Jerry Robinson was a multi-faceted man (his biographer called him, quite correctly, a true polymath) and I learned so much about all he’d done during our conversation. As you’ll soon see, he was not only an architect of the Golden Age, but made significant contributions as a historian, curator and humanitarian as his interests, talents and career literally spanned the globe. Jerry was a giant, yet he never lost his sense of humility or interest in being of service to his fellow travelers. It isn’t hard to see what an indelible mark he’s left behind and how richer we are for what he has done.
Click here to read Part One of this interview.
Stroud: How did you originally come to work for Bob Kane?
Robinson: Well, that story has been told so many times. I guess if you’re re-telling something, okay. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: I’m sorry. I just thought we should have a little background.
Robinson: No, that’s okay. It’s an improbable story, so I know why they always ask it. When I graduated high school at seventeen, I intended to be a journalist, so I applied to Columbia, Syracuse and Penn. All were in the Northeast and I grew up in New Jersey, so that was within the realm of reason for me at that time.
So lo and behold I was accepted at all three and decided to go to Syracuse only because I was brought up in Trenton, which is only a few miles from Princeton University. So I knew the Princeton campus and played tennis there and in fact one of my brothers moved to Princeton so that was how I knew the college town. And so that’s what I visualized going to college in Syracuse was like. And certainly Columbia, when I found it was in the heart of Manhattan, and Penn in downtown Philadelphia didn’t sound like bona fide college towns, so I picked Syracuse.
When I graduated high school, I sold ice cream all summer to earn money for the first semester. In those days it was sold from a cart on the back of a bicycle. So being the new man getting this ice cream franchise, I was given the territory on the suburbs of town. I had to pedal for half an hour in the hot sun just to get to the place where I could sell.
At the time I was only 98 pounds and was on the track team and on the tennis team. Tennis was kind of my passion. So by the end of the summer I was down to something like 89 pounds or whatever. So my mother was afraid that I wouldn’t survive the first semester in college. So she persuaded me to take $25 of that hard-earned money and go to the country to fatten up. So I did, reluctantly, because I was hardly able to eat a popsicle myself and lose the royalty.
Stroud: Eating into the profits. (Chuckle.)
Robinson: Right and I had to save enough for the first semester and so I think I managed to make about $17 a week at that time, which, you know, this was 1939.
Stroud: That was still significant.
Robinson: Something, yeah. I wasn’t sure I could quite live on it in New York. It wouldn’t go a long way. So I went to this mountain resort for the purpose my mother had in mind and the first day out I ran out to the tennis court. And I put on a jacket that was a fad in high school at the time. It was just an ordinary white painter’s jacket that you bought in a paint store. A short jacket with pockets all over it, you know, for brushes and supplies for painting. So it was a fad to decorate them with drawings and the equivalent of graffiti in that day. We picked that up from Princeton. It was a college fad, so we wanted to look like college kids when we were in high school. So I decorated mine with cartoons. I had been a cartoonist for the high school paper. I don’t know how I got into that because, again, I didn’t take any art courses there, but I guess I had an affinity for drawing cartoons.
And so I ran out to the court to find a partner and I used it as a warm-up jacket. I felt a tap on my shoulder and a voice said, “Who did those drawings?” I thought I was going to be arrested or something. I turned around and meekly said, “I did.” “Well, they’re not too bad.” He introduced himself and it was Bob Kane. That was the serendipitous start of my career.
We got to know each other. He was like seven years older, I was 17 and he was 24. So, close enough that we could converse and hang out together.
He showed me the first issue of Batman, which had just come out and to his chagrin I wasn’t terribly impressed. I liked the good stuff like Terry and the Pirates and Hal Foster in the newspapers. When he found out I was going to Syracuse, he said, “That’s too bad. If you were going to New York we need somebody on the Batman team. There’s just two of us.” I don’t know if he even mentioned Bill Finger at that point, come to think of it, but I soon found out that was all the “team” consisted of. He said, “If you come to New York I could offer you a job for $25 a week.” I didn’t realize that much afterward. (Chuckle) I thought, “Well, gee, that’s great.” I was making $17 a week selling ice cream. It sounded like a lot easier to do, just draw some pictures.
