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
Tom Heintjes: You had cartoons published while in college, so I assume your interest in comics predates college.
Jim Meddick: I started wanting to cartoon while I was very young. The first printed cartoons I did were for my high-school newspaper, which came out once a month. Its name was Harold and it was a precursor to Monty [a character in Robotman] because it was about a nerd in high school.
Heintjes: When you got to college, you created several strips, among them Temporary Insanity, Paperback Writer and Toga. Were these in the student newspaper?
Meddick: Yes, and that came out twice a week. I started out with Temporary Insanity, and if you looked at that now you’d say that it was heavily inspired by Doonesbury. It was a mismatched-roommate situation, where there was a character who was an intellectual and the other one was a jock.
Heintjes: Were you submitting strips to syndicates while you were in college?
Heintjes: How did you figure out how to do that?
Meddick: It was a very fortuitous circumstance. Mike Peters [the political cartoonist and creator of Mother Goose and Grimm] is an alumnus of my school, and he was visiting there. He was visiting the staff of the student newspaper but I wasn’t part of that clique. I didn’t hang out with the people on the paper so I wasn’t even really aware that Mike Peters was visiting. I didn’t get to meet him, but he saw my work in the school paper and he suggested to somebody [on the newspaper’s staff] that, if I sent work to him, he would forward it to his syndicate. That’s why I got started submitting so soon.
Heintjes: The journalism students weren’t in your social circle in college?
Meddick: I just submitted work to the paper. There was no editorial interaction at all. I tended to hang out with students in the art school who studied commercial art. I also had a work-study job at the art gallery on campus and I had a group of friends there.
Heintjes: What influenced your approach to humor in your work?
Meddick: Insofar as comics, the first real big thing I remember is B.C. by Johnny Hart. I used to collect the books and I was obsessed with that. Then the next big influence was Doonesbury, and then when I was in college, Bloom County. I also grew up with Mad and that was a big influence. I was also into Woody Allen and humor that wasn’t comics-related, but it was humorous writing and had a humorous sensibility.
Heintjes: Over the years, you’ve caricatured into Robotman a number of actual people, and I noticed that your earlier caricatures had a Mort Drucker influence. In your present caricatures, they don’t look as Drucker-influenced. Did Drucker shape the way you caricatured?
Meddick: I would have to say so. I almost didn’t know any form of caricature other than Mort Drucker. When you look at a caricature on The Flintstones, they would have a caricature that looked sort of like the [celebrity] but also sort of like a typical Hanna-Barbera character, and it always looked sort of in-between. I thought it looked sort of awkward. I thought it would be funnier to get away from the typical comics’ idiom of caricature, with the simple outline, and go to a more realistic representation. And the only one I know for that is Mort Drucker.
Heintjes: Getting back to Temporary Insanity, you sent Mike Peters some of your work and he brought it to the attention of his syndicate.
Meddick: Yes, and this was when he was with United Feature Syndicate. I got a letter back that told me that, because of Doonesbury, they were flooded with strips with a college setting, which they found hard to sell. That’s when I created Toga. I was taking a Roman history class at the time, which is a very arbitrary reason for creating a strip.
Heintjes: And you submitted Toga to the syndicates?
Meddick: Once it ran in the paper and I had a body of work, I submitted it. My other strip, Paperback Writer, grew out of Temporary Insanity. I had the lead character graduate college and become a hack writer. He had an alien roommate, so that was getting even closer to Robotman.
Heintjes: What kind of feedback were you getting from syndicates other than United?
Meddick: That’s just it—I wasn’t. When you asked me how I knew to submit to syndicates, I didn’t know how. I was submitting material only to United because of the Mike Peters contact. But somebody on the school paper told me about a Tribune Media Services contest recruiting student talent. I actually won the contest, which meant I had been selected as one of the 10 best student cartoonists in the country. I don’t know how many people entered the contest, but 10 of us were selected.
Heintjes: Probably more than 10.
Meddick: [Laughter] I hope so. The prize was to be flown out to New York and have a day and talk to Jeff MacNelly and talk about syndication.
Heintjes: They were going to try to talk some sense into you.
