Next to Gil Kane, Jerry Robinson has been there and done that more than any comic artist I know. Like Kane, he was more than a drawer: He was a writer, historian, entrepreneur, photographer, political activist. His career spans virtually the entire history of the comic book, from the time he started working with Bob Kane on Batman on 1939 to today; currently, he’s the President and Editorial Director of Cartoonists International, Inc. and the Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate.
Robinson was born on the first day of 1922 in Trenton, New Jersey. He and his three brothers and one sister grew up poor during the Depression, of course. His break came in 1939 when by happenstance he met Bob Kane who invited him to assist him on Batman, which Kane and Bill Finger started the previous year. The 18-year-old Robinson didn’t know what he was getting into. He worked with Kane and Finger on Batman for six or seven years — to which his most memorable contribution was, of course, the creation of the Joker, as enduring a character as Batman in his way — before branching out and working on a number of other characters and features (and for other publishers) such as the Vigilante, Black Terror, Fighting Yank, Daredevil, war comics, romance comics, crime comics, etc. He mastered his craft during the ’40s and although he came from the representational school of Milt Caniff and his good friend Mort Meskin, he was always expanding his stylistic repertoire and always looking for new challenges. He drew comics throughout the ’40s but drew a newspaper strip for two years in the ’50s (Jet Scott, 1953-55), taught at Burne Hogarth’s Cartoonists & Illustrator’s School (now the School of Visual Arts), and did a lot of commercial assignments such as book covers and illustration.
He had the good fortune (or the good taste) to befriend many of the great artists of his generation — such as Kane, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Mort Meskin, Wally Wood, Burne Hogarth, and many others; he taught Steve Ditko, Eric Stanton, Marie Severin, and even the journalist Pete Hamill.
This interview brings us through the early ’60s (and on to the present) when he effectively ceased drawing comics and started what I consider his second career in as a newspaper strip cartoonist, historian, political activist, and owner of his own international strip syndicate. Robinson’s recollections of the early years of comic books is invaluable and his observations on the creative people who comprised the inchoate industry sharply etched. Of particular interest, in my opinion, is his recollection of the writer Bill Finger, his unheralded contribution to Batman, and his tragic decline. Robinson successfully lobbied the Eisner Awards to include the Finger Award (a not inappropriate name in more ways than one) to be given to an outstanding writer (which was won this year by Jerry Siegel and Arnold Drake).
This interview was conducted on three occasions from November 2004 to May 2005. It was transcribed by Carol Gnojewski, and copy-edited by the participants and Dirk Deppey. Special thanks to Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. for providing us with many of the comics used to illustrate it.
– Gary Groth
GARY GROTH: You were born in Trenton, New Jersey.
JERRY ROBINSON: Right.
GROTH: Trenton is how far from Manhattan?
ROBINSON: Only 60 miles — but another world.
GROTH: What kind of a town was it back then?
ROBINSON: Well, Trenton was like a typical small town. It’s the capital, but what was then a population of just 100,000 people. I’d never been to New York — well, maybe once as a young kid, but New York was like going to Europe for me at that time. So when I came to New York, it was a whole new world.
My father came from what is now Western Russia, near the Baltic States. He fled Russia when he was about 18 years old. He came here in 1895. He told me this wonderful story of how he escaped. It was during the winter: he rendezvoused with a couple of friends on a horse-drawn sled. They escaped through the forest, very near the border of Poland. He made his way to the Baltic Sea and got a ship to the U.S. He met my mother in New York. She was born in New York. Very early on in their marriage, they moved to Trenton. My dad was a very honest and hardworking man.
My mother was really a wonderful role model. Self-taught, at the age of about 14 she was bookkeeper of one of the largest firms in New York. At that time, before computers, the bookkeeping and auditing departments in big companies were huge. There were 50 to 80 people just keeping books. She was the head bookkeeper. In fact, one of her underlings, she was proud to say, was the boss’s daughter. She had a brilliant mind, and loved — adored — education and all things cultural.
GROTH: What kind of company was this?
ROBINSON: Well, I don’t know. It might have been some kind of manufacturing company, but I don’t recall.
GROTH: Did your father learn a skill or a craft?
ROBINSON: Not really. No. I think they moved to Trenton because it seemed to be a place of potential growth. At the first opportunity he brought some of his family over: a brother, later another brother, and then his grandfather, which I’ll tell you about in a minute. They opened a department store: a lot of different products. Clothes …
GROTH: Like a small Macy’s?
