NYCC '09 - The Jerry Robinson Spotlight

Detective Comics #70

In a panel moderated by Danny Fingeroth, former longtime Marvel editor, the 2009 New York Comic Con devoted an hour-long discussion to the career and influence of comic book legend Jerry Robinson. Although the panel started late – as most panels seemed to – due to technical difficulties getting Fingeroth’s laptop connected to the projector system, a strong crowd turned out to listen to Robinson’s robust discussion of the his career. Robinson began drawing comics in early 1940, becoming the first assistant hired by Bill Finger and Bob Kane to help with Batman comics. Robinson is widely credited for designing the Joker and Robin. However, as Fingeroth pointed out, those accomplishments, which would be the culmination of most artists’ careers, marked only the beginning of Robinson’s career.

Robinson, soft-spoken, but clear and sharp-witted, got a strong applause as he climbed to the stage. As Fingeroth’s slideshow depicted pieces of art from across Robinson’s career, ranging from early Batman pages and paperback illustration to later editorial cartoons and commissioned museum pieces, Robinson provided context for each image. The opening slide depicting a much younger Robinson and the Milton Caniff Award, given by the National Cartoonists Society, which he won “a few years ago.”

The following image, a sketch of Broadway actress Ann Miller, appeared in Playbill magazine during a seven-year stint Robinson spent covering Broadway. As he told the story, she posed for him in her dressing room before a performance. “She was famous for her legs, so I took a lot of time drawing this picture,” Robinson explained. Although he’d read biographies of his subjects so he could talk to them to pass the time, Robinson said that he was surprised that Miller seemed to decorate her entire dressing room with lions. Miller said that a lion once saved her life. “I didn’t know you’d done a movie with lions,” Robinson replied. “It was during a former life,” she answered. Describing her voice as “sweet, high-toned,” Robinson laughed when relating a phone call she took from her agent. “What? Tell that son of a bitch …” she’d shouted. She had “a lot of personality,” Robinson said, smiling.

Although Robinson has worked on a huge variety of projects in his career, his involvement with a “Japanese manga” seemed to surprise many in the crowd. He once co-authored a musical called Astra, which was produced in Washington a short time ago. Working in collaboration with an author and song-writer who had asked him to work with her, Robinson co-wrote the book and lyrics for thirty songs. Around that time, he’d taken a trip to Japan for a retrospective of his work, and was asked to put sketches from the musical in the show. Later that year, a publisher from Japan came to visit in New York and asked to license the story for a manga. The publisher flew Robinson to Japan, where he worked with a Japanese artist on the translation. The result used “all my characters, but was basically a new story about the characters.” The series ran for six books, and was later put together in a larger collection. Then “American publisher saw our translation of an English script and translated the Japanese comics into English,” Robinson laughed.

When the art and topic changed to Robinson’s Batman work, he offered, “The covers I did usually have nothing to do with the story itself. I tried to do a more symbolic interpretation.”

A hand-colored animation cell, showing a Russian bear and an American eagle, conjured stories of Robinson’s time working on an animated film in Russia. “I did it in Moscow with a Russian art director. It was an hour-long animated film on Russian TV titled “Stereotypes,” about how each country sees the other in stereotypical terms.” It was quite an experience, he related, “because they had no money over there and we had equipment we tied together with rubber bands.”

Calling it one of the high points of his career, Robinson talked about how much he enjoyed working for Timely Comics and Stan Lee during the 1950s. He stuck by Stan and Timely for nearly the entire decade, he said, because “I was able to do a lot of varied stories, which I liked.” Art pages reflected a variety of western, sci-fi, romance and other examples. “I loved to do westerns because they had a lot of things to work with, horses, scenery, bars…”

Robinson’s legendary mid-70s history of the comic book medium, titled simply The Comics, will be getting a new edition from Dark Horse Comics later this year or early next year. The new edition reprints the original text, with a new last chapter “to bring it up to date” and new color to improve on “those prehistoric days.”

Fingeroth displayed the cover of Skippy and Percy Crosby, a biography of cartoonist Percy Crosby and his creation Skippy that Robinson wrote in 1978. Calling the strip a “precursor to Peanuts,” Robinson explained how its creator Crosby went “from the pinnacle, thousands of dollars in the 30s” through “several divorces, paranoia and a suicide attempt.” Crosby was eventually admitted to a Veterans hospital in New York where he remained for nearly twenty years until his death in 1964. Though he was no longer considered a threat to himself, Crosby remained in the hospital because he “had nobody to sign him out. I never met him, but it was interesting to peek into his life.”