Meddick: They were very nice [laughter]. I was with a group of other winners. There were different categories. Two of us had won for comic strips and I was one of them.
Heintjes: Would the other winner be anyone I might have heard of?
Meddick: I wonder now why I didn’t know more about the other people there. It didn’t seem like we were all in the same group. Maybe they had two groups. The emphasis was more on us sitting there and hearing the syndicate’s presentation than on letting us mingle and trade shop talk.
Heintjes: United Feature had some interest in Paperback Writer but wanted to make some changes that you weren’t entirely comfortable with. What sort of changes were those?
Meddick: This is the irony of it: One of the main things they wanted to do was eliminate the alien. But the main problem was that they wanted me to sign a development contract. The contract was one of their boilerplate things in which I go through a six-month development period with them, and if they decide to pick it up they own all the rights to everything.
I needed legal counsel and I didn’t have any. I was very young and naive about the whole process. I was just so happy to get any response from the company that I didn’t get any legal counsel. I didn’t want to sign that sort of contract. I was naive but I knew enough that I didn’t want to get into something like that. I turned it down pretty quickly.
Heintjes: Did you feel conflicted about turning down the development contract?
Meddick: No, it was a pretty easy decision. The only advantage that contract was offering me was that I would get quicker responses from the editors. I thought, “Why not just continue to develop it without signing the deal and then offer me a full-time contract?” I didn’t fear turning it down at all.
Heintjes: There must have been some money in it for you.
Meddick: No—I’m telling you, this was such a bad deal. There was no money. What’s the point of that? Plus, other syndicates were showing some interest in what I was doing.
Heintjes: So by this time you had begun multiple submissions to syndicates.
Meddick: By this time I was submitting to them all. That’s another reason I didn’t want to lock into United, because I would be locking the others out.
Then about a month after I turned down the development contract—maybe just a couple of weeks—they presented me with this Robotman concept. I agreed to go in and look at it, but quite frankly I didn’t think it was a very good product that they were trying to license.
Heintjes: The Robotman concept was developed by a record producer?
Meddick: It was a guy named Peter Shelly. I only met him once.
Heintjes: What records did he have his name on?
Meddick: I was told he produced one of the Pink Floyd albums. I’m not sure which one. That might not even be right—it was all just word-of-mouth stuff I heard at the syndicate.
Heintjes: In the ensuing years, you never heard what his plans were?
Meddick: No. I was young and I wasn’t really researching things the way I probably should have [laughter]. It wasn’t a coordinated thing, like I was working with him. Right away I knew that what he wanted to do had nothing to do with what I wanted to do with the comics, because the Robotman character was geared toward a very young age group.
Heintjes: Before they offered the property to you, Bill Watterson had already turned it down.
Meddick: Yes. They didn’t tell me that then, but Bill Watterson wasn’t famous then. I knew they hadn’t been able to find anybody to do it. When I agreed to do it, I really believed that, when it all came down to a final decision, they wouldn’t launch this thing. I didn’t see it as a very viable idea, especially because they had been rejecting science-fiction characters in my own strip. But I didn’t know—and this is another example of my naivete—how powerful licensing was. Licensing was pushing it through the syndicate, so they were basically going to launch it no matter what, as long as they could get something together. And that’s pretty much what ended up happening.
Heintjes: This arrangement was for a development period as well?
Meddick: It was a standard six-month development deal that would lead to syndication, and at the end of the deal the rights would revert to the syndicate. But that was OK because I didn’t own the character. It wasn’t like I was handing them over my cherished creation. So I signed it, but the amount of money involved was so small that I couldn’t live on it, so I asked them if there was any staff work I could have. So they arranged for me to talk to the art director.
Heintjes: What were you doing on staff?
Meddick: I was doing cartooning corrections. Now it’s done with computers, but back then it was done with cut-and-paste. It was a real education: I got to see all the comics coming in and how they were done, like Peanuts. That was good. There was already somebody on staff doing cartoon corrections, so I was doing his overflow and also just general paste-up. I’d also do spot illustrations for things.
Heintjes: It was during this period that you became a syndicated political cartoonist. How did that come about?
