Robinson in Russia
GROTH: Now Mauldin was a great political cartoonist. Did you know him?
ROBINSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
GROTH: Tell me a little about him. What was he like?
ROBINSON: Well, he was kind of mild, in a way, but could be a curmudgeon, particularly in his later years. Earlier he was much more genial and not so crusty, you know. But he was a great talent, a great talent. His panel, Up Front, was marvelous during WWII, and of course he later had a great political-cartoon career. I think he won a Pulitzer for both Up Front and for his political cartoons. His one cartoon on the death of Kennedy, I guess, has been plagiarized so many times. With the Lincoln Memorial—Lincoln is shedding a tear.
I was thinking about what was said and I’d just like to add a couple of things. A memory came back when I found that letter about our college lecture. I do remember [Eisner and me] doing several lectures together. And we had such a great time traveling together and talking and doing the lecture. During the lecture we would kind of pass it back and forth. We’d make a statement and then we’d each discuss it — a dialogue — and then take questions from the audience. So we really had a ball and that’s why we decided to start this agency and do more lecturing around the country, which I told you about. But we aborted it.
GROTH: What was more or less the content of the lecture?
ROBINSON: As I recall, we had about three or four or so different topic lectures, and they could pick the one that they wanted. I assume one of them had to do with comic books and the comic strip. I think it was even before Will started experimenting with the graphic novel, as I recall. We were just talking about the Spirit and Batman and the creative process, aesthetics, the history, and maybe something about the drawing. It depended on the audience. I remember a couple of lectures were before art students and that would take one approach. And the other was just for lay public just interested in the whole comics form.
GROTH: Well, he would have just published A Contract with God, because he did that in ’78.
ROBINSON: Uh huh. So we probably talked about that. And then about Still Life and political cartooning.
GROTH: You turned Still Life to Life with Robinson in ’77.
ROBINSON: Uh huh. That sounds about right.
GROTH: Why did you make that change?
ROBINSON: Well, it has to do with what I told you about the nature of the editorial pages. By the ‘70s, papers began to add Op-Ed pages, so it was no longer necessary to draw something that was to appear just on the editorial page. They now were buying standard editorial cartoons in the horizontal format for the Op-Ed page. They could now have more than one, so there was no reason to confine it to objects or in a panel form. In fact, it was more advantageous to have the standard form because that’s what they were looking for more in the Op-Ed pages. And the second reason was after — I think I had done it then for 17 years or so — say ’61? When did I start?
GROTH: It would have been a good 16 years.
ROBINSON: Just 16 years. One every day six days a week for 16 years. That’s a lot of objects. I ran out of them long ago. I had to repeat a lot — not the content, but the objects. I found it became more and more restrictive. I felt the need to draw characters and actual personalities. I wanted to have, you know, Carter talking or Johnson talking, the world leaders talking and different situations. It refreshed me. I was able to do more drawing in the feature, more inventive compositions, and I wasn’t stuck with that limited format of objects. I’m surprised I was able to do it 17 years, frankly.
GROTH: I would have to say, so am I.
ROBINSON: That’s the danger of something that’s based on — it’s not really a gimmick of inanimate objects. But, you know, it’s going to run out of steam sooner or later. Then I continued Life with Robinson I guess until the early ’90s.
ROBINSON: See, you know more than I do. You don’t have to interview me. Just write about …
GROTH: And that’s another 18 years.
ROBINSON: Yeah. So all in all this is what, over 30 years.
ROBINSON: And I had some very good city papers — Washington Post, Chattanooga, Houston, Boston, Dayton, Indianapolis, St. Petersburg, Los Angeles Times. I also had some good papers abroad — Norway, Italy, some other places. So that was exciting, too. When I was able to travel, I could meet the editors. My first trip to Russia, I sold the Russian press the first time they ever printed foreign editorial cartoons. And the first one appeared in the first page of Izvestia. So that was kind of exciting.
GROTH: What year would that have been?
ROBINSON: That would have been I think ’89, ’90.
GROTH: After the wall came down.
ROBINSON: Yeah. Well, it was glasnost, really, because Gorbachev was in power. One reason for visiting Moscow at that time, I was invited to bring over an exhibition on the environment. That led to the one I did at the Earth Summit in Rio [de Janeiro] later. But while I was there, I was with an interesting group of people from different fields. We had a publisher and an editor, doctors, lawyers, performers, and each one was supposed to meet with their counterpart in Moscow, which they had set up in advance and work out a possible joint venture. They were looking for cooperation with the West. Gorbachev was opening everything up. It was the era that new newspapers sprung up overnight. It was an exciting time to be there. It felt like it was in our own revolution. Of course, it turned to ashes later, but at that time, it was very exciting. Artists that were in jail were released. I went to the first exhibition of formally unapproved artists who weren’t allowed to be published, who showed their stuff in subways and so forth. I met with a young woman, the editor of a news magazine. As I said, we were supposed to work out a possible joint venture. But in my case, I had the syndicate, so my goal was to sell the syndicate’s work, which included cartoonists around the world in addition to my own, to the Russian press. I succeeded in getting our features placed in the magazines including the major humor magazine Krokokil; and also the contract with Izvestia, which was a breakthrough — as I said, they first time they published foreign cartoons, which were previously verboten. In fact, I remember one program they had for those of us who made actual joint ventures. They had some special awards ceremony where they had dancers from all over the Soviet Union and all kinds of artists — musicians and singers performed that evening at one of the opera houses. Those of us that had made some sort of joint venture were given some very handsome statue. And I remember appearing on a TV panel to tell how to do joint ventures, which I absolutely knew nothing about. The only thing I could do was tell them my experience with the syndication. But as far as what the joint ventures really wanted were some business setting up joint manufacturing or franchises of Coca Cola or, you know, some more substantial stuff.
GROTH: How would you go about learning who to contact in the Soviet Union to start such a thing?
ROBINSON: Well, fortunately that was mostly already set up. It was an international organization at that time who invited people from different disciplines in the U.S. to meet with their Russian counterparts. So I was invited to go — someone recommended me, apparently. As I said, in my case I worked with this woman editor of a news magazine. Once I got there, I had known other artists in Russia, some that we’d represented in our syndicate, so I was able to make other contacts.
I might say one last thing about Still Life. What gave it a big boost, too, is that because it is so different, it won the syndicated panel award by the National Cartoonist Society. I got a good boost from that.
GROTH: You did that strip every day?
GROTH: Seven days a week.
ROBINSON: No. Six days.
GROTH: Six days a week. You rested on Sunday.
ROBINSON: Right. Some carried it on Sunday, but I only did six.
GROTH: You watched tennis on Sunday.
ROBINSON: No. Then I was playing tennis!