So I called the admissions office at Columbia and asked if my acceptance was still good. Luckily it was. Of course, I’d already decided to go to Syracuse and I called there and told them I’m not coming, and I called my folks at home and I said I’ve got a job in New York and I went right from the mountains to New York. I didn’t even go home. So that was the start of my career.
Stroud: That is quite a story of being in the right place at the right time.
Robinson: Yeah, I owe it to that jacket. Bob didn’t play tennis and I think he was just wandering around that day and spotted the jacket.
Stroud: I’ll be darned. Serendipitous indeed.
Robinson: I wish I had that jacket. I’ve been asked about it many times.
Stroud: Yeah, that would be Smithsonian material.
Robinson: But I handed it on to…I had three nephews of my oldest brother who became like my own sons and they were at that time maybe 10, 7 and 5. So I gave it to the oldest one, and when he outgrew it, he handed it on to his next oldest brother. By the time it got to the third brother it must have been in shreds.
Stroud: (Chuckle.) I’ve got two younger brothers myself, so I’m sure you’re exactly right. Things just reach tatter stage after awhile.
Robinson: Another thing while I’m talking about my nephews, one just happened to visit and spend the day with me yesterday. When he was about six, my brother was still living in Trenton. He was a dentist. I visited them one day. I was out in the back yard. It was in the summer and I was drawing pictures for them. So all the kids in the neighborhood gathered around watching me drawing; probably Batman and other characters for them. I heard one of the kids whisper to my nephew, the youngest, “Who is that man?” My nephew answered, “Oh, that’s Uncle Jerry. He’s a friend of ours.” I always treasured that.
Stroud: Oh, absolutely. It sounds almost worthy of your old “Flubs and Fluffs” feature although it was neither of those. Did you ever know any of the other ghosts’ like Dick Sprang, for example?
Robinson: You want to hear a funny anecdote about Dick Sprang?
Robinson: It might have been in 1989 or ’90, we were both invited to the San Diego Comic Con and they presented me with the Inkpot Award, I believe. Anyway, that was why I was there that year. And there were some comics fans who had a society there and were throwing a party for a few of us at one of their homes. They had a very nice home with a big lawn in the back and there were lines of chairs set up out on the lawn for this event. To my surprise the other two guests were Dick Sprang and Charlie Paris. I don’t know if you know the name Charlie Paris.
Stroud: I sure do.
Robinson: I hadn’t seen either one of them since the 1940s when I left Batman. When I first saw Dick we fell into each other’s arms and hugged each other. Then suddenly, almost instantaneously, we both took a step back and looked at each other and realized we had never met or even seen each other before.
Above: Dick Sprang at San Diego Comic-con
Robinson: But we knew each other through our work, and so somehow it seemed like we both felt that we knew each other. It was a strange sensation and that’s exactly what happened. Now Charlie and I also embraced. Charlie Paris I did know very well. He worked in the DC bullpen when I was there.
Stroud: Right, quite an accomplished inker.
Robinson: They were both exceptionally nice guys. I admired them very much. Charlie I knew had moved out West up in the mountains and was living in a trailer and became an excellent Western painter. So we had that wonderful reunion at that time.
Stroud: Neat. That’s a great memory. When I talked to Lew [Sayre Schwartz] a few months ago he told me that he really loved working on Bill Finger’s scripts because he said Bill had a gift for very visual writing. Was that your experience, too?
Robinson: That’s exactly right. He was a visual writer. He would have been a great Hollywood writer for film. We always thought that’s what we were doing….producing films in story book form. In what proved to be graphic novels of today.
Stroud: I think I read somewhere that he did some television work.
Robinson: Oh, yes, Bill did some television. He never really became a top TV writer. He could have been. He should have been. I think at that time he was already having a lot of personal problems that held him back. But I think if he had got into TV earlier he would have been very successful. I’m convinced of it. Because, as you said, he was a visual writer. That’s what made the scripts so good and that’s why it was great to collaborate with him. He knew what the artist could do, what he couldn’t do, what he needed, and how it would be visualized. I’ve mentioned this many times; he would often attach all kinds of research to the script that he was using himself in developing the story.
