A Tribute to the of

Here is part 3 of the interview I enjoyed with Jerry Robinson

Prof:  I noticed on some of your covers and other work over the years there were things like an oversized villain contrasted with the heroes.  I'm thinking particularly of that cover [Detective Comics #71, dated January 1943] with the massive Joker tearing the sheets off a calendar.

JR:  It was a cover, yeah.

Prof:  It seems like that was a favorite technique there for a while.  Was that one that you developed as far as having the huge villain and the smaller heroes in the front or was that something Bill came up with?

JR:  I don't know who really started that. I did my own cover ideas. Bill certainly used the big props in some of his splash pages.  I loved to do symbolic covers, so that size contrast was almost automatic when you do something symbolic. That may not be the oversize thing necessarily, but it proved to be perfect for the Joker to have him looming over the small Batman and Robin. That particular cover, like many, I would usually interpret the lead story of that issue in a symbolic way.  Not the actual splash from the story. That particular story was called "Crime a Day."  The Joker challenged Batman that he was going to commit a crime a day and "Try and stop me!"  So it portrayed him smothering Batman and Robin with the calendar pages.

Prof:  The symbolism on that cover is very powerful.

JR:  And it made a good design.  I was very design and composition conscious.  I wanted to have flat areas when possible. 

Prof:  It was extremely visually effective and of course at the end of the day the idea is to get someone's attention enough to want to drop a dime.

JR:  Exactly.  We were fighting for display space and trying to have people notice them on the newsstands with all the other books.  There were hundreds of them, and I tried to have Batman and Detective stand out.

Prof:  It seems like you kind of pioneered the use of blacks and chiaroscuro.  I'm sorry; I always stumble over that word.

JR:  That's okay; I didn't know it right away, either. I didn't know I was doing it.  (Laughter.)

Prof:  Was it something just kind of instinctive?

JR:  Well, in the beginning Batman was dark and to heighten the drama you use cast shadows. Bill and I were influenced by the German expressionists in films, so that's the way to get the effect.

Prof:  It makes good sense.  I have a friend who is an artist and letterer, Clem Robins, who thought that your work may have been influenced by Fritz Lang and perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright.

JR:  I don't know about Frank Lloyd Wright.  I don't think I knew about him at that time, but Fritz Lang, yes.

Note:  Clem Robins offered his observations on the lasting influence of Jerry Robinson:

Jerry Robinson was one of the first guys in comics to master the architecture of the page. He hit his early stride in the late 1940s, when he drew the Batman syndicated Sunday strips. DC reprinted a lot of them when I was a kid, and they were the first examples I ever saw of Batman drawn really, really well. Robinson invented Gotham City at night, forty years before Anton Furst mimicked the look in his design of the first Batman movie [1989]. Chiaroschuro, underlighting, crazy camera angles: Robinson made it all work on the comic page. Furst should have shared the Academy Award he won with Robinson, for turning the latter's ideas into film.

In his twenties, Robinson also laid the foundation for the art of comic book inking. The hatchings, the spotting of black areas, the use of heavy brush lines to describe down planes -- all were Robinson trademarks, which have since become the vocabulary of the modern inker. Untrained, he learned the way most Golden Age artists, by drawing the best he could. His early work was crude, but he learned quickly. Superman had to wait until the 1950s for a really first rate artist to bring him to life, but Batman had Robinson almost from the beginning, and the two of them blossomed alongside each other. It's hard to imagine one without the other. Without Robinson it is doubtful Batman would have survived the end of the Second World War.

Practically every great comic book artist has taken his turn at the Batman: Neal Adams, Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Carmine Infantino, Frank Robbins, Dick Sprang, and many others. All of them have learned at Robinson's feet – some literally so, in his classes at the School of Visual Arts, others taking to his ideas simply because those ideas became in essence the way we all see Batman. If Batman has become an icon, Robinson is largely responsible.

Prof:  You've got some lasting credits to your name.  You created the Joker and weren't you involved also with Robin's creation?

