Jerry Robinson: "Ambassador of Comics"

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.

Dark Horse has reprinted Robinson's "Jet Scott" in two editions

That was the story of London. What I thought was so great is, I was at Columbia taking writing classes and I did double duty and handed it in for my creative writing class. I tried to get the most out of it.

Did you end up graduating from Columbia?

No. After about two and a half years of burning the candle at both ends, classes during the day and working at night, or the opposite, I was down to about 89 pounds or something. When I started on "Batman," I only thought of it as a way of paying my way through college, so I didn't take it that seriously. "London" was the one thing that pushed me over the edge, because I wanted to write and draw my own things. So I thought of it more as a career than when I first started. I finally had to give up one or the other.

There was a comic strip you illustrated in the 1950s, "Jet Scott," which was just republished by Dark Horse in two volumes. It was short-lived, but it feels ahead of its time in some ways.

The syndicate put the writer [Sheldon] Stark together with me to collaborate on this new feature. We wanted to do an adventure strip, a science fiction strip which was kind of on the cutting edge of science fiction. We didn't want to do another space thing or Twenty-fifth Century Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. We thought that scifi that was just on the cutting edge of what was about to happen would carve out a new niche. He was investigating science phenomenon, pioneering new methods and so forth.

We did very well for two years, but the problem was mainly my keeping up. I was still doing other work before I started, I had other commitments, so I was burning the candle at both ends between all the pencilling and inking and the coloring. Everything but the lettering. It was a bigger job, really, than one person could do. I lasted two years, and we were at the plateau. We had between 75 and 100 papers, and good ones, but at the time, it seemed like science fiction had reached its peak. There were several other strips, "Beyond Mars" was one by Lee Elias that was in the competing "News." We were in the "Herald-Tribune" in New York ,who syndicated the feature. That was dropped. I forget the other ones. Several science fiction strips folded and we thought well we had reached the peak.

I had to make a decision. I hadn't had a day off in two years, literally. If you've read it, you know how much research there was. Drawing a daily adventure strip is unlike "Peanuts" or something like that. It needs not just an excellent artist, but a lot of time drawing. So we decided to end it. I had all this other book work. I was doing a lot of book illustration and some other strip work.

I can't remember, but it wasn't more than couple months later that the Russians shot off Sputnik. That set off a whole flurry of interest in science fiction and space. If we had continued it for just another couple months, we could have had another couple hundred papers and I'd probably still be drawing "Jet Scott" today. [Laughs]

That was one of my great fears. Though I liked doing it, I didn't want to do it for the rest of my life. There were too many other things I wanted to do, including political cartoons, so I was almost fearful [of the strip becoming] very successful. At the time, that was where the money was. You could make many thousands of dollars a week doing a top strip. To do a strip that successful, that's not easy to walk away from, so I was almost glad we ended the strip. It was all consuming to do that strip every day. Cartoonists who do long runs, I don't know how they do.

A few years ago, you were named Creative Consultant at DC Comics. What does it entail and what's your relationship with them like?

Well, it's mostly being on call for special information and things that I have experience with. I worked with Paul Levitz and sometimes with some of the editors working on different projects. It's not any heavy lifting. [Laughs] I don't have to go down to the office. When they call me, I try to help or give advice whenever I can. It's been not very hard. I should have a lot of jobs like that. [Laughs]

Dark Horse is publishing a new edition of your classic history book "The Comics" next year. It's a new edition, so is there new material?

Well, that's part of it. I think it's one of my best efforts. The original book took three years for me to write and research, and that took us from 1895 with some pre-history. That was definitive book at the time. I've wanted to update it for years, but I never had the time to set aside to do it. Now, with the computer, I can do a lot of research, writing and rewriting. In the old days I had to do draft after draft, redoing and cutting and pasting. It was a horrible, particularly for something as complicated as history. I wanted to do it for years, but had never pursued it. A couple years ago, they approached me to update it. It was one of the top editors at Dark Horse, Diana Schutz. She approached me, so I began to get interested in redoing it, and then Mike Richardson called.

Anyway, I set aside the time to do it. The new version took over a year to do. I start off from where I left off in the seventies and brought it up to 2010. All new art, of course. I did add to a few selected sections to the original version, notably my analysis of "The Yellow Kid." I now have a greater appreciation for what it did, other than to be the first [comic]. I expanded the section on African-American artists in the old days, and more on women in comics as characters and creators. A few other things. It's about 120 pages of new color [comics], and I selected every piece. They did a beautiful job. I think you'll be very happy with it. There's mini-portfolios of "Flash Gordon," "Prince Valiant," "Peanuts," some of the classic strips where the art meant so much in color. It'll be out in the spring. I just got the working copy of it. They did a beautiful design job, very careful reproductions. I'll be very proud of that when it comes out.

In writing and researching the new edition, what are the recent comics that you really enjoyed and are there any older strips that you rediscovered?

I selected five new features that came out since the seventies that I thought made an impact and added a new dimension to the newspaper strip. The first was "Doonesbury." I did cover "Doonesbury" in the initial book. It was quite new then so I didn't cover it in much depth, but I saw the potential at the time. Since then, I think "Doonesbury" has made an indelible mark on comics. What [cartoonist Garry Trudeau has] done in combining social and political satire and the things he's pioneered in the strip over the years is astounding. He's the only one, I think, in the original version who I wrote extensively about in the new edition.

