GROTH: You became president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists in 1973. And I don’t know how long you were the president.
ROBINSON: I think they were two-year terms, as I recall.
GROTH: My understanding is, you became very active in trying to help cartoonists around the world.
ROBINSON: Yeah, that’s true.
GROTH: Who were suffering under authoritarian regimes. Can you tell me something about that?
ROBINSON: Well, there were two instances of that that I can recall offhand. Of the things I did, I think these are the most interesting. I got a call one day from my friend Jules Feiffer, of course he knew what we had done with the Siegel and Shuster affair. He said he got a call from Amnesty International in London, I believe, about a cartoonist in Uruguay, who was currently in jail and tortured by the current Uruguayan government, which was a real Fascist regime who overthrew the democratic government. They closed all the press, and one of the best known magazines called Marcha — a very fine magazine of literary and political affairs. Whoever they caught at the magazine, they jailed. The editor escaped and fled, went in exile into Mexico, and the artist in question, Francesco Lorenzo Pons, went underground. He couldn’t flee, he was married and had a small child, a boy. He was cited by Amnesty as being a “prisoner of conscience,” which was very important, which meant that he just opposed the regime in his writing and drawing. He wasn’t a bombthrower or assassin. So on that basis, I felt we should do something.
And so at that time I was president, which was why Jules called me. Our AAEC board is all over the country. The a vice president might be in Denver and the secretary in Florida and so forth. I briefed the board about the case, and I recommended we should take it up as a cause, because here’s this political cartoonist who’s jailed and brutally tortured, as it turned out, for his views. I could hardly describe the torture to you. Somebody who was a political prisoner is treated worse than a murderer or a criminal.
I thought that maybe we could collectively use our strength and contact the press throughout the U.S. to pressure to at least get him out jail or stop the torture or whatever we could do. That started a two-or-more year odyssey in working to free him. I just have to summarize what we did, because it was over a long period of time and a lot of effort. Fortunately, my successor as AAEC president was Sandy Campbell, who was the editorial cartoonist for the Nashville Tennessean — very great guy. He knew about it and so he agreed to continue the effort. When he took office, we worked together as a team. We did all sorts of things. We even met at the White House, we met at the State Department, we met with Nixon’s chief of staff, Meece, who is back in the news recently. Ed Meese.
GROTH: Edwin Meese, right.
ROBINSON: And Elliot Abrams. In fact, I’ll tell you a really incredible story of coincidence. I met with Senator Tsongas of Massachusetts, who I had met at Cape Cod, through a friend. I was able to contact him, and we held auctions to raise money. We had worked out a system where we knew somebody who was going back and forth to Uruguay where they could bring the money to his wife and child because they had no means of support. As a prisoner, they become nonentities. So we did that.
And then we kept the press informed of the plight of Lorenzo Pons in jail, just for opposing the regime in words and pictures. So we got good press. We met with the New York Times and the Washington Post, who ran articles. Again, I sent that information abroad to some of our artists in Mexico and London; anything we could do to bring some pressure on the Uruguayan government. Meanwhile, we’re getting some advice from Amnesty, who knows how to handle those cases. We weren’t getting anywhere, we couldn’t get to sit down with the Uruguayans, to try to get him out.
One day, I just got a brainstorm. I invented an award, “Distinguished Foreