Jerry Robinson Interviewed by Chris Mautner

Posted by on November 1st, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Art by Jerry Robinson. [©2010 DC Comics]

Even if Jerry Robinson had initially left comics for a career in journalism as he had originally intended, he’d still be fondly remembered for his work on Batman, particularly in creating the arch-villain the Joker.

Thankfully, the comics bug proved to hard to shake off, and Robinson subsequently spent the next 70 years or so working in some aspect of the industry — in comic books, in comic strips (Jet Scott and Flubbs & Fluffs), as an editorial cartoonist, as an author and biographer (The Comics) and as the head of his self-created Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate.

Abrams’ newest book, Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics by N.C. Christopher Couch, covers his career and biography in detail, with scads of drawings, sketches, photography and paintings Robinson has done over the years.

I talked with Robinson over the phone about the new book, how he got into comics and the current, miserable state of editorial cartooning.

I wanted to start by asking you about the book itself. What was the impetus behind it and where did you know Christopher Couch from?

I didn’t know Chris very well. He came to me with the book proposal that he had brought to Abrams. He told me Abrams is one of the best art publishers and I knew the editor — I knew of him and his reputation, Charles Kochman, who used to be an editor at DC comics. So I knew [Kochman] knew the field very well. So with that combination I knew it would be in good hands, so I agreed to do it.

How long did it take to work on the book and how much input did you have with Couch beyond just doing interviews with him?

It was a very close relationship. It was in the works for a year or more. And that was several times a week of recordings. We went through all my works from the past 70 years. I think I put more time in that book than any other where I’ve done the actual writing. Luckily, I’ve hoarded all my work. I didn’t want to see it destroyed, which was very fortunate, particularly in the early days, when things were destroyed. I saved things I thought were great pieces of art and no one thought of them as art at the time. I just didn’t want them destroyed. That’s how I kept for 70 years some of the iconic Batman, Superman and Captain America, works by Simon and Kirby who I worked closely with. There must have been tens of thousands of pieces of art we culled through for the book.

Robinson’s hero London takes on the likeness of Hitler in this original for the WWII-contemporary comic Daredevil Comics #5 (November 1941), written and artwork by Jerry Robinson. [©2010 Jerry Robinson]

In going through all that material was there any part of your career or period you had forgotten about or were able to see with fresh eyes or that surprised you in some way?

Certainly: There was work I had forgotten I ever did. I found loads of things that provided material for the book that we hadn’t thought of in the interviews, that I was able to pinpoint in going through the work.

When you first started working on Batman, had you heard of comic books before? Were you aware of the comic-book industry?

No, I really wasn’t. In fact when I first met Bob Kane at a resort I had never heard of comic books and had never seen them. I had seen the reprints of comic strips that were in book form. There was a series of books in a larger format that reprinted comic strips, and I loved those as a kid. When I was 6 or 8 years old or so my parents would buy me those. But the comic books we know of, from 1934 on up, I had never heard of.

I was going to go to college. I was 17 when I started on Batman in 1939. My only thought was to work my way through college and this was a source of revenue I hadn’t counted on. I had been accepted at Columbia and Syracuse and Penn, and I was told by my faculty they were the best schools for journalism and that’s what I wanted to study. For not any particular good reason I picked Syracuse, because it seemed like more of a college town, although I had never been there. New York City I didn’t relate to. Philadelphia didn’t look like a college town to me. But when Kane offered me a job in New York to start on Batman, with Bill Finger, [I contacted Columbia] to see if my application was still good, which it was. I quickly called Syracuse to tell them I wasn’t coming and called my parents at home and went straight to New York for the job. It was just to earn my way for the first year or two. I had no intention of being a cartoonist. I’d always drawn but it was like I was an editor who also drew cartoons. I didn’t think of it seriously at all. I was in my second year in Batman when I got involved seriously and saw the potential of writing and drawing and when I created the Joker I was fairly immersed. Even then I was still taking courses with the intention of eventually getting a degree and going on to journalism. I had to make a choice; it became too demanding to burn the candle at both ends.

Was there an “aha moment” for you working on Batman where you realized this is what you should be doing? Or was it more of a gradual movement for you?

I think it was the latter. As I got more involved I wanted to do more writing and creating of my own, and so when I had the opportunity to create the Joker and work on other new characters I got more involved and saw the potential. In 1941 I created a strip called London that I wrote and drew. I was fully committed at that time.

One of the reasons I was asking was I read a lot of interviews with creators from about that time and many of them it seems were dismissive about their art, saying things like, “We didn’t think we were making art, we didn’t think making anything special.” They really wanted to work in comic strips or illustration. Reading the book, I get the feeling that wasn’t the case with you. Especially considering you saved all your art. It seems you had a special regard for comic books specifically. Is that accurate to say?

