Jerry Robinson Interview
Almost all of my early interviews was done by e-mail. This interview was my first face to face with somebody. I really wanted to interview Jerry Robinson because he was a part of golden age comic book history. It took place at Paradise Comics Toronto Comicon. April 29th, 2005 and was originally published on June 2005. I had met Jerry at the convention, asked him for an interview and he agreed but after his signing was done.
I waited (about a half hour) and we went into a quiet room to do the interview. What I wanted to do in particular was ask about his history and find out first hand some things I had read about Siegel and Shuster that I wasn’t quite sure was true or not. I has also recently read Gerard Jones Men of Tomorrow and was really exciting about all of the new info it had revealed. Jerry was able to fill in some holes for me, making me very happy.
Jerry Robinson created both The Joker and Robin the Boy Wonder. He spent 20 years drawing comics before becoming a political cartoonist. He was also instrumental in getting a settlement from DC Comics in the 1970’s for the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Part of his story and this interview surrounds his role as it is described in the recent critically acclaimed book Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones.
Jamie: What Year were you born?
Jerry Robinson: 1922.
Jerry Robinson: A long time ago. Before you were ever even thought of (laughter).
Jamie: My Dad was born in 1940.
Jerry Robinson: Oh boy, my you’re a youngster.
[Note: I’m 30 years old, but Jerry Robinson has full rights to call me a youngster.]
Jamie: What did you do prior to assisting Bob Kane on Batman?
Jerry Robinson: Well, nothing professionally. I started right in on Batman. I came to New York at 17 and was going to college. I started with Bob in that same year in 1939. I just did it to earn my way through college. Little did I know I’d still be talking about it 60 some years later (laughter).
Jamie: Did you say you met Bob through college?
Jerry Robinson: No, no. I met Bob through a strange circumstance. I had sold ice cream after I had graduated high school, in the summer before going to college, to earn enough for the first year, or semester. I was very light, only 98 pounds. On the track team as a matter of fact, very slight, almost as slight as yourself. So peddling Ice Cream on the bicycle all summer on the cart I dropped to probably no more than 78 pounds. Then my mother insisted I take $25 dollars, that’s all it took, to go up to the mountains to the resort and she said, “fatten up.” She was afraid I wouldn’t survive the first semester in college (laughter).
Just by sheer chance, I went out to a tennis court one day and I was wearing a white painters jacket and at the time you decorated them. So I had cartoons all over mine. I had drawn for my high school paper but that was my only involvement in cartooning. So I was wearing that painters jacket as a tennis jacket and I was trying to find a partner at the tennis court. Tennis was a family sport, my brothers were champion players. So I was standing there looking for a partner and felt a tap on my shoulder and heard “Who did those drawings?” I thought I was going to be arrested or something (laughter).
I turned around and said “I did.” “Well, those are pretty good. I just started a new feature called Batman and the 1st issue is on the stands. If you come with me I’ll show you.” We went down to the village and bought a copy. I was 17, he was about 24. He said, “If you come to New York, you’ve got a job. I need somebody to help me on Batman.”
I was going to go to Syracuse College, but I had also luckily applied to Columbia. I quickly called Columbia to see if my application was still good, which it was, then I called Syracuse and told them I was not coming. I called my parents and told them I’m not coming home, I’m going right to New York as I had a job. I went to Columbia and began moonlighting on Batman.
Jamie: So it was Bob Kane you met at the resort?
Jerry Robinson: Yes, he was the one that tapped my on the shoulder. Then I met Bill Finger.
Jamie: Yes, I was about to ask about him as well. What was he like and how did you meet him?
Jerry Robinson: Well, I met him through Bob as he wrote the scripts. He and Bob really co-created Batman.
Jerry Robinson: Unfortunately, only Bob’s name is on it. I started an award for Finger, similar to the Shuster Awards here that will be given at San Diego this year. It’s The Bill Finger Award and this will be the first year.
Jerry Robinson: Bill never got credit. He died broke. It’s a tragedy.
Jamie: Yeah, that’s what I heard. Do you have any photos of him by any chance?
Jerry Robinson: I don’t, we didn’t take pictures at the time. There are some that exist and have been published.
Jamie: I’ve seen one, but that’s it.
Jerry Robinson: I’ve only seen two or three at the most, different shots. One he’s playing Golf, one is a head shot.
Jamie: Yeah, I’ve seen one where it looks like he has a painters cap on and he’s looking sideways.