Meddick: At that time, John Lane was doing the Ben Swift, Retired strip for NEA [United’s sister syndicate] and he was coming in once a week to do a political cartoon for NEA’s package. NEA wanted to add another feature. Then, newspapers couldn’t receive cartoons over the wires, so they were having a delay with the topics that the cartoons covered. So NEA wanted someone in the office to do a political cartoon that they could send right out to their client papers.
Heintjes: Had you done any political cartooning?
Meddick: I hadn’t. It was on-the-job training.
Heintjes: How did you develop your approach to political cartooning all of a sudden?
Meddick: As you know from my days on the college newspaper, my focus wasn’t on journalism. I have political ideas but I’m not an ideologue. But political cartoons were getting to the point where they were gags about current events, which they often still are, as opposed to strong political commentary. So I fit into that approach. My biggest struggle was doing caricatures.
Heintjes: You turned to Mort Drucker again?
Meddick: I don’t think they looked like Mort Drucker so much as MacNelly.
Heintjes: But while you were away from the office, you were continuing to develop Robotman. What happened at the end of the development?
Meddick: At the end of the development deal, I was shocked when they wanted to launch it! I was in the art department at the moment when Sarah Gillespie [then comics editor for United] came in and told me. I wasn’t expecting it, so I looked a little surprised. Sarah said, “You’re supposed to celebrate!” [laughter] I just didn’t see how the robot thing would work in newspapers, so I was just not expecting the syndicate to move ahead with it.
Heintjes: Were you pleased with the quality of the work you were producing?
Meddick: I thought the gags were good and I was optimistic about my talent. I just thought the character and the name would detract, and that those would work against it. I had already been submitting the same quality of art and writing with an alien in it in Paperback Writer and it didn’t go anywhere. So I thought, “Well, that must be a roadblock to syndication.” I thought it would be a roadblock in this case, too, but it wasn’t, due to the licensing.
So it was launched, and it was even more of a surprise when it was a record launch. At the time of its launch it was the biggest launch they had, and that was probably due to licensing considerations. Newspaper editors were hearing that this was going to be this big property.
Heintjes: How many papers did it roll out into?
Meddick: I think it was 250. That record was beaten by Jim Davis’s U.S. Acres.
Heintjes: Still, your launch beat Peanuts’ launch by 243 papers.
Meddick: Well, that just goes to show you that the launch has nothing to do with the quality of the work that follows [laughter].
Heintjes: What Robotman merchandise was actually produced? I’ve seen Golden Books. Were there action figures?
Meddick: They weren’t really action figures because they were aimed at a very young group. They were plush toys and they played music that the concept’s creator had written or produced.
Heintjes: Pink Floyd music?
Meddick: That would have been great! [laughter] They were sort of Beatlesque children’s songs.
Heintjes: How closely supervised were you in the way you could portray the character?
Meddick: To hook me into doing the deal, they told me I had a great deal of leeway, that it didn’t have to look very much like the toy. They even told me that it didn’t have to have the name Robotman. I forget what I was going to call him…something like “Patent Pending” or something stupid like that. But as it got closer and closer to launch and they realized they were going to use what I was doing, they reversed their position. It had to look like him, it had to have the name Robotman, that had to be the name of the strip. I halfheartedly agreed to those changes because I couldn’t see what purpose it would serve if it didn’t have those things. If it’s going to be a tie-in, it would have to have those things and not just be a loosely based robot thing.
Heintjes: Were you discouraged by their reversal?
Meddick: Oh, I was totally discouraged. And then they started to go even further. They wanted me to create and introduce these other characters that were from the toy line. I just thought they were absurd.
Heintjes: I’ve seen a girl robot on one of the Robotman books. What was her name?
Meddick: I don’t know—she was a girl robot [laughter]. I really didn’t know what type of character development or what they were doing. I haven’t even seen the book you’re talking about. I have a couple of the plush toys and a record. There’s even an animated version, but I couldn’t even look at it. It was so distasteful to me. It had nothing to do with what I was doing and it just depressed me to see it. I had no curiosity about it. I still don’t, really.
They held a meeting in which they were telling me to do this stuff, and that’s when I said, “I can’t do this. You’ll have to find somebody else.”
