CREATING A NEW ART FORM
GROTH: You said that when you were with Kane at his place, that you guys would talk comics incessantly. What was your attitude about comics? Did you see it as an art form? What was the attitude among the group of you?
ROBINSON: I don’t think we thought of it as anything in those grandiose terms. I think that would have been assuming too much. On the other hand, it was an exciting time. When you’re living through it yourself, you don’t think of it in those long-range terms — that we’re creating a new art form. We were just doing it. You thought it was going to be great today, and tomorrow, and the next year, but five years or decades down the line, who knows? When you’re that young, you don’t think five years ahead. And we were all very young. I was the youngest at 17 or 18 — but they were also very young. That was part of the industry’s vitality.
GROTH: About how old was Bill Finger relative to you two?
ROBINSON: Bill, I think was maybe a year or two older than Bob, so at the most mid-20s — 25 or 26. About seven or eight years older than I was. Most of the others were young as well — Simon and Kirby, Siegel and Shuster. It was a young industry. It was like the beginning of film. Anything you did you were inventing for the first time. Imagine the first time a cameraman did a pan shot. The first time we did a panel that ran across the page or had some stop-action or condensed time, all of these things we were doing. I remember the greatest affirmation of our art came when Citizen Kane came out. We went bananas about Orson Welles and that film. I think Fred Ray had the record of seeing it about 35 times. I think I saw it about 20 times. We would sit next to each other and while we were drawing recite whole scenes from it.
GROTH: That was ’40 …
ROBINSON: ’40 or ’41. I remember specifically being on staff.
GROTH: You weren’t looking at it in terms quite as exalted as art, but you were aware of the techniques.
ROBINSON: Yeah. I think we saw a strong relationship between comics and film. I didn’t know anybody in New York — went by subway to Columbia University and back again — so Bill Finger took me in hand. He was really my cultural mentor. He took me to museums, the Metropolitan Museum and MoMA. He introduced me to foreign films, which were very influential.
GROTH: Was there also, accompanying the excitement of pioneering an art form, the frustration that you couldn’t go farther in terms of the writing and themes and so forth?
ROBINSON: I don’t think we thought of it in those terms, no more than a book illustrator who is famous for bestseller children’s books necessarily thinks of writing a novel. They think what they’re doing is a real contribution and a work of literature. I think we were excited about what we were doing. A number of artists always said, “Well, I’d like to do a newspaper strip someday or a book or something.” It wasn’t because we wanted to do something that was necessarily on a higher plane, in that sense — at least it wasn’t for me. I wanted to do different things after a while other than what I was doing.
GROTH: Did you guys tend to make a qualitative distinction between the Batman material you were doing and maybe something like what Milton Caniff was doing or what Eisner was doing on The Spirit?
ROBINSON: We didn’t think of it that way. We thought it would be a more luxurious pace to work at a newspaper than in the frenetic comic-book field.
GROTH: I’m going to read another quote from Schwartz, which is pretty harsh. I’d like your reaction to it. Tell me if you think it’s accurate or not. He wrote, “Interestingly, when Whit Ellsworth, DC’s editor in chief, went to Hollywood to take charge of the Batman serials, he wasn’t able to shake off his own literary ambitions, which smoldered secretly beneath his comics responsibilities. One day he acknowledged this privately to me and editor Jack Schiff when he joined us in the midst of a plotting session and suddenly blurted out, ‘How long can grown men continue to write this shit?’” [Robinson laughs.] Now, what Schwartz is quoting there strikes me as perhaps a combination of resentment and anger. Did you experience any of that or see any of that?
ROBINSON: No, I never saw that side of … But you know, if you take one expression … I’m sure in his desperate moments, Shakespeare said, “I’m not going to keep turning out these shitty plays!” That’s when an artist is behind deadlines and really fatigued. I think what has disturbed me more than anything is the sheer repetition of doing the same character over and over again, the same concept. In my experience the creative years are the beginning, the first couple of years when you’re creating the character, the persona, the whole atmosphere of the strip and the primary cast. Then you might add new characters and new twists and turns. But after that, it’s the work of a very good writer and artist — craftsmen. That’s when I became bored. That’s why I left it. I didn’t see the rest of my life doing the same thing.
I wanted to do book illustration. I wanted to do editorial cartoons. I wanted to do a lot of other things: write books, paint, photography — not because it was any better or worse, but because it was a new challenge. I thought that I had done everything in that field. In fact, when I was doing a newspaper strip, I was afraid that it was going to become too popular and I would not be able to walk away from it. It’s not easy to walk away from a half a million or a million dollars or more, if it’s a popular strip. I knew Caniff quite well. After 40 years, he was still slaving behind the board. He didn’t have any other life but the strip. But he loved it. I loved it, but I wouldn’t love to do the same thing for 40 years. That was just my perspective.
GROTH: That attitude or that ambition was slightly unusual because a lot of artists continued to do the same thing over and over again.
