In the mid-1970s, Jerry Robinson wrote a comprehensive history of newspaper comic strips, titled simply “The Comics;” more than 35 years later, Dark Horse will release a newly expanded and updated edition of Robinson’s seminal study of the truly American art form. Robinson, who is perhaps best known in comic book circles as the creator of Batman’s nemesis the Joker and the man who designed Robin’s costume, has led successful careers as a political cartoonist, painter and, of course, curator and art historian in the comics field. The new edition of “The Comics” features all of the material from the original, plus new and revised content, including 120 full-color illustrations and new essays by Lynn Johnston (“For Better or For Worse”) and Patrick McDonnell (“Mutts”) in addition to the existing essays by Milt Caniff, Lee Falk, Hal Foster, Walt Kelly, Mell Lazarus, Charles Schulz, Mort Walker, Chic Young and others. CBR News spoke with Jerry Robinson about his updated take on “The Comics,” improvements from the 1974 Putnam edition and the cultural forces that shaped a beloved medium.
“I was very excited about the production. The color is beautiful. Dark Horse did a wonderful job on the color, the layouts and design, the paper, everything. So it was a long a long time in making,” Robinson told CBR. “The original took five years and this took up to two, so that’s seven years of my life represented there!”
Robinson emphasized the high production value of the new edition of “The Comics,” and particularly the color, because these were areas he found lacking when the book was originally published in 1974. “We had a color insert, the color was very poor in those days. The selection was poor because I did not make the color sets for that original edition. The publishers took it upon themselves to select the color while I was writing it. They wanted to get it done in advance as a separate section,” Robinson recalled. “I nearly dropped the whole project when I saw it. It was terrible. I really had my arm twisted for a year to continue the book, I was so disappointed. But in the original edition, I did select every single black and white illustrations myself. As I did in the new edition — all the original black and white plus a few more, all the color. This color is just beautiful. I selected every single color piece, 120 new illustrations, some that have never been reproduced before. I did a lot of research trying to get the exact pieces I wanted for it. Some that had been in black and white, it took some time to track the color version of it if it was one that I particularly wanted to included in the book.
“I took some time. I wanted it to be the best — and the last — of my efforts in that direction,” Robinson said, laughing. “I hope it’s the definitive book on the history of comics for some time.”
In addition to “The Comics,” there have been several books recently published on comics history and scholarship, notably Taschen’s “75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Mythmaking” and “Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics” from Abrams in 2010. Robinson has been pleased by the increased interest in the subject, which he sees as a product of comics’ newfound recognition as an American art form, something that has been a goal the author has strived for throughout his career. “Starting in 1972, I curated the first comics at a fine art gallery. That was, I think, the year after, or almost simultaneously, with a show at the Louvre on comics, which I went over to see. I think that started it,” he said. “The following year, I was a guest curator at the Kennedy Library in Washington, where we did I think the largest show ever held on the comics. Certainly in the US. It was the size of a couple football fields and had all the genres of the comics. So it’s been a long time, but more and more universities and colleges have taken it on as a course of study, serious scholars and so forth.
“When the original version of ‘The Comics’ came out in ’74, it was one of the few studies of the comics. There had been a few very good books by that point, one called ‘The Comics’ by Coulton Waugh and another one, ‘Comic Art in America,’ included comics from among all the genres. It had sports cartoons, ‘New Yorker’ cartooning as well, represented. It was by a very good writer [Stephen Becker]. I think they were the only serious studies before that. They may have already been dated back a couple decades.”
Robinson told CBR News he has long wanted to update “The Comics,” and publishers, too, have been keen to see him do so. “It’s always been kind of daunting because I knew it took three years the first time, so I never really had the opening to do it before. But now, at my age, I have the openings,” he joked. “So I embarked on doing it at the urging of Dark Horse. [Publisher] Mike Richardson came to see me about it, I finally agreed to do it and I’m really glad I did.”