Stroud: So you had an automatic reference there for some of the things to work off.
Robinson: Exactly. Whatever he had he would attach.
Stroud: Marvelous, I’m sure it made the job that much easier.
Robinson: Yeah, in many cases it made things work. If he decided to have a sequence on a ship, a luxury liner or a cargo ship he would get a cutaway of the ship and when he had the action on the boat, you’d see that it worked. I’ve worked with scriptwriters who didn’t do that research or didn’t visualize it and it was a nightmare. I had to re-write the script. I won’t say who. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: And I won’t ask. (Laughter.)
Robinson: At times I spent half my time re-writing the script before I could draw it.
Stroud: That had to be frustrating, especially when you’re under the gun to reach a deadline.
Robinson: That’s right.
Stroud: I noticed on some of your covers and other work over the years there were things like an oversized villain contrasted with the heroes. I’m thinking particularly of that cover with the massive Joker tearing the sheets off a calendar.
Robinson: It was a cover, yeah.
Stroud: It seems like that was a favorite technique there for a while. Was that one that you developed as far as having the huge villain and the smaller heroes in the front or was that something Bill came up with?
Robinson: I don’t know who really started that. I did my own cover ideas. Bill certainly used the big props in some of his splash pages. I loved to do symbolic covers, so that size contrast was almost automatic when you do something symbolic. That may not be the oversize thing necessarily, but it proved to be perfect for the Joker to have him looming over the small Batman and Robin.
That particular cover, like many, I would usually interpret the lead story of that issue in a symbolic way. Not the actual splash from the story. That particular story was called “Crime a Day.” The Joker challenged Batman that he was going to commit a crime a day and “Try and stop me!” So it portrayed him smothering Batman and Robin with the calendar pages.
Stroud: The symbolism on that cover is very powerful.
Robinson: And it made a good design. I was very design and composition conscious. I wanted to have flat areas when possible.
Stroud: It was extremely visually effective and of course at the end of the day the idea is to get someone’s attention enough to want to drop a dime.
Robinson: Exactly. We were fighting for display space and trying to have people notice them on the newsstands with all the other books. There were hundreds of them, and I tried to have Batman and Detective stand out.
Stroud: It seems like you kind of pioneered the use of blacks and chiaroscuro.
Stroud: Was it something just kind of instinctive?
Robinson: Well, in the beginning Batman was dark and to heighten the drama you use cast shadows. Bill and I were influenced by the German expressionists in films, so that’s the way to get the effect.
Stroud: It makes good sense. I have a friend who is an artist and letterer, Clem Robins, who thought that your work may have been influenced by Fritz Lang and perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright.
Robinson: I don’t know about Frank Lloyd Wright. I don’t think I knew about him at that time, but Fritz Lang, yes.
Above: Clem Robins
Note: Clem Robins offered his observations on the lasting influence of Jerry Robinson:
Jerry Robinson was one of the first guys in comics to master the architecture of the page. He hit his early stride in the late 1940s, when he drew the Batman syndicated Sunday strips. DC reprinted a lot of them when I was a kid, and they were the first examples I ever saw of Batman drawn really, really well. Robinson invented Gotham City at night, forty years before Anton Furst mimicked the look in his design of the first Batman movie. Chiaroschuro, underlighting, crazy camera angles: Robinson made it all work on the comic page. Furst should have shared the Academy Award he won with Robinson, for turning the latter’s ideas into film.
In his twenties, Robinson also laid the foundation for the art of comic book inking. The hatchings, the spotting of black areas, the use of heavy brush lines to describe down planes — all were Robinson trademarks, which have since become the vocabulary of the modern inker. Untrained, he learned the way most Golden Age artists, by drawing the best he could. His early work was crude, but he learned quickly. Superman had to wait until the 1950s for a really first rate artist to bring him to life, but Batman had Robinson almost from the beginning, and the two of them blossomed alongside each other. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. Without Robinson it is doubtful Batman would have survived the end of the Second World War.
Practically every great comic book artist has taken his turn at the Batman: Neal Adams, Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Carmine Infantino, Frank Robbins, Dick Sprang, and many others. All of them have learned at Robinson’s feet – some literally so, in his classes at the School of Visual Arts, others taking to his ideas simply because those ideas became in essence the way we all see Batman. If Batman has become an icon, Robinson is largely responsible.
