The New York Comic Con devoted an hour to a discussion between Danny Fingeroth, writer of “Superman on the Couch” and “Disguised as Clark Kent,” and Jerry Robinson, the legendary comic book artist, co-creator of The Joker and staff consultant to DC Comics, about Robinson’s long career in the industry. The panel took the form of a slideshow, with Robinson talking about selected artwork and the circumstances surrounding its creation, with the occasional question or comment from Fingeroth. An hour-long slide show in hands of someone without as many anecdotes and without the quick wit and insight of Robinson wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining.
Regarding a sketch of actress Ann Miller from the seven years Robinson spent at Playbill covering Broadway, Robinson said, “She was famous for her legs, so I took a lot of time drawing.” Robinson noticed the pictures of lions and stuffed toys in her dressing room, and when he asked about them, Miller said that a lion had saved her life. He wasn’t aware that she had made a movie with a lion and she said “No, it was in a former life.” He laughed before realizing she was serious. Miller than began telling him about lions in a “sweet, high voice” before they were interrupted by a phone call from her agent, when she began shouting “Tell that son of a bitch…!”
Other illustrations from Robinson’s years at Playbill included illustrations for the shows “Evita” and “Sophisticated Ladies” with Duke Ellington.
“Astra” was a musical Robinson co-authored that was produced in Washington in 2007. He was approached to contribute, and though he had never done it before, co-wrote the musical’s book and lyrics. Robinson worked on the project while in Japan, and was asked for recent work to include in an exhibition. Some sketches he’d done for the production were used, which were then licensed for a manga series collected into six volumes.
Also displayed was a Batman splash page called “Slay ’em with flowers.” It was a splash page adapted into a cover, which was unusual. “The covers I did usually have nothing to do with the story itself,” Robinson said.
Then shown was an animated cell depicting the Russian Bear and American Eagle, which taken from an animated film Robinson worked on in Moscow. “It was an hour-long animated film on Russian TV, about how each country sees the other in stereotypical terms,” Robinson explained. The artist described the project as “an experience,” saying they “had no money and were using equipment held together with rubber bands.”
Robinson’s 1974 book, “The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Book Art” is being reprinted by Dark Horse, and he’s writing additional material to bring the book up to date.
Another book from the 1970s, “Skippy and Percy Crosby,” was a biography Robinson wrote about the cartoonist Percy Crosby, who created the strip “Skippy,” which Robinson described as a precursor to “Peanuts.” Robinson explained that while Crosby made thousands of dollars a year in the 1920s, he ultimately had several marriages, suffered from paranoia and ended up at a V.A. hospital where he stayed for twenty years until his death. While Crosby was perfectly sane for much of that time, there was no one to sign him out. Robinson never met the man, but was clearly fascinated by Crosby and spoke of digging into his life “like an archeologist.”
Also discussed was “True Classroom Flubs and Fluffs,” a gag comic about funny things that happened in the classroom, inspired by suggestions from readers. Robinson recalled that at the time of its creation, he received almost as many letters each week as the President of the United States.
In 1994, Robinson curated an exhibition on human rights for the United Nations. He has done four exhibitions for the UN, where he’s tried to show the best work from around the world.
Another slide displayed work from “Jet Scott,” a “science adventure strip I did for two years with Sheldon Star” that will be also reprinted by Dark Horse this fall. “Hopefully, if I make the deadline,” Robinson added.
“For 32 years I was a political cartoonist,” Robinson said, and examples from his six-days-a-week strip, “Still Life with Robinson” which later became “Life with Robinson,” were displayed for the New York crowd.
Robinson later explained that in 1941, he completed a comic book over a weekend with Charles Biro, who produced the original Daredevil and Bob Wood. During World War II, publishers were allotted a set amount of paper and if they didn’t use all of it, their next allotment would be adjusted accordingly. One publisher had paper left over and wanted to use it before the new allotment started, and the three creators holed up in a studio near Rockefeller Center and created a comic book from scratch, all in one weekend. The hero of the piece was a broadcaster, and he was Robinson’s tribute to Edward R. Murrow.
Talking about a page from a Korean War comic from Timely, Robinson said he “tried to get the drudgery. It was a terrible war. All wars are.”
In the 1970s, Robinson sold a collection called “The Best Political Cartoons of the Decade,” on the condition that it include both American and foreign cartoonists. He credited the book with changing his career and inspiring him to found Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate in 1978, which now represents more than 300 artists from around the world.
Also displayed were marker and ink drawings from Robinson’s sketchbook, of various locales ranging from London and Florence to Prague and the Caribbean.
Fingeroth made the point that for someone else, the pinnacle of their career was for just the beginning for Robinson. “The thing that’s so impressive is how much work he’s done on behalf of persecuted cartoonists and guys like Joe Siegel and Jerry Schuster,” Fingeroth said.
Robinson explained that he had graduated from high school at seventeen and “was selling ice cream on the back of a bicycle, making a grand total of $17 a week. This was 1939.” Before going to Syracuse University in the fall, he was sent to the mountains by his mother. While playing tennis, he wore a painters jacket that people would decorate with cartoons. “Someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked who did those cartoons.” It was Bob Kane, who showed Robinson the new comic book he was working on. “I wasn’t too impressed,” Robinson said, but at the time it was just Kane and Bill Finger and Kane offered him a job.
Fingeroth prompted Robinson to tell the story of how he became involved with Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster’s case. Robinson spoke of how they’d been close friends in the 1940s, when the three of them were at DC Comics before the two moved to the West Coast. In the early seventies, Robinson said, “We thought their lawsuit with DC had been settled and they received a pension. That’s what we were told.” Working late one night, Robinson heard Jerry Siegel and his plight on a talk show and immediately got in touch. He and Neal Adams joined forces used their leverage to fight for a settlement. They gave Walter Cronkite the scoop on the signing and went to Robinson’s apartment for a party where they gathered before the TV and opened champagne and “at the very end when Cronkite announced that “truth, justice and the American way won out.” “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Robinson said.
“ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950” will be appearing at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles from February 19 through August 9. On March 5, the show’s curator, Jerry Robinson, will be appearing with Mark Evanier to talk about the exhibition and his own experiences. More information is available at skirball.org.