book fresh with new charterers, ideas, and locales that way.



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