The Life (and Death?) of Robin: Bob Lubbers’ “Robin Malone”
One day in September 1969, a skinny nine-year-old opened up the local newspaper to the comics page. One strip caught his eye, introducing him to the most fabulous and glamorous of women: Robin Malone. She was bigger than life, beautiful, busty, curvaceous, sexy and globetrotting. She personified femininity with an independence and resourcefulness that left fellow-travelers like Brenda Starr and Mary Perkins in the dust. Needless to say, that kid fell hopelessly and forever in love with Bob Lubber’s creation. DAVE EDWARDS looks at the life and (perhaps) death of the object of his affection.
(Editor’s note: Click the strips presented in this article to view enlargements.)
I followed Robin’s exploits through the autumn of 1969 and into 1970, when the strip introduced Mike Malone, her amnesiac husband, long-lost in a plane crash in the South American jungle. It was one of the oldest and cheapest of literary tricks, but to a certain prepubescent boy, it seemed the height of narrative genius. I followed the slowly unfolding story through January and February and into March. I watched as the gibbering, hapless Mike Malone, became the brainwashed pawn of Robin’s archenemy, Siegfried Mushroom. Even my nine-year-old self could see this was going nowhere good, and I was right. The March 11 installment ended with an unidentified body falling from the roof of a penthouse.
On March 12, I raced home from school and eagerly opened the paper to discover what happened next. Instead of my heroine, though, all I found was an advertisement where Robin had resided. The ad trumpeted the arrival of a new comic strip, Lancelot, by Paul Coker. What happened to Robin? Who fell off the building? What kind of cheat was this? My nine-year-old mind was awash with disillusionment. How could a story end without an ending? I was crushed, scanning the paper fruitlessly every day for months. Eventually I stopped looking for Robin but never forgot about her, and I often pondered her fate. In the meantime, the skinny kid grew up and the years rolled by.
One day, in 1987, at age 26, I found myself thinking about Robin again and I decided it was time to find out who fell off that penthouse. I tracked down Bob Lubbers’ phone number on Long Island and resolved to call, even though I was pretty sure he would dismiss me as a nutcase. After about a week, I worked up the nerve to dial the number.
Bob’s wife, Grace, answered the phone and informed me that he was working in his studio and couldn’t be disturbed. Her tone of voice clearly established her as the keeper of the gate who would entertain no foolishness. She probably ate two or three geeky fanboys for breakfast every day. My courage was fading rapidly. What did I want to talk to him about? I stammered out that I had questions about a strip he did many years ago and for which, I added in a flash of true sincerity, he should have gotten more recognition. Still unconvinced, she asked, “Which strip?” When I mentioned Robin Malone, everything changed. Her voice softened immediately, and she warmly agreed, “You’re absolutely right, that was some of Bob’s best work and he never got the credit he deserved for it. Hang on.” Thirty seconds later, I was talking to Bob. Ten minutes later, I thought I knew the secret of Robin Malone’s cliffhanger.
Twenty-five years later, though, I discovered an alternate ending that everyone—including Bob Lubbers—had forgotten about.
Robin Malone was introduced by the Newspaper Enterprise Association on March 19, 1967. Created and illustrated by Lubbers, the strip had a relatively short lifespan of only three years, but during that time, it distinguished itself with exotic locales, detailed backgrounds and passionate imagery. It seduced the reader with Lubbers’ special brand of sexy, voluptuous females who dripped sensuality and sexual energy. Lubbers put sex on the comics page, right next to Priscilla’s Pop, Freckles and His Friends, The Born Loser, Alley Oop and other tamer NEA mainstays.
Lubbers, born in 1922, was an artist from Manhassett, Long Island, who began his career illustrating pulp westerns at Fiction House in the late 1930s. According to Alberto Becattini’s article, “The Good Girl Art of Bob Lubbers” (Glamour International Magazine #26, May 2001), he counted Stan Drake, John Celardo, Nick Cardy, Al Capp and Frank Doyle among his friends, acquaintances and collaborators. Having previously worked on the Tarzan (1950–54), Long Sam (1954–62), The Saint (1959), Rusty Riley (1959), Secret Agent X-9 (1960–67) and L’il Abner (1958–77) strips (according to Beccatini’s article), the artist was already well known in the comics world for his good girl art when he turned his hand to Robin Malone.
