Jerry Robinson: A Life in Comics, Part One Bryan Stroud August 1, 2014 Interviews As a preliminary to my interview with Jerry Robinson he faxed me a copy of the Syndicate biography, but in reality it only begins to describe the myriad things he's been doing since he was a teenager. Still, it's a very instructive document, I'm sure you'll agree: Jerry Robinson is an accomplished artist, writer, historian and curator. He is President and Editorial Director of CartoonArts International and Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate (CWS), affiliated with the New York Times Feature Service, which syndicates and exhibits the work of 350 leading cartoonists and graphic artists from fifty-five countries. Note: Here is the webpage that Jerry referred me to with the New York Times: While a journalism student at Columbia University, Robinson began his cartooning career at age seventeen on the original Batman comic book, for which he created the Joker, comics' first super villain. He named Batman's protégé, Robin, and designed his costume, and played a vital role in the creation and development of other characters; among them the Penguin, Catwoman, Alfred, and Two-Face. A cartoon art pioneer, collectors consider his early Batman drawings classics. Among Robinson's thirty published works is The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (G.P. Putnam), acclaimed as the definitive study of the genre. In The Comics, Robinson documented the debut of the first comic strip, The Yellow Kid, one year earlier than previously credited. He also created an award-winning series of comics history calendars published by Rizzoli/Universe. His other books include the biography, Skippy and Percy Crosby (Holt), and The 1970s: Best Political Cartoons of the Decade (McGraw-Hill), which introduced many of the world's leading political cartoonists to America and was the genesis for founding CWS, specializing in representing international creators. He negotiated the first regular use of foreign cartoons in the Russian and Chinese language press. Robinson has served as President of both the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) and the National Cartoonists Society (NCS), the only person so honored by his peers. He also served as advisor to the Museum Cartoon, Basel, Switzerland and was a guest at museums in Warsaw, Brussels, Angouleme (France) and three in Japan. Robinson has traveled to over forty countries on behalf of CWS as well as serving on international art juries and meeting with major creators for CWS. He has made several tours of Europe, North Africa, Japan and Korea entertaining servicemen. His award-winning features of social/political satire, still life and Life With Robinson, were internationally syndicated daily for thirty-two years. Robinson's drawings appeared monthly in the Broadway theatre magazine Playbill. His is the co-writer and co-art director of the hour-long animation, Stereotypes, filmed at the Soyuzmult Studios in Moscow and co-author of the book and lyrics for the musical Astra: A Comic Book Opera. It was performed in Washington, DC in 2007. A graphic novel adaptation of Astra was published in Japan and the U.S. Robinson has served as curator for numerous exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad. They include the first show of American comic art at a major fine art gallery, the Graham Gallery in New York (1972), and served as special consultant for the largest exhibition of the cartoon at The Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, and for the landmark show of the cartoon arts at the Whitney Museum, New York City. Exhibitions abroad include the first of American cartoon art in Tokyo, Warsaw, and Moscow; and others in Portugal, Slovenia and Ukraine. At the invitation of the United Nations, Robinson produced the major exhibitions in Rio de Janeiro (Earth Summit), Cairo (Population & Development) and Vienna (Human Rights), the latter co-sponsored by the Austrian Government. In December 2007, he curated the exhibition Sketching Human Rights commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the UN Declarations on Human Rights. In 2004 Robinson produced the first in-depth exhibition of the genre, The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books 1939 – 1950 at the Breman Museum, Atlanta, which is now on tour throughout the U.S. In 2006, Robinson also curated the exhibition, The Superhero: Good and Evil in American Comics, at the Jewish Museum in New York. Robinson has led creator rights cases including copyright, trademark, censorship, First Amendment (in U.S.) and human rights (abroad). Examples include: Representing Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, creators of Superman, in their struggle to obtain financial security and restore their creator credits to Superman; obtaining the release of jailed and tortured cartoonists in Uruguay and the Soviet Union; writing briefs on behalf of the AAEC and NCS, one in the trademark litigation brought against editorial cartoonists and the other presented before a U.S. Senate committee on postal laws; and serving on the joint arts committee that negotiated creator protection in the copyright renewal law. For eighteen years Robinson was on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts, and The New School and Parsons School of Design, all in New York City. An exhibition of his color photography from seven countries was held at the SVA Galleries. In 2000 Scriptorium Films produced a ninety-minute