That is, that is. I don’t know why it came but I did have an appreciation of the art once I got in and saw what disciplines [it required]. You had to learn to create a successful strip. You’re really wearing so many hats — you’re a director, you’re a producer, you’re an actor, you’re a scenic designer, you’re a costume designer, you’re a photographer and so forth. All of those disciplines come together, and I began to appreciate what it really took to create a good story visually. I found it was a combination of the writing and drawing [that attracted me] and here was a perfect medium to do that. As I got interested in the drawing, which I hadn’t thought of before — I guess I had some natural ability for it — once I saw what was involved in the drawing and combined it with the writing, it was a real challenge. I began to appreciate those who were able to make that combination. So I saw these as great pieces of art. There wasn’t anything intrinsic about it. It was still just tacked up on the wall in my studio. But I couldn’t bring myself to destroy it.

The Joker’s second appearance and his first death cheat. From Batman #1 (Spring). Written by Bill Finger. Penciled by Bob Kane. Inked by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson and lettered by Jerry Robinson. [©1992 DC Comics Inc.]

Later as it turns out this appreciation grew with me and I began to save anything that was worth saving to take to exhibitions. I curated the first show of comic art at a fine art gallery in New York City in 1972. Since then I’ve been writing histories about the art form and teaching it for 20 years almost. I really became immersed in it. It grew and I began to appreciate it as an art form somehow. I think what convinced me finally was I went to see a big show at the Louvre — I think it was around ’70 or ’71 — which has inspired me to curate shows. At the Louvre half of [the exhibit] was American comic strips. So they had already elevated it to an art form. You know, the French always appreciated American art sooner than we did. They appreciated jazz and the movies before we did as a truly American indigenous art.

In the book you talk about creating the Joker and talk about how you wanted him to be the Moriarty to Batman’s Holmes. And here we are several decades later and Batman and the Joker are more popular than ever. Are you surprised at the character’s longevity?

It is amazing, after seven decades or more. I’m certainly pleased about it and flattered. You never know what’s going to catch on. You come across those things once in a lifetime. We knew we had something good. We knew from the very start as did Bill and Bob and the editors of DC that it had great potential. It’s proved to be the kind of character that is susceptible to various interpretations over these generations by different creators. There’s not many characters that can sustain that. The flexibility it proved to have, there’s something at the core of the character that is eternal to me.

Can you articulate at all what you think that something is?

I’ve thought about it obviously after so much interest in [the character]. A lot of it was very lucky circumstances. Nobody sits down and says “I’m going to create a character that’s going to last 70 years.” If we could do that every day we’d be discussing this from the Jerry Robinson Center. I think several things went into it.

The Joker, I luckily hit an image that has been in popular culture for centuries. It comes out of the clown and the jester, which goes back to medieval times. Shakespeare always had a jester. The image of the joker traveled from village to village, a storyteller and a clown, a performer. It has all that background. Of course, I didn’t think of [all that] but it was all there. I think the thing that connected it was I wanted to do a character that as you put it was like Moriarty. Every great hero had a counterpart as a protagonist. That’s what I wanted to give [Batman]. At the time in the ’30s, he fought all these gangsters and embezzlers, bank robbers, occasionally there was a mad scientist. But mostly they were prohibition-era villains. That’s who Batman was fighting. There was no mind behind the opposition.

Strangely enough there was a feeling at the time that a stronger villain would detract from the hero. Now from our standpoint, that’s not true. The great villains provided a platform for the hero. So what if he was stronger, the hero had to win in the end. On the other hand the heroes had to be heroic. Villains could be bastards and they’re always more interesting to write about. More provocative. I think that was part of it.

In thinking of the villain I wanted, I knew from stories I had in my writing classes that there’s a contradictory make-up in their character. I thought a sense of humor would be unique. In the stories I had written for Columbia classes, and even in high school I was writing short stories. That was my favorite medium. And they were stories that had satire and humor.

The other thing comes down to one’s own past in some way. An established tradition [at the time] was playing cards. One of my brothers was a contract bridge player. There were always cards around the house. When I was thinking of a sense of humor for my villain the first thing that was important for the character, or one of the most important things, is the name. Early on I began to think of names and I thought of the name the Joker and I immediately related to the playing cards. In fact that very night I searched frantically for a deck of cards with a joker in it so I could base the visual image on that. I found one and I drew that first image of the Joker that is reproduced in the book that very night.

A disguised Joker holds up his trademark. From Batman #1 (Spring). Written by Bill Finger. Penciled by Bob Kane. Inked by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. Letters by Jerry Robinson. [©1992 DC Comics Inc.]

The other key was I had two books given to me when I was a kid. I was about 12 or 13. One was a collection of Edgar Allen Poe stories illustrated by a Danish artist Harry Clark. I loved those stories and looked at those beautiful illustrations, both in black and white and color. Clark drew these really elaborate, elongated figures, much like Aubrey Beardsley. I could see [those images] in front of me all the time. That took part in the whole visualization of the Joker. My first sketch of the Joker had all those things. I fleshed out the concept of a master criminal that was worthy of Batman. That’s what the initial concept was.

