And Here's to You, Mr. Robinson

'Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics'

by Greg Carpenter

25 October 2010

The Joker and Batman copyright © 2010 DC Comics. All rights reserved. Reprinted (partial) with permission. All other illustrations and photographs courtesy of the Jerry Robinson collection copyright © 2010. All rights reserved  

A Bit of Smuggling, a Bit of Hobnobbing

Still Life featured inanimate objects in a single panel with dialogue that often addressed topical issues. For example, in one of the cartoons Couch reprints, a typewriter talks to a desk lamp about government efforts to quash a story. None of the objects are Disney-fied with facial features or human characteristics—a fern looks like a fern, a phone looks like a phone. However, Robinson’s style infuses the images with both an iconic quality and a surprising amount of energy. For a post-modern era that is often defined by things—mass produced physical objects—these cartoons owe as much to Andy Warhol as Thomas Nast, and, as Couch points out, they became identified with the Pop-Art movement of the ‘60s.

I asked Robinson how the use of inanimate objects affected the types of messages he could convey. “In many cases,” he said, “I could make [the message] more pointed, but it also made it more universal as well”. One of those more “pointed” strips, an attack on then Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, cost him the New York Daily News when one of the backers of the paper, who was also hosting a fundraising meeting for Goldwater, censored the feature. As far as negative reactions go, Robinson remembers that as “the most egregious. They had a meeting to raise funds for Goldwater that day… they killed it immediately”.

Many of the artists Robinson helped publish never expected to see a dime from their work, much less a high profile publication. One of them told him, “You don’t know what this means to me. It will help feed my family for a year”.

While he regretted losing the large circulation of the feature’s flagship paper, he doesn’t think a cartoonist should try to calculate the political impact of a particular cartoon. “I don’t think about it. My drive is to determine what I want to say about something or how I feel about something. When I see something ironic or wrong, I want to say something”. He says he used to teach the same idea in classes, suggesting that even in an adventure strip, “Your first job is to determine what you want to say.  Drawing is the least of it”.  With Still Life, and his follow up feature, Life with Robinson, he had clearly found his chance to “say something”.

He also fought for the chance to do something for other suppressed and exploited artists. He established an international syndicate for cartoonists, and in one instance that Couch relates, Robinson had to smuggle money into the Soviet Union in order to pay an artist whose work he had sold to the New York Times. When I asked him about the incident, he said, “Fortunately, they never searched me. They would’ve confiscated it”. Many of the artists he helped publish never expected to see a dime from their work, much less a high profile publication. One of them told him, “You don’t know what this means to me. It will help feed my family for a year”.

Robinson was also on the front line of the biggest battle for creator’s rights in comic book history. In the ‘70s, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were nearly destitute, a shocking condition for the two men who, as teenagers 40 years earlier, created Superman and sold him to DC Comics for $130 apiece.  Meanwhile, Warner Brothers was preparing a big budget film adaptation. Robinson and Neal Adams, the most popular comic book artist at the time, joined forces to pressure the company into helping Siegel and Shuster. DC finally agreed to a financial settlement, but as Couch explains, Robinson wouldn’t quit fighting for their creator credit. In the end, the company relented. Today, when someone picks up a Superman book or watches an episode of Smallville, Siegel and Shuster’s names are prominently credited as Superman’s creators—one of the best legacies of Robinson’s career.

His passion for making sure creators receive both pay and credit no doubt comes from his experiences with the sordid history of the comic book industry where most writers and artists were never credited for their work and where their creations became corporate property. In his own case, the mysterious and now legendary contract Bob Kane arranged with the company effectively eliminated any official recognition for writer Bill Finger or for Robinson’s own creative contributions to Robin and the Joker. In fact, for years every Batman story appeared with Kane’s stamp on the first page, implying to many readers that the work inside was his.

In contrast, Robinson has a nearly compulsive need to give credit where it’s due. Not only has he spent years reminding everyone about Bill Finger’s work on Batman, but he also rarely talks about any of his projects without bringing other people’s names into the discussion. When I told him how impressed I was by Still Life, he almost immediately launched into the story of how he couldn’t decide on a name until his wife finally recommended Still Life, which he says “was perfect”.

Some of the challenges in the profession go beyond artist’s rights. He sees another struggle for the future of editorial cartoons in the face of declining newspaper circulations and the increasing pessimism about the future of print media.  “That’s being debated now. I just don’t know. I can speculate about a lot of things. The whole field is in flux”. According to Robinson, the “progress of a strip is tied to technology. Every advance has dictated a change in the art and what you could do”. He hopes that there is still a future for print. Some things “can’t be reproduced on a computer screen”.

Few careers are as busy or varied as Robinson’s. Part of what makes Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics such an impressive book is Couch’s decision to take such a comprehensive view.  Robinson’s career has been unlike most comic book creators. While some may try to define him by his seven years on Batman, he’s spent the rest of his career traveling the world, meeting several US Presidents, and hobnobbing with people like Carl Sandburg. Couch covers every aspect of Robinson’s 70-year career, providing many wonderful details and presenting numerous full-page examples of Robinson’s work. Couch concludes with a portfolio of Robinson’s art and photography, and he even includes a prose short story—quite appropriate for the man who originally set out to be a writer.

Photograph copyright XXX 2010 Holger Keifel. All rights reserved.

Photograph (partial) copyright © 2010 Holger Keifel. All rights reserved.

Given the ugliness of the battles over credits, the often unflattering portraits of Bob Kane published elsewhere, and the countless sad stories of cartoonists being exploited by corporations or censored by the government, the biggest surprise and weakness of Couch’s book is the absence of any “dirt”. Even when discussing the Siegel and Shuster story, one of the bleakest in the history of the industry, the book remains almost cheery. However, Robinson seems to set the tone here, as well. While he admits that there have been some “bumpy roads”, he brushes off the idea of dwelling on the negative. “Well, having survived all that, I guess I might’ve had a positive [view]”.

That positive view comes, not just from survival, but from the success of having thwarted the conventions of a corporate-dominated industry. His story particularly resonates today. In a culture where Queen Bee executives earn millions of dollars on the backs of thousands of exploited worker drones, Robinson’s belief in the value of his art and his fight for the rights of individual artists couldn’t be more timely. Maybe the perpetuity of this struggle helps to explain the drive of this multi-tasking octogenarian. One thing’s for sure—life with Jerry Robinson is never still.

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