Detective Comics #70 flashed onto the screen. That’s “one of my favorite Batman covers,” he remarked proudly. “The inventor of the bathysphere just died a few months ago,” he added, of the device in which Robin was drawn. “No,” Robinson laughed, after Fingeroth asked if the story had a bathysphere in it.

Another Playbill drawing from the show Evita was shown.

The cover art for a collection of his strip Flubs and Fluffs prompted Robinson to recall, “I would get 1500 letters a week, that’s almost more than the president.” The strips themselves were inspired by letters from readers, he added.

Currently still touring in Europe, Robinson spoke briefly about a commission he’s received from the United Nations to do a show on human rights.

A Sunday page from Jet Scott, “a science adventure strip I did for two years with Sheldon Star,” reminded Robinson to let readers now that Dark Horse will be publishing a collection of the strip late in 2009. “Hopefully, if I make the deadline.” Unfortunately, the strip ended after two years. “Usually you have a staff for research and backgrounds on a daily strip, but I did it myself except the lettering,” he explained.

“For 32 years, I was a political cartoonist,” Robinson said as several strips from his long-running series Life with Robinson were displayed. Many of these strips still got hearty laughs from the crowd.

Robinson then turned to discussing the worldwide enthusiasm for comics. Saying it was “quite an experience,” he related a trip just later year to China where he addressed “a thousand animators and cartoonists … They’re very excited about comics. It’s not just Japan.”

“I illustrated about 30 or more books,” he said. “For one of them I did fifty portraits of fifty Civil War leaders.” The project required a lot of research. “Of course the main figures were readily available,” he explained, but finding images of many others was not an easy task. “I tried to mimic the style of the time.”

Robinson described how in 1941 he helped to put out a comic book over a single weekend. With “Charles Biro, who did the original Daredevil, and Bob Wood,” Robinson found out about a publisher who “had some paper left over,” and because of paper rationing during World War II, they had to use it all or receive less next month. The team created an entire issue, “invent characters, write, draw – a in a single weekend.” Holed up in a studio near what’s now Rockefeller Center, Robinson created a hero called London, who was a broadcaster in real life. He called the strip his take on the real life Edward Murrow.

Showing a page from an old Timely comic about the Korean War, Robinson said that he “tried to get the drudgery; it was a terrible war, as all wars are.”

In the 1970s, Robinson sold his idea for The Best Political Cartoons of the Decade to McGraw Hill, although only with the caveat that they publish half American cartoonists and half international. “Those artists aren’t known in the U.S.,” the publisher argued. “Well, they’re not known because you don’t publish them,” Robinson retorted. “Finally, they decided to take a chance … That book changed my career, because so many reviewers said it was so great to see these cartoonists from around the world.” The book also inspired Robinson to found the Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate, which started with fifteen cartoonists in fifteen countries. The organization now boasts 300 artists in 70 countries.

“I had fun doing the cover in everybody’s style,” Robinson remarked, showing the cover to the World’s Greatest Comics Quizzes.

During the same session when he’d sketched Ann Miller, Robinson also sketched her co-star Andy Rooney. “I couldn’t get him to sit still for five seconds to sketch him. Ann Miller would come in and sit on his lap, his agent would come in,” Robinson laughed. “So I got the idea to put this hat on him [shown in the illustration], then it was like the spotlight was on him and he held the pose for three or four minutes.” During the session, a business colleague of Rooney’s called and wanted to discuss opening a string of Andy Rooney restaurants. Rooney replied, “Oh that sounds great. Wait jerry Robinson is here, and he’s a genius. He’ll tell you what’s on the menu.” Although Robinson had never met Rooney previously, he gamely suggested “Mickey Rooney short ribs, “and he loved it.”

Pages from Robinson’s personal sketchbook were shown. Illustrations of the Vatican, Prague, a vacation in the Caribbean and Michelangelo’s David in Florence were all exhibited.

Several of Robinson’s Still Life cartoons were shown, and again, most got good laughs from the crowd.