I’m writing my memoirs too, by the way. I started back [several years ago], then all these other projects came up, exhibitions and other books and now I’m getting back to it after several years. I plan to expand on it, the Joker particularly. I did write that chapter [on the Joker]. I’ve got about 100 pages of my memoir done so far.

One of the things I noticed going through the book was after you left Batman and even after your comic strip Jet Scott is there’s a point where your style really changed. Was that conscious?

It was very conscious. I always approached each genre, in fact almost each job, asking what was best for that subject. I wasn’t thinking Batman style or whatever, I was thinking how best tell that story. With my editorial cartoons, it was entirely different from Batman, it was a different subject. I know other artists, you can tell their work whether they’re doing a political cartoon or an illustration or whatever. They employ the same technique. Somehow I felt that I didn’t want to be wedded to one style or interpretation. I did this pretty consciously. Even in a humor feature like [the comic strip] Flubbs & Fluffs, it’s different than my political cartoons, illustrations or comic book work.

The newspaper comic (True Classroom) Flubs and Fluffs: written by Jerry Robinson and Mrs. William Moose, artwork by Jerry Robinson. [©2010 Jerry Robinson]

By the way, I just sent my agent a suggestion that we try to reprint the [Flubbs & Fluffs]. There were paperback collections published when I was doing them back in the ’70s. So I thought I’d put together a new collection appreciating them. I don’t know if that will see the light of day. I hope if these other books are successful they might take a chance on it.

What about a collection of your Still Life strips?

I would love to do that sometime too.

One of Robinson’s Still Life panels.  [©2010 Jerry Robinson]

Looking through the book, the thing that strikes me is what a varied career you’ve had. You’ve done just about every aspect of cartooning — you started out in comic books, you did an adventure strip, you did a humor strip, you did editorial cartooning, illustration work, you started your own syndicate. What do you attribute to that kind of career? You’ve had this really varied career. What do you attribute to that?

That’s a good question. I don’t really know myself except that I was inspired to do something new and different. That’s why after seven years of drawing Batman I wanted to do something else. I didn’t see myself drawing Batman for the next twenty years. That was true of every other thing I did. Actually when I was doing Jet Scott, and I decided to leave after two years, during that time I thought I was doing quite credible work for the genre — adventure/science fiction — at the time. A lot of people said nice things about it. I remember thinking specifically I was almost afraid it would be too popular. Too successful I should say, financially, as it had the potential to do. The comic strip was a thing you could really cash in on, tens of thousands of dollars a week even. I said if that happens, when I reach that stage, you can’t walk away from five thousand a week or ten thousand a week. I thought … I’d like to be free to walk away. Of course I never had the luxury of making that decision. I did have those thoughts.

One of Robinson’s paintings reproduced in the “Portfolios” appendix of Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics. [©2010 Jerry Robinson]

What are you proudest of in your career? What stands out for you?

I am proud that I was able to have work in different genres and cartoon styles I enjoyed. And another thing that weren’t really a career but that I did get enmeshed in was photography, which I love with a passion. I had a couple shows of my photography and some photography magazines reproduced some of my work. I’m proud of that. And I paint whenever I have the opportunity. What I love particularly about the book is the editors wanted to include those [elements], which I was very happy about actually. They included a portfolio in the back of the book of my photography and painting and my sketchbook, which I’ve traveled around the world and sketched in. There’s a short story included that’s been unpublished before this. I’ve always written.

One of Robinson’s photographic pieces reproduced in the “Portfolios” appendix of Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics. [©2010 Jerry Robinson]

The photography was an aspect of your career I wasn’t familiar with at all.

I just periodically had done a couple of shows. Some of the pictures you see were shot in Japan and Europe — I had come back from a trip in Japan way back in the ’50s, ten years after the war. I went from Tokyo to Okido. Most of that territory — they had never seen a Caucasian before. It was like a man from Mars when we’d go to a town or village (I was with several other cartoonists). So I did a lot of photography there. I spent a day in the rice fields with a family while they were planting rice. I came back and I had a show at the School of Visual Arts, of my photography. An editor from Collier’s saw it and called me and said they wanted to do a portfolio of my work. They saw the work from Japan in that show. That was exciting. Collier’s at that time was huge. That would have started a whole new career. But that portfolio was scheduled to come out the issue after Collier’s folded. That’s how timing is. Just an issue or two. If that came out, I would have written my own ticket.

We live in a time right now when comics have gained enormous respect, and a golden age of reprints. There are books about all sorts of artists like Mort Meskin, which you did the introduction for.

He was my best friend. We partnered together and collaborated together on a number of strips.