ROBINSON: A very small Macy’s, a one-room department store. That was his beginning. Trenton at that time was one of the pottery centers of the U.S. The famous Lennox pottery was made in Trenton. He opened a pottery manufacturing shop, not knowing anything about the pottery business! That was successful for some time. This was what was so great about my father. I hope I inherited some of his confidence in trying new things. He had the confidence that he could figure out a way — I saw him do this time after time. When he was in Russia, he was kind of a man-of-all-trades, too, as was his father. They came from a small village, and his father was the de facto mayor. That meant that he could read, he could shoe a horse … he could do all of the things that had to be done in the village. I think my father inherited some of that, and I was inspired by some of the things he did.
My mother was born in lower Manhattan. She was there at the infancy of motion pictures.
GROTH: New York, at that time, would have been competing with L.A. as the center of films, wouldn’t it?
ROBINSON: Oh, way before. No, Hollywood didn’t exist. This was before. New York was the film center of the country. There were studios in Astoria, and the Edison Studios in nearby New Jersey.
There are parallels from the early film industry and the first comic books, both of which drew a lot from the Jewish community. There was a tradition of Jewish theater brought from Europe, so there were experienced actors and directors, and so forth. They became the first leg of movie filmmaking — L.B. Mayer, Warner Brothers and the rest. That happened with the comics industry, too. The first comic books drew upon a lot of Jewish talent here — again, first- or second-generation Americans. The creators of Superman, Batman, Captain America, and most of the publishers and editors were Jewish.
Anyway, my mother saw the first movies, which were simply shown in empty stores, with simple wooden benches. It was thought of as a very lowbrow art. “Decent” people wouldn’t go into them. They were like five cents. But that drew her attention, because she was very intelligent and inventive. She saw the primitive films as a coming entertainment medium that was going to grow, so she talked my father, who was looking for another business, into opening a theater in Trenton.
ROBINSON: Yep. So this is around 1910 or so. He built the first building to be built as a theater in Trenton.
GROTH: Now, you wouldn’t have been around at that time.
ROBINSON: No, but I was there while he still had the theater. Because my mother said it was lowbrow, and respectable people didn’t go to the movies, his idea was to construct one that would attract the middle and upper classes. Now, he didn’t have any assets, but he was already in business in Trenton so they knew him. He went to the bank and he borrowed a hundred thousand dollars. This is like a couple million today — with no collateral. They trusted him because they knew he was an honest, hard worker.
My mother named it the Garden Theatre, so he decorated it as a garden to make it attractive to a wider audience. It was successful. He wound up building several other theaters in Central Jersey. My aunt played the piano, in the front, right under the screen. My grandfather collected tickets at the box office. It was a family enterprise.
I loved it, especially the cowboy films and my hero, Tom Mix. I still remember sitting on the bench with my aunt while she played the piano to accompany the action on the screen, and having to look straight up to see the film.
GROTH: Which kids love to do.
ROBINSON: Oh, yeah. I was in seventh heaven.
Then the crash came, and my father was wiped out. He lost everything. We lost our home, the theaters. He was left with one building in the center of town, which was a tenement. It was a broken-down building he’d intended to upgrade and renovate. That’s where we had to move. I didn’t realize it was a tenement at the time, but oh, how I regretted leaving our home! I thought of all of the mulberry trees I used to play under and the school and my friends — and we were moving from the suburbs to the center of the city, a strange place.
GROTH: And this was ’29?
GROTH: So how old would you have been about then?
ROBINSON: I was about 7.
GROTH: Your father lost everything? Did he not own outright any of his businesses?
ROBINSON: He lost everything in the crash. He was in debt. All of his stocks were worthless. He was aggressive on the stock market. My mother was the moderating force, so they made a good combination when things were going good. He wanted to plunge ahead no matter what happened.
GROTH: At least he had the tenement. Most people didn’t have even that.
ROBINSON: Yeah. Fortunately he salvaged that. I guess it wasn’t worth much, so the creditors didn’t take it.
GROTH: So it was something of a traumatic experience for you?
