Pick up any issue of Space Family Robinson Lost in Space, and the first thing you’ll notice beyond the gloriously melodramatic painted covers, is the complete absence of pretty much every character we love in Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space TV series.
Where’s Zachary Smith? The Robot? Major Don West? For that matter where are the Robinsons themselves – John, Maureen, Will, Judy and Penny? How do you create a spinoff comic book series with none of the characters from the TV show?
Quite easily, in fact, if the comic book series in question, based, as was the TV series, on the book Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss, predates Allen’s delightfully schlocky space masterpiece by some three years.
Debuting in 1962, the comic series from Gold Key Comics ran for 59 issues until 1982, with a few cancellations, revivals and name tweaks along the way, arriving at a time when the idea of a family lost in space was a hot pitch.
In fact, in the early ’60s, before Lost in Space blasted off rather wonkily in September 1965, there were two other competing TV shows on offer according to Pop Matters:
“What’s more, once Space Family Robinson became a success for Gold Key, the film and TV rights were sold to TV writer Hilda Bohem, who worked up a treatment called Space Family 3000.
“Case Closed? Again, not so fast. There was still another Space Family Robinson to contend with. Ib Melchior, author of the story Death Race 2000 was based on, began pitching his own Space Family Robinson in 1964. So, that makes three Robinson projects being volleyed before Lost in Space‘s debut.”
Confused yet? Feeling a little lost yourself?
Don’t be – leave that to the Robinsons who are, let’s face it, perenially good at getting profoundly, deeply and narrative-fuellingly lost.
In the comic book series, the Robinsons, as mentioned, come in a completely different combination, as does their mode of travel.
In this iteration, they are onboard what was Earth’s first orbital outpost, Space Station One – issues 37 to 44, published from 1973, carried the tag “On Space Station One” – which departs Earth in 2001 bound for the stars, equipped with everything from hydroponic gardens, an observatory and shuttlecraft known as Spacemobiles”.
Everything it seems but a compass; although to be fair, a cosmic storm in issue 2 is the culprit that sends them hurtling into the great galactic beyond, leaving the Robinsons in their titular lost state and the comic book series rich with all kinds of storytelling possibilities which they used quite effectively, if colourfully.
It’s the make-up of the family using “inter-dimensional space jumps” to get home that is interesting here.
The comic book Robinsons are led by Craig and June, described in issue 18 of the series as “scientists working in space technology laboratories” who were deemed to be “the most mentally and physically qualified [people] to man [sic] the station”.
Coming along for the ride, for what is the Robinson family without some kids, are children Tim and Tam – yes their names do make up the name of one of Australia’s famous biscuit exports, the Tim Tam but surely that’s just a coincidence? – who are equal parts adept and not depending on narrative demands (although it’s usually Tam, the girl, who ends up in damsel in distress mode), dog Clancy and parrot Yakker.
And that, really is it – no robot, no pesky Dr Smith, no Don West, and consequently not a lot of cheesy moments or quippy catchphrases.
The comics by writer Del Connell and artist Dan Spiegle are, hyperbolic melodrama aside, something which likely reflects more of a 1960s mindset that anything else, reasonably serious, gung-ho affairs in which some outlandish plot development occurs, ranging from a plague to giant flying characters to being stuck in a medieval landscape, the Robinsons respond and ultimately triumph.
It’s great episodic storytelling that, like the TV series that both succeeded and ran concurrently for three years with it, is great escapist sci-fi fun.
Without, it must be said, much of the charming histrionic nonsense that Allen brought to the table.
To be honest, I am a fan of all the insanity and over the top frippery that came with the TV series, with the show occupying a great big warm-and-fuzzy place in my heart, but it is ridiculously silly at times too.
True, much the same accusation could be leveled at the comic book series at times.
But mostly, odd monsters and strange flying creatures aside, Space Family Robinson is much more serious and intense, with the family tackling each and everyone narrative obstacle with customary gusto and knowhow.
The premises might be outlandish but the family isn’t, with everything being taken very seriously, very much in the same spirit of cinema serials from the ’40s and ’50s which came with, to modern sensibilities at least, manically outsized melodramatic scenarios but which were always treated with grave concern and intensity by the characters.
That my friends, is now good escapist entertainment should work, and Space Family Robinson excels in this regard, allowing you to tap into your inner comic-reading child, and relive the wonder and enchantment that came with reading about people in impossible situations who somehow always came out on top.
It’s tempting to be cynical and postmodern and gently, or not so gently for we are now in a viciously intolerant digital media age, make fun of TV shows, movies and comic books like the Gold Key series but honestly, they’re a lot of fun to read, visually adventurous and expansive with the kind of blockbuster, out there adventuring that even a jaded adult laden with the burdensome realities of life, would find liberating.
There’s something distinctly therapeutic about surrendering yourself to the adventures of the comic book Robinsons; sure they’re cheesy, a little bit sexist (OK, a lot at times) and hilarious OTT, but they represent something we’ve lost in our more knowing, meta age, the opportunity to go on a grand and exciting adventure where the stakes are high and consequences deadly, but you always know the heroes will triumph.