A Tribute to the of






I was chatting with Lew Sayre Schwartz recently and of course we talked comics and Batman for awhile, as usual.  He commented, to paraphrase, that Bob Kane likely didn't realize that he had a tiger by the tail when Batman became an overnight sensation.  The Caped Crusader actually earned his own magazine title before Superman did and the sudden demand likely led to Bob's extensive usage of uncredited "assistants."  As we've learned along the way, these men usually did the heavy lifting, often being instrumental in the creation of memorable villains, among other things.

I thought it would be fun to take a look at an early story from Batman's past in that self-titled book that contains a double threat where Batman and Robin face both the Joker and comics' first major villainess, the Cat-Woman.  The untitled story (though generally referred to as "The Joker Meets Cat-Woman") appeared in Batman #2 from the Summer of 1940.  The cover was penciled by Bob Kane with Jerry Robinson supplying the inks.  Scripting was done by Bill Finger accompanied by the same pencil and ink team, but with the additional help on inks from George Roussos.

The story kicks off with the sensational newspaper headline that the Joker is alive.  He'd apparently perished in one of the stories in the previous issue, but in a pattern that would become familiar as time went by, never count the Joker out.  Soon Batman is donning his costume and telling Robin that he's going to abduct the Joker from the hospital and take him to a brain specialist for an operation that will cure him of his madness.  (I couldn't help but notice that the bat emblem was missing from Batman's costume in this panel, but I guess that's how it often went in the dawn of comics.)

Elsewhere in Gotham City, Crime Syndicate, Inc. has also taken note of the story and since they just happen to be in the market for a replacement for their recently deceased "Chief," it seems like a stroke of serendipity as the plans unfold to heist the pharaoh gems being shipped to a museum.

Soon "Weasel" and his fellow members of Crime Syndicate have taken over the hospital where the Joker is recovering and force a surgical team to operate on the Clown Prince of Crime.

Shortly Commissioner Gordon arrives at the hospital with some of his men, unaware of what has transpired inside.  They then spot the figure of the Batman on the roof and attempt to surround and capture him.  A battle ensues, with the cowled figure knocking two police officers to their deaths.  Then a car chase takes place, leading to a farmhouse where the crazed figure of the Batman hurls a pitchfork at another lawman.  He then leaps onto a horse to escape, but is felled by a Tommy gun.  Commissioner Gordon himself lifts the mask of the Batman to discover it is Circus Charlie, an escaped convict who has led them a merry chase away from the hospital.

Back at the hospital, the Joker is placed into a touring sedan owned by the Syndicate.

In the next panel we see a woman doffing a disguise and revealing herself to be the Cat (-Woman).  The real Batman then appears and whisks her to his waiting car and tells her that she's the slickest jewel thief in the business and demands she tell him about the Joker's whereabouts in exchange for not turning her over to the police.  She tells all and hurriedly departs, but not without leaving a telltale trail of radioactive footprints courtesy of the car floor.

Days later the Joker has made a complete recovery and has promptly made some wicked plans to ensure he alone benefits from the jewel heist, by planting a poisoned needle in the shoe of the man who holds the jewels and has further repaid his benefactors by dosing them with a sleeping potion.  Just then Batman arrives and the Joker escapes in the chaos that follows.

Switching scenes again, to the castle of E. S. Arthur, who has the gems, we meet up with the Cat-Woman, who has just discovered the telltale smiling death on his face that indicates the work of the Joker.  Scooping up the chest of gems, she soon encounters the Joker, who demands surrender of the jewels.

Swinging through the window at this critical moment is Robin, the Boy Wonder, who has trailed the Cat-Woman.  It's a fight now between Robin and the Joker, but the villain eventually gets the upper hand.  Just before he can administer a needle to the prone form, though, it's Batman's turn for a dramatic entrance.  The battle is on, to include a sword fight with weapons taken from a nearby display in the castle.  At one point the Joker fires flaming arrows into a door of the castle, starting a blaze.  Batman cold-cocks his nemesis and then takes the unconscious Robin up a rope ladder to the suspended Batplane.  (How the Batplane can be suspended escapes me, but hey, it's the comics.)  Cat-Woman is close behind, but then abruptly dives off the ladder into the water below with the dramatic caption, "The end of the Cat-Woman??"  And thus ends another dramatic adventure in the annals of the Batman.