Heintjes: It must have been intimidating for you to be a young cartoonist in a meeting with all these older executives.
Meddick: I think the intention was to intimidate me. They had a meeting with all the licensing people, the vice president of syndication, everyone. I remember my editor getting up and walking out of the meeting and leaving me there. I was like, “Whoa!” She had to go along with it because it was her job, but I think it depressed her, too, to see what was going on.
But when I said they’d have to find somebody else, they reversed. I guess they wanted to see how far they could go, and they told me, “OK, just keep doing what you’re doing.” The truth is, they didn’t have anyone else to do it.
Heintjes: So you ended up with free creative rein.
Meddick: Not quite. I agreed to use the name “Robotman” and change certain aspects of the look. But for example, the toy had a heart on its chest. I took the heart off the character in the strip, but then they told me to put the heart back on. It was a very uncomfortable beginning for me.
Heintjes: How long was the strip in papers before everyone realized that this was not going to be a huge licensing bonanza?
Meddick: Over time, probably about 18 months. I wasn’t investigating this stuff too much. I was down on that whole end of it, so I was trying to ignore it as best I could. I wouldn’t do that now, but at the time I guess it was my way of dealing with an unpleasant situation. I was just hoping it would go away, and it did.
I think syndicates have a way of projecting if a strip is going to last a while. I think it has something to do with how many papers it has after a year or something like that. After about a year, in 1986 or 1987, Sarah came up to me and said, “Well, it looks like this is going to be around a while, so get used to it!”
Heintjes: At this point, was the comic strip the only piece of licensing left of the original concept?
Meddick: I’m not really sure. I wasn’t focusing on the merchandising. I have nothing against merchandising but it isn’t my focus. My focus is on doing the comic.
Heintjes: Being informed that you were going to be producing Robotman for the long haul must have emboldened you creatively.
Meddick: It was a gradual realization. I realized I was going to be dealing with it for a long time. I didn’t want to try to develop a new concept on the side, because doing Robotman was taking all my time and creativity, so I started changing Robotman to make it more comfortable for my taste.
Heintjes: Originally, Robotman had a different premise: He was from outer space and interacted with the Milde family. Why did you change the premise to his relationship with Monty?
Meddick: When I get e-mail, that’s one of the most frequently asked questions. On the Internet’s bulletin board site there’s a discussion going on right now about that. The thing is, because of the way the strip was launched, I never really felt like I had the chance to develop the family. They were just sort of placed there to start things off. I hadn’t thought it out much.
Heintjes: Was the premise of the Milde family yours or were you handed the premise?
Meddick: It was a combination. Sarah and I were sitting in her office and just talking about it. I think family strips are more salable. I didn’t object to the suggestion because I didn’t really have any idea for how to create a strip with a robot. But I never really knew who the father was or who the mother was. The only family member I felt I knew was Gary, and as time went on the strip centered on those two characters. And since I like to do parodies, I introduced those. It ended up being a lot of adventures with Gary and Robotman, but eventually I began wondering, “Why is this teenager going on these adventures with this robot?” It didn’t work in my mind why this would be going on, with this family as a backdrop. I felt that the family-oriented humor was really going to wear me out. That area is so overly explored in the comics pages—how can I add to that? That type of humor is not my strength, so I started doing other things with the strip.
This was the years before the growth of the Internet, so I wasn’t getting a big response from my readers. It was a strange feeling: I was in all these papers but I didn’t even know who was reading this. I lived in the New York area and it wasn’t in any New York papers. Whenever I’d run into anyone, they’d never heard of the strip. So I had a job and I was making money at it, but I had no sense of my readership. So I thought, “Well, no one’s really paying close attention to this, so I’ll go ahead and make some changes.” I subsequently learned that people were paying attention, going, “What is going on with the continuity in this thing?” [laughter]
Heintjes: Was the continuity shift sudden?
Meddick: At one point I had Robotman move out of the house and begin renting a place on his own. Then for about a year I did parodies, like Robotman going to the Planet of the Apes or Star Trek, things like that. It turns out that that was the smokescreen for the transition, because it ended up being just Robotman. I never had a sign-off for Gary and the family; they just weren’t included in the strips.