Though Robinson joked and made remarks about his age several times throughout the interview — he is 89 — he has kept up a remarkably busy schedule, touring to promote his books, curating exhibitions and making other appearances, as well as working on the books themselves. “I did get to San Diego last year and they’ve invited me as a guest this year and supposedly the New York convention. It’ll depend how I am,” Robinson said of his summer schedule. “But I’ve done some book signings at Barnes and Noble and I’ll be making an appearance at the School of Visual Arts in New York, either in March or April. I used to teach for ten years there. So that will be good. And MoCCA, I might do that, but they’re here in New York, so I can make that.
“The year with publishing for me, a biography last year from Abrams — which I was also very pleased with, the art and reproduction that they did, that was written by a professor at the University of Massachusetts. And then Dark Horse [published] reprints of a strip I did in the ’50s called ‘Jet Scott,’ they reprinted the dailies and Sunday, every day, in two volumes and they also did beautiful color. I reconstructed all the color from the original proofs or tear sheets. What I did, I did an original color guide, so I had a lot of those that we reproduced from, too. All that within one year! That’s pretty exhausting.”
In the introduction to the new edition of “The Comics,” Robinson notes that there is some new information or thought regarding the Yellow Kid, who became the star of “Hogan’s Alley,” one of the very first comic strips, in the time since the original study was published. One of the reasons for updating “The Comics,” Robinson said, was, “I thought there were parts of the book that I thought, in review, I would want to emphasize and reevaluate. And one of them was the Yellow Kid, the very first strip.
“I did talk about him, of course, in the first edition. I was the first to document the official date, May 5, 1895. Before that, the first Yellow Kid was supposed to be in 1896. After a year of research alone on that, I found the actual tear sheets from ’95 to prove it was first published then, and I publish several pages direct from the tear sheet in this new edition,” he said. “But then I dug deeper into the Yellow Kid and its significance in the history of comics and I was really struck by the importance and the ground that it broke in the very beginning. As often happens in the beginning of a new genre, the film industry produced some great directors and actors and producers from the very beginning. Same thing with comic books and comic strips, too. [Yellow Kid creator Richard] Outcault was a prime example. The Yellow Kid was as epic, in retrospect, and I write about it more in the new book. It was a monumental achievement. It was at once a comic strip, which had never been seen before. It was social commentary, it really reflected the life in the New York slums and tenements as it actually happened.
“And of course, it was also the first huge comic strip success, and being the first, was hugely influential. It was a commercial success — they sold everything, from Yellow Kid lunch boxes to cigarette cases, it didn’t matter what,” Robinson continued. “He took the Yellow Kid out to the World’s Fair, as it was in St. Louis at the time, and sold franchises for that and later for ‘Buster Brown,’ which is also quite unique — it was just the opposite of Yellow Kid, about a rich kid.”
Readers may be interested to discover the struggle over copyright and creators’ rights, which remains in the public eye now due to disputes between the Siegel and Simon estates and DC and Marvel Comics, respectively, have existed from the very beginning, leading to unusual situations like the Yellow Kid appearing in two different comic strips in competing papers, crafted by rival cartoonists. This situation would be repeated with another early strip, “The Katzenjammer Kids,” which became “Hans und Fritz” when creator Rudolph Dirks lost the rights to the title but retained the ability to tell stories with the characters. (It was later renamed “Captain and the Kids” as a reaction to anti-German sentiment during World War I.) “It was a new field then. You didn’t have to worry [if] a story was copyrighted, a piece of art was copyrighted. There’s a story, art and characters. There were mixed decisions in the courts about that,” explained Robinson, who himself had supported Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s litigation against DC in the 1970s. Regarding those earliest conflicts, though, Robinson noted, “the ‘Katzenjammer Kids’ ended up with two strips. They really couldn’t prevent the artist from drawing the character the same, in the case of [Rudolph] Dirks. It’s somewhat analogous to the artist’s handwriting; you’re not going to change your handwriting. But they could copyright the titles.