ROBINSON: Oh, I know. I think it’s incredible that they’re able to maintain the level of enthusiasm. Take Sparky Schulz as an example. I knew him for a really long, long time, and he was just as enthusiastic at the end of his life, maybe more so, than the beginning. He did it all himself. He had no other ambitions to do other things, although he did enjoy the translation of Peanuts to TV movies. The same thing may be said of Milt Caniff. His life was completely absorbed with his strip. That was evidence of the great things they did with the strip. It takes that kind of devotion.
GROTH: Of course, with Sparky and Peanuts, I think that he was personally invested in it in a way that you can’t really be with Batman.
ROBINSON: In what way?
GROTH: It’s a strip that explores his own existential being in a way that no writer could do with a character like Batman.
ROBINSON: But it was a one-man job, which I also appreciate. That’s why animation, for example, never really appealed to me, even though I had a lot of offers to do it. I did one animated film in Russia. It was a one-hour film, Stereotypes — how each country, the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., saw each other during the Cold War. I was co-art director with a Russian. The director was Yefim Gamburg. It was a fascinating experience, but it never attracted me because there were too many people involved in it. I like to conceive something, write it, pencil it, ink it, letter it, draw it, whatever. Do the complete thing. I think that’s what Sparky liked. He took pride in writing everything, drawing everything. He had no assistants in art or anything else.
ROBINSON: Caniff didn’t do it. He did most of it himself for a long time. In the end he had to have assistants, since it was an adventure strip, daily and Sunday and writing that … It’s just impossible to do without an assistant. I found that out from trying to do it for two years with the strip Jet Scott for the Herald-Tribune syndicate.
GROTH: Of course, Caniff did so much of it that he really established his authorship of it, even if he did have assistants, don’t you think?
ROBINSON: Oh, yeah. He was hands-on. He never gave it over to somebody. Some did and just had their ghosts. I could tell you adventure strips where the guy never did anything … and “comic” strips as well.
CREATION AND COLLABORATION
GROTH: Let me get back to you and Kane and Finger. Finger was an educated guy.
ROBINSON: Oh, yeah, although self-educated — I don’t think he went further than high school, either, but he was extremely well read. He read everything. New York was the center of U.S. culture, so he took me to bookshops and, as I said, the museums and films. I grew very close to Bill. He and Portia lived in the Village, so I’d see them frequently. I’d go to their apartment to dinner when I was still single. Portia kind of mothered me a bit. She was a very lovely gal: very bright, also.
I didn’t socialize as much with Bob. Bob was like a playboy. He loved to go to nightclubs and be surrounded by women. He was kind of a sleek-looking guy. I could see where he would be attractive to some women. He was very glib and …
GROTH: … Stan Lee-ish?
ROBINSON: No, Stan was more laid back than Bob. No. Why did you see the relationship?
GROTH: Glib. Easy patter and bonhomie.
ROBINSON: Well, in that sense, yes. A lot of people don’t give him as much credit in his art, but I thought he had a flair. It was rudimentary, but in a way that worked to his benefit in the strip. He didn’t know much about perspective and anatomy, so he had to improvise. He was a comic artist, and that’s a tough transition to go from a comic artist to illustrative art, to do an adventure strip.
GROTH: You mean from a humor perspective to an adventure perspective?
ROBINSON: You can do it the other way around. Later, I became an illustrator of some 30 books, hardcover books, for various publishers. Later I did a humor strip. That was a very easy transition for me. But the other way around is difficult. I knew that for Bob that was a tough transition to make, and I think under the circumstances he did very well. So I was able to polish his work later on, because of that. He had good taste in hiring assistants, right?
GROTH: Of course. Did Bill Finger have ambitions beyond writing comics?
ROBINSON: Yes, he wrote television. He wrote, I think, radio scripts. He didn’t get a really good break. I think if he got credit on Batman, that would have given him the cachet and he could have gone much further, although he did a multitude of other features for many of the publishers. It didn’t come easily to him, the writing. As I said, some writers compose with blood, sweat and tears. Well, that was Bill. He was a craftsman. Everything had to work right for him. He really worked on the strip far beyond what DC deemed necessary at the time. Of course, we would work on the art more than we were required to. When you’re trying to do something good, you have to satisfy yourself first.
GROTH: How did you guys collaborate? Did Finger write the entire script out first and then you took the script and drew it?
ROBINSON: Occasionally we’d toss ideas around for stories or situations. Then sometimes he’d go completely on his own and sometimes he’d work from basic ideas that we were kicking around. But he would do the complete script. I have one that’s going to be in the [then forthcoming art] show, “The Superhero,” that I curated for the Breman Museum in Atlanta. I bet it’s the only Finger script that survived. I guess I saved it because I illustrated that particular script myself.
He was a great visual writer. He could have written great screenplays. He knew what worked visually and a lot of writers did not. I collaborated with others whose scripts I had to rewrite because they wouldn’t work. But that’s what made Bill’s so great. If he was writing a story based on a freighter or a warship or whatever, he would do his research, and attach all of the research to the script, particularly anything visual for the artist. He plotted the action so everything worked. If Batman swung from Deck A and went down to Deck D or with a hoist for loading cargo, it was there. It looked right because it was plotted properly.