Catwoman, of course came back, just as the Joker did and shortly donned an actual costume.  She's been with us ever since in several incarnations, always with new surprises for the Batman.

Comics were different back in the Golden Age.  Even though Batman was being published quarterly, each issue at the time held 4 separate Batman stories, so I imagine it could get a little onerous to keep knocking out these 12-page stories like clockwork.  Bob Kane's team always rose to the challenge, but I still find it amazing that he claimed he was a one-man show.  So, once again, it's my pleasure to help set the record straight with commentary from another member of the team from back in the day, Mr. Jerry Robinson.

As a preliminary to my interview with Jerry Robinson he faxed me a copy of the Syndicate biography, but in reality it only begins to describe the myriad things he's been doing since he was a teenager.  Still, it's a very instructive document, I'm sure you'll agree:

Jerry Robinson is an accomplished artist, writer, historian and curator.  He is President and Editorial Director of CartoonArts International and Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate (CWS), affiliated with the New York Times Feature Service, which syndicates and exhibits the work of 350 leading cartoonists and graphic artists from fifty-five countries.

Note:  Here is the webpage that Jerry referred me to with the New York Times:  http://cartoons.nytimages.com/

While a journalism student at Columbia University, Robinson began his cartooning career at age seventeen on the original Batman comic book, for which he created the Joker, comics' first super villain.  He named Batman's protégé, Robin, and designed his costume, and played a vital role in the creation and development of other characters; among them the Penguin, Catwoman, Alfred, and Two-Face.  A cartoon art pioneer, collectors consider his early Batman drawings classics.

Among Robinson's thirty published works is The Comics:  An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (G.P. Putnam), acclaimed as the definitive study of the genre.  In The Comics, Robinson documented the debut of the first comic strip, The Yellow Kid, one year earlier than previously credited.  He also created an award-winning series of comics history calendars published by Rizzoli/Universe.  His other books include the biography, Skippy and Percy Crosby (Holt), and The 1970s: Best Political Cartoons of the Decade (McGraw-Hill), which introduced many of the world's leading political cartoonists to America and was the genesis for founding CWS, specializing in representing international creators.  He negotiated the first regular use of foreign cartoons in the Russian and Chinese language press.

Robinson has served as President of both the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) and the National Cartoonists Society (NCS), the only person so honored by his peers.  He also served as advisor to the Museum Cartoon, Basel, Switzerland and was a guest at museums in Warsaw, Brussels, Angouleme (France) and three in Japan.

Robinson has traveled to over forty countries on behalf of CWS as well as serving on international art juries and meeting with major creators for CWS.  He has made several tours of Europe, North Africa, Japan and Korea entertaining servicemen.

His award-winning features of social/political satire, still life and Life With Robinson, were internationally syndicated daily for thirty-two years.  Robinson's drawings appeared monthly in the Broadway theatre magazine Playbill.  His is the co-writer and co-art director of the hour-long animation, Stereotypes, filmed at the Soyuzmult Studios in Moscow and co-author of the book and lyrics for the musical Astra:  A Comic Book Opera. It was performed in Washington, DC in 2007.  A graphic novel adaptation of Astra was published in Japan and the U.S.

Robinson has served as curator for numerous exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad.  They include the first show of American comic art at a major fine art gallery, the Graham Gallery in New York (1972), and served as special consultant for the largest exhibition of the cartoon at The Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, and for the landmark show of the cartoon arts at the Whitney Museum, New York City.  Exhibitions abroad include the first of American cartoon art in Tokyo, Warsaw, and Moscow; and others in Portugal, Slovenia and Ukraine.  At the invitation of the United Nations, Robinson produced the major exhibitions in Rio de Janeiro (Earth Summit), Cairo (Population & Development) and Vienna (Human Rights), the latter co-sponsored by the Austrian Government.  In December 2007, he curated the exhibition Sketching Human Rights commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the UN Declarations on Human Rights.