Jerry Robinson: Yeah. He was a great guy and was really a mentor of mine. He was 24 or 25 when I was 17. I was coming from a little town to New York for the first time in my life. I was going to University and going to my room at night and drawing all night. He took me around New York, showed me museums, foreign films, plays. He was very well read and a well rounded guy. He was my first cultural mentor.
Jamie: What was Bob Kane like?
Jerry Robinson: Well Bob was.. he had a great flair in his drawings. He was a comic artist before starting Batman, so it was a very difficult transition for him to go through, from comic art to doing more realism. So he struggled with the art. I think it’s easier to go the other way around. I started out doing illustration and later I did a humor strip that went for 17 years through syndication. That was an easy transition, being able to draw realistically to drawing humor. Not so easy the other way around.
Jamie: How long did you work on Batman?
Jerry Robinson: I think from 1939 to 1947.
Jamie: Wow. Why did you stop?
Jerry Robinson: Well, I wanted to do something more. Something under my own name. I wanted to do more creative writing and do different things. I never liked to continue to do something for too long. I like new challenges. I went on to do a lot of different comic strips. I partnered with Mort Meskin, we did strips for DC and other publishers. We did Johnny Quick, Vigilante, The Black Terror, Fighting Yank. Then I worked with Stan Lee for 10 years. I did a lot of stuff during the 50’s, crime, science fiction, war, which I enjoyed as each book was a different challenge.
Jamie: Yeah, they published everything.
Jerry Robinson: Yes. I really wanted to be a political cartoonist, so around 1961 I quit to do political cartoons. I did them for 33 years and I wrote and drew my own feature. That was 6 days a week and it was syndicated throughout the US and abroad. In between I was a book illustrator, did books and advertising. I curated a lot of shows (at museums). I traveled around the world, went to about 43 different countries. Did a lot of exhibitions and was a part of international juries. So it’s been a very interesting and satisfying career.
Jamie: I imagine so. I know for part of that career you went to the National Cartoonists Society. I understand you became the President at one point?
Jerry Robinson: Yes I served as President of the National Cartoonists Society and later on became an editorial cartoonist and served as President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. A lot of Canadians belong to that.
Jamie: Yes, we have a strong group of political cartoonists.
Jerry Robinson: Very strong, yes. I have an International Newspaper Syndicate (called Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate) that started in 1979 and we represent the leading cartoonists in some 75 countries now. Including many Canadians I just visited, like Brian Gable, Bado (Guy Badeaux), all top, top cartoonists, world class. Dave Anderson of the National Post, Patrick Corrigan of the Star, Andy Donato of the Sun, all great cartoonists and others too. Roy Peterson in Vancouver, Dale Cummings from Winnipeg. For a country of this population it has an extraordinary number of great cartoonists. I’m very, very pleased to have them in my syndicate.
Jamie: Now the National Cartoonists Society, what is that, is it a bargaining agent or a social society?
Jerry Robinson: No. We did have committees and took up professional issues, but it wasn’t an union. It was a professional society for professionals, we discussed professional problems. We exchanged ideas and met socially as well. It was started during world war one, when a number of cartoonists started going around entertaining at hospitals for wounded soldiers. They one of them said “Gee, we ought to form a more organized group.”
There was about 6 or 8 of them to begin with and it grew to 3500 today. There was Milton Caniff and Rube Goldberg and other popular people, mostly strip cartoonists it started with, then other genres joined then, later editorial cartoonists as well. The editorial cartoonists had their own problems and later on they formed their own organization, The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. A lot of them belong to both. The NCS is like the parent organization. The Magazine association which I mentioned earlier also formed their own group to discuss their own problems. But NCS is still like a parent and it’s still running.
Jamie: Did you ever do any comic strips?
Jerry Robinson: I did one that went for several years. Called Jet Scott, it was a science adventure. I also helped friends on various ones; none that were my creations.
Jerry Robinson: Yes, just for periods of time when they needed me. On Jet Scott I did daily and Sundays.
Jamie: I was wondering if you read the book Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones?
Jerry Robinson: Oh, sure have!
Jamie: Your name appears in there quite a bit towards the end.
Jerry Robinson: Gerard interviewed me quite a bit for the book. It was a remarkable book. He did great deal of research.
Jamie: Oh yeah.
Jerry Robinson: There were things there that I didn’t know myself (laughter). I would recommend the book. Also Kavalier and Clay.
Jamie: Yeah, it’s fictionalized —
Jerry Robinson: Yes fictionalized —
Jamie: But a lot of it rings true.
Jerry Robinson: I met Michael Chabon in San Diego last year. I had the honor of getting elected to the Hall of Fame at the Eisner Awards. Along with Jules Feiffer and Al Capp.