GROTH: I gather a lot of writers during that period wouldn’t do that or weren’t trained to do that?
ROBINSON: No. I never saw anybody else attach research like that to a script. The writer would make it up and the artist would fake it. If it was something that the artist had to know, he’d have to dig it up himself if he had time to do it. Most of the time we just created it out of our heads because there wasn’t time for much research. But Bill would do that. Obviously, that takes time. That takes thought. That takes time that most writers didn’t put into it. They were put on production lines.
GROTH: Where do you think that visual imagination came from? Did he love newspaper strips? I think he loved movies.
ROBINSON: Yeah, he read everything. Once I met Bill, we had rapport immediately. I looked up to him as a writer and someone who was very educated, well-read, and knew New York. He read profusely. Whenever he wasn’t writing, he must have been reading because he was steeped not only in the classics but in popular culture, the pulps on up to newspaper strips. There was nothing that we didn’t discuss.
GROTH: After Finger would deliver the script, Bob would then pencil it?
ROBINSON: Yeah, in the beginning he would pencil and I would ink it. Shortly afterward, I guess after he got confidence that I could draw, he drew rougher and rougher and I would finish the pencil. By the end, he was handing in work to DC when we worked there, George Roussos and myself, sometimes they were just the bare …
ROBINSON: Not even that. Sometimes he’d write in, “Put Joker on top of this building,” or something. But in the beginning he did pencil it.
GROTH: It doesn’t sound like he was as interested in drawing as he was being in a more entrepreneurial capacity.
ROBINSON: Well, if he was more entrepreneurial at the time, he wouldn’t have let his team go. Will Eisner had his own studio …
GROTH: Do you think he had a choice?
ROBINSON: Well, yes. We wanted to leave because we couldn’t get any more money, and we wanted to participate more in things. Bob resisted that and we left. He would have been much smarter if he’d shared the glory. Bill wouldn’t have left if his name was on the strip, for example. Both of us wouldn’t have thought of leaving if we began to make more money and had a promise of growing with the property. Ultimately, Bob was not entrepreneurial in that sense. He did his own thing and he got paid for what he did, but …
GROTH: You might not know the answer to this, but I understand that he actually owned, or had some type of ownership of Batman. He got paid for the TV show or he got residuals. Many cartoonists, of course, didn’t.
ROBINSON: Most didn’t.
GROTH: Siegel and Shuster being the most prominent among them. Do you know how he finagled that?
ROBINSON: No. I know Bob was a fighter for his own rights. I remember a lot of arguments he would have with DC, the bigwigs, about it. His father would come down and complain quite often.
GROTH: Is that right?
ROBINSON: I don’t know how much truth there is to it. I think he got more when we fought for Siegel and Shuster [in the 1970s]. Those are the things that I fought for, and I take pride in my role in restoring their names to their property. I think that that’s what Bob used as leverage. That’s my take on it. I’ve heard that from other people.
GROTH: So he may not have established any proprietary interest in the property initially?
ROBINSON: I don’t think he did. I think when he fought for it they gave him concessions, but I don’t think they gave him any rights to the property. If he did, that would have been great. I would have fought for him to get it, because I think the creators deserve it.
BERNIE AND THE GANG
GROTH: Did you know George Roussos before he worked with you?
ROBINSON: No, we interviewed him for the job. We became very close friends, too.
GROTH: Tell me a little about him.
ROBINSON: He must have emigrated when he was very young. He was from Greece, and he was always a little self-conscious about his English. He couldn’t spell very well, but here and there, who does? He was very shy outwardly but he was very confident inside and he worked very hard. He developed into an excellent background artist. He had a good sense of black and white, which I think that he got from Batman. He went on to do a lot of backgrounds in other strips later on. He became a colorist, also. He was active in comics for the rest of his career.
GROTH: How did you split up work between the two of you?
ROBINSON: Well, George was hired to assist me in the background.
GROTH: So you moved up?
ROBINSON: In a way, yeah. Then it was possible for me to concentrate on the figures. When I was still finishing Bob’s work, I would do all of the figures and George would do the background. In my own work, I would do all of the details and backgrounds.
GROTH: Were you still working on material that Bob was generating, in addition to your own material?
ROBINSON: Yes, in the beginning. Then I began to moonlight, and I did some features outside of DC.
GROTH: I want to skip back a second. You said that other publishers started approaching you and Bill Finger.
GROTH: What was the New York comics-publishing community like? Was it really small and close-knit where everybody knew everybody else?
ROBINSON: Not really. It wasn’t that close-knit between companies at the very beginning. Later on, as artists left one place for another, then there began to be communication between the writers and the artists at different publishers. For example, one of my really dearest friends, like a brother to me, was from my hometown. His name is Bernie Klein.
GROTH: Yeah, the artist.