“So Dirks ended up doing ‘Katzenjammer Kids’ under the title ‘Captain and the Kids.’ And they hired a new artist to do ‘Katzenjammer Kids.’ Apparently, the same thing happened with ‘Yellow Kid.’ There were several artists and they changed the titles — they come from ‘Hogan’s Alley’ originally and ‘McFadden Flats’ and different titles,” he continued. “Over the years, the courts resolved that dilemma, so that wasn’t an issue later on. It gets very arcane.”
Though there have been a number of different comic strips from the beginning, the medium began to truly diversify to a much greater degree in what Robinson deems the Vintage Years, 1929-1939, in part because of the cultural and technological changes taking place during the Depression and years before World War II. “In the early days, I think the comics were mainly influenced by the early films and vaudeville. You saw a lot of slapstick and humor. There were a few continuity strips, but [they were] very rudimentary — ‘Mutt and Jeff,’ I guess you could include ‘Popeye,’ but that was a little later,” Robinson said. “The narrative strip hadn’t yet taken off. I think one of the earliest was Roy Crane with ‘Wash Tubbs,’ and later ‘Captain Easy.’ So before [World War I], it was mostly that, then during the war, once the emancipation began, women began taking jobs in industry because men were off fighting the war and were drafted. They needed manpower, so called, so they filled it with women power. So you had after the war, the First World War, women more and more getting into society. The drive for women’s emancipation, you had strips like ‘Winnie Winkle,’ subtitled ‘The Breadwinner,’ she went to work; ‘Tillie the Toiler,’ as the name implies, she is now working. And then, the men diminished in importance and size. Even in ‘Tillie the Toiler,’ her boyfriend Mac, she towered over Mac. ‘Betty,’ as beautifully drawn by Voight, her boyfriend was also indicative of his name [Lester DePester].
“But this all goes to a point I’m making throughout the book, which is, there was no better reflection of society and Americana and its tastes and mores and fashions, everything — it’s reflected in the comics. You can just read twenty years of ‘Gasoline Alley’ and know what happened [over] twenty years in America. They are really extraordinary novels that reflect American life, as much as the great novels did. The Great American Novel, I think a lot of them were comics,” Robinson continued.
Some of the power and influence of the comic strips can be seen in their effects upon readers — there is more than one example in “The Comics” of readers writing in to name a baby or save a dog, or simply begging their newspaper not to drop a well-loved strip. “‘Gasoline Alley’ was a tour-de-force, it was the first to have the characters grow in human terms, day by day, imperceptibly. I remember that first exhibition I did at the Graham Gallery in New York, I had an original ‘Gasoline Alley’ in the show. It ran for several months, and every so often I’d drop by the show. Quite often I’d see this one guy before the ‘Gasoline Alley.’ So I got to talking to him and he said, ‘You know, I was born the same year as ‘Gasoline Alley,’ and my folks used to read it to me. [Skeezix] started school the same year I did, of course, because we’re the same age. And he graduated when I did; it’s all reflected in the strip. He was drafted the same year, I got married close to the same time I did, had kids and so on.’ It was a unique strip. And other strips did that, maybe not in the same way, but they reflected American life.”
The device of characters’ aging in real time would come to influence future comic strips, notably Lynn Johnston’s “For Better or For Worse,” one of the comics highlighted in the final section of Robinson’s book devoted to more recent comics. “In that last chapter — which ran about 20,000 words, by the way, a book in itself! — there was so much new material. I tried to cover it all, but I chose five [strips] that I thought made unique contributions during that time from the ’70s to present,” Robinson said. “They were all new [to this edition] except for one, and that was ‘Doonesbury,’ which actually had started and I reported on in the original edition. It had only been syndicated a few years at that time and there were innovations even then that I wrote about. I kept everything I had originally written about it earlier, but I started with ‘Doonesbury’ because I thought it made such an important contribution to our culture, broke a lot of new ground — it was the first to win the Pulitzer. [Gary Trudeau is] very versatile, he wrote plays, all sorts of stuff. So ‘Doonesbury’ was one I elaborated on. Then, among the new strips, I thought, that made really important contributions — they may not all have been new in the sense that nothing like it had ever been done before, there’s hardly anything that hasn’t been done before — but the ones I thought had the greatest impact or were innovative or creative, beautifully done.