Jamie: Yes I know of them.
Jerry Robinson: Michael had gave the keynote address, he’s a very charming man and really bright.
Jamie: How familiar are you with Siegel’s and Shuster’s past, I have some questions but I don’t know if you would know about them.
Jerry Robinson: I know some of it.
Jamie: Okay, there is a story about either Siegel or Shuster was a mailman and they had to deliver something to DC’s offices and that demoralized the staff at DC and somebody gave them a tip or and told them not to come back?
Jerry Robinson: No that is a mix of two different stories. Siegel did become a mailman, he had a writers block from the trauma of losing Superman. He would walk by a newsstand and see Superman all over the place, there, in movies, etc.. and he would literally get sick to his stomach. He couldn’t write anymore but he had to support his wife and child. There was a government agency he worked at, sorting mail, he wasn’t a mailman on the street. It was a very simple, non creative job. It’s what he had been reduced to.
And Joe, he was certifiably blind, he had bad eyesight even when I first knew him. So he couldn’t draw. He was supported by his brother but he got a job as a messenger. He delivered packages like mail and one time, he did by chance have to deliver something to DC Comics . . . Joe told me that story himself.
Jamie: Okay, so it was Joe then. That’s something I wanted to clear up as I heard two different stories about that. In the 50’s Siegel went back to work for DC and in the 60’s he stopped. I heard he tried to copyright Superpersons or something like that. Do you know anything about that?
Jerry Robinson: Well I know it was a long drawn out legal battle over the years. He (Siegel) had really created a Frankenstein (DC) and they could afford to hire the top lawyers and draw out the negotiations for years and he couldn’t afford to do it. From time to time they sued them and it just dragged on with more lawyers. It was a sad time for them.
Jamie: Do you know exactly why he left DC in the 60s?
Jerry Robinson: In the 60’s, no I don’t know.
Jerry Robinson: I know originally they were cut off once they had started the suit. They were fired and they had no income. I know they had a rapprochement for a period of time but it was nothing substantial.
Jamie: And there was another court battle in the 70s. It either went to a district court or to the Supreme Court…?
Jerry Robinson: Well, it went through a number of courts but not to the Supreme Court. It never got to that level. It was always lost in lower courts.
Jerry Robinson: I think if they brought suit under the proper clause, which is very involved technically, but conceivably they might have won in the Supreme Court. But they didn’t have the wares at the time. Jerry had already had a heart attack. In fact, the night before we had settled it Jerry had ordered me to settle it. I couldn’t tell the other side because then we’d lose our leverage, but he was afraid he wouldn’t survive the negotiations. He wanted to leave his wife and child with some security.
Jamie: Okay do you know what state it the case was filed in . . . was it New York?
Jerry Robinson: Yes, they were all filed in New York State. I can’t tell you what level it stopped at, but they never won, either because of technicalities or it wasn’t written up properly or they didn’t have good representation. The initial error was at the very beginning when they sold it but it wasn’t filed properly, the details would be too long, but they might have won on other grounds. But it never went to the Supreme Court. I don’t think a jury ever got to hear it. So it was drawn out, you are talking about billions of dollars when it comes to Superman.
Jamie: During the court case, I believe Carmine Infantino was the publisher of DC Comics at the time.
Jerry Robinson: Yes.
Jamie: Where was he in all this?
Jerry Robinson: As far as I know he was never involved. We never dealt with him. They were owned by Time Warner and we negotiated with Time Warner, their vice president and their lawyers.
Jamie: In the 70s, Jerry wrote out a 10 page letter and apparently sent it out to everybody and it helped get the media on his side initially.
Jerry Robinson: He did do that, but he didn’t get much headway. The media discarded him. It was only after he got on the Tom Snyder show and that was national, and got some of us professionals involved to help him with it did it start to go somewhere. That gave us the leverage we needed to negotiate with Time Warner. Also the movie was coming out at that time and that gave us leverage as well.
Jamie: About that letter, do you know if Jerry wrote that during the court case or after it? Men of Tomorrow is a bit murky with that.
Jerry Robinson: Well, it was probably written in between court cases. Siegel was frustrated as there was no settlement and he didn’t get anything. It was out of desperation he wrote that. He tried a lot of things. As you can imagine he was very frustrated and depressed. I mean Superman is one of the greatest properties in the 20th Century. He was stripped of everything and couldn’t make money for his family. And they (Siegel and Shuster) were both terrific people. I knew them both well. I even double dated with Shuster (laughter).