ROBINSON: The first year, all of my friends and family still lived in Trenton. I still knew more people there than in New York. I was there for a New Year’s Eve party; it was probably ’40-’41. There had been articles in the local paper, “Artist Makes Good in New York Doing Batman,” so I was then a local celebrity, at least with my friends. [At age] 17, 18, that’s a big thing. I was told that there was someone in Trenton who was dying to meet me.
During the course of the evening, with all of the drinking and whatnot going on, this young fella came up to me. Bernie was about three or four years older. He introduced himself, and he was the one I was told wanted to meet me. He was a very personable guy. I took a liking to him right away. He looked like a young John Garfield: curly hair, short and stocky. It turned out that he was a Golden Glove boxer. At that time he was working on the loading dock at the Trenton Times newspaper, carting big rolls of paper around. He was an aspiring cartoonist, drawing sports cartoons occasionally for the Trenton Times at $5.00 a cartoon. He read about me or heard about me through friends. You know, big cartoonist in New York. This sounded fantastic to him, so he said, “How can I break in?” He brought some of his drawings to the party. I saw right away that he had talent. So we sat down and I told him how to make a presentation: what to draw, the size of the paper, whatever.
I went back to New York and weeks passed by and I forgot all about him. One day, I got a call.
“Jerry, it’s Bernie Klein. Remember me? We met in Trenton”.
“Hi,” I said, “let’s meet for dinner.” I thought he’d just come to New York with his samples. It turned out that he went back from that New Year’s Eve party and was so excited that he started drawing the samples right away, for the next couple of days. Shortly afterward, probably within the week, he came to New York and started making the rounds of comics publishers that he found himself. I didn’t tell him about the other places. I thought I’d bring him up to DC. He got a job at MLJ. He didn’t call me until he was set working at MLJ and had rented a little room downtown — he wanted to do it on his own. We immediately decided to get an apartment together. Later, another artist, Mort Meskin, joined us, so the three of us shared an apartment.
It was a great place. It became a hangout for cartoonists and whatnot. I met Mort when I went down to meet Bernie at MLJ. I’d never been to the place. It was a small outfit, but they had been in business a while. They had a great staff. On staff, when Bernie got the job, were Mort Meskin, Charlie Biro and Bob Wood. Irv Novick — very good artist. He did the Shield. Later on, almost everyone played a part in my career, because I became good friends with Charlie Biro and Bob Wood. In fact, Bob Wood’s younger brother then came to New York from Boston and we became close friends. We double-dated sisters and whatnot. Later, they were joined by the youngest brother, Davey.
GROTH: Really? The notorious Wood Brothers.
ROBINSON: Yes. [Laughs.] You’ve heard about them.
GROTH: Jack Kirby told me a little about them. Did MLJ have the same setup that DC did, which was essentially a bullpen?
ROBINSON: Yeah — much smaller, but same idea. They worked in the same bullpen. Later I worked with Charlie [Biro] on Daredevil. I did my first strip under my own name for him, called London. Bernie also did a feature. We kind of joined forces for that magazine. Then I brought Bernie up to DC and he got a job there. I was very intrigued with Mort [Meskin]’s work. I thought it was great. I brought Mort up to DC, to Whit Ellsworth, and he also got a job at DC. The three of us worked there together. Mort and I later became partners, and he was probably, in the comics, my biggest influence.
GROTH: How long were you guys roommates, the three of you?
ROBINSON: Well, until Bernie was drafted. He went on to be a combat photographer. He went through the North African campaign. He was full of life, fearless. He was shot down three times in North Africa — not unusual for a combat photographer at that time, at least in his group. There were teams of six. Three were killed during the North African campaign. They filled in with a new group. From North Africa, he went to Sicily, and went through the whole Sicilian campaign unscathed. Then they landed in Anzio. I don’t know if you know that battle. They leapfrogged up the boot of Italy. It was a disaster in Anzio, and they were almost all wiped out by the Germans. Bernie was killed at Anzio — I found out later how it happened.
Years later, just by luck, I met somebody in Washington who was there and knew Bernie. He said that Bernie volunteered to go in a jeep to another outpost that was cut off. They had to traverse this road that was under German fire. They said the jeep got about halfway through and took a direct hit and that was it.
GROTH: It’s amazing that you found that out. What year would that have been?
ROBINSON: I think January 1944 — the initial landing. That was one of the most profound events in my life up until then.
GROTH: Well, sure.
ROBINSON: Because as I said, he was closer than my brothers, really. I never lived with them as adults. They were so much older that I didn’t have that kind of relationship.
GROTH: And you were probably young enough that that was the first really traumatic …
ROBINSON: Exactly. Strange thing, I’m writing my memoirs and I’ve written about this. For at least 25 years after I got word of Bernie’s death, I had a dream almost every night, a dream about Bernie. Each one was a variation on the theme that he wasn’t killed, but that he came back. I’d get a call from Trenton that Bernie was there and I’d quickly get my things together and drive to Trenton and I couldn’t find him. He’d just left his house … all kinds of variations. Sometimes he’s in New York and he’s supposed to call and I couldn’t find him. There was always that frustration, but that he wasn’t killed. At one point, after many, many years, the dreams ceased. I figure that it took that long really for my subconscious to accept the fact that he was not coming back.
