And Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson: ‘Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics’

It was three o’clock in the afternoon and Jerry Robinson was waiting on lunch. That says something about the kind of schedule the 88-year-old creator of the Joker keeps these days. At a time when many people would be resting on their laurels, Robinson has more projects in the pipeline than most people half his age. On the afternoon I spoke with him, he actually had three different books to plug and was preparing to launch a new Website, Jerry Robinson on Not bad for someone who was born when Warren Harding was President.

For the past year, Robinson has been collaborating with N. C. Christopher Couch on Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics, a combination biography and art book from Abrams ComicArts that offers a comprehensive look at Robinson’s career. Robinson told me he had done a year’s worth of interviews and culled through 70 years of artwork to find appropriate pictures. He has also put the finishing touches on an updated edition of The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art. The first edition, which he wrote in 1974, is widely regarded as definitive, and Robinson has made substantial additions to this new version: “I wrote 20,000 words and selected 120 new color images in order to update it. I’m very excited about it”.

Robinson’s third project may make the biggest news of all. After an absence of more than 60 years, he is returning to the world of his most famous creation. “For my next project, I’m starting a Joker graphic novel… if I survive it”, he added with a chuckle. The return of the Joker’s original creator after so many years makes this book a nearly unprecedented event in pop culture history. “I have an idea that would make a great Joker story. I thought one by me might be interesting after all these years”.

As he continued talking about his ongoing projects, our conversation started to feel like a study in irony. While I rummaged through my notes and stammered to phrase questions, Robinson rattled off names of colleagues, titles of books, and details from a myriad of anecdotes—all with barely a pause. He’s the kind of person who makes reasonably productive people look lazy. However, he doesn’t direct all of that energy toward productivity for its own sake. Instead, much like the superheroes with which he will forever be identified, his career reflects a lifetime of pushing boundaries, challenging conventions, and fighting for artistic integrity.

Oddly enough, he never originally meant to be an artist: “I guess I was just lucky with something about the art form [of comics]. I intended to be a journalist… never thought about drawing or art as my career”. However, a funny thing happened on the way to journalism school. According to Couch, by sheer happenstance, the 17-year-old Robinson caught the eye of Bob Kane at a resort in the Poconos. Robinson had drawn some cartoon sketches on a white painter’s jacket he was wearing. Kane, who had just recently created Batman along with writer Bill Finger, needed an assistant and offered Robinson a job.

Thus, Robinson became the third member of the triumvirate that would shape Batman. Of course, calling him “Bob Kane’s assistant” is like calling Tiger Woods a caddy because he hands someone a golf club. Before long, the teenage Robinson had designed the logo for the new Batman book, was doing much of the interior artwork, and had become the most dynamic of the Batman cover artists. Nor was his input isolated to the easel. When Kane and Finger decided to give Batman a sidekick, Robinson designed the costume and came up with the name, “Robin”. Even more impressively, when the team struggled to produce enough material to fill a second Batman title, Robinson created a new arch-enemy for Batman. That character, the Joker, would go on to become the first and most enduring of all comic book supervillains.

Sadly, what most of us know about Robinson starts and stops in Gotham City, but after reading Couch’s book and talking with Robinson, I began to see someone quite different. A restless spirit, constantly pushing against the barriers established by convention, commerce, and corporation, Robinson has dramatically changed the landscape of popular culture and prodded an industry slowly towards a greater sense of artistic ambition, freedom, and ethics.

The first sign that something was different about Robinson came during his seven years on Batman. While he was clearly talented, having talent was not unique. The Golden Age of comic books gave birth to many people with talent. What set Robinson apart was his self-awareness, his consciousness that both he and his colleagues were making history with a brand new art form. While most of the original art from that era is lost, Robinson made it a point to save special pieces, both his own and others. To put things in perspective, the legendary artist Jack Kirby was fighting Marvel Comics for his original artwork as late as the ’80s. How did Robinson, a teenager with no formal training, know to start collecting original artwork 40 years earlier when no one else, including the corporations, saw any value in it?

In this case, Robinson hints that his lack of experience may have served him well. “Because I never studied art, I had a fresh eye about it. I saw the relative worth of the art. What we were producing was worthy of protection or saving even though it had no [monetary] value”. He told me that when he finished a story, the engraver was ordered to destroy all original art on the same day he picked it up. So when Robinson wanted a piece, he had to act quickly, calling the engraver and specifying what he wanted saved. The requests were unexpected, and sometimes, when struggling against deadlines, Robinson missed the window for saving a piece by only an hour. Yet he managed to retrieve many original works, including some of his own legendary covers and some of the iconic covers Fred Ray drew for Superman. Many of these original works have now appeared in museum exhibits Robinson has curated over the years.

Art courtesy of the Jerry Robinson collection copyright © 2010.

All rights reserved.

Robinson also resisted getting pigeonholed as a “Batman artist” where he would have spent his best years producing work anonymously for others. Always looking to expand his vision, Robinson created superheroes for other companies and worked on a wide range of genres for Stan Lee at Timely Comics (now Marvel) in the ’50s. In Ambassador of Comics, Couch includes several full-page examples of Robinson’s work on westerns, crime, and war comics during this time, and the pages demonstrate a real growth in terms of Robinson’s experimental approach to visual narrative. When I asked him about his work from this period, Robinson assessed it pragmatically. “I didn’t want to start doing one feature for seven years [like Batman]”. The virtue of his range of work at Timely was simple: “I could experiment”.

Robinson’s real breakthrough, however, came in the early ’60s when he finally found the ideal place to break boundaries, experiment, and comment on the issues of the day. For many of us who think of Robinson primarily as a Batman artist, it comes as a bit of a shock to learn that he has actually spent most of his career as an editorial cartoonist.

Unfortunately, the editorial page of most daily newspapers was closed to additional features. Always the innovator, Robinson designed the editorial cartoon, Still Life, to help break down the rigid guidelines for the editorial page and help lay the groundwork for what would eventually become today’s op-ed pages. He still sees his innovations as partly inspired by the closed doors of the profession at the time. “In order to get on the editorial page with some political content or satire, it had to look different and be concise”.

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 (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.