Finally, Fingeroth asked Robinson several questions about his lengthy career.

Fingeroth: What was it like working with Bob Kane and Bill Finger?

Robinson explained that “after graduating high school, I was selling ice cream on the back of a bicycle with a cartoon on the back.” This was 1939 and he was earning only $17/week. “I was down to skin and bones, about 80 pounds.” Having already been accepted to Syracuse University in the fall, Robinson was sent “to the mountains” by his mother. One day, while playing tennis, he wore a white jacket with his drawings on it, using it as a warm-up jacket. “Somebody tapped me and asked who did the drawings. It was Bob Kane.” Kane then showed several pages of “a new comic” he was drawing. “I wasn’t terribly impressed,” Robinson laughed, but Kane persisted, saying that if Robinson came to New York, he would be hired as an assistant. “Then I was impressed.” Still waiting to hear from Columbia University, Robinson called the school to see if he’d been accepted. “They said yes, so I called Syracuse and told them I wasn’t coming,” he related. Having never been to New York, Robinson got a ride with a neighbor, a famous tenor, who rode in “a chauffeured limo. My grand entry to New York. Then they dropped me in the Bronx,” he laughed.

Fingeroth: Tell us about the work you did restoring Siegel and Shuster’s’ credit for Superman?

“Both Jerry and Joe were friends of mine. Joe and I once in a while would double-date, a Superman-Batman team-up,” Robinson joked. As the years went by, Robinson said that he kept in touch, but when “Jerry moved out the coast and Joe moved out to be near Jerry, I didn’t see them regularly.” He explained that as of the early 1970s, “We thought that their lawsuit had been settled, that they’d received a pension.” One day, while working late, sometime around midnight, he heard Jerry Siegel mentioned on a talk show that he had playing in the background. On the show, he found out that Siegel and Shuster were destitute, that Siegel was “working as a mailman. I found out that there wasn’t a settlement. I immediately called Jerry and asked what I could do. From then on, I took it up as a cause to restore their right to survival. I hooked up with Neal Adams, and he didn’t know Jerry personally, but we combined forces and set a campaign to bring their plight forward.” Over many months, Robinson and Adams “put stories in newspapers here and abroad.” As Warner Brothers was preparing to release first Superman movie, they were anxious to avoid bad publicity. Robinson felt that Siegel and Shuster had “created possibly the greatest character of the 20th century and they were destitute. We negotiated a settlement and they got a pension for the rest of their lives.” The finale of the tale was that at midnight the day before they signed the contract, Siegel called Robinson. Siegel had already had one heart attack, and “he wanted the settlement while he was alive so he would know that his family had something.” With Siegel pushing to settle right away, Robinson called a Vice President at Time Warner, saying, “I had the idea that I could settle it.” Robinson pushed to restore Siegel and Shuster’s names to the strip without letting Warner know that Siegel wanted to settle immediately. “You wouldn’t take Shakespeare’s name off his works,” he argued. Warner asked for a compromise, giving the creators credit on only certain products. Their reasoning being that the movie already had its titles made. “Well, you can make new titles,” Robinson countered. “The next day, Jerry and Joe flew in and signed it. We’d given Cronkite the scoop on the signing, so we all gathered in my apartment at the television for the grand announcement, and they saved it until the very end. Then a Superman drawing flew across the background. I tell you there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” Ann Jackson, Eli Wallach’s wife actually attended the party, because Robinson saw her on the way to the party. Sharing a cab, he’d told her Siegel and Shuster’s story, and she immediately asked, “What can I do?” Laughing, Robinson told her, “We just signed the agreement, but you can come to the party.”

Fingeroth closed by asking Robinson about the exhibit of his work currently showing in Los Angeles.

A couple years ago, Robinson asked by an Atlanta museum to put together “a show on the superhero.” He spent two years putting together the show, gathering material “from the 40s and 50s, which was hard to gather. Most of the great artwork from that era was destroyed, but fortunately, I’d saved lots of it.” During his time at DC in the early 40s, there were many “Superman and Batman covers I saved, Joe Shuster’s drawing board, Jerry Siegel’s typewriter …” The exhibit is currently showing at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

With that, Robinson thanked the fans for their time and attention, and they responded with a standing ovation to show respect to one of comics’ greatest legends.

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