The Life (and Death?) of Robin: Bob Lubbers’ “Robin Malone”
In the final months of the strip, things were also heating up sexually between Robin and the manager of her baseball team, Hickory Stone. Robin’s reluctance to move past her grief, however, and Hickory’s impatient yearning for “something more” left both characters drenched in sexual frustration. When Hickory’s stiff, upright silhouette stalks out of the room and a sleepless Robin thrashes about in her otherwise empty bed, no captions are necessary. It was Lubbers at his greatest.
Lubbers often crafted his characters from real life. According to Becattini’s research, one of his inspirations for Robin was actress Joan Fontaine, and her signature fashion accessory—a headband—was seen occasionally in the first year of the strip. During the regrettable period when Robin slipped into broad humor and satire, Lubbers regularly lampooned or guest-starred celebrities within the strip. Included were appearances by Johnny Carson, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ed Sullivan, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Richard M. Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Walter Cronkite, Lady Bird Johnson, Alfred Hitchcock, Bridgette Bardot, Ursula Andress, Raquel Welch, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Benny, Carol Channing, Diahann Carroll, Ronald Reagan, Barbra Streisand, Jackie Gleason and many others. Lubbers also used the likeness of actor Yul Brynner for Premier Rudislav Tuti of Belgravia, actor Victor Buono for Siegfried Mushroom and Sen. J. William Fulbright for Sen. Foulbite.
Lubbers also occasionally paid homage to his earlier work in comics. For instance, his third storyline in Robin featured a handsome doctor named Sam Long. It was a quiet nod to his other good girl strip, Long Sam, and it was a reference only his most devoted followers would notice.
Despite NES’ marketing efforts and Lubbers’ fantastic artwork, Robin never gained the traction she needed to survive. Forty-five years later, through the lens of 21st century sensibilities, many of Robin’s storylines do seem pervasively sexist. Despite her intelligence and strength, Robin rarely extricates herself from physical danger without the assistance of a handsome, chiseled hero. By not empowering Robin fully, Lubbers and Hample essentially hamstrung their heroine and possibly alienated the female readers they should have been courting.
In early 1968, during one of the strip’s descents into the ridiculous, Robin is abducted by the angry Victoria Eagle, a lethal combination of Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug. Victoria Eagle plans to force Robin to run for President. The “Femocratic” party, whose platform is called “Operation W.O.W. (Withdrawal of Women),” encouraged female voters to extort their men to vote for the party or face withdrawal of sexual favors. This storyline was demeaning to all women, feminists or otherwise. Female readers were probably further irritated when NEA staged a promotional “Robin for President” campaign tie-in on the steps of the Colorado state capitol, with busty Denver model, Linda Borgeson Rogers, sashaying about as Robin.
The storyline for Robin’s last adventure began in January 1970 with the rescue of her long-lost husband, Mike Malone, from the jungles of South America. Mike, suffering from amnesia, falls into the hands of Robin’s old foe, Siegfried Mushroom. He is subsequently brainwashed into believing that Robin is his enemy. Mushroom throws a gala celebration in a New York City penthouse, inviting many of the friends and enemies Robin has encountered over the course of the strip. Shortly after Robin’s arrival at the party, an unidentified body plunges from the parapet of the penthouse.
In 1987, when I spoke to Lubbers on the phone, he gave me the clues to solve the mystery of the final strip. At the time, he could not remember who fell, but did recall leaving “a Morse code message” in the traffic scene that would reveal the answer. I rushed to the local library, scrolling through microfilm to find the final strip. The coded message was there and it spelled out: RIP RM. Robin, like her comic strip, had been killed.
For many years I believed that this was the end of her story and that Robin Malone was the only strip in comic history to end with the death of the heroine. Recently, however, while conducting searches in archived newspapers, I discovered that NEA offered an alternate ending to the strip, and it appears that my heroine may have survived!
NEA made two versions of the March 10 and 11 strips available to newspapers. The alternate March 10 strip (right, click to enlarge) truncates the first panel, to add a fourth panel depicting Robin narrowly avoiding Mike’s rush and his lunge carrying him over the rail of the parapet.
The alternate March 11 strip has the unseen narrator relate: “At the last moment—Robin moves aside, and Mike, unable to stem his maniacal rush, hurtles the penthouse parapet and plunges down…down…down…to his death. And so ends the legend of Robin Malone.” In addition, the “RIP RM” message—previously spelled out in the traffic below—has been obscured.
But wait—as they say—there’s more. Recently, I discovered yet another version of the final strip reprinted in the Italian Glamour International Magazine in 2001. This strip, without narrative captions, depicts the falling body and a cry of “ROBIN!!” hanging in the air. The coded message remains in the traffic scene but note that the date has changed to March 14. Does the change in date indicate that there was another alternative series of strips for the final week? I have yet to find this particular version printed in any American newspaper.
Some newspapers, like the Evening Observer (Dunkirk-Fredonia, New York), ran what I consider the correct ending (the death of Robin Malone) and then had a change of heart. Apparently, after numerous inquiries from readers, on Monday, March 16, 1970, the paper ran the alternate versions of the March 10–11 strips featuring the death of Mike Malone. The editors even went one step further, including a news article announcing the cancellation of the strip and adding a statement: “We have been told on good authority that Robin Malone lived happily ever after. She remarried (to Hickory Stone, the baseball manager, of course), had children, and retired from her business enterprises to the life of a normal, beautiful, rich housewife—with homes in New York, Florida, California and the South Seas. The last we knew she was trying to buy the New York Mets–just for Hickory.”
At her best, Robin was a fast-paced adventure strip, often reminiscent of the James Bond films. At other times it had a romantic, melodramatic flavor similar to The Heart of Juliet Jones. In her worst days, Robin was an annoying satire. Through it all, however, the dynamic art and talent of Bob Lubbers was the meat of the strip. His gorgeous girls were what drew me to the strip as a nine year and still thrill me today, 40-odd years later.
Incidentally, the Robin Sunday strip also ended with a cliffhanger. Robin’s teenage ward, Kathy, and three wild girlfriends are speeding in a convertible on Georgia back roads at night. The car leaves the road at the crest of a hill. In the final panel, there is an explosion beyond the hill and no sign of the car. The unseen narrator relates: “A shrill crash of metal meeting metal…an explosive ‘whoosh’…A bright glow above the rise…the fling is flung…The mournful hoot of a lonely owl sounds in the distance, and then silence…boundless…infinite…eternal silence.”
We’re still waiting to find out whether Kathy survived the crash.
Note: You can purchase Hogan’s Alley #19, where this article first appeared, here (cover at right). Also, if you can’t get enough of the beauteous Robin (and who can?), you can read some of Lubbers’ Sunday Robin strips in color here.