Stroud: You’ve got some lasting credits to your name. You created the Joker and weren’t you involved also with Robin’s creation?
Robinson: Well, Robin was an idea of Bill’s, working with Bob. Bill came up with the idea of adding a boy to expand the parameters of the strip and story potential and also gave younger kids a role model that they could identify with. The older kids identified with Batman.
In the discussion stage, we’d usually get together and kick around ideas for the strip. Names are very important, and Bill had a whole list of names written out for the boy that he suggested and none of them really clicked with all of us. Usually when you get something you know is right everybody jumps on it right away and says, “Yeah, great,” like they did with the Joker. Everybody knew that was a good character in the beginning. And so we couldn’t settle on a name for the kid. Several names gave an inference of super powers, I can’t remember them right now, but I was thinking of something more like an ordinary boy to keep to the concept of the strip. Superman, of course, was created with super powers and Batman deliberately, did not, and we felt that was the strength of Batman.
And so with that sensibility about the name, I suggested Robin. That came from Robin Hood. It was from a book that I was given as a kid of about ten. It was The Adventures of Robin Hood, which I treasured and I still have in my library. It was an oversized book for the time. This goes back to the 30’s. It was illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. I loved his illustrations and I pored over them. I knew every one of them and I could visualize them in my mind. So in the discussion I suggested Robin and we kicked it around.
Not everybody jumped in the air at first because we all had our favorites, but they were finally convinced that would be the best of what we had and I think it proved to be a good choice. I immediately thought of the drawings of N.C. Wyeth and sketched out for Bob the costume that N.C. Wyeth had drawn in the Robin Hood illustrations; the little tunic and so forth. So that’s how that came about. I was able to play a creative role in the development of other major Batman characters including Penguin, Alfred, Catwoman, Two-Face and others.
Stroud: Wonderful! I understand that after awhile you and Bill both ended up going to work directly for DC. Was that a breath of fresh air?
Robinson: (Laughter.) Well, I wouldn’t call going to work down in Manhattan a breath of fresh air. But yes, in a sense it was. I had much more freedom. Neither one of us worked for Bob after that. Anyway, both Bill and I decided to leave. We’d been getting other offers from other publishers. They wanted anybody connected with the success of Batman. So Bill and I were both about to leave when DC heard about it they made us an offer to stay with Batman, but to work directly with them. So I think that was good for both of us. We were on our own and part of the arrangement was that I was able to do my own stories as well as finish Bob’s work, which I did until he stopped. I did my own covers and complete stories.
It was a difficult choice. I had some very good offers. One by Busy Arnold who offered me editorship of all his books and I could do a lead feature of my choosing. I still felt connected to Batman, though. It was my first strip and it was still growing. It was so exciting to create for it and we introduced a lot of characters, so Bill and I stayed with DC.
Stroud: And you’ve kind of come full circle because I was reading where you were recently hired on as a creative consultant for DC.
Robinson: That’s right. I was very pleased about that.
Stroud: What are your duties?
Robinson: To be a creative consultant. (Laughter.) I said to Paul [Levitz] that this is like my alma mater and I was coming back for a class reunion.
Stroud: Yes. Well, I know they’ve been relying on you heavily for the Dark Knight movie.
Robinson: I did get over to the set in London, which was fun to do.
An interesting bit was that they had been filming a lot of it in Chicago and I was on a mission in China at the time, so I didn’t get back to see some of the sets in Chicago. In China I gave a talk to a big congress of animators and comics people in Giyang, a city of a million people that nobody ever heard of. (Chuckle.) My son and I flew to Beijing and then went to Giyang for a week and it was great. I gave a speech for about 800 people. I sent it over in advance and they translated my remarks into Chinese although a lot of the audience spoke English. They also published a retrospective of my work.
It was an interesting adventure, but that’s why I wasn’t in Chicago. But one of the scenes they shot in Chicago showed the Joker pushing the gal out of a window of one of the high rises, and on the set in London they shot the scene where [Batman] catches her before she hits the ground. So she was thrown out of a window in Chicago and landed in a studio in London. (Mutual laughter.) That’s movie making.