JR:  Well, Robin was an idea of Bill's, working with Bob.  Bill came up with the idea of adding a boy to expand the parameters of the strip and story potential and also gave younger kids a role model that they could identify with. The older kids identified with Batman.  In the discussion stage, we'd usually get together and kick around ideas for the strip.  Names are very important, and Bill had a whole list of names written out for the boy that he suggested and none of them really clicked with all of us.  Usually when you get something you know is right everybody jumps on it right away and says, "Yeah, great," like they did with the Joker.  Everybody knew that was a good character in the beginning.  And so we couldn't settle on a name for the kid.  Several names gave an inference of super powers, I can't remember them right now, but I was thinking of something more like an ordinary boy to keep to the concept of the strip. Superman, of course, was created with super powers and Batman deliberately, did not, and we felt that was the strength of Batman. And so with that sensibility about the name, I suggested Robin.  That came from Robin Hood.  It was from a book that I was given as a kid of about ten.  It was The Adventures of Robin Hood, which I treasured and I still have in my library.  It was an oversized book for the time.  This goes back to the 30's. It was illustrated by N.C. Wyeth.  I loved his illustrations and I pored over them.  I knew every one of them and I could visualize them in my mind.  So in the discussion I suggested Robin and we kicked it around. Not everybody jumped in the air at first because we all had our favorites, but  they were finally convinced that would be the best of what we had and I think it proved to be a good choice. I immediately thought of the drawings of N.C. Wyeth and sketched out for Bob the costume that N.C. Wyeth had drawn in the Robin Hood illustrations; the little tunic and so forth.  So that's how that came about. I was able to play a creative role in the development of other major Batman characters including Penguin, Alfred, Catwoman, Two Face and others.

[Note: I recently added a copy of Action Comics #369 to my collection; it includes a "Wonderful World of Comics" column and part of the feature is titled "The Naming of Names." A portion of said feature covers the origin of Robin's alter ego Dick Grayson:

Have you ever wondered how the name for a super-hero's secret identity is chosen?  Well, here's a bit of trivia on just that subject, passed along by writer Bill Finger, who had a hand in the creation and shaping of many of the Golden Age strips.

The naming of Robin's secret identity also came about from the co-joining of two other names.  His surname, Grayson, came from the name of a man, Charles Grayson, who used to composite short adventure stories, a volume of which happened to be handy when the characterization of Robin was being created.  The first name, Dick, comes from the name of the half-brother of Frank Merriwell, who was the subject of a series of old adventure books.]

Prof:  Wonderful!  I understand that after awhile you and Bill both ended up going to work directly for DC.  Was that a breath of fresh air?

JR:  (Laughter.)  Well, I wouldn't call going to work down in Manhattan a breath of fresh air.  But yes, in a sense it was.  I had much more freedom.  Neither one of us worked for Bob after that.  Anyway, both Bill and I decided to leave.  We'd been getting other offers from other publishers.  They wanted anybody connected with the success of Batman.  So Bill and I were both about to leave when DC heard about it they made us an offer to stay with Batman, but to work directly with them.  So I think that was good for both of us.  We were on our own and part of the arrangement was that I was able to do my own stories as well as finish Bob's work, which I did until he stopped.  I did my own covers and complete stories.  It was a difficult choice.  I had some very good offers.  One by Busy Arnold who offered me editorship of all his books and I could do a lead feature of my choosing.  I still felt connected to Batman, though.  It was my first strip and it was still growing.  It was so exciting to create for it and we introduced a lot of characters, so Bill and I stayed with DC.

Prof:  And you've kind of come full circle because I was reading where you were recently hired on as a creative consultant for DC.

JR:  That's right.  I was very pleased about that.

Prof:  What are your duties?

JR:  To be a creative consultant.  (Laughter.)  I said to Paul [Levitz] that this is like my alma mater and I was coming back for a class reunion.

Prof:  Yes.  Well, I know they've been relying on you heavily for the Dark Knight movie.

JR:  I did get over to the set in London, which was fun to do.  An interesting bit was that they had been filming a lot of it in Chicago and I was on a mission in China at the time, so I didn't get back to see some of the sets in Chicago.  In China I gave a talk to a big congress of animators and comics people in Giyang, a city of a million people that nobody ever heard of.  (Chuckle.)  My son and I flew to Beijing and then went to Giyang for a week and it was great.  I gave a speech for about 800 people.  I sent it over in advance and they translated my remarks into Chinese although a lot of the audience spoke English. They also published a retrospective of my work. It was an interesting adventure, but that's why I wasn't in Chicago.  But one of the scenes they shot in Chicago showed the Joker pushing the gal out of a window of one of the high rises, and on the set in London they shot the scene where [Batman] catches her before she hits the ground.  So she was thrown out of a window in Chicago and landed in a studio in London.  (Mutual laughter.)  That's movie making.

Prof:  The magic of the cinema.