television documentary on Robinson's career for Brazilian TV. Following the biography is a list of Jerry's awards, including the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement from the National Cartoonists Society; Best Comic Book Artist for Batman; Best Panel Cartoon for still life, and Best Special Feature for Flubs & Fluffs. Other honors from several nations in many categories are listed in addition to the Eisner Hall of Fame and an Inkpot to name just a few. And believe me; Jerry hasn't slowed down in the slightest. We had the darndest time getting together for the interview because of his schedule, which included trips to China, England, Toronto, Miami and Washington, DC, in the last six months of 2007, but I was patient and persistent (probably to the point of being a pest) and Jerry was gracious and made himself available as soon as he could. I couldn't have been happier when things finally came together just before the New Year. You can be the judge of the results. With great pleasure I present the legendary Jerry Robinson: Bryan Stroud: As I've learned more about the origins of the comic book industry it's been fascinating to me that so many of the creators and editors were of Jewish descent like Stan Lee and Julie Schwartz, [Jerry] Siegel, [Joe] Shuster, Bob Kane, Bill Finger of course, Jack Kirby, Gil Kane… Jerry Robinson: And Joe Simon. Stroud: Exactly. Do you think it's due to the Jewish tradition that causes such natural talent for visual story telling? Robinson: Well that's a part of it. The Breman exhibition wasn't entirely about Jewish creators, but they did dominate the genre the first few years, as well as Jewish publishers. But I focused in on the Jewish tradition for another exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York after they saw the Breman. They asked me to do a smaller version. It focused on 15 creators of the Golden Age and 14 of them were Jewish. Stroud: That's a remarkable percentage. Robinson: The only one that wasn't Jewish was Fred Ray, who I worked closely with. He did some of the iconic Superman covers, and other features as well. The rest were of Jewish heritage and it is interesting to discover why. My research indicated there were a number of reasons. And it happened in other disciplines with other ethnic groups, so it's not that surprising. In the case of those who were of Jewish heritage, many of them were first or second generation Jews who had fled Europe. They were often intellectuals and scientists, including Einstein and others who were so important in the development of the atomic bomb. There were many from other countries that were also fleeing persecution and poverty. Among the Jews there were many intellectuals and artists. I think that accounts for part of it. Many of them became teachers in New York. A lot of them taught some of these early pioneers of the comic book industry. Stroud: That's true. Robinson: They taught at some of the major schools. Stuyvesant High, the New School and Art Students League in New York including DeWitt Clinton High School in The Bronx where about three or four of the early creators attended –Will Eisner, Bill Finger and Bob Kane. Stroud: It is fascinating. It seems like, especially in the Golden Age, you had a tremendous Jewish influence and it continued on through the Silver Age, although of course you've got the other ethnic groups that you mentioned such as those that produced Infantino, Plastino, Saladino and Giella. Robinson: Right. They were soon joined by all diverse ethnic backgrounds. George Roussos, who was hired to be my assistant, was from Greece and came over as a kid. Four of my closest collaborators as well as my closest friends were Irish from Boston, the Wood brothers, Bob, Dick and David; Irish Catholics and they were top creators in the field. I worked closely with Charles Biro of Hungarian descent who did Daredevil. All these different ethnic groups found jobs in the new genre. It was a place to get work and to have your work seen. Above: Charles Biro Stroud: Yeah, and it kind of reinforces the idea that comic books are a unique part of Americana. Robinson: They really are, yeah. Stroud: And they drew very much from the very origins of our immigrant heritage. Robinson: Right. The publishers, at least three or four of the major ones, from Timely, that's now Marvel, DC/National, and MLJ, (three partners), were all Jewish. They were in the printing trade, most of them, before that. They were lithographers and printers and they saw the comics as another client just as if were printing Good Housekeeping magazine. (Chuckle) Actually, many were "girlie" magazines. In 1934 they saw the comics as a way to keep the presses busy when comics begin to sell. They were able produce them on a shoestring. They bought up the content from syndicates – reprints of newspaper strips, as you probably know, for very little. Stroud: Right. Low investment. Robinson: Low investment, so it was a very good combination. Then when they began to run out of material about 1936, they turned to buying original work drawn just for their magazines. When Superman came along in 1938 they were actively seeking original material. They had exhausted reprints from the syndicates that were suitable comic book content. Stroud: Okay. That's a very interesting evolution. It sounds like back in the early days you did it all: pencils, inks, colors and even lettering, which is a very specialized skill. What was this crash course in comic books like for you? Robinson: (Chuckle.) Well, it was difficult. I had never drawn any. I'd never even thought about it. I was going to Columbia University to be a journalist, a writer. So I'd never taken art courses. I should say with one exception. When I first started to work for Bob, and I was to start in a few weeks. I figured I should learn something about cartooning. So I enrolled in an art class. I remember the school was in the Flatiron building, which is a famous historic building in downtown New York. They had us copying plaster casts and anatomical figures. And in a couple of days they started to put my work up on the wall as examples. I soon learned I could copy anything. I had good eye/hand coordination. But it was not creative. They had no courses in cartooning. I figured, if they're putting my work up on the wall as examples, and I knew nothing, I couldn't learn anything there and I quit. (Chuckle.) That was my art school experience. Stroud: So you're essentially self-taught then. Robinson: Yes, and studying what I could see in the comics and working very hard. Drawing over and over again until I learned how to do something that I wanted to do. In a sense it was very intense because we had to meet deadlines, you know. As you said I started lettering, which I knew nothing about either, but I was able to follow the style, generally. And I made a few little innovations, by the way. Wherever there was a caption I would make the first letter a bit decorative; in a circle dropping out the outline. Stroud: Yeah, I'd seen some of those and that's very unique. Robinson: I don't know why I did that. I was an avid reader all through my childhood and so I read many illustrated books, one The Adventures of Robin Hood by N.C. Wyeth. That's where I drew my inspiration for the name Robin and for his costume. I used that decorative "R" on Robin's vest as a counter to the bat on Batman's chest. I soon began penciling and inking complete stories. Stroud: And it kind of came full circle later when you were illustrating books as well. Robinson: Oh, yeah, that's right. (Chuckle.) I love illustration and I love the great illustrators. Stroud: Which tasks did you find most satisfying at the time? Robinson: Well, I enjoyed most of all doing my complete stories. And that's what I did. Whenever I penciled, I inked. I didn't letter later on. That took so much time and I just laid out the lettering where I wanted it. But other than that I penciled and inked complete stories and even, whenever I was able to, I did my own coloring. Stroud: So you were kind of a one man shop after all was said and done. Robinson: Well, all of the artists were in the beginning. Later, it was more like a factory assembly line. To produce all the work that was required, some strips took to that method. Some artists became very specialized as inkers, as pencilers, as colorists. In fact, when I was teaching at the School of Visual Arts I would deliberately teach how to letter and to emphasize penciling and inking as separate qualities so that they could break into the field. Which many of them did. Stroud: Do you remember who? Robinson: Well, Steve Ditko was a student of mine. Stroud: Yes, of course. As a matter of fact, I sent Steve a note a few weeks ago in preparation for speaking with you. Robinson: Oh, really? Stroud: Yes, and I asked him his memories of you. Robinson: Oh, wow. Stroud: He had this to say: "Jerry Robinson was a great teacher for teaching fundamentals in how to tell/show comic book story/art. What one learns, knows from seeing, studying other's artwork is mostly visual. But what one learns from a teacher like Jerry is how to use one's mind with solid comic book panel/sequence principles. It is that basic understanding that makes a comic book panel effective, dramatic, [and] visually work for a story/picture integration and continuity creating a whole unique reading/seeing experience." So you obviously left a lasting impression. Robinson: Oh, that was a very generous statement. I've had no contact with him for generations. Stroud: Well, you and the rest of the world. Robinson: When I'm asked about students I of course always mention him. He was very bright. I knew it right away. In fact, if I recall correctly, I got him a scholarship for the second year, so he was in my class for two years. When I would see students of Steve's ability I would recommend them to a publisher and that's probably how he started with Timely. I recommended a lot of my students over the years to Stan [Lee.] In fact, I got to know Stan quite well and we ultimately worked together for almost 10 years. Stroud: Was that pretty enjoyable? Robinson: Oh, yeah. Stan was a very good editor. He didn't micromanage anything. I guess he saw that I was already fairly well established, obviously, by that time after years of Batman and teaching and doing other features as well. I was still doing comics while I was teaching. I taught from 5:00 to 10:00 in the evening after a day's comic book work. (Chuckle.) But I was very young and foolish at the time. (Mutual laughter.) Stroud: It doesn't sound like you were alone. When I was interviewing Dick Giordano he talked about commuting in from Connecticut each day and working on the train or sleeping as he could. He was burning the candle at both ends as well. Robinson: Well, that's certainly what I was doing. When I was doing my classes at Columbia I started during the day and working at night and then when that became super difficult I started to go to work during the day