Saturday’s Golden/Silver Age Living Legends panel at New York Comic Con was packed with people. Panelists John Romita Sr., Al Jaffee and Jerry Robinson filled the room with their recollections of how they first broke into the industry and the relationships they’re most fond of. After all three received a rousing applause, moderator Arie Kaplan of “Mad Magazine” opened things up by posing a question of whether they find it odd to hear their generation be referred to as the golden or silver age.
“Actually, I thought my stuff came from the rock of ages,” joked Jaffee. “My career in comics isn’t as distinguished as Jerry and John’s. I drew little animals and teenage girls.” Asked about his time at Marvel and Stan Lee, Jaffee was very gracious. “Stan was very smart and put you in the right direction,” said Jaffee, adding his appreciation of Lee’s trust in him. “He told me what he wanted, and told me to ‘go ahead and write it.’ I ghost wrote it, and he didn’t fool around with it after that.”
Jaffee talked a little more about his work later in the panel. Specifically how he was not able to draw muscles in the proper places on bodies. “My ability leaned towards the cartoony figures, and straight figures like superheroes is not something I figured I could compete with.”
Going in another direction, Jaffee ended up creating Inferior Man, and his alter ego was being that of an accountant, which “wasn’t terribly clever. It was just the opposite of Superman,” said Jaffee.
Jaffee went on to explain that the concept intrigued Will Eisner, who told Jaffee he would hire him and use the Inferior Man stories as filler mainly in military comics. Moreover, Eisner suggested that they scrape the accountant background and make him a quartermaster.
“This immediately blew my notions of where to go with this,” said Jaffee. “After a few attempts, Will let me go.” Following a few other penciling jobs, Jaffee went to Stan Lee.
“I was about nineteen, and Stan was about seventeen, and he grabbed a script out of a bin and threw it at me and said, ‘Draw this, and if you do it successfully, you can go on writing and drawing it.’ And I did. For quite a while,” Jaffee said of the beginning of what would become “Squat Car Squad.”
Kaplan wanted to know about how Jaffee came out with the fold-ins, but Jaffee first expressed how important it was that creative types in the comic book industry must know that things change, and stressed that it must be embraced.
“We never dreamt that there would be animation on our phones,” Jaffee said. “One day, I’m just looking through magazines looking for some kind of slant on something.” Looking through the fold-outs found in “National Geographic” and “Life Magazine,” Jaffee thought that “MAD” needed to have a cheap, black-and-white fold-in to compete with the other magazines. These fold-ins he thought worthy enough to be embraced, so he made a unique pitch to his editor, Al Feldstein, telling him, “Al, you’re never gonna buy this because it mutilates the magazine.”
But the idea did intrigue Feldstein enough to take the idea to “MAD” Publisher Bill Gaines. The crowd had a hearty laugh when as Jaffee relayed what Feldstein told his boss: “Bill said use it. The kids will buy one magazine, mutilate it and buy another one.”
When Jerry Robinson was asked how he initially met Bob Kane, he recalled the summer just after graduating from high school.
A big tennis fan, Robinson at 17 had a painter’s jacket that he used as his tennis warm-up jacket. “Everybody decorated their jacket,” Robinson explained. “It was the graffiti of our day, and I did my own cartoon.” As it so happened, Robinson one day received a tap on the shoulder and was asked, “Who drew that?”
“At first I thought I was getting arrested,” Robinson joked, adding that at the time he couldn’t remember what he drew. Eventually, Kane showed Robinson his first issue of “Detective Comics” and asked what he thought.
“I wasn’t terribly impressed,” said Robinson, eliciting a roar from the crowd. Kaplan got things back on track by asking Robinson why.
“Because I just said it,” Robinson said with a smile on his face.
Eventually, Robinson changed his plans to pursue Journalism at Syracuse to do so at Columbia instead, so he could also split time lettering and inking Batman comics.
“Working with Stan [Lee] on Spider-Man was a lot like Jerry’s situation,” added Romita. “Neither one of us hurt the product created by somebody else. I didn’t hurt Spider-Man much, and he didn’t hurt Batman much.”
“I think everyone in this room knows how much Jerry had to do with Batman,” said Romita, which also generated a round of applause. Then he joked, “Of course we all know how little Bob Kane had to do with Batman,” which generated more laughter from the crowd.
“I don’t mean to be mean,” asserted Romita. “I think the fact that Batman is still going has a great deal to do with what Jerry did, and I like to think that Spider-Man is still going partly because of what I did.”
The talk of sharing Batman’s continued publishing success then turned to Bill Finger when Robinson mentioned how Finger had written all the early stories and introduced almost all the other characters. “He created the whole mythos,” Robinson added. “He became my mentor, and introduced all the major influences in my life. Bob [Kane] did acknowledge Bill’s contributions, but unfortunately not until after Bill had passed on.”
Towards the end of the panel, the discussion turned toward teenage romances. Specifically how Romita got his start drawing them at DC Comics for eight years. “It aged me ten,” joked Romita.
“I had to learn how to make pretty girls,” said Romita, and talked about “Famous Funnies,” his first romance comic book.
“Steven Douglas, who is in a special place in heaven, gave me $270 dollars for this job I did. The girls looked like bony men, and it was so bad he never printed it.” Romita noted that readers gravitated toward the attractiveness of his female characters for some reason. He joked that in the thirty years that followed, it is what helped him pay off his mortgage.
“It was a very lucky break that I did those eight years.”
Later during the question and answer portion of the panel, Romita was asked about Lee’s other collaborators, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby.
“Still to this day, I can’t believe Steve Ditko left Spider-Man after three great years. To me, that is the greatest example I’ve seen of guys without avarice,” said Romita. Citing that despite Lee and Ditko’s creative difference, he still felt he was only going to be on the comic for a few months before Ditko returned. “I can’t believe I was never kicked off Spider-Man.”
“Jack was an idol of mine since I read ‘Captain America’ #1 when I was a kid,” said Romita about Jack “King” Kirby.
When Kirby was mapping out the “Fourth World” saga, Romita said that the King himself offered him the chance to draw the New Gods since he wanted to focus solely on writing. After taking some time to think about it, Romita turned down the offer.
“That’s one of the greatest moments of my life when he asked me,” said Romita. “I told him, ‘Jack, I would love to, but my wife won’t let me. She said I’d be a Kirby clone after that.'”
“I will never know what would have happened had I gone with him,” he said. “I’d like to think the Fourth World would still be running at DC. But maybe that’s just ego.”