JR:  Yeah, they had to reconstruct the whole facade of the building, several stories high.  It's amazing what they do.

Prof:  Do you approve of the way they're handling the character?

JR:  Well so far.  You never know until you see the whole thing put together.  I'm very enthusiastic and they're doing a great job.  I've met the people, the actors and they're all first rate. As is the director.

Prof:  It's certainly a far cry from Adam West.

JR:  Oh, yes.

Prof:  Carmine Infantino told me when the TV series came out of course it caused the sales of Batman stuff at DC to just explode, but personally, even though Adam West, believe it or not, kind of hailed from my home town in Washington State, I just couldn't stand that series.  (Chuckle.)  I don't know how you felt about it, but the camp just didn't do a darn thing for me.

JR:  The thing is they were exploiting it, and I knew it wouldn't last that way.  You can't camp something like that and have it continue for any length of time. If they did that with Batman in the books, it wouldn't have lasted.  Think of James Bond.  If they camped that it wouldn't have lasted all these years.

Prof:  Yeah, it's just not what the character is all about.

JR:  There was an exhibition you may not have heard about at the U.N.

Prof:  You mentioned that.  I was going to ask you about it.

JR:  It went off very well.  We had the opening a couple of weeks ago and the Deputy Secretary General, the second highest officer at the U.N., opened the exhibit; a woman from Nigeria and also the High Commissioner of Human Rights.  I also said a few words.  They'd mounted the exhibition beautifully, every piece matted and framed.  I had put together almost 70 works of graphic art and cartoons on human rights from around the world from 50 countries.  That was the fourth show I curated for the U.N.  One of them was on Human Rights in Vienna, 1993, for the big Human Rights Conference.  All the heads of state were there.  This was the fifteenth anniversary and 2008 is the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. The first show I curated for the U.N., which was exciting, was for the Earth Summit in Rio in '92 and then another one in Cairo in '94 on Population & Development.  So those were worthwhile projects.

Prof:  Oh, absolutely.  It's got to be tremendously gratifying to be involved in such long-lasting and great impact projects.

JR:  It really has been.

Prof:  It seems like back in the day comic strips got quite a bit more respect than comic books.  It seemed that everyone wanted to do a syndicated strip, but comic books were looked down upon.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

JR:  Comics being looked down on was true of comic strips as well as comic books.  But among the comic artists themselves they thought maybe the comic strips were at a higher level and they earned much more at the time, so that enhanced their prestige, but comic art has long been looked down on.  It's only in recent years that it's been accepted as an art form.  I kind of signed on early on in that fight.  I curated the first show of American comic strip and comic art at the Graham Gallery in New York, one of the best fine art galleries. We took over the whole gallery, several floors and did the first major comics show. That was in about 1972.

It was at a time when they had a big show at the Louvre in Paris on comic art and I went over to see it.  I would say it was at least 50 per cent American art that was translated abroad and many thought they were their indigenous cartoons.  So the French were the first to appreciate American comics and the comic art as a real art form.  So that was gratifying.  I know that was true in Europe because my wife is Norwegian and she grew up on a strip called Knoll Og Tott and when she came here, where of course she got to know the comics through me, she realized the Knoll Og Tott was the Katzenjammer Kids.

Prof:  Just as a side note, for those of us who aspire to something similar, to what do you attribute over 50 years of successful marriage?

JR:  (Laughter.)  Gosh.  Being in love.  (Chuckle.)  That helps.

Prof:  Very good.  Well, I've got 21 years under my belt, so I'll catch you sooner or later.

JR:  You've got a way to catch up.

Prof:  I look forward to it.

JR:  All the best.

Prof:  Thank you.

JR:  We'll actually be celebrating our 51st on New Year's Eve.

Prof:  Oh and isn't New Year's Day your birthday?

JR:  That's right.  The next day is my birthday.

Prof:  Well, Batman isn't quite as old as you are, but he'll be 70 years old here pretty soon.

JR:  That's right.

Prof:  Does his longevity surprise you at all?

JR:  Oh, yes, actually it does.  Even my own surprises me.  (Chuckle.)

Prof:  Do you think there will always be a Batman?  Is he that entrenched in our popular culture at this point?

JR:  Oh, I think so.  I think it's going to go in cycles as it has done over its history.  I think in general it's been cyclical; the comic strips as well.  So there will probably be barren years and then they'll revive it again and think of some other new take on it, but yeah, I think it will survive.  It has all the elements.  Enough different artists have given their own take on it and so I think it will inspire other generations.