Then, I began to realize that I couldn’t just keep doing this, because it was just Robotman and parodies. That’s when I introduced Monty. At the time I introduced him, I didn’t think Monty would be a continuing character. He was just one of these characters I was throwing at Robotman.
Heintjes: Monty was auditioning for a permanent part.
Meddick: Basically, yes. And even he was a continuity error, because I introduced him as an alien! People were saying, “Who is this alien guy?” My approach was so random in a way, because I had no feel for my audience. I was just playing around with characters, because it didn’t feel like anyone was reading it. It was almost like everyone was seeing me work out my comic strip in rough form before their eyes.
Heintjes: Did the syndicate question any of your creative explorations?
Meddick: In a way, that’s one of the good things about a syndicate: If it’s got some revenue coming in, they don’t question it, as long as they’re not getting letters of complaint.
Heintjes: How do you structure your workweek to produce seven strips?
Meddick: I write in the morning, and I write two dailies each morning, so by Wednesday I’m done writing the dailies for the week. I draw the dailies in the afternoons. On Thursday I do the Sunday strip, and on Fridays I rewrite and clean up the finished art.
I write and conceive the strips on roughs that are finished size. Then I take that rough and trace it onto two-ply Bristol board using a lightbox. That’s when I move characters around and firm up the drawing. I use a Rapidograph for lettering and I use a Hunt 108 nib for inking. Those techniques are pretty close to what Johnny Hart uses. I found out about them in The Art of Humorous Illustration by Nick Meglin, and at that time I was fixated on Johnny Hart. I experimented with different approaches and different pens over the years, but I finally came back to that choice.
Heintjes: You have an inoffensive way of handling scatological humor. At the same time, you never know what’s going to offend anyone. Do you get complaints when you do jokes about bodily functions?
Meddick: I don’t get as much as you would think. Sometimes I’ll write something and say, “Well, this is over the line.” Then I put it out there and no one responds to it, and I think, “Wow—that was outrageous!”
Heintjes: When you show Monty and his sometimes girlfriend, Loco, in bed together, do you ever hear any complaints?
Meddick: No, I never have.
Heintjes: Do you find that surprising? I mean, you’d think their being unmarried and sleeping together would raise someone’s ire.
Meddick: When you mention it, I guess so. I’m always surprised at what people do and don’t react to. Obviously, I’m using my own taste of the measure of what people can handle, so I think people can handle that. I had a strip where a woman delivering a strip-o-gram came to Moondog’s door, and that set people off. But I’ve seen that done before, like when the woman pops out of the cake and it’s shown from behind with the implication that she’s not wearing anything. I had some reaction in Austin, Texas, because it had just been launched there and people didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t show anything more than what you’d see on a beach, but a lot of it is about implications.
Heintjes: You frequently incorporate elements of popular culture into Robotman, and it’s obvious that you have an affection for certain elements of pop culture. Do the objects of your satires ever contact you to let you know that they’re aware of the fun you’re having?
Meddick: I sometimes do strips goofing on Star Trek or Star Trek fans, and I think, “Ooh, that’s going to anger Star Trek fans.” But the thing is, I’m a Star Trek fan and it doesn’t offend me. I like poking fun at my own interest in it and fascination with it.
Heintjes: So you haven’t heard from any enraged owners of hairless cats?
Meddick: I’ve heard from hairless-cat owners, but they love it, too! I think if you tease people in a way that shows you have affection for the topic, it goes over fine.
However, I recently did a sequence where Monty got some glasses in a new style, and I got a lengthy letter from someone who asked me, “How dare you make fun of that style of glasses?” Obviously, that person has that style of glasses. I really didn’t think that sequence would bother anyone, but it did. I scanned down to the bottom of this letter—it was a really long letter—to see if this guy was going to say he was just pulling my leg, but no; he was really serious. So I never know.