Beccatini’s research indicates that the first 90 days of scripts were written by Lubbers and his assistant, Paul S. Newman. Lubbers soon approached old friend, Stu Hample (1926–2010), a playwright, adman and writer of numerous books for children, to write the storylines for Robin. ROBIN. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hample had worked as a Fearless Fosdick print adman for Al Capp, according to Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen in their recent Capp biography. Becattini notes that in the late 1950s, Hample also wrote for Capp and Lubber on the Long Sam series. Hample would, later yet, write and illustrate the Inside Woody Allen strip, which ran from 1979 through 1983.
Robin Malone gave Lubbers the perfect canvas on which to showcase his skills in good girl art. Robin was always a stunning fashion plate, and the classic clothing designs in which Lubber draped her hold up surprising well by today’s standards. Robin was always dressed to the nines and never appeared disheveled, even when awakened by frantic phone calls in the middle of the night. The beautiful redhead always looked like she was five minutes away from a photo shoot for Vogue.
Lubbers went a different direction with his female villains. These femme fatales, and the readers, benefited from “less is more” outfits accentuating their ample, heaving breasts, flowing hair, bare shoulders, wide hips, and legs that went on forever.
In a press release introducing the strip, Lubbers’ enthusiasm for his new project was evident. “Robin is a realization of a life-long dream,” Lubbers said in remarks from the press release published in the March 19, 1967, Daily Review (Hayward, Calif.). “It’s a comic strip that includes exotic backgrounds, adventure, realism and fun…all focused on the most beautiful woman in the comics!”
Lubbers deftly used his first Sunday page and the subsequent three dailies to quickly establish the 30-year-old Robin Malone as an astute businesswoman, financier and philanthropist through the comments and observations of her family, friends and employees. That was a lot to pull off in four days of strips, but Lubbers was successful. He also introduced the theme that would resonate throughout the run of the strip: Robin is trying to build a new life while still grieving the death of her husband, Mike, lost in a recent plane crash.
Originally envisioned by NEA as a soap opera, Lubbers quickly sent Robin into a whirlwind of adventures, introducing a gallery of recurring characters, both friend and foe, along the way. Robin, an ambitious, intelligent, independent career woman, faced adventures that often placed her life in peril.
The early stories were fast-paced and featured far more action than many serial strips at that time. Whether she was sampling the nightlife of New York, narrowly escaping stampeding African wildlife, quelling a revolution in Asia, eluding the amorous advances of a deranged sculptor or defeating the machinations of her arch enemy Siegfried Mushroom, Robin was usually found in the midst of high drama.
By the fall of 1967, Robin was featured in 400 daily newspapers and 150 Sunday editions. NEA regularly sent press release packages to their subscribing papers with teasers for upcoming storylines, featuring impressive illustrations by Lubbers. The syndicate offered the daily strip at no extra charge to newspapers subscribing to the NEA full service. The Sunday strip was available in standard or tabloid formats at the “usual NEA Sunday rate.”
The strip started out strong with storylines that were mostly drama topped off with action, but by January 1968 the focus shifted to humor and satire. Lubbers blamed the changes in creative direction on the meddling of NEA. “They [NEA] never really knew what they wanted,” he told me in a March 1987 telephone interview. “When I gave them action, they wanted Juliet Jones; when I gave them melodrama they wanted Li’l Abner; when I gave them satire they wanted action.”
On June 2, 1968, the daily and Sunday strips became separate storylines. The Sunday pages continued as satire, and the dailies reverted to melodrama and adventure stories. On April 6, 1969, the Sunday page dropped the satire and wisely returned to drama, mostly centering on the personal life of Robin’s loyal secretary, Jo. This also allowed the daily strips to run independent of the Sunday pages and may have signaled that papers were starting to drop the Sundays.
The final year of the strip, free of the earlier absurd comedic plotlines, remained firmly grounded in reality. During this period, Lubbers’ offered up some of his finest work and no doubt revealed some of his own passions. His scenes depicting the frenzy of horseracing, the excitement of professional baseball, fast, sexy convertibles and roaring jet planes are as impressive as his harems of beautiful women blithely pouring bubbly for the evil Siegfried Mushroom. Artistically, Lubbers was having a great time, and it was evident in the work he produced.
The storylines also improved. Stu Hample now allowed Robin to flex her emotional muscle as she grappled with the problems of family, employees and even a campus revolt at Malone University. Robin addressing and resolving crises, without the backup of a man, was a strength which could have carried the strip forward, had it been employed sooner.