In 2004 Robinson produced the first in-depth exhibition of the genre, The Superhero:  The Golden Age of Comic Books 1939 – 1950 at the Breman Museum, Atlanta, which is now on tour throughout the U.S.  In 2006, Robinson also curated the exhibition, The Superhero:  Good and Evil in American Comics, at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Robinson has led creator rights cases including copyright, trademark, censorship, First Amendment (in U.S.) and human rights (abroad).  Examples include: Representing Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, creators of Superman, in their struggle to obtain financial security and restore their creator credits to Superman; obtaining the release of jailed and tortured cartoonists in Uruguay and the Soviet Union; writing briefs on behalf of the AAEC and NCS, one in the trademark litigation brought against editorial cartoonists and the other presented before a U.S. Senate committee on postal laws; and serving on the joint arts committee that negotiated creator protection in the copyright renewal law.

For eighteen years Robinson was on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts, and The New School and Parsons School of Design, all in New York City.  An exhibition of his color photography from seven countries was held at the SVA Galleries.  In 2000 Scriptorium Films produced a ninety-minute television documentary on Robinson's career for Brazilian TV.

Following the biography is a list of Jerry's awards, including the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement from the National Cartoonists Society; Best Comic Book Artist for Batman; Best Panel Cartoon for still life, and Best Special Feature for Flubs & Fluffs.  Other honors from several nations in many categories are listed in addition to the Eisner Hall of Fame and an Inkpot to name just a few.

And believe me; Jerry hasn't slowed down in the slightest.  We had the darndest time getting together for the interview because of his schedule, which included trips to China, England, Toronto, Miami and Washington, DC in the last six months of 2007, but I was patient and persistent (probably to the point of being a pest) and Jerry was gracious and made himself available as soon as he could.  I couldn't have been happier when things finally came together just before the New Year.  You can be the judge of the results.  With great pleasure I present the legendary Jerry Robinson:

Prof:  As I've learned more about the origins of the comic book industry it's been fascinating to me that so many of the creators and editors were of Jewish descent like Stan Lee and Julie Schwartz, [Jerry] Siegel, [Joe] Shuster, Bob Kane, Bill Finger of course, Jack Kirby, Gil Kane…

Jerry Robinson:  And Joe Simon.

Prof:  Exactly.  Do you think it's due to the Jewish tradition that causes such natural talent for visual story telling?

JR:  Well that's a part of it.  The Breman exhibition wasn't entirely about Jewish creators, but they did dominate the genre the first few years, as well as Jewish publishers.  But I focused in on the Jewish tradition for another exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York after they saw the Breman.  They asked me to do a smaller version. It focused on 15 creators of the Golden Age and 14 of them were Jewish.

Prof:  That's a remarkable percentage.

JR:  The only one that wasn't Jewish was Fred Ray, who I worked closely with.  He did some of the iconic Superman covers, and other features as well.  The rest were of Jewish heritage and it is interesting to discover why.  My research indicated there were a number of reasons.  And it happened in other disciplines with other ethnic groups, so it's not that surprising.  In the case of those who were of Jewish heritage, many of them were first or second generation Jews who had fled Europe.  They were often intellectuals and scientists, including Einstein and others who were so important in the development of the atomic bomb.  Anyway there were many from other countries that were also fleeing persecution and poverty.  Among the Jews there were many intellectuals and artists.  I think that accounts for part of it.  Many of them became teachers in New York.  A lot of them taught some of these early pioneers of the comic book industry.

Prof:  That's true.

JR:  They taught at some of the major schools.  Stuyvesant High, the New School and Art Students League in New York including DeWitt Clinton High School in The Bronx where about three or four of the early creators attended …Will Eisner, Bill Finger and Bob Kane. 

Prof:  It is fascinating.  It seems like especially in the Golden Age you had a tremendous Jewish influence and it continued on through the Silver Age, although of course you've got the other ethnic groups that you mentioned such as those that produced Infantino, Plastino, Saladino and Giella.

JR:  Right.  They were soon joined by all diverse ethnic backgrounds.  George Roussos who was hired to be my assistant was from Greece and came over as a kid.  Four of my closest collaborators as well as my closest friends were Irish from Boston, the Wood brothers, Bob, Dick and David; Irish Catholics and they were top creators in the field.  I worked closely with Charles Biro of Hungarian descent who did Daredevil.  All these different ethnic groups found jobs in the new genre. It was a place to get work and to have your work seen.