I occasionally get letters complaining when I have characters swear using the little symbols. I responded to those complaints by creating a Sunday page in which the characters break the fourth wall and explain to the audience that we’ve been getting these letters of complaint. And I gave a glossary of terms so people know what the symbols mean, so you can fill those blanks and not be offended when you read them. They were all very innocuous terms. Often, when I use symbols, it’s to take the place of a word like “damn.” But since you can’t even say “damn” in the comics, you have to turn it into a symbol, but I think people fill it in with words a lot worse than “damn.” It’s not really cursing; it’s more like capturing a temper tantrum.
Heintjes: You don’t really play up the fact that Robotman is a robot. He’s more of a straight man to Monty. Do you sometimes struggle with the fact that he’s a robot?
Meddick: There were times in the past where it was a struggle, but I don’t struggle with it anymore. That’s one reason why I changed Monty from an alien to an inventor—I thought there would be some continuity there.
Heintjes: In the current Robotman continuity, Monty invented Robotman.
Meddick: Yes, that was part of my effort to give it some continuity. Now that I have e-mail, people contact me because they’re confused by what I’ve done. Since I know that people are paying attention, I’ve been trying to be more consistent.
Heintjes: In fact, you did a storyline that incorporated Dana Scully and Fox Mulder from The X-Files to try to resolve all the hanging continuity threads so you could be done with it.
Meddick: I thought it would be appropriate to use The X-Files because they’re so notorious for taking on cases with wild plot twists. For my purposes, it was perfect.
Heintjes: At the end of that storyline, you broke down the fourth wall and depicted yourself erasing the characters, sort of a commentary on the absurdity of these arcane plot twists. At the same time, your acknowledgment that it’s a comic strip and you can intervene was a self-referential way to conclude the story.
Meddick: I think that sort of acknowledgment is one of the advantages of comics. It goes way back; even George Herriman used it. Because it’s a cartoon, people are prepared to give you more leeway with reality. It’s why people can use talking animals so naturally in comics. I like to do strips that poke fun at the comics medium in general. There are some things I consider sort of formulaic about the business, and I like poking fun at them.
Heintjes: Like Giggles’s commentary on cute characters in comics strips?
Meddick: Yes, like that [laughter].
Heintjes: We were just talking about Monty and his role in the strip. You portray Monty generally as an intelligent man who is incapable of fitting into society—sort of an absent-minded professor—but sometimes you call his basic intelligence into question. Is he smart or not?
Meddick: That’s almost an autobiographical aspect of Robotman. While I was growing up, I felt as if I had some talent and some intelligence, but I never had any proof of it…for example, good grades or high test scores [laughter]. Then as I got older, I would see people like me who were trying to go into business for themselves or get into a creative endeavor like writing. Most of those people are modest because they’re aware of the odds of failure, but at the same time it’s mixed with a sort of pride and ambition that makes them think, “I can succeed where others have failed.” If I were really, totally modest about my own abilities, why aren’t I just digging a ditch? That’s what I should be doing!
In a way, that’s Monty: He’s a really ambitious character who achieves things, but he’s fundamentally stupid, awkward and unskilled.
Heintjes: You’re not willing to spell that out, because it allows you to depict a more multilayered character.
Meddick: I hope it resonates on some level, the feeling that there are a lot of people like that…hopefully not to that extreme, of course. People sometimes confuse me with him, and I don’t intend for that to happen [laughter]. But I identify with parts of him. There’s a side of me that at times is sort of pompous, but there’s another side of me that is more self-examining and says, “Boy, you’re being pompous and stupid.” In my mind, Robotman is the superego, the side that worries about society and doing the right thing. Monty is the side of me that wants to indulge and explore. I see aspects of me in both characters.
Heintjes: As we speak, Robotman is appearing less frequently in the strip and is separated from the earthbound continuities. What are you achieving with this approach?
Meddick: Now you’re touching on the most dramatic recent development in the strip. During my last contract negotiation, the syndicate approached me with a request to change the name of the strip to Monty and to de-emphasize and eventually remove the Robotman character from the strip. They had various business reasons behind this request, but one of the most important was an ongoing difficulty in marketing the strip with the name Robotman. Newspaper editors see that name and they think it’s targeted at children or superhero fans. When the feature starts running, though, and they see the content is more adult-oriented, we get into trouble.