“The first one is ‘Calvin and Hobbes.’ I tried particularly to include a little color portfolio, at least a couple examples instead of just one little drawing, to show its development and show some of its impact, as I did in the earlier sections with ‘Yellow Kid’ and ‘Krazy Kat,'” the author continued. “‘The Far Side’ I thought was a great humor strip in a different format, the panel. ‘For Better or For Worse’ I thought broke a lot of new ground for the continuity strip. And ‘Mutts,’ which I thought represented some of the best of the modern strips. Most of them were indebted to other, earlier strips. There were connections I saw. ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ was indebted to ‘Skippy’ — I wrote a biography of [cartoonist] Percy Crosby and ‘Skippy’ — as well as ‘Peanuts.’ ‘Mutts,’ of course I see a lot of ‘Krazy Kat’ in ‘Mutts” development, in its art and story. ‘For Better or For Worse’ owes a lot to the drama and continuity of Milt Caniff and some others. They all had their predecessors, but they all added to that genre.”
In addition to the new section, Robinson has updated “The Comics” with a more thorough treatment of female cartoonists and women as protagonists, as well as African-American characters and artists. “One I got to know better and was a really big omission of mine [from the first edition], was Ollie Harrington, who really belonged in the first book. I included him in the second book, when I had the opportunity to expand on blacks in comics,” Robinson told CBR. “He was a black cartoonist who wrote mostly for black newspapers, almost exclusively, that were very successful newspapers at the time in Chicago and other main cities. He became an expatriate and lived his life in Europe later on, so he knew a lot of the US expatriate writers in France. He was a very good artist, very reflective of the times and life. And so I have a longer section than longer normal that I can devote to one artist, to Harrington.”
With the passage of time, trends, too, have become apparent that Robinson could not have foreseen when the original version of “The Comics” was written. “The other thing explored was the number of successful comic strip artists who were formerly or simultaneously political cartoonists. I myself did that back in the ’60s and ’70s when I did ‘Jet Scott’ and I also did my political cartoons and humor cartoon at the same time, ‘Still Life’ and ‘The Adventures of Jet Scott’ for a period,” Robinson said. “But it really became more of a noticeable trend with Jeff MacNelly, I think he was one of the first, who did ‘Shoe’ and was a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and a magnificent draftsman and artist. He was followed by Doug Marlette, who created ‘Kudzu.’ Unfortunately, Doug was killed in an auto accident, but ‘Kudzu’ ran for many years. The third was Mike Peters, also a top editorial cartoonist, who does ‘Mother Goose and Grimm.’ There have been several others — the other one I think was important to the profession was Jim Borgman, a very excellent and I think also Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist who does ‘Zits,’ he illustrates ‘Zits’ and Jerry Scott does the script. So that was a unique trend for editorial cartoonists.
“It’s very difficult to handle both; I know when I did it, it was very difficult, but it was very rewarding. It was also such a change of pace of doing a strip for humor or political satire, as I did, and an adventure strip, that it was like taking a vacation once a week to do the other one!”
Looking back over the history of the comics — and the history of “The Comics” — Robinson notes he was uniquely placed to write such a definitive volume and lucky enough to meet so many of the cartoonists who built and popularized a new medium. “When I did that first book in the ’70s, I was very fortunat. It was kind of midway into comics history, between its inception in 1895 to now,” he said. “So in the ’70s, I got to know and interview [the artists] and was already a working cartoonist myself and I’d been president of the National Cartoonist Society and had done talks, so I had the rare opportunity to meet, get to know and interview for this book, as well as a related book. For the first book, some of the early cartoonists, I can’t even believe now that I knew! People like Jimmy Swinnerton, who was drawing in 1895, I interviewed him in the 1970s . A lot of the early masters were still alive and I was able to get know them. Rube Goldberg and Milt Caniff and Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Al Capp — I knew them all and was able to talk to them all. Now, I was able to know some of the ones from the present day. I’m so grateful that I was able to write about them!”
“The Comics” arrives in stores March 9.