Prof:  Yeah, and it kind of reinforces the idea that comic books are a unique part of Americana.

JR:  They really are, yeah.

Prof:  And they drew very much from the very origins of our immigrant heritage.

JR:  Right.  The publishers, at least three or four of the major ones, from Timely, that's now Marvel, DC/National, and MLJ, (three partners), were all Jewish. They were in the printing trade, most of them, before that.  They were lithographers and printers and they saw the comics as another client just as if were printing Good Housekeeping Magazine. (Chuckle) Actually, many were "girlie" magazines. In 1934 they saw the comics as a way to keep the presses busy when comics begin to sell.  They were able produce them on a shoestring.  They bought up the content from syndicates - reprints of newspaper strips, as you probably know, for very little.

Prof:  Right.  Low investment.

JR:  Low investment, so it was a very good combination.  Then when they began to run out of material about 1936, they turned to buying original work drawn just for their magazines. When Superman came along in 1938 they were actively seeking original material.  They had exhausted reprints from the syndicates that were suitable comic book content.

Prof:  Okay.  That's a very interesting evolution.  It sounds like back in the early days you did it all.  Pencils, inks, colors and even lettering, which is a very specialized skill.  What was this crash course in comic books like for you?

JR:  (Chuckle.)  Well, it was difficult.  I had never drawn any.  I'd never even thought about it. I was going to Columbia University to be a journalist, a writer.  So I'd never taken art courses.  I should say with one exception.  When I first started to work for Bob, and I was to start in a few weeks.  I figured I should learn something about cartooning.  So I enrolled in an art class.  I remember the school was in the Flatiron building, which is a famous historic building in downtown New York. They had us copying plaster casts and anatomical figures.  And in a couple of days they started to put my work up on the wall as examples.  I soon learned I could copy anything.  I had good eye/hand coordination. But it was not creative. They had no courses in cartooning. I figured, if they're putting my work up on the wall as examples, and I knew nothing, I couldn't learn anything there and I quit.  (Chuckle.)  That was my art school experience.

Prof:  So you're essentially self-taught then.

JR:  Yes, and studying what I could see in the comics and working very hard.  Drawing over and over again until I learned how to do something that I wanted to do.  In a sense it was very intense because we had to meet deadlines, you know.  As you said I started lettering, which I knew nothing about either, but I was able to follow the style, generally.  And I made a few little innovations, by the way.  Wherever there was a caption I would make the first letter a bit decorative; in a circle dropping out the outline.

Prof:  Yeah, I'd seen some of those and that's very unique.

JR:  I don't know why I did that. I was an avid reader all through my childhood and so I read many illustrated books, one The Adventures of Robin Hood by N.C. Wyeth.  That's where I drew my inspiration for the name Robin and for his costume.  I used that decorative "R" on Robin's vest as a counter to the bat on Batman's chest. I soon began penciling and inking complete stories.

Prof:  And it kind of came full circle later when you were illustrating books as well.

JR:  Oh, yeah, that's right.  (Chuckle.)  I love illustration and I love the great illustrators.

Prof:  Which tasks did you find most satisfying at the time?

JR:  Well, I enjoyed most of all doing my complete stories.  And that's what I did.  Whenever I penciled, I inked.  I didn't letter later on. That took so much time and I just laid out the lettering where I wanted it.  But other than that I penciled and inked complete stories and even, whenever I was able to, I did my own coloring.

Prof:  So you were kind of a one man shop after all was said and done.

JR:  Well, all of the artists were in the beginning.  Later, it was more like a factory assembly line. To produce all the work that was required, some strips took to that method.  Some artists became very specialized as inkers, as pencilers, as colorists.  In fact, when I was teaching at the School of Visual Arts I would deliberately teach how to letter and to emphasize penciling and inking as separate qualities so that they could break into the field.  Which many of them did.

Prof:  Do you remember who?

JR:  Well, Steve Ditko was a student of mine.

Prof:  Yes, of course.  As a matter of fact, I sent Steve a note a few weeks ago in preparation for speaking with you.

JR:  Oh, really?

Prof:  Yes, and I asked him his memories of you.

JR:  Oh, wow.