ROBINSON: Yeah, but I didn’t realize the economic impact of it on our family. I was too young. I was the youngest of five children. Harold, my eldest brother, was 17 years older, and was like a second father to me. He was already in college, as was the next oldest brother, Avner, who was about 15 years older. Another brother, Maury, and my sister, Edythe, were still in school. Avner dropped out to work to help Harold graduate. That happened also with Maury. He worked for a year helping my father to send Avner through college. Those few years my father began to get back on his feet. I remember a family conference: What should we do? What can we do? This is the height of the Depression, and people couldn’t buy anything, but they needed to get jobs so they had to look presentable. While they’d like to have a new suit to go to an interview, they couldn’t buy one. My parents had the idea: Everybody’s going out of business and all of the companies making high-grade suits were going bankrupt. They would sell their whole stocks at distressed prices. My father came to New York wherever someone was going bankrupt, and he bought the whole stock. They were taking whatever they could get. He was able to buy what was formerly out of reach — up to $100 suits. He opened a store called Thrifty 12.50. You could buy a new suit from 5th Avenue, a Brooks Brothers suit, for $12.50 — with a vest and two pairs of pants! It was an immediate success. They came from all over South Jersey to Trenton where they could buy nice clothes that they could afford. That’s how he started to get back on his feet again.
GROTH: So he was quite ingenious.
ROBINSON: Yeah, hardworking. The combination of my mother and father, I think, made it.
GROTH: They were apparently quite resilient, too. Instead of just collapsing, he went right out and …
ROBINSON: Well, he was a fighter, and had supreme confidence in himself. And really uneducated. He never studied or went to school. So he was inspirational for me.
GROTH: When you were growing up, what was your childhood like? You went to public schools, I assume?
ROBINSON: Oh, yeah. Right.
GROTH: Were you a good student? Did you enjoy school?
ROBINSON: Yeah, I liked school, although I didn’t like some of the classes. I guess it was fairly easy. I got all A’s and B’s. I wanted to go to college, so I had to keep the grades at a certain level.
GROTH: Now, going to college at that time … that wasn’t as widespread as it is today.
ROBINSON: No, certainly not.
GROTH: It was more the exception than the rule at that time.
ROBINSON: My family believed in education. They always wanted us to get what they didn’t get themselves. My mother also had to drop out of school when she was about 14 or 15. She had a wonderful mind, beautiful diction, exquisite handwriting. She became a very fine contract bridge player as did one of my brothers, Maury. He was an expert, and he won many master points. I don’t know if you know about bridge.
ROBINSON: At one time, he won about 17 tournaments in a row. When you enter these tournaments, you get what they call master points. If you get so many master points, you become a grand master or whatever. That’s how they rank you, like in chess. My mother didn’t play the tournaments, but she was a very fine bridge player. I played also, but nothing near them. It’s an intriguing game. Cards were often played in the family. I loved to be able to play with my parents in the big games.
GROTH: It sounds like you were very close.
ROBINSON: Yes, we actually were. I remember I used to dream as a kid that when my siblings got older and got married, to have kind of a compound, where each of my brothers and sister would have their own house, but we’d all be in the same area. I guess that was reflective [of how close we were].
My oldest brother became a dentist. My next one became a surgeon podiatrist — he could take care of your feet, but was also a surgeon and could operate on you.
My next brother was a lawyer. They were all pretty bright, but my youngest brother was a genius. He was the one who won all of these bridge tournaments. He graduated high school at 13 and got a full college scholarship to Rutgers University and graduated at 17 first in his class, and then he got a scholarship to Yale. I think he was probably one of the youngest to graduate from Yale law school — 22, I think.
GROTH: And your sister?
ROBINSON: My little sister was a very fine photographer before she was married. Once she was married, she gave up her profession to raise a family.
GROTH: Clearly you’re the black sheep of the family. Cartoonist.
ROBINSON: Clearly. I never dreamt of being a cartoonist. I wanted to be a writer and that’s what I applied for at college.
GROTH: You went to school to study journalism.
THE BUDDING ARTIST
GROTH: Now, when you were young, when you were a kid growing up, did you read newspaper strips?
ROBINSON: Yes, I loved the funnies. Trenton is near Philadelphia and the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer and the Record had big Sunday comics sections.
GROTH: When did you acquire your interest in drawing? How young were you?
ROBINSON: They tell me I was very young. When my family was sitting around talking, I’d be in the middle of the floor, lying on the floor sketching them. Someone in the family still has one I did of my grandfather. Very young I apparently had the ability to translate what I was seeing on paper. That doesn’t make you an artist but it indicates some hand/eye coordination.