GROTH: What was it about him that was so simpatico?
ROBINSON: He was so full of life. When you were around him, you had to have fun. He was just one of those special guys. Generous — he just lived for the moment.
GROTH: What were his passions?
ROBINSON: Well, of course he loved boxing, but he gave that up. He liked sports and he loved drawing. But he didn’t like to work alone. I remember for some years he worked for DC on a freelance basis. For a couple of years, when I was still working at DC, I’d come back after work and we’d start to work together. He often didn’t work all day until I got back. He needed that companionship. He was an exceptional natural artist. He could have been great if he’d have survived the war.
I remember one day another artist was visiting and we got into a little tiff. Now, I was a fairly good boxer when I was a kid — I fought in the 56-pound class as a kid when I went to Boy Scout Camp. I could take care of myself. Bernie came in the apartment during the middle of the fight and he saw this guy hit me. The other guy was a little taller than me. So Bernie said, “Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size?” Bernie was smaller! Bernie hauled off and hit this guy once and he flew across the room. I’ll never forget it. He hit against the wall, and that look of shock, and kind of slowly sank down to the floor. After that, that guy never came within more than 10 feet of me. He took a wide berth. So Bernie was my protector.
GROTH: How’d you get into a fight with another cartoonist?
ROBINSON: I don’t remember.
GROTH: That can’t have happened much.
ROBINSON: No. That was the only time I ever remember it happening. I don’t want to defame this guy, but I don’t think that anyone liked him very much. Bernie didn’t.
THE DC BULLPEN
GROTH: Tell me a little bit about the bullpen at DC. I guess that must have been a whole different environment for you. Was that enjoyable to you?
ROBINSON: Yes, it was very collegial. They were great guys. We all helped each other to meet deadlines. If I drew a story and couldn’t finish the last page somebody would jump in and ink some of it and vice versa.
GROTH: Tell me a little how it would work. DC was publishing X number of titles?
GROTH: Was it an assembly line so that one person penciled, one person inked?
GROTH: How was it broken down?
ROBINSON: It was usually by feature. You know, each guy did their own feature. When Mort [Meskin] came on he started The Vigilante and Johnny Quick. Those were his features.
GROTH: And he penciled and inked?
ROBINSON: Right. Fred Ray did Congo Bill. He also did Superman covers. Somebody else would do Superman. Jack Kirby did the Boy Commandos and the Manhunter. It wasn’t an assembly line.
GROTH: They hadn’t refined the assembly line process yet?
ROBINSON: No. Maybe in Batman a little bit, in the sense that two of us worked on Bob’s stuff.
GROTH: Well, Mort Meskin was an extraordinary artist.
ROBINSON: Yes. He was.
GROTH: And you were close to him. Tell me a little bit about him.
ROBINSON: We lived together, even after Bernie was drafted. Later we became partners. I was very fortunate in the people that I met in my career.
GROTH: Well, you had good taste in your friendships, I think.
ROBINSON: It wasn’t hard. I recognized Mort’s talent right away. That’s why I brought him up to DC.
GROTH: What kind of a guy was he? I’ve heard that he had a stutter, and that he was somewhat reticent or shy.
ROBINSON: He was quiet when you didn’t know him.
ROBINSON: Yes. He probably was the best-trained artist. He graduated from the Pratt Institute, one of the best art schools — he was probably one of the only one of us who really studied art at the time. When we were rooming together and I was doing Batman, if I got stuck on something, I’d just ask Mort. He’d be very frustrating because he’d never tell me. He’d say, “Work it out. You can work it out.” That was his line. I’d go back and I’d struggle for an hour over one figure or something but I’d work it out finally. I’d get it, and he’d say, “That’s right. You got it.”
GROTH: But he wouldn’t show you how to do it?
GROTH: Do you think ultimately that was preferable?
ROBINSON: Sure. I didn’t think so at the time. I’d say, “Goddamn you!” But he was right!
GROTH: What kind of a guy was he beyond that? Did he have a real passion for art?
ROBINSON: Oh, yeah. He loved to draw. His compositions were superb: imaginative, excellent storytelling, beautiful, easy motion. He would apply himself, focus, more than anybody I know. He could say, “I’ll do 50 pages this week.” He’d do 50 pages. Where it was incredible to do 10, he’d do 50.
GROTH: So he was quick?
ROBINSON: Not so much quick. He wasn’t slow, but it was sheer work. He’d work two or three days in a row without stopping.
GROTH: Without sleep?
ROBINSON: With very little sleep: He’d go on these binges of work, at one stage in his life, anyway. He was very intense and very bright. We’d do a lot of things together. I was there also during some of his romances. We’d bowl together and we’d go to dances and take some classes together.