Prof:  Do you think the fact that he's a non-super powered costumed hero has anything to do with a better ability for people to relate to?

JR:  Well, yeah, that's some of it, but then again there's Superman and Spider-Man and they haven't done too badly.  Everybody doesn't have the same affinity for fantasy. Some are aficionados of science fiction and some don't like it at all.

Prof:  It does depend on individual tastes.  The recent postage stamp that recreated the cover of Batman #1, was any of the art on that yours?

JR:  I probably inked it, but I'm pretty sure it was Bob's pencils.  I know it wasn't mine entirely.

Prof:  It's interesting just how far Batman has permeated popular culture in many ways.  You've got the comic strips and the comic books and animation and postage and on and on and on.  It's almost surreal how far he's come from back in the late 30's and 40s when you were working on him.

JR:  Yeah.  Well, I think Superman has done that as well.  The newspapers in the early days had perhaps even a greater impact.  It was the only medium.  There was no television, no comic books.  The newspaper strips were the breeding ground for all the great cartoon talents and that, I think, gave comic books the tradition of storytelling and character development.  They had a tremendous grip on the public.

Prof:  It's just amazing how well the character, Batman in particular, has held up over the years.  Obviously your art was a major contribution to that, so it's pretty fascinating to me.

JR:  Well, I don't know if you ever saw the book I did on the comic strip; "The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art?"

Prof:  Yes, I recently picked up a copy.  I've only got a few pages into it, but it looks like you did a tremendous compendium.

JR:  So you have the one published by Putnam?

Prof:  Yes.  It's the hardcover edition. I got it through a used dealer on Amazon as a matter of fact.

JR:  Dark Horse is going to republish it.  I'm supposed to be rewriting it as we speak.  (Chuckle.)

Prof:  It's going into a reprint, huh?  An updated version?

JR:  Yeah.  I'm just going to add a last chapter to review what happened in the field since I wrote the book and add a lot of new color art.

Prof:  I'll look forward to that.  It should be great.  As a matter of fact, I recently got to use it as a reference.  My brother had called me from Oregon and he said, "Do you know anything about Foxy Grandpa?"  I said, "No, but I bet I know who does."  So I went to your index and found some stuff.

JR:  Well, I'm glad it was of use. I spent three years on that book.  That was in the dark ages.  (Note:  The copyright date on my copy is 1974.)  There were no computers and no internet. We had to do many drafts because every time we shifted around, you needed a new draft.  After awhile the pages began to look like a patchwork quilt.  (Chuckle.)

Prof:  So you spent a lot of time in dusty libraries.

JR:  A lot of time.  Today, I guess, if I just concentrated on the writing, and just did that; I was doing a daily strip and a humor page at that same time, instead of three years it would be a year.  That would be the difference with a computer to help.

Prof:  Very much so.  It's a tremendous tool.  My wife is an avid genealogist, so I've seen it done both ways.  The internet helps a whole lot.  I was looking at this tremendous list of recognitions and awards you've received.  Which ones mean the most to you?

JR:  Hmmm.  Well, I guess one thrill was getting the Eisner Hall of Fame Award.  Most meaningful of all was that Will, an old, dear friend, presented the award himself.  And sadly that was the last award he ever gave.

Prof:  That would be tremendously, well, meaningful.  There's just no better word for it.  How do you hope to be remembered?

JR:  I don't even want to think about it.  (Chuckle.)  I think I should leave it up to others to decide.  I won't really have any voice in it.

Prof:  I understand.  You've just had such a long and diverse career and you've influenced so many people.  That was one of the things Clem especially wanted me to mention.  He said, "Please tell him he's been a hero to a lot of us in the industry." 

JR:  Oh, gee.  That's kind to say.  Thank him for me very much.

Prof:  I'll be happy to.  When is your biography coming out?

JR: They're just getting the art scanned now and the book goes through several stages.  Originally it was for fall of 2008, but I don't think we're going to make that.  I think more likely it will be spring of 2009. At least that's what they're shooting for. [Note: Published Fall, 2010.]

Prof:  I'll be on the lookout and I'm sure many others will as well.

This interview was quite special to me, partly because it was so long in coming and also due to the generous contributions of others who have been touched by the life and career of Jerry Robinson.  It was a great pleasure to learn from one of the pioneers of the genre, and I hope you got as much enjoyment from the experience as I did.

© 2008 by B.D.S.

Interview copy edited by Jerry Robinson

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