Some of Robinson's "Jet Scott" strips

Lynn Johnston's "For Better or For Worse" - I thought she did a very interesting strip and pioneered new ground with the subjects that she attacked, [including] homosexuality and death and many other things. It was very entertaining and she knew how to use the medium for storytelling. She did a story that's quite famous, the death of Farley, the dog. It reminded me of the adroitness that Caniff used when he killed a famous character off. If you remember ,in "Terry and the Pirates," he created a character called Raven Sherman. For months, he portrayed her in the most sympathetic way where she engaged the reader's sympathies to heighten the drama when she was killed. Her death and burial in the hills of China were so dramatically done. I recounted that in the old version. It reminded me of how well Caniff did it, the way she handled that subject.

"Mutts" by Patrick [McDonnell] obviously has all the great elements of "Krazy Kat" and the great animal strips of the past and he's given his own touch to it. Patrick has done a great job.

"Calvin and Hobbes" was a great strip. I was sorry to see his retirement, but I think that's what's so great. He said what he wanted to say. Calvin, as I write about it, was indebted to an early strip called "Barnaby." Barnaby was the invisible godfather for the boy in the strip and it reminded me of Calvin and Hobbes. He's also indebted to the famous strip "Skippy" from the twenties. I wrote a biography of Percy Crosby once, the creator of "Skippy," and some of his themes that ran through "Skippy" also ran through "Calvin and Hobbes." The imagination he brought to the theme of sledding with Calvin, Skippy did with his sled. You'll see a lot of things that Crosby did in his strip that "Calvin and Hobbes" took to a new level. I was impressed very much with that strip.

The other one was "The Far Side," which again pioneered a new kind of humor based on some of the iconoclastic strips of the past like Milt Gross and Rube Goldberg and others. He put entirely his own stamp on the theater of the absurd and it obviously struck a chord. Now there's at least a dozen or more features that wouldn't exist today if it wasn't for "The Far Side. "

I did enlarge a section about African-Americans in comics. I put in a new section about a great cartoonist, Oliver Harrington. He did wonderful work and I neglected him in the first book, but I did write a lot [in the new one]. I did write about other black cartoonists like Morrie Turner and others in the original version. I should have covered it then but I didn't, so I hope I make up for it this time. It includes a number of cartoons in color and black and white.

In the new book, there's a great portfolio of your sketches, photos and watercolors in the back. Is there a project or even a medium that you're particularly fond of?

Oh, I'm so glad you saw that. One of my things I like most about the book is that they tried to cover my whole career and not just Batman and the comic books, which really was just a portion of it. I spent thirty-two years as a political cartoonist, published every day. That was my longest stint. I mean, someone gave me the chance to draw a new cartoon every day on a different subject.

My theory is that anybody who is really doing any thoughtful creative job in comic books or graphic novels are so schooled in so many different disciplines that they're capable of doing other things than what they're doing. It's up to them whether they want to go into it. I did. I'm glad Abrams was able to include that. It was part of the reason I agreed to do the book, that they include some of my whole career not just what they were doing for a popular audience that knew my work through the comics. Others who knew me as a political cartoonist and never knew that I did comic books. I did that so often. I'd give a talk to a lecture somewhere and meet an editor, and they knew I did Batman but never knew I was the same person. The same held true when I did photography shows or other projects, and I hope that might encourage other artists to spread their wings.

Is that part of what you want to cover in your memoirs, the time you spent doing "Still Life" and "Life with Robinson" and other aspects of your career?

Not so much for that purpose. I'm trying to tell stories in my memoirs that weren't covered in the biography. More personal stories. Little vignettes. I had a meeting at the White House, supposedly with [Henry] Kissinger. He had asked for an original. It's customary, when the President or someone of that stature asks for an original, you can deliver it and get an audience with them, so I've met three or four presidents in the White House, which is always a thrill.

I was supposed to meet Kissinger and I was met by General Haig. I don't know if you remember him. At that time, he was Kissinger's aide de camp or whatever. I get to Kissinger's office at the appointed time and I'm met by Haig who said that he's sorry that Kissinger couldn't meet me in person, but he asked him to do it. They took pictures of me with Haig. He said, if you would like to know why Kissinger couldn't meet with you today, I'll tell you, but if I tell you, you can't leave the room for forty-five minutes. Well, I had nothing better to do for forty-five minutes. [Laughs] So he tells me that Kissinger was at that time in China on a secret mission to open China to pave the way for Nixon's meeting with Mao, which was going to be announced in forty-five minutes to the press. So I couldn't leave the room. I thought of making a dash for it, but when I saw the MP with a gun at the door, I thought better of that. I had this world scoop for forty-five minutes, and I couldn't do anything with it. The reason he didn't call off the appointment was he didn't want anyone to think that he wasn't making it for any reason - nobody knew he had flown to China.

It's the kind of the thing that doesn't necessarily appear in a bio. Encounters like that. Encounters with my fellow cartoonists. With Bill Holman, who did "Smoky Stover," a really unforgettable character I spent time traveling all over Europe with. With Tony DePruga, with Carmen Infantino. I was commissioned by the UN to do some special exhibitions. The first was one for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio. I brought graphic artists from around the world. The summit was on the environment so we called it "Our Endangered Planet." I had beautiful graphics that I collected. These were extraordinary experiences, these world summits, seeing world leaders up close. I also covered it for a newspaper while I was there. These are experiences I can elaborate on in some episodes. I did a followup exhibition the following year on Human Rights in Vienna. One on development in Cairo. Another on human rights here in New York on the fiftieth anniversary [of the founding of the United Nations]. Maybe I'll elaborate on some of those experiences that were quite different from my art experiences, but all related to my life as a cartoonist. I'm tentatively calling it "Memoirs of a Cartoonist: From Batman to Broadway and Beyond."

Tags: dark horse comics, jerry robinson, abrams books

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