Stroud: The magic of the cinema.
Robinson: Yeah, they had to reconstruct the whole facade of the building, several stories high. It’s amazing what they do.
Stroud: Do you approve of the way they’re handling the character?
Robinson: Well so far. You never know until you see the whole thing put together. I’m very enthusiastic and they’re doing a great job. I’ve met the people, the actors and they’re all first rate. As is the director.
Stroud: It’s certainly a far cry from Adam West.
Robinson: Oh, yes.
Stroud: Carmine Infantino told me when the TV series came out of course it caused the sales of Batman stuff at DC to just explode, but personally, even though Adam West, believe it or not, kind of hailed from my home town in Washington state, I just couldn’t stand that series. (Chuckle.) I don’t know how you felt about it, but the camp just didn’t do a darn thing for me.
Robinson: The thing is they were exploiting it, and I knew it wouldn’t last that way. You can’t camp something like that and have it continue for any length of time. If they did that with Batman in the books, it wouldn’t have lasted. Think of James Bond. If they camped that it wouldn’t have lasted all these years.
Stroud: Yeah, it’s just not what the character is all about.
Robinson: There was an exhibition you may not have heard about at the U.N.
Stroud: You mentioned that. I was going to ask you about it.
Robinson: It went off very well. We had the opening a couple of weeks ago and the Deputy Secretary General, the second highest officer at the U.N., opened the exhibit; a woman from Nigeria and also the High Commissioner of Human Rights. I also said a few words.
They’d mounted the exhibition beautifully, every piece matted and framed. I had put together almost 70 works of graphic art and cartoons on human rights from around the world from 50 countries. That was the fourth show I curated for the U.N. One of them was on Human Rights in Vienna, 1993, for the big Human Rights Conference. All the heads of state were there. This was the fifteenth anniversary and 2008 is the 40th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. The first show I curated for the U.N., which was exciting, was for the Earth Summit in Rio in ’92 and then another one in Cairo in ’94 on Population & Development. So those were worthwhile projects.
Stroud: Oh, absolutely. It’s got to be tremendously gratifying to be involved in such long-lasting and great impact projects.
Robinson: It really has been.
Stroud: It seems like back in the day comic strips got quite a bit more respect than comic books. It seemed that everyone wanted to do a syndicated strip, but comic books were looked down upon. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Robinson: Comics being looked down on was true of comic strips as well as comic books. But among the comic artists themselves they thought maybe the comic strips were at a higher level and they earned much more at the time, so that enhanced their prestige, but comic art has long been looked down on. It’s only in recent years that it’s been accepted as an art form. I kind of signed on early on in that fight. I curated the first show of American comic strip and comic art at the Graham Gallery in New York, one of the best fine art galleries. We took over the whole gallery, several floors and did the first major comics show. That was in about 1972.
It was at a time when they had a big show at the Louvre in Paris on comic art and I went over to see it. I would say it was at least 50% American art that was translated abroad and many thought they were their indigenous cartoons. So the French were the first to appreciate American comics and the comic art as a real art form. So that was gratifying. I know that was true in Europe because my wife is Norwegian and she grew up on a strip called Knoll Og Tott and when she came here, where of course she got to know the comics through me, she realized the Knoll Og Tott was the Katzenjammer Kids.
Stroud: Just as a side note, for those of us who aspire to something similar, to what do you attribute over 50 years of successful marriage?
Robinson: (Laughter.) Gosh. Being in love. (Chuckle.) That helps.
Stroud: Very good. Well, I’ve got 21 years under my belt, so I’ll catch you sooner or later.
Robinson: You’ve got a way to catch up.
Stroud: I look forward to it.
Robinson: All the best.
Stroud: Thank you.
Robinson: We’ll actually be celebrating our 51st on New Year’s Eve.
Stroud: Oh and isn’t New Year’s Day your birthday?
Robinson: That’s right. The next day is my birthday.
Stroud: Well, Batman isn’t quite as old as you are, but he’ll be 70 years old here pretty soon.
Robinson: That’s right.
Stroud: Does his longevity surprise you at all?