As someone who lived through that time period, is there an artist or writer from that time you feel is particularly neglected and should be done in a book similar to yours or the one on Meskin?

Well, Mort is certainly one I’d name. That book is being published because he deserves more recognition among a younger generation. Maybe a biography of Bill Finger, the writer. Somebody might be working on one. I hope they do. He was my mentor and really opened the door for me. I was 17 years old and all I had was a room in the Bronx and was going to Columbia. I didn’t know anything. He took me to the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan, foreign films. All kinds of events that I never would have discovered by myself. He was a great writer and very sweet and misunderstood character. As you may know, I created the awards in his name.

Speaking of history, I don’t know if you know my book about the history of comics is being republished by Dark Horse.

Do you know when that’s going to be out?

Spring of next year. It was a big coffee-table book to begin with. It took me 53 years to write that and I wrote 20,000 new words for it to bring it up to date. All in color. I just got the advance working and I think it looks beautiful. It really looks gorgeous.

You’ve done a lot of work for creators rights over the years, both international and in the United States. It often still feels like creators are too willing to sign away their rights for the chance to get published. What advice would you give to an aspiring cartoonist as far as ensuring that they get credit for their work?

They just have to become aware of their rights and not sign away rights in a contract just to get published. If the work is good enough to be published, and the publisher wants it, then they should have their full rights in their work. They should be proud of their work. Sometimes it’s hard when you need to pay the rent but they’ve got to be strong. The French are much better about protecting artists’ rights. It’s much better now than it used to be. You don’t sign away the rights in perpetuity anymore. There’s a limit to that, and there are other protections. There are a lot of books on the market that will tell them what their rights are and what a contract should be even what their pay rates should be. Unfortunately we don’t have an cartoonists’ guild. There’s screenwriters’ guild and an author’s guild and so forth. There is an artist’s guild. I don’t know how strong it is in the field. I have a feeling it’s not strong enough that some of these violations would not have occurred, but it is important, and I hope in the future they’re much better protected than they have been in the past. Myself included.

Well, Finger and [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster were your contemporaries and friends. And I know from reading the book that the idea of an author receiving credit for their work is very important to you. Do you feel that you have been sufficiently credited for your work on Batman? In comics people tend to look at the work and ignore the people who made it.

Generally the artists of my period weren’t credited unless the artist was strong enough to make that part of the interaction with readers. That was true in newspaper strips as well. And long after artists departed [a strip] or weren’t active they kept the names going. In the beginning they thought that would be disturbing to the reader if they saw different names on it. I think it was more to protect the original publisher. I don’t think the reader would have objected at all, as has been proven since.

I don’t think there was lack of information [on the part of artists]. It was just ignorance and naïveté. We made an attempt in the ’40s to form a union, a kind of a guild. We couldn’t get the top guys to join. And you need the leaders of the industry to be effective. So it fell through. And we weren’t smart enough as a group to consult the writers’ guild and so forth, which they had the backing of unions.

Do you feel like it’s better now? Have things improved?

I think overall they have, yes. There’s more information, there’s more knowledge of publishing. Outfits like DC and Marvel are giving credits to their creators. I don’t think it’s as generous, has as much participation as in the book field, for example. Authors there get a certain percentage and advance and so forth But there have been enough top writers and artists [in the comics industry] to put pressure on the big companies to follow suit.

As a former editorial cartoonist and head of the Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate, what’s your take on the state of editorial cartooning today? A lot of people tend to have a very bleak outlook of the art form.

Yeah. Well I guess you can’t help it. Major papers are going out of business. Circulations have dropped. Budgets have been cut. So far the Internet hasn’t taken up the slack. There isn’t money to be made there yet. We haven’t found a business plan yet. But there have been improvements: things that have been successful. When I was president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists we had [hundreds of] members. I don’t think we have [anywhere near that] today. There’s been an enormous drop. As there has in the National Cartoonists Society, where I also served as president, but they’re not hit as hard. The comics pages, while they’ve been cut down, a greater percentage of them survive as compared to the editorial cartoon.

Papers are making a nervous mistake. The biggest value of the editorial cartoon is it’s local. A local cartoonist who’s commenting on their city council or their mayor or their attorney general and governor, that’s what impacts. And that’s been proven true time after time, here and abroad. I once walked down the street in Warsaw with an editorial cartoonist. And people would come out of their shop and say, “Hey, how are you?” Everybody knew him. And the same way in Tennessee, walking with Sandy Campbell, who did editorial cartoons with the Nashville News. Politicians use to write him immediately to try and gain his favor. Everybody knew him.

It’s good to have a national cartoonist, but a good local cartoonist [covers national events] as well. It’s good for our syndicate in a way, because [newspapers] have to get material from somewhere, if they’re going to produce any editorial cartoons, but it’s not good for newspapers.

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