GROTH: Did you maintain that interest in drawing continuously throughout your childhood?
ROBINSON: Yeah, I did like drawing. I never took any art classes because you couldn’t get any college credit for them in those days. But I did draw, and I remember being the cartoonist in the high-school paper. I was an editor and drew cartoons. That was as far as it went, really. I remember doing posters for school plays and things like that, but I never thought of it seriously. There were no artists in the family. They all assumed that I would be a professional as my brothers were. But I resisted that. I couldn’t really relate to a career in any of those things somehow.
GROTH: Your ambition was to be a writer?
ROBINSON: That was the only thing I could think of that I wanted to do.
GROTH: Specifically a journalist?
ROBINSON: Yes. I had it in my mind to be a short-story writer. I remember sending off some short stories even when I was in junior high school for the Saturday Evening Post in Philadelphia.
GROTH: Is that because you admired writers and read short stories and so forth?
ROBINSON: Yes, I loved them. Yes. I loved Poe, Chekhov, Saki, Twain, Maupassant, and O. Henry — short stories with plot twists and fascinating characters. They inspired me.
GROTH: Was your family bookish? Were there a lot of books around?
ROBINSON: No, there weren’t really a lot of books. My father read newspapers daily and my mother, some books and magazines.
GROTH: Where did you acquire your interest in reading?
ROBINSON: At an early age I was introduced to the library. I remember the first big novel I read was Gone With the Wind, in junior high school.
GROTH: You had no ambition to be a cartoonist at the time?
ROBINSON: No, I didn’t think of it as a profession.
I have to tell you one little anecdote about the family. I said my father brought his grandfather over from Russia. That’s how they did it in those days, they sent for the next one to come over. My father’s father had died at an early age in an accident. He never came to America. He died when my father was fairly young. But his grandfather was living and my father brought him over. He lived in Trenton. I never met him, because he died before I was born, but my eldest brother Harold, who was 17 years older, knew my great-grandfather.
He lived to be 116. He was reputed to be the oldest man in New Jersey. They didn’t keep records nationally at the time, but he might have been the oldest man in the country, and maybe even in the world. It always fascinated me. I thought that the story of my great-grandfather was apocryphal, but one of my cousins sent me an article from a Trenton paper, about 1911, that had a whole-page interview with him. Sure enough, it was a year before he died. He was only 115! He was still living alone, mind you. Took care of himself. When they came to the house to interview him, he was in the backyard chopping wood for the wood stove. He did a little jig for them. One of the questions, which fascinated me, was they asked him what was his earliest memory as a child growing up in some rural village in Western Russia. He said he remembered there was a big event in the village. Everybody ran out to the road — probably just a dirt road then — because there was a big parade. What was it? It was Napoleon on his way to Moscow. This is 1812. So my brother knew the man who saw Napoleon.
GROTH: That’s pretty amazing.
ROBINSON: Yeah, it’s incredible. That was in the article along with a picture of him. His name was Moses. He had a big white beard. He looked like he stepped out of the Bible.
MEETING BOB KANE
GROTH: At some point, you moved to New York and started attending Columbia University. Tell me how you chose to do that and how old were you when you went to Columbia.
ROBINSON: Sure, 17. The summer I graduated was ’39. It was coming out of the Depression, by no means a good time. By that time I was old enough to know what my parents had gone through to get my brothers through college and so forth. They wanted me to go, but I knew they couldn’t afford it. I worked that summer selling ice cream on a bicycle. There was a cart attached behind. Not motorized, mind you. I pedaled. I was on the 98-pound track team. I was thin as a rail. They gave me, as a new man on the block, the outskirts of town as my territory where I could sell the ice cream.
GROTH: The outskirts of Trenton?
ROBINSON: Of Trenton, yes. So I had to pedal for a half an hour before I could even sell. So that was an ordeal. I sold ice cream all summer. I averaged, as I recall, about $25 a week. You had to sell a lot of ice cream to make that much in those days. I think I made one or two and a half [cents] or something for a 10-cent ice cream cup or cone.
GROTH: This would have been an entrepreneurial gig where you bought the ice cream and were responsible for selling it to make a profit?