New York at that time was very exciting politically, very open. I remember one time Joe Shuster and I decided we should take a course together. We were walking down the street one day and we saw a school, I think it was called Liberty School. We looked at the curriculum and it looked very interesting. They had a couple of interesting courses in philosophy, so Joe and I signed up. We went to this class for a while, maybe once a week. It turned out later that it was a communist school. We had no idea! The professor of philosophy was a well-known left-wing professor.
GROTH: Do you remember his name?
ROBINSON: Yes. Selsam. Howard Selsam. He was very inspiring. I took his class and read his book. It was from a Left, maybe even Marxist point of view. This was very stimulating, but we didn’t consider the political implications. We were apolitical in that sense, not yet involved.
GROTH: At that time New York would have been a hotly charged political environment.
ROBINSON: Exactly. Arguing openly. And the war was the time of opening the second front, and accommodating the Soviet Union as our ally. I remember getting into a lot of heated arguments.
GROTH: You weren’t politically savvy at the time?
ROBINSON: Not really. As time went on I became more so. The time I was at school, I was soaking up new ideas. I knew what was going on, but not quite in that sense. The interesting thing about Howard Selsam is that years later, when I became an illustrator, I began to work for Scholastic Publications. I did a lot of books for them. One of their writers and editors was Millie Selsam, who turned out to be Howard’s wife. She was a wonderful editor. She and I became friends. Later, when I found out, I told her I attended Howard’s class decades before. I remember one evening, they came up to our apartment, and I still had his book, What Is Philosophy. He was very pleased to see it, and amused when I told him that Superman and Batman once took his class!
GROTH: How did Joe Shuster take to the class?
ROBINSON: We both enjoyed the class, because Howard was a very entertaining and inventive teacher and philosopher. There are only a few teachers in my life that I recall who presented the material so that you really got interested in it and excited about it. I had a science teacher once in high school, Mr. Diamond. That’s about the only teacher who really excited me in class.
GROTH: Didn’t you have Burne Hogarth at one time?
ROBINSON: No. Burne and I taught together. I was teaching at the School of Visual Arts, which he co-founded. Burne and I became really close, too. He lived nearby. We taught together, we gave joint lectures: another extraordinary character.
GROTH: Let me get back to the people you worked with at DC. Jack Kirby was there?
ROBINSON: Yeah, for a period.
GROTH: What was your impression of Jack?
ROBINSON: Well, he was a very solid guy. I liked Jack: a very sweet and generous man — an incredible artist, too. He really was fast, I must say, but he didn’t go into detail. I guess he could have if he had wanted to. He would rough out a page faster than anybody I know. He had everything in his mind. He was very much an innovator. He created new dimensions. We thought of a picture plane and everything happened within the picture plane, like a stage set. There was foreground, middle ground and background. Jack was in another dimension. It exploded. It was full of energy. He was a master of that.
GROTH: Did you guys recognize that at the time?
ROBINSON: Oh, yeah. I recognized what he was doing. It made an impact.
GROTH: Who else was there? Were Siegel and Shuster there?
ROBINSON: Siegel not as much. He’d come in from time to time and maybe work on a few pages. But I got to know him there. Joe did work at the bullpen for a time also. That’s how I got to know Joe. Joe, as I said, was also very retiring and shy, had trouble meeting girls. I mentioned we double-dated a few times. I was always trying to get a date for him.
GROTH: You were trying to set him up?
ROBINSON: Yes. The problem was that Joe only went for very tall girls. They had to be almost showgirls. That’s what excited him.
GROTH: That’s a very specialized …
ROBINSON: Yeah. Everyone has their tastes. I didn’t know many showgirls. I knew models. I was dating one myself. Showgirls I didn’t. That was always a tough thing.
GROTH: A tough assignment.
ROBINSON: Yeah. I remember one time taking Joe to my hometown for a weekend, in Trenton. I knew a lot of girls there, so I got a date for him. In fact, one of them was a cousin of mine, a very bright, very pretty girl. But she was not tall. She graduated first in her class of a thousand students, so she was very bright. I thought that would be good date for him. But the next day he said, “Yeah, she’s a terrific gal but she’s too short for me.” Of course, he was short, himself.
GROTH: That’s funny. Did he marry a tall woman eventually?
ROBINSON: He did. He only married once. He was a bachelor for most of his life. He didn’t get married until he got out to California. It didn’t work out, though. He got divorced. He was very close to Jerry and his wife Joanne. They really looked after him.
GROTH: I know that at one point Siegel and Shuster had their own studio.
ROBINSON: They did.
GROTH: That would have been after Shuster worked at the DC offices?
ROBINSON: Probably — maybe at the same time, because he didn’t work at DC all of the time.
GROTH: And Fred Ray worked there?
ROBINSON: Oh, yeah. He was in the front row.
GROTH: Can you describe the place physically, how it was set up?
ROBINSON: Well, it was kind of a long room, rather austere: No art, posters or photos on the walls, unlike our own cluttered studios. The editors had desks along one wall facing …
GROTH: Facing out.
ROBINSON: Whit, the art director that I worked with, was at one end, facing the editors. The editors were facing the rows of the artists.
GROTH: At drafting tables?
