Thrift Store Finds: Robotman – The Untold Story

This week, we’re going to look at Robotman: The Untold Story by Jim Meddick, published by Topper Books in 1986.

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I paid a quarter for this bad boy and truth be told, I’ve been looking for some Robotman stuff to talk about here for quite awhile.

Robotman is a character owned by United Features Syndicate. A syndicate’s job (for those who aren’t familiar) is to offer and distribute material like comics and advice columns and whatnot to newspapers, magazines, and most recently, websites. United Features is most notable for having been the longtime home of Charles Schultz’ Peanuts comic among many others.

The newspaper market in 2014 has become pretty stagnant but UFS has a heavy-hitting roster of the some of the most innovative strips currently being published, including Get Fuzzy, Pearls Before Swine, and Over the Hedge. I also find it interesting to note – most newspaper comic strips are inoffensive, bland gag machines and make no mistake, UFS has its’ fair share of those but the strips I mentioned are a cut above that nonsense. This show that United Features to be pretty good about letting cartoonists show their personal style while representing their product out into the market.

However good they are about giving unique cartoonists a voice, United Features is still a business. Robotman was sort of a soulless byproduct of that business. The character was created in house at UFS expressly for the purpose of marketing toys and merchandise in the same vein of Garfield and Snoopy. In the Eighties, DiC Entertainment made a Robotman cartoon, Kenner Toys made Robotman stuffed toys, and there was even a Robotman lunchbox made by Thermos. All of this is amazing considering the character was created in a vacuum by United Features with almost no personality or artistic direction originally attributed to him. Robotman, at least in his inception, was a calculated effort on the part of a syndicate to sell keychains and coloring books.

Probably the most famous Robotman story in comic circles involves United Features originally wanting to publish Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes, but the syndicate insisted he somehow incorporate Robotman into the strip before they’d take Watterson on as a client. Watterson turned UF’s offer of Robotman as a character in Calvin & Hobbes down and eventually published C&H with another group.

United Features still WANTED A Robotman syndicated strip, however… so they eventually hired Jim Meddick as the steward of the Robotman franchise. Robotman: The Untold Story is the second book of Meddick’s early days with the character. I’ve heard these aren’t all that easy to find but I lucked into the book last weekend… so let’s give it a looksee!

Under Meddick’s hand, Robotman is an alien visitor to Earth, learning the ways of human culture by living with the creatively named Milde family.

In its’ own way, the strip seems like a riff on E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial which was released in 1982. While “stranger in a strange land” can probably be applied to quite a lot of comic strips as a motivator for stories, I have to admit it’s about the laziest way to begin a Robotman series I can personally think of.

The Milde family is purely stock characters including sarcastic teenager Gary

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Naive younger brother Oscar

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and the put-upon Mr. Milde.

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…you’ll notice I left Mrs. Milde out of my rundown. That’s because she barely adds up to a character. Over the 180 odd pages of this Robotman book, I don’t think there’s ONE comic featuring any aspect of her character!

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She either exists to comment on something the male characters are doing, or she’s standing off in the background.

Meddick’s strength may not be characterization, but he’s fairly decent with a gag. One very strange aspect of this comic is that Meddick does a lot of gags about Robotman romancing common household appliances and computers.

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…I mean, he goes to this well A LOT.

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This is a competent comic but exceedingly mediocre… which is a shame, because Meddick’s art is wonderful to look at and just the kind of thing it’s nice to see in a newspaper. It’s pretty clear that this wasn’t the cartoonist’s cup of tea either- Sometime in the 1990’s, Meddick began asserting much more creative control over Robotman, the strip. Robotman moved out of the Milde family’s house and began living with a wacky inventor named Monty. According to Wikipedia, Meddick went even further, retroactively changing Robotman’s origin so that instead of being an alien visitor, he was one of Monty’s inventions (albeit with false memories of being some kind of extraterrestrial visitor).

By the 2000’s, Meddick divested his strip of Robotman entirely, opting for a strip starring the Monty character, in which the cartoonist had an ownership stake. Robotman was sent into outer space, never to be seen again.

It’s good to know he was able to parlay being a hired hand on Robotman into a comic strip more attuned to his own sense of humor. I read Monty fitfully in the late 1990’s and found it to be a pretty good strip. Robotman isn’t, really… but considering its’ origins, that’s not too surprising.

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