Man and Robotman: The Jim Meddick Interview
Comic strips have a long—and only sometimes honorable—tradition of being used to further the popularity of another type of merchandise. (Did you think Buster Brown and Mary Jane sold all those shoes by accident?) But few cartoonists have found themselves between the Scylla of art and the Charybdis of commerce the way Jim Meddick did. Brought onto Robotman as a hired hand who would play a role in increasing the sales of a child’s toy, Meddick spent years finding his own voice on the strip. Today, the comic strip is the sole vestige of what was intended to be but a cog in a merchandising juggernaut, which included phonograph records, plush toys, animated cartoons and books, and the result for Meddick is a newfound creative freedom. The Robotman toy may not have taken off as its originators foresaw, but the cartooning world became the eventual beneficiary.
Robotman’s survival and growth—it routinely tops reader polls—and its recent metamorphosis into Monty are testaments to both his syndicate’s patience with the property (Meddick’s convoluted continuities and plot contradictions at times had even his faithful readers scratching their heads) and to Meddick’s gradual introduction of a comedic worldview that would have been unthinkable in the strip’s early days, incompatible as it would have been with a toy. Meddick, 39, has reinvented his strip so thoroughly that the absence of the former title character hasn’t caused the strip to skip a beat and has even opened up new comedic possibilities. Despite the strip’s veteran status, Meddick has avoided treading the familiar ground that got him this far; if anything, his humor and characterizations have become more ambitious and audacious. (Even the heavy drinking of Monty’s friend Moondog gets played for laughs, a deft balancing act these days.)
This interview was conducted at a major turning point in Meddick’s career. As he prepares to eliminate from the strip the character on which he built his reputation, Meddick is venturing forth on the strength of his own characters; consequently, he no longer has to use his strip to sell anything except his strip. Considering the route he took to reach this point, that suits Meddick just fine. —Tom Heintjes