ROBINSON: Yeah, about three rows, as I recall. There was Bob McCay, the son of the legendary Winsor McCay. Bob was the model for Little Nemo. Some weekends, I helped Bob reconstruct some Little Nemo original pages. There are actually some Nemo pages with my figures! That’s enough posterity for me.
Cliff Young was an artist there, probably not well known. He was a fine artist and was assistant to Dean Cornwell, the famous illustrator and muralist. And then there was Stan Kaye, who I think also worked with Dean Cornwell. Also Charles Paris, a wonderful guy and artist who later did a lot of work on Batman — he moved out West and was a painter of the West for many years. Also Hal Sherman, who did The Star-Spangled Kid. Some years later, Hal and I founded a company to manufacture playing cards — that’s a chapter in itself! We had some good talent there.
GROTH: I’m not familiar with Fred Ray. Tell me a little about him.
ROBINSON: Fred came from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He was like a country boy, nice-looking, tallish, slim — a very sweet guy. I liked Fred very much. We collaborated on a number of covers. If there was a cover that involved both Batman and Superman, we’d work out the idea together. Then he would draw the Superman figure and I’d draw the Batman or Batman and Robin figures. We did some of our finest covers like that. We enjoyed that. His work on Congo Bill was excellent. He was really a beautiful illustrator.
GROTH: Was he polished?
ROBINSON: Well, his work wasn’t slick, but it was solid. He had a nice technique, but it wasn’t slick. In fact, that was part of the beauty of it. He was an excellent draftsman and a superb storyteller. It was more realistic and laid-back work, as he was. It was like illustrating history. In the latter part of his career, he did a lot of historical stuff in Pennsylvania. He went off to war, too. We didn’t hear from him and I remember we wondered if he was alive or not. After the war I had left DC. He went back to Harrisburg and did all of his work there. We really didn’t see each other again. I always regretted that.
I should mention there was a colorist, Ray Perry. He was an old illustrator. He looked ancient to me then — he was probably in his 60s or 70s at that time, had white hair. There was one aisle between myself and Perry. He was the only one who worked at the windows. So when I’d do a Batman story, sometimes I’d color my own, which I liked to do, or the cover. If I didn’t, Mr. Perry would color the stories I did and I would confer with him. I thought even then, terribly sad, that here is this wonderful illustrator who winds up at the end of his life as a colorist in comics. I always called him Mr. Perry. I never called him Ray. He was a very sweet guy, and he lived only a couple of blocks from where Bernie and I had our apartment at that time — 33rd Street and he lived on 34th, near Lexington. Sometimes we walked home together. I remember a couple of times he invited me up to his apartment where he had his own illustrations. He also gave me a couple of his books of research that he wanted to pass on. He was a very fine, academic artist. As I said, it was a shame that he was working as a colorist.
GROTH: Do you know why he sank to this?
ROBINSON: Well, the illustration market dried up, so that happened to a lot of illustrators from the heyday of the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s and the like, unless you were young and could make that transition to other media.
GROTH: How easily did he accept this?
ROBINSON: He had already long since accepted it.
ROBINSON: Yeah, resigned. That’s the word. So he didn’t complain. It was just my sense of it.
GROTH: How long did you work in the DC offices?
ROBINSON: I don’t think more than a couple of years. Well, I stopped doing Batman altogether in ’47. I don’t know if I worked at DC all the way from ’42 to ’47.
GROTH: That’s five years. Were you ever drafted?
ROBINSON: I nearly was. I flunked the physical exam the first time. My eyes were not good, but I was also underweight, as I told you. I was working both ends of the candle. So I flunked, but I had a date to come back for a further exam later.
GROTH: So you could fatten up a little bit?
ROBINSON: Yeah, see if I was in a little better shape. I remember when I got the second notice to come back, I was in Florida. I had to get to New York and report to the draft board for a physical at a certain date. During wartime, everything was so restricted that airlines almost didn’t exist. It was difficult to get flights, but I did make it back in time for the physical. They said I passed: “We’ll call you as soon as we need you.” Something like that … when the Germans get to 14th Street!
GROTH: That’s pretty good.
ROBINSON: But the war ended. I was never actually called. I would have been happy to go — Fred was there and Bernie was there. But Mort didn’t go, either.
GROTH: Why is that? Was he older?
ROBINSON: No, he wasn’t too old, but he was not in good shape, either.
GROTH: I guess that would be the saving grace of cartoonists.
ROBINSON: I think of those who were in good shape … Charlie Biro, would have been … Maybe he was at the top end of the age scale.
GROTH: Irwin Hasen also worked at the DC offices, didn’t he?
ROBINSON: No. Irwin didn’t work for DC. He worked for All-American — Green Lantern, All-Star, Wonder Woman, and those features. I knew Irwin. He was one of the first artists I ever met in New York. He’s been a friend of over 50 years. I just spent the weekend with him at the Comic-Con in New York. We’re very close. We used to see each other almost every day for a period when he lived nearby.
GROTH: When you say different sections, was DC broken up into little fiefdoms or something?