Heintjes: You said that control of the characters you created was an important issue for you. Since you will have created every character in the strip once you write Robotman out, I assume you will have what you sought.
Meddick: In a roundabout way, yes. I’ll have control of the characters I created, and I obviously didn’t create Robotman. I never sought control of Robotman, but I never sought to remove Robotman—it just grew out of the recent contract talks, as I said.
Heintjes: As someone who handled Robotman for so long, will you miss him creatively?
Meddick: Oh, definitely. If I didn’t need to do this business-wise, I couldn’t do it. It would be too hard. But I understand United Media’s position on this. At the same time, I do feel bad that he’s leaving. I wrote him for 15 years. But I have written major characters out before, so it can add a spark to a strip. I had the whole Milde family disappear. So it can add a new dynamic to the strip.
Heintjes: Has writing Robotman out given you new creative avenues to explore?
Meddick: It’s too soon to say, but I anticipate that it will. I look forward to exploring things with Mr. Pi.
Heintjes: Mr. Pi is developing into the straight man to Monty.
Meddick: Yeah. I wanted to keep the door open to science fiction and more surreal narratives, so it seemed like an alien would be useful to fill in. I haven’t developed him much yet, because I’m still resolving things with Robotman, and I don’t want to take away from Robotman.
Heintjes: I assume Mr. Pi will be able to comment on strange human behavior.
Meddick: He’ll serve that function that…aliens usually serve [laughter]. I hope to do more with him than you’d expect, though. I don’t want to do just “alien on Earth” humor. Originally, Robotman was an alien and I wanted to do more with him, too.
Heintjes: And of course your longtime readers won’t let you forget that Monty was originally an alien.
Meddick: Right. And now we have another alien, and I don’t think he could be anything but an alien. People can count on this one remaining an alien [laughter].
Heintjes: Have readers contacted you about the changes?
Meddick: Yes. One reader said he was going to miss Robotman, which made me feel good that I helped create a character people are going to miss.
Heintjes: Creatively, how did you handle writing Robotman out of the strip? Did you have a master plan or was it a week-to-week approach?
Meddick: Almost the same way I handle any narrative. Usually my narratives are only one or two weeks long, so this one was different in that it spanned a much longer period, but I get a general idea of what I want to happen and I work along very roughly and let the day-to-day work surprise me. The gags will take you in different directions than you think you’re going, so I don’t want to rein myself in. The difference with this one is that I have to have a resolution where Robotman doesn’t come back to Earth, so I know what my outcome has to be. But how I get there is a very roundabout way. I just had a series satirizing the Bush and Gore election, and obviously I couldn’t have planned that out. I just went with it.
It’s a very intuitive process. The story I’m working on now is very similar to what William Shakespeare used to do [laughter], revitalizing old plots and turning them into his plays. But what I’m doing is sort of moronic William Shakespeare. I’m taking an old Star Trek plot and using it, with modifications, for the final weeks of Robotman.
Heintjes: Wow—from Shakespeare to Star Trek to Robotman!
Meddick: [Laughter] The only analogy is that Shakespeare took Hamlet, which used a well-known plot, and adapted it into his play. And I’m using an episode of Star Trek. I’m using the “Gamesters of Triskelion” episode. Do you remember that one?
Heintjes: Should I admit it if I do?
Meddick: Probably not. It’s the one where Kirk is abducted with Uhura and, I think, Chekhov to a planet run by these alien overlords who have big brains in glass domes. They’ve evolved into a state of being just big brains, and they bring inferior species to their planet to have gladiatorial games. That provides them with the only physical excitement in their lives. And Robotman is brought to Triskelion and he’s having to battle in the gladiatorial arena there. In the Star Trek episode, Kirk falls in love with his trainer, who is your typical hot-babe alien. They have a little love story, but of course Kirk has to leave. That’s where the ending to my story is a little different.
Heintjes: I guess you can justify your misspent youth if you’re able to reinterpret Star Trek episodes like that.
Meddick: [Laughter] My father was very concerned when I was able to recite dialogue from Star Trek—“OK, I think you’ve seen that enough.”
Heintjes: And now you can show that it all worked out in your favor.
Meddick: So far, so good!