The Life (and Death?) of Robin: Bob Lubbers' "Robin Malone"

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.

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.

March 9, 1970–the strip that set up the series’ ambiguous finale.

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.

A version of the March 10, 1970, strip that ends with Mike rushing toward 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.

March 11, 1970 (with “RIP RM” spelled out in the traffic and Mike’s name called out)

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!

A version of the March 10, 1970, strip that ends with Robin ducking out of harm’s way.

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.

March 11, 1970 (Bob Lubbers used Morse code to spell “RIP RM” into the traffic and had Mike’s name called out.)

March 11, 1970 (with “RIP RM”spelled out in the traffic and Robin’s name called out)

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 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.”

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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 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.

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