Jerry Robinson was only seventeen when Bob Kane invited him to work on "Batman." Over the next few years Robinson co-created Robin and the Joker. Though Kane created Batman, it was Robinson's visual take that really established the character, drawing from expressionist film and other sources. Since then when artists approach the Dark Knight, it is Robinson's portrait of the character that they are working from.
After "Batman," Robinson spent the next few years of his career working for many different publishers on established characters, creating his own characters and becoming more and more involved in the writing as well as the art. Robinson did a lot of illustration work, including the short-lived comic strip "Jet Scott," which has recently been republished in two volumes by Dark Horse Comics. He covered Broadway for "Playbill" for many years. His comic strips "Flubs and Fluffs," "Still Life" and "Life with Robinson" ran for decades. He has curated exhibitions for museums around the world and for the United Nations in conjunctions with various summits.
In addition to his status as a creative elder statesman, Robinson is also one of the great comics historians. Any list of the books written about the medium would have to include "Skippy and Percy Crosby," Robinson's look at a now forgotten and sadly neglected cartoonist, and his 1974 book "The Comics," a new updated version of which will be published by Dark Horse next year. He was also one of the key people involved in fighting for the Superman rights and credit of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster from Warner Brothers and DC Comics.
The new book , "Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics," by N.C. Christopher Couch and published by Abrams, covers his long storied career and includes a broad portfolio of his photography, illustration and painting in addition to his comic art. The legendary creator spoke with CBR over the phone about the book.
CBR News: Mr. Robinson, I really enjoyed the book. What is it that prompted you to agree to this, and why now?
Jerry Robinson: I wish I could take credit for it, but I can't. The author came to me. He had written on comics before and knew of some of the things I'd done in my career. He talked me into it and took it to Abrams. Once they took it, I was sold because I consider them one of the best, if not the best art publishers, and I knew of the editor Charles Kochman, who used to be an editor at DC Comics. Once he was anxious to do the book, I had no reason not to do it. And, of course, it's flattering to have somebody write a book about you and your career after 88 years.
Had you ever thought about writing your memoirs?
Yes I did, as a matter of fact. I had started to write my memoirs about three or four years ago, and then the roof fell in with all these projects. I guess I'd written about one hundred pages that I set aside. I had several exhibitions come up that I curated and several other projects, but I did have in mind to do my memoirs. I'm back on it a little bit when I have a few days here and there. It will quite different and cover different parts of my career that I'd like to talk about than this book did. Much more intimate and behind the scenes. I have a chapter on my travels through Europe with six cartoonists and a model entertaining soldiers. We traveled all over Europe, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and North Africa. Then, Japan and Korea on another trip. Some of the most hilarious things and tragic things happened on these trips, so I'm writing a lot about that. It will cover entirely different material than the biography did.
One thing that particularly interested me was the time you spent between "Batman" and your time on "Jet Scott" and your other comic strips. I was particularly interested in the character of London.
I don't you know if you read all the history, but we had this extraordinary weekend where we published an issue of "Daredevil," with a new feature called "London," as well as several other new features. We had to do that over a weekend.
This was due to paper rationing at the time, correct?
Right. The story was first told in Jules Feiffer's classic book "The Great Comic Book Heroes." He interviewed me for that book and recounted that story in the book. It was also adapted in Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. The story has made the rounds. It's a classic story, I guess.
Charlie Biro, the publisher of "Daredevil" and "Crime Doesn't Pay, his partner was Bob Wood, one of the three Wood Brothers. We were close friends and I did a number of projects for them. Charlie called me one day saying that he had this opportunity to put out a new issue of "Daredevil," but we had to do it over the weekend. I think that phone call was probably Thursday night. We had the lead story that Charlie was doing, Daredevil. Then we had to do the rest of the 64 pages. I called George Roussos, who was my assistant on "Batman," doing backgrounds, and my roommate at the time Bernie Klein who was an amateur boxer in real life and so he did a boxing strip.
We rented an office, which was I think on 53rd Street which is now part of Rockefeller Center. At that time we rented two rooms on the top of a walk up and it didn't have a kitchen but it did have a bath. We got together that Friday and we had to deliver it that Monday, so we worked literally around the clock. We caught a couple hours sleep here and there in shifts. The writers were squatting on the floor. This was the pre-computer age. They sat on the floor typing and handing the scripts off. I would literally write a page script and then think about the new page while I was drawing the first. Paper was rationed at that time, so publishers could only publish a percentage of what they had published the month or quarter before. There was no carry over, so if you didn't use the paper allotment in one quarter, you couldn't carry it over for a later issue. So when Charlie called me up and said, "We've got this paper, we have to use it up next week," we said, "What the hell?"
It so happened that that Saturday night was the largest snowstorm in decades in New York. The snow drifts went door high. We were up Sunday morning, ravenous to eat something. The usual procedure was, one of us would run down to the deli and pick up coffee and sandwiches to get through the day. That Sunday morning, we were snowbound, so we literally drew straws to see who would brave the wild and forage for food. My friend Bernie was the unlucky one. He went out probably about seven in the morning. We literally all went down to the front door to dig him a path out to the middle of the street. That's how he was able to trudge to Sixth Avenue to find something open. There wasn't much in that area, anyway. They were totally unprepared for the snow. He was gone for an hour, two hours, three hours. It was after noon. We thought he was frozen somewhere. He finally shows up, and we were just starving. He had to go down to around 14th Street or 4th Street before he found a bar open. Everything was at a standstill in New York. There was a drink where you'd crack an egg, so they had fresh eggs at the bar. He got a dozen raw eggs, and the bartender took pity on him when he heard what was happening and found two cans of baked beans. That was it. He came back with a dozen eggs and two cans of baked beans for starving artists. We were delighted to see him. He was a wreck by this point. We realized we had nothing to cook the eggs with or heat the beans with.
We hit on the idea of tearing tiles from the bathroom floor and made a large hot plate on the floor out of the tiles. Then, with matches and paper, we heated the tiles and cooked the eggs on the tiles. The eggs were pretty messy, but we would've eaten anything at that point. And somewhat warmish baked beans - they never got very hot, but it was food. That's how we got through that day until we were able to forage for better food. We met the deadline and it was out on the stands within the week. [Laughs]
The epilogue to that story is, many years later, I got a call from a South American comics historian who taught at the University of Brasilia. I invited him over to my studio. I thought we were going to talk about Batman, and he said, "You're the guy who created London." That was the first thing that came out of his mouth. I hadn't thought about that for years. I said yes. I thought it might be something terrible, but he said, "That's a very historical strip." I've documented it. It's the first strip, because of the nature I just told you, the first strip that was written, drawn and on the stands while the events it told were going on. That was early '41, before we got into the war. Pearl Harbor was December 6, 1941.
I was always a political animal. As you might know, part of my career was as a political and social satirist. For 32 years, I had a daily political cartoon. My interest in politics began with my family, who was interested on a local level. I always had that interest. I followed the news avidly, as probably everybody did at the time with the war. I guess I had a special urgency about it. When it came to creating my own strip, I mainly thought of the Blitz in London as a prelude to what everybody feared would be the forthcoming invasion of Britain. London under the Blitz was going to be the end of England. At the time, Edward R. Murrow, the famed broadcaster, was broadcasting from London during the blitz. Everybody listened to his nightly reports. I took my hero, patterned him after Ed Murrow - he was a reporter and the stories were about London under the Blitz. There's a line, London could take it. My hero was named London and personified the heroism of the British people and that famous RAF battle over London. That led to Churchill's most famous line, "Never was so much owed by so many to so few," a reference to the RAF pilots.