ROBINSON: Yes. There was a place in town that hired the people to sell the ice cream on a commission. They supplied the cart; I supplied my bicycle. They’d give you so much ice cream per day, and at the end of the day you’d come back and check in and get credit for what you sold. I remember on the hot days of summer, once in a while I would treat myself to one of the ice creams. But every time I did I thought, “My God, I’m eating all of the profits.”
At the end of the summer I was skin and bone. My mother persuaded me to take $25 of that hard-earned money and go up to the country to fatten up. She thought I’d never survive the first semester of college. That’s what I did. I don’t know how I chose this place, because I didn’t know of it. It was in the Poconos; one of those summer resorts. The Poconos were the equivalent of the Catskills, where they had these summer hotels with all of the entertainers. Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca were on staff at the place that I went. The summer before, it was Danny Kaye. He was fantastic and everybody knew he would be a star.
I had been on the high-school tennis team. Tennis has been a lifelong passion. All of my brothers played before me. I guess that’s how I got into it. And they were very good. They were city champs and my nephews were state champs. My son carried on the tradition … he was on a high-school tennis team that won the New York City championship.
Anyway, the first day at the resort I went out to the courts. I was wearing a painter’s jacket, white linen. That was the fad in high school. We took it up because the college kids wore them. We were influenced by Princeton University, which is only 10 miles away from Trenton. They would decorate the jacket with drawings or paintings or graffiti or whatever. So I drew some cartoons on mine. I wish I had that jacket today. I gave it to my nephews who wore it out.
GROTH: Were they cartoons of contemporary characters?
ROBINSON: No, just funny cartoons, near as I can recall. Just gags. I remember there was a little side pocket and I drew a comb in it, silly things like that, but other cartoon characters I created.
Somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Who did those drawings?” I thought I was going to be arrested or something. I might have had some nude girl on it. I turned and said, “I did.” He introduced himself as Bob Kane. That’s how I met Bob. He said, “Oh, those are very good drawings. I’m a cartoonist. I just started Batman.” I had never heard of it. “Come down to the village. I’ll get a copy to show you.” The first issue had just come out. We walked down to the village and found a copy. Frankly, I wasn’t very impressed. I was used to Caniff and Foster and that level of drawing. I didn’t know anything about comic books. But, he was published. He said, “What are you going to do?” Well, I was 17 and he was six or seven years older. Still in his early 20s, probably 22 or 24. Well, close enough that we were able to hang out.
He got to know me and he found out what I intended to do. I had applied to Penn, Syracuse and Columbia, because my school adviser told me that they were the best for journalism and writing and the arts. Fortunately, I was accepted to the three. I didn’t know much about any of them, so I decided to go to Syracuse only because Penn was in Philadelphia. I had been to Philly, and I imagined a college town like Princeton. That was my ideal. College in Philadelphia didn’t appeal to me. And college in New York … New York was a big city. But Syracuse sounded like Princeton to me. Apparently it’s not, but that’s what it sounded like. So I said, “Well, I’m going to Syracuse in the fall to college.” And he said, “Oh, that’s too bad. If you were coming to New York, I need somebody on the staff.”
He said, “Yeah. I’d give you a job.” Really? Wow. I immediately called Columbia, to see if my application was still good, which it was. I called Syracuse and told them I’m not coming. I called home and said I’m going to New York. I didn’t even go back home. I was trying to figure out how to get to New York. Jan Pierce, the famous Metropolitan Opera tenor, was performing that week. The desk manager suggested I ask him if he’d give me a lift as he was leaving that day. I timidly asked him; he graciously agreed. So my move to New York was made in style, with Jan Pierce in his chauffeured limo!
I rented a room in the Bronx not far from Bob, started classes and working during the day, and working on Batman at night. I thought, “Oh, that’s great. It would pay the rest of my way through college.”
GROTH: Did he ask you to do any more drawings, or did he hire you entirely on the basis of your painter’s jacket?
ROBINSON: Well, that was the first. Apparently it was good enough for the offer. Once I came to New York, I thought I should learn something about cartooning, so I looked all over New York. There wasn’t any course. They had an art school on 23rd street. I was to begin with Bob in a couple of weeks and I was feverishly trying to learn how to draw in those couple of weeks. They had me drawing plaster casts. Now, I can copy anything I can see. My first drawings they put up on the walls as an example. I thought, “I’m not going to learn anything here,” so I quit. That was the substance of my art-school training. I was still looking for a cartoon course, but they didn’t have any. So I just learned on the job, really, working very, very hard I must say.