Prof:  He had this to say

"Jerry Robinson was a great teacher for teaching fundamentals in how to tell/show comic book story/art.  What one learns, knows from seeing, studying other's artwork is mostly visual.  But what one learns from a teacher like Jerry is how to use one's mind with solid comic book panel/sequence principles.  It is that basic understanding that makes a comic book panel effective, dramatic, [and] visually work for a story/picture integration and continuity creating a whole unique reading/seeing experience." 

So you obviously left a lasting impression.

JR:  Oh, that was a very generous statement.  I've had no contact with him for generations.

Prof:  Well, you and the rest of the world.

JR: When I'm asked about students I of course always mention him.  He was very bright.  I knew it right away.  In fact, if I recall correctly, I got him a scholarship for the second year, so he was in my class for two years.  When I would see students of Steve's ability I would recommend them to a publisher and that's probably how he started with Timely.  I recommended a lot of my students over the years to Stan [Lee.]  In fact, I got to know Stan quite well and we ultimately worked together for almost 10 years.

Prof:  Was that pretty enjoyable?

JR:  Oh, yeah.  Stan was a very good editor.  He didn't micromanage anything.  I guess he saw that I was already fairly well established, obviously, by that time after years of Batman and teaching and doing other features as well.  I was still doing comics while I was teaching.  I taught from 5:00 to 10:00 in the evening after a day's comic book work.  (Chuckle.)  But I was very young and foolish at the time.  (Mutual laughter.)

Prof:  It doesn't sound like you were alone.  When I was interviewing Dick Giordano he talked about commuting in from Connecticut each day and working on the train or sleeping as he could.  He was burning the candle at both ends as well.

JR:  Well, that's certainly what I was doing.  When I was doing my classes at Columbia I started during the day and working at night and then when that became super difficult I started to go to work during the day and then classes at night.

Prof:  Good heavens.  Did you like being a teacher?

JR:  I enjoyed it very much in the beginning.  The last couple of years maybe I was getting exhausted. I guess it was more the fact that my focus was more dispersed.  I had other projects like a newspaper strip and book illustration and so…

Prof:  Something had to give.

JR:  The teaching years were my art education.  Never having studied art and not having any formal training, I made up my own methods, which artists do.  How you arrive at a conclusion as to why you did a certain thing.  So it forced me to go back and study why I did certain things.  Why I did it and then how, in order to convey it to a student or to anyone else.  So I think the learning is much more intense and I know my own work, I felt, improved tremendously during the years that I was teaching.  So I think it's a give and take with the students. I was fortunate to have some bright students.  Of course they were a minority like in any class. A few stand out.  I had 30 or 40 students at one time.  They were big classes.  There were several others talented like Steve.

Professor Christopher Couch of the University of Massachusetts is writing up my bio.  It's been sold to Abrams publishing, the Fine Art publisher.  I know he'd love to see Steve's quote...  Speaking of my students, another one who did very well was Fred Fredricks who took over Mandrake the Magician written by Lee Falk, who was one of my best friends. I think Fred is still doing it.  Also, the talented Stan Lynde who did a strip called Rick O'Shay.

Prof:  I'm not familiar with Rick O'Shay.

JR:  You can Google it.  Rick O'Shay is a cowboy strip.  I'm not sure if it's still running. I've lost track of Stan.  He moved out west.  He made it pretty early.

Note:  I did just that and discovered that Stan Lynde has a webpage and is active as an author in Montana.  You can see what he's up to at his website:  www.oldmontana.com.  He also responded to my e-mail and had these kind words about his former instructor:

Dear Bryan,

Jerry's experience with Batman and his thorough knowledge of comics made him an excellent teacher at New York's School of Visual Arts. I give the school a great deal of credit for my syndication with RICK O'SHAY, and I'm delighted to learn of Jerry's new consultant position. He was a fine instructor of what Will Eisner termed Sequential Art and is a noteworthy authority on the comics.

Regards,

Stan Lynde

Come on back for another trip down comics' memory lane and Part II of the Jerry Robinson interview in about two weeks at this same place on the World Wide Web.  Comments of all kinds are encouraged at: professor_the@hotmail.com.

See you next time, and…

Long live the Silver Age!



© 2000-2008 by B.D.S.

Interview copy edited by Jerry Robinson


This feature was created on 05/01/00 and is maintained by

B.D.S.

 





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