Robinson: Oh, yes, actually it does. Even my own surprises me. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: Do you think there will always be a Batman? Is he that entrenched in our popular culture at this point?
Robinson: Oh, I think so. I think it’s going to go in cycles as it has done over its history. I think in general it’s been cyclical; the comic strips as well. So there will probably be barren years and then they’ll revive it again and think of some other new take on it, but yeah, I think it will survive. It has all the elements. Enough different artists have given their own take on it and so I think it will inspire other generations.
Stroud: Do you think the fact that he’s a non-super powered costumed hero has anything to do with a better ability for people to relate to?
Robinson: Well, yeah, that’s some of it, but then again there’s Superman and Spider-Man and they haven’t done too badly. Everybody doesn’t have the same affinity for fantasy. Some are aficionados of science fiction and some don’t like it at all.
Stroud: It does depend on individual tastes. The recent postage stamp that recreated the cover of Batman #1, was any of the art on that yours?
Robinson: I probably inked it, but I’m pretty sure it was Bob’s pencils. I know it wasn’t mine entirely.
Stroud: It’s interesting just how far Batman has permeated popular culture in many ways. You’ve got the comic strips and the comic books and animation and postage and on and on and on. It’s almost surreal how far he’s come from back in the late 1930s and ’40s when you were working on him.
Robinson: Yeah. Well, I think Superman has done that as well. The newspapers in the early days had perhaps even a greater impact. It was the only medium. There was no television, no comic books. The newspaper strips were the breeding ground for all the great cartoon talents and that, I think, gave comic books the tradition of storytelling and character development. They had a tremendous grip on the public.
Stroud: It’s just amazing how well the character, Batman in particular, has held up over the years. Obviously your art was a major contribution to that, so it’s pretty fascinating to me.
Robinson: Well, I don’t know if you ever saw the book I did on the comic strip; The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art?
Stroud: Yes, I recently picked up a copy. I’ve only got a few pages into it, but it looks like you did a tremendous compendium.
Robinson: So you have the one published by Putnam?
Stroud: Yes. It’s the hardcover edition. I got it through a used dealer on Amazon as a matter of fact.
Robinson: Dark Horse is going to republish it. I’m supposed to be rewriting it as we speak. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: It’s going into a reprint, huh? An updated version?
Robinson: Yeah. I’m just going to add a last chapter to review what happened in the field since I wrote the book and add a lot of new color art.
Stroud: I’ll look forward to that. It should be great. As a matter of fact, I recently got to use it as a reference. My brother had called me from Oregon and he said, “Do you know anything about Foxy Grandpa?” I said, “No, but I bet I know who does.” So I went to your index and found some stuff.
Robinson: Well, I’m glad it was of use. I spent three years on that book. That was in the dark ages. (Note: The copyright date on my copy is 1974.) There were no computers and no internet. We had to do many drafts because every time we shifted around, you needed a new draft. After a while the pages began to look like a patchwork quilt. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: So you spent a lot of time in dusty libraries.
Robinson: A lot of time. Today, I guess, if I just concentrated on the writing, and just did that; I was doing a daily strip and a humor page at that same time, instead of three years it would be a year. That would be the difference with a computer to help.
Stroud: Very much so. It’s a tremendous tool. My wife is an avid genealogist, so I’ve seen it done both ways. The internet helps a whole lot. I was looking at this tremendous list of recognitions and awards you’ve received. Which ones mean the most to you?
Robinson: Hmmm. Well, I guess one thrill was getting the Eisner Hall of Fame Award. Most meaningful of all was that Will, an old, dear friend, presented the award himself. And sadly that was the last award he ever gave.
Stroud: That would be tremendously, well, meaningful. There’s just no better word for it. How do you hope to be remembered?
Robinson: I don’t even want to think about it. (Chuckle.) I think I should leave it up to others to decide. I won’t really have any voice in it.
Stroud: I understand. You’ve just had such a long and diverse career and you’ve influenced so many people. That was one of the things Clem especially wanted me to mention. He said, “Please tell him he’s been a hero to a lot of us in the industry.”
Robinson: Oh, gee. That’s kind to say. Thank him for me very much.
Stroud: I’ll be happy to.