Jamie: There are two stories about Jerry Siegel appearing on TV, and I don’t know which one is true. There is one, it wasn’t mentioned this way in Men of Tomorrow, where he was in a talk show audience and he stood up and told everybody that he was the creator of Superman and he had to make a living bagging groceries. Apparently you saw this, was that on the Tom Snyder show?
Jerry Robinson: I remembered that it was the Tom Snyder Show yes. I saw it yes, I was working late for a deadline and I heard the name Siegel and Superman and I looked up and that was the first time I was aware of the their plight. I had thought they had made a settlement in the previous years. I was very upset in hearing that and immediately called Jerry in California and begun to work on restoring their rights. Neal Adams had also called them and we teamed up. I got the National Cartoonist Society, I wrote up.. what you would call a declaration of support. The Society had brought Siegel and Shuster in and I had went over to the Society of Magazine Cartoonists, they are an organization filled with mostly New Yorker and humor type cartoonists and they gave me the floor. It so happened it was all on the same day so I raced over, addressed them on their plight and they passed the same resolution unanimously. I went to other organizations, the screen writers and called all the names I knew like celebrities like Jules Feiffer and others there was this one science fiction writer . . .
Jamie: Harlan Ellison?
Jerry Robinson: No, I know Harlan and he would have, but I didn’t know him at the time.
Jamie: I believe the names are in Men of Tomorrow.
Jerry Robinson: Maybe, I don’t think they got all of them, actually. But what happened after the signing and we had a celebration at my apartment and Siegel and Shuster were over and I met Eli Wallach and his wife on the way there. Not that they did anything, when they heard about it they asked “what can we do?” and I told them we just got done the signing and that’s how they ended up being there. So there was Jules Feiffer and everybody was there. We had promised to give the scoop of the signing to Walter Cronkite for his program, he was the top newscaster. So we all gathered in front of the TV at that time. We had broke out the bottle of champagne waiting for him to announce it. At the very end of the show they had a sign and an animated Superman in the background flying across the screen and he said “At last, truth, justice and the American way has won.” We all toasted and everybody was crying and it was a very moving moment.
Jamie: That happened right after the settlement?
Jerry Robinson: Yes.
Jamie: I know you said you had everybody sign a declaration, but was there anything legal involved or like a boycott because I understand Neal was talking about doing boycotts. Was it anything like that or just a show of support?
Jerry Robinson: It was a show of support, we really didn’t have to go to that measure. What I personally did was use my persuasion on the Vice President of Time Warner, I called the night before the settlement in order to restore their names. Time Warner depends on talent of all kinds, it’s a multi media company, it does movies and everything. I said look, you are going to get a lot of bad press. Be aware of what you are doing if we can’t come to a reasonable solution. Restore their names, their dignity depends on it. So they finally agreed on it, but that was the night before the settlement. They were afraid that restoring their names would give them a claim in the future.. not that they don’t deserve it. They got a settlement but not what they deserve, they really should have been multi millionaires.
Jamie: Yes . . .
Jerry Robinson: But they had security for the rest of their lives, at the time they were both really destitute.
Jamie: What do you think about the future of comics with graphic novels?
Jerry Robinson: Well, the future is unknown, but I think it has a tremendous future. The comics are in the hands of creative people and it’s a very versatile media. The parameters keep expanding. Who would have foreseen the work being done today with graphic novels, in different mediums at different levels, computerized works of art? But in my analysis the creativity and the art is surviving. The form might change though, technology always dictates what is going to happen. It happened with newspaper strips and comic books, it depends on a confluence of events. I wrote about this in my book, it would take too long to go into detail, but that’s the bottom line. It took a number of events and people at the right time and the right place for it to happen.
Jamie: Thank you very much for the interview Jerry.
Sadly, Jerry Robinson passed away late in 2011. I still see him, his wife Gro and occasionally his son Jens at conventions, often right before the Will Eisner Awards.
I also interviewed Neal Adams about his role with Jerry and Joe Shuster’s mid 1970s settlement. That I will publish later this week. I should say that writer Brad Ricca has a fantastic book called Superboys that goes into great detail about Jerry and Joe’s fight for their rights. I highly recommend his book as it was a story that really needed to be told.
I should note that Marc Tyler Nobleman has a picture book called Bill The Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman that revealed a lot of new information of Bill Finger. Among which that bill has a granddaughter and great grandson who are now receiving royalties for Bill’s work. Today Bill Finger is recognized as co-creator of Batman. Jerry would be very, very happy with that. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention’s Marc’s Boys of Steel picture book that also added some new information regarding the creators of Superman.