Written by Bryan Stroud
How often do you get to talk to a legend? We're talking one of the founders of the medium who went on to ever more important things in his later career. Jerry Robinson was there practically from the beginning and went on to instruct other art students who would make their own mark (and a few were kind enough to speak to me about being his student, including Steve Ditko!), traveled the world to help ensure human rights and aided directly in the quest to get some recognition and much-needed money for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Jerry never slowed down and I may have been one of the last to interview him before his passing for an article on the history of the Scarecrow that I wrote for BACK ISSUE magazine. He was kind and gracious, as you'll soon read.
This interview originally took place over the phone on December 29, 2007.
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.
Note: Here is the webpage that Jerry referred me to with the New York Times.
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.
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:
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] Schuster, 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?
JR: 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.
JR: 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. Anyway, 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
Stroud: Yeah, and it kind of reinforces the idea that comic books are a unique part of Americana.
JR: They really are, yeah.
Stroud: And they drew very much from the very origins of our immigrant heritage.
JR: 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 they 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.
JR: 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?
JR: (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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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 was 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.
JR: 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?
JR: 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.
JR: 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?
JR: 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.
JR: Oh, really?
Stroud: Yes, and I asked him his memories of you.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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?
JR: 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.
JR: 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?
JR: 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.
JR: 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. So, 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.
JR: 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: www.oldmontana.com. He also responded to my e-mail and had these kind words about his former instructor:
"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."
Stroud: You’ve got a living legacy out there.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.”
SG: 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 side bar, 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.
SG: 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?
SG: 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.
SG: 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, its 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?
JR: 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.
JR: 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?
JR: Yes, I did.
Stroud: Good for you. And please clarify for me; was Arnold Drake involved in that as well?
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: Yeah, that was later.
Stroud: How did you originally come to work for Bob?
JR: 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.
JR: 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 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 $25.00 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.)
JR: Right and I had to save enough for the first semester and so I think I managed to make about $17.00 a week at that time, which, you know, this was 1939.
Stroud: That was still significant.
JR: 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 (Detective #27), 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 $25.00 a week.” I didn’t realize that much afterward. (Chuckle) I thought, “Well, gee, that’s great, I was making $17.00 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.
JR: 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.
JR: I wish I had that jacket. I’ve been asked about it many times.
Stroud: Yeah, that would be Smithsonian material.
JR: 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.
JR: 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?
JR: You want to hear a funny anecdote about Dick Sprang?
JR: It might have been in ’89 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.
JR: I hadn’t seen either one of them since the 40’s 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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?
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: Exactly. Whatever he had he would attach.
Stroud: Marvelous, I’m sure it made the job that much easier.
JR: 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.)
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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?
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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. I’m sorry; I always stumble over that word.
JR: That’s okay; I didn’t know it right away, either. I didn’t know I was doing it. (Laughter.)
Stroud: Was it something just kind of instinctive?
JR: 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.
JR: I don’t know about Frank Lloyd Wright. I don’t think I knew about him at that time, but Fritz Lang, yes.
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?
JR: 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?
JR: (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.
JR: That’s right. I was very pleased about that.
Stroud: What are your duties?
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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?
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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?
JR: 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 per cent 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?
JR: (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.
JR: You’ve got a way to catch up.
Stroud: I look forward to it.
JR: All the best.
Stroud: Thank you.
JR: We’ll actually be celebrating our 51st on New Year’s Eve.
Stroud: Oh, and isn’t New Year’s Day your birthday?
JR: 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.
JR: That’s right.
Stroud: Does his longevity surprise you at all?
JR: 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?
JR: 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?
JR: 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?
JR: 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 30’s and 40s when you were working on him.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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?
JR: 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.
JR: 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 awhile the pages began to look like a patchwork quilt. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: So, you spent a lot of time in dusty libraries.
JR: 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?
JR: 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?
JR: 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.”
JR: Oh, gee. That’s kind to say. Thank him for me very much.
Stroud: I’ll be happy to. When is your biography coming out?
JR: They’re just getting the art scanned now and the book goes through several stages. Originally it was for fall of 2008, but I don’t think we’re going to make that. I think more likely it will be spring of 2009. At least that’s what they’re shooting for.
Stroud: I’ll be on the lookout and I’m sure many others will as well.