and then classes at night. Stroud: Good heavens. Did you like being a teacher? Robinson: I enjoyed it very much in the beginning. The last couple of years maybe I was getting exhausted. I guess it was more the fact that my focus was more dispersed. I had other projects like a newspaper strip and book illustration and so… Stroud: Something had to give. Robinson: The teaching years were my art education. Never having studied art and not having any formal training, I made up my own methods, which artists do. How you arrive at a conclusion as to why you did a certain thing. So it forced me to go back and study why I did certain things. Why I did it and then how, in order to convey it to a student or to anyone else. So I think the learning is much more intense and I know my own work, I felt, improved tremendously during the years that I was teaching. I think it's a give and take with the students. I was fortunate to have some bright students. Of course they were a minority like in any class. A few stand out. I had 30 or 40 students at one time. They were big classes. There were several others talented like Steve. Professor Christopher Couch of the University of Massachusetts is writing up my bio. It's been sold to Abrams Publishing, the fine art publisher. I know he'd love to see Steve's quote… Speaking of my students, another one who did very well was Fred Fredricks who took over Mandrake the Magician, written by Lee Falk, who was one of my best friends. I think Fred is still doing it. Also, the talented Stan Lynde who did a strip called Rick O'Shay. Stroud: I'm not familiar with Rick O'Shay. Robinson: You can Google it. Rick O'Shay is a cowboy strip. I'm not sure if it's still running. I've lost track of Stan. He moved out west. He made it pretty early. Note: I did just that and discovered that Stan Lynde has a webpage and is active as an author in Montana. You can see what he's up to at his website. He also responded to my e-mail and had these kind words about his former instructor: Dear Bryan, Jerry's experience with Batman and his thorough knowledge of comics made him an excellent teacher at New York's School of Visual Arts. I give the school a great deal of credit for my syndication with RICK O'SHAY, and I'm delighted to learn of Jerry's new consultant position. He was a fine instructor of what Will Eisner termed Sequential Art and is a noteworthy authority on the comics. Regards, Stan Lynde Stroud: You've got a living legacy out there. Robinson: I hear from them now and then. They'll write or if they do a book or something they send it to me. I'm always very, very pleased. I'm as excited about that as if I'd sold something of my own. Stroud: It must be almost like seeing your children mature and do well. Robinson: Yeah. Stan Goldberg, another student, is a great professional for Harvey and Archie Comics. Another is Mort Gerberg, a top New Yorker cartoonist. Also Don Heck. He did a lot of top comic book work. In fact, I haven't read it yet, but in a recent issue of Alter Ego there is a piece about him. He worked a long time in the comics. I think, sadly, he may not still be with us. Note: With appropriate thanks to my buddy, Daniel Best, I contacted Stan Goldberg as well. What a fine gentleman he is and he shared a lot about his long and successful cartooning career in addition to some great memories of Jerry. Stan is also on the web at www.stangoldberg.com. He's still going strong after decades in the business. Here's a segment from that conversation: Stan Goldberg: Jerry and I go back a few years (chuckle), that's for sure and before I go ahead and do this thing just remind me we were at a big International Cartoonist Society event; the big long weekend every year where we give out all the major awards and things like that. Jerry came over to me, I was nominated for one of the awards, and Jerry comes over and he says, "Stan, I'm gonna be the presenter of that award." I said, "Well, that's nice. That's great." He didn't tell me then, but later I found out he wrote a piece about more than just him being a presenter and me, one of the nominees, but like everything that you prepare for, I didn't win the award, and that was just perfectly fine with me, at this stage in my life, but he came over later and he said, "I had this whole speech lined up," and if I remember now, I think he read it off to me while I was standing with a drink in my hand. "This is what I was gonna say about Goldberg." Stroud: (Laughter.) Goldberg: Jerry and his wife, Gro, I've known them forever and it's one of those few guys that are still around that you could touch bases with and…another interesting sidebar, many years ago…we go down to Mexico every year to a little town called San Miguel, and the first time we went down there about sixteen years ago. We spend a couple of months there every winter. I met the great Frank Robbins, who lived down there. Stroud: Oh, wow. Goldberg: And I grew up on Frank Robbins and we touched base and when we got together down there, he passed away a few months after that, but I had real quality time with him there and he was a sweet, great man and a lot of his contemporaries back home, like Jerry and Irwin Hasen and people like that, they were all close buddies and they thought that Frank just disappeared. They knew he loved Mexico, but they thought he'd passed on because he was not in touch with any of these compatriots, all these guys that he used to hang out with. Jerry told me an interesting story about Frank Robbins. He said