ROBINSON: Yeah. The All-American Gaines group first had offices downtown. In fact, I didn’t see Shelly Mayer in those days.
GROTH: All-American was published by DC, right?
ROBINSON: Yeah. Gaines was bought out by Donenfeld [DC] and became a separate division. There were just Adventure, Action, Detective, More Fun, Superman, and Batman in this wing that we’re talking about.
GROTH: But they were in the same building presumably?
ROBINSON: The Gaines Group moved up to 480 Lexington, the same building, after the merger … but different floors. I didn’t even see them. Strange, thinking back at it.
GROTH: But even though Hasen was in another division, you guys were still socially related and friends?
ROBINSON: Yes. I already knew Irwin for many years, when I was already working on Batman.
GROTH: Tell me a little about him, what he was like and what his ambitions were.
ROBINSON: Well, Irwin is a very fine artist, and one of those recognized for his breadth of talent — his versatility. He could draw an adventure strip as well as a humor strip; an excellent dramatist and storyteller. I think he did some very fine work in the comic books and on Dondi, and he worked on Dondi for many years. It’s too bad that it didn’t survive. I remember the storyline for the beginning, which I followed. I know he always illustrated it well. If it ultimately failed, I think it was because of the storyline.
GROTH: I don’t remember the story myself, but I do remember the drawing being very nicely done.
ROBINSON: Yeah, he was a very fine cartoonist.
GROTH: Another artist who I understand worked there at the same time that you did was an artist named Cliff Young?
ROBINSON: Cliff was a very well-schooled artist, and he — and there was another fellow who was working in the so-called bullpen at the time, Stan Kaye — were fine artists, and they did the comics as a way of paying the rent. But their main ambition was more formal illustration. As I mentioned before, both from time to time worked to assist Dean Cornwell. Do you remember Dean Cornwell?
GROTH: Yeah, the illustrator. Right?
ROBINSON: The illustrator, who did a lot of classic mural work. I remember many weekends they’d be off to assist Dean on some mural. I guess maybe Cliff did inking on strips, as well as mechanical, coloring, etc. They didn’t do any major figures that I can recall.
GROTH: They weren’t really invested in comics per se?
ROBINSON: No, I don’t think that was their main thing.
GROTH: What about an artist named Charlie Paris?
ROBINSON: Charlie Paris did more work. Charlie was a very sweet guy and very low-key, very quiet. I think he did more work on Batman when I left, they had to have other people to fill in. From what I understand, he did a lot of inking. I don’t know if he penciled any; maybe also on the newspaper strip, as well.
Stan Kaye and Cliff Young and Charlie Paris were, I think, in one row in the back. They were all very, very quiet guys — all three of them. Charlie was very versatile. He could do a lot of things. In his later years, I understand he was a painter of some accomplishments of the Western, [the region] where he moved.
A little anecdote about Charlie: I left Batman about ’47 or ’48. I never saw Charlie again. I don’t think I saw Cliff or Stan, actually, those three, after that. But almost 10 or 12 years ago, I was a guest in San Diego. I got the Gold Key Award. I was invited for dinner by a group of fans and some professionals. They were throwing a party at one of their homes. They picked me up and by the time I got there, everybody was there. They had rather a nice, large garden, and were ready for some presentation. There were maybe 50 people there. They introduced me. “You know Charlie Paris,” who I hadn’t seen for, let’s say, 50 years. He was all gray with a beard. It was great to see him. He was a very sweet guy, and we embraced.
Then in turn they said, “This is Dick Sprang.” [Affecting an intro] “Dick! How are you?” “Jerry! How are you?” We fell into each other’s arms like lifelong friends, and gosh, it was so great to see him. And we both stood back at the same time, and looked at each other, and realized that we had never actually met. Even though I knew him and his work so well and apparently vice versa that we thought we knew each other.
GROTH: It felt like you knew each other.
ROBINSON: Exactly. It was the funniest sensation. I have a lovely picture somewhere in my files of the three of us as we looked on that occasion. They didn’t want to meet at Comic-Con because Kane was supposed to be there that afternoon. And they preferred to meet elsewhere.
GROTH: I see … a little animosity there.
ROBINSON: Which I never knew about. I guess Dick and Charlie weren’t enamored of Bob. I understand about a year or two later, Charlie died. He was living, I think, up in the Western hills doing his paintings and exhibiting them. He lived in a trailer, as I recall. He lived the life he enjoyed.
GROTH: Did you get to know any of the freelance people as well?
ROBINSON: Some, but not as much as others. They had some very good freelance people who dropped off their work and didn’t work there, like Creig Flessel and a couple of others.
GROTH: I interviewed Creig Flessel a few years ago. What was he like back then?
ROBINSON: I didn’t see much of Creig at the office. He either dropped the work off or had it sent. I got to know Creig really more through the National Cartoonist Society. I knew his work from early on, which was really great. He was far in advance of a lot of the art at the time. Creig and I found that we had something in common in later years: His grandson and my son went to Dartmouth College together!