Frank Robbins got him, got Jerry, his first job for Look magazine. Frank couldn't do this job and this was about 1938 or 1939 and he passed it on to a young Jerry Robinson to do. And that was like Jerry's first big job for a major magazine. Stroud: When you took the classes from Jerry what sort of principles did you take away from your time being his pupil? Goldberg: It's interesting. That had to be 1950, I think. Just to go back a little bit, I started working for Timely Comics in 1949. I think I just turned 17 or I was still 16 at the time, I don't remember, and I was one of the staff guys and running the coloring department…not running it at that time, I took it over about two years later, but I was one of the colorists there and then 1950 rolled around and I started coloring some books and figured I've got to continue going to school. I enrolled in the School of Visual Arts in the evening classes and one of my instructors was Jerry Robinson. Now Jerry didn't know me from Adam, but when I went into that class I told him who I was and I'd just got through with the day of coloring some of Jerry Robinson's war stories and some of the books that we were putting out. Jerry was doing a lot of war stories at that time. So that's how we touched base right away. Stroud: Oh, fantastic. Goldberg: And Jerry's art…he wasn't one of the ordinary, good artists, he was better than 99% of them, and I especially remember his war stories so well. It was so authentic and so realistic and he was magnificent. People remember him for certain things, but he was a good artist, really a great artist and it was so sad because the coloring we were able to do in those particular books at that time was so poor. So here Jerry was and everything was so authentic looking; the tanks and the uniforms and all that, but those were all colors that half the time you put down on what we used to call silver prints, you had to keep your fingers crossed and hope you got something close to that because it was very difficult getting the browns and the grays. Certain colors that demanded three or four of the major colors and a certain percentage of them to make this great gray uniform or the color of mud or the color of a plane. And half the time Stan [Lee] was telling me, "Look, it's difficult getting those colors. I would have no problem if you made the tanks," I'm exaggerating now, but more or less he said, "If you make the tanks red, you make one guy's uniform blue and the other guy's uniform yellow…" And here I was trying to be so authentic. I would go to the library and get the correct color, and I felt bad that Jerry was putting all this work in and I'm sure he realized, and he knew who I was, I was coloring his stuff, because I told him right off the bat that it's difficult getting it right. In those days when the color of the paper in the comic book was almost a gray color, it wasn't even white, then some of those colors would come through the pages. And up at Marvel, Timely at that time, it was quite poor. But that was the class and it was quite a kick to have there, as my teacher, was a guy that I was working on his stuff, and I knew of his work even before I came into the business. I was aware of his artwork. It was so distinctive and I loved it. Stroud: You mentioned you had aspirations of journalism, did you get opportunities to write, back in the day or was everyone else doing the scripting? Robinson: Well, for Batman, Bill Finger was the chief writer and really the co-creator of Batman. Stroud: Right and was unfortunately unsung for that for many, many years. Robinson: Yes, unfortunately so. I'm always sure to mention Bill in my interviews as being the co-creator. There wouldn't have been Batman as we know it without Bill. Stroud: I'm sure that's true. In fact, didn't you found the Bill Finger Award? Robinson: Yes, I did. Stroud: Good for you. And please clarify for me; was Arnold Drake involved in that as well? Robinson: No. Arnold, I think the first year, received the Bill Finger Award. Stroud: Okay. For some reason I had it in my head that he was involved in creating it. Robinson: No. Not that he wouldn't have, I'm sure. He honored Bill as I did, but I didn't work with Arnold on that. I dealt with people at San Diego Comicon, notably Jackie Estrada, who agreed to make it a part of the Eisner Awards presentation. I wanted to give it a platform where it would be known and where the young writers and cartoonists would learn about Bill; those who were not aware of him or of his contributions. Stroud: Yeah, because he's an important part of the heritage. Robinson: Oh, definitely, and I contacted Marvel and DC, particularly DC. I called Paul Levitz, DC President, to help finance the first award and have every year since, I believe. Stroud: I know it's gone on for several years now and has been presented to some very deserving creators, both living and posthumously. Robinson: Well, we decided to make one award for the living and one for those that have passed on, so that we could honor both. I thought that people shouldn't wait ‘til they die. (Mutual laughter.) And they are ones to remember. I thought it was kind of a nice touch that Jerry Siegel won the first Bill Finger Award. Stroud: Yes. Very fitting. Robinson: And I think that's when Arnold won the living one and Jerry Siegel got the other. Jerry and Joe [Shuster] were very good friends of mine. Stroud: Yes and you've done a tremendous service for them and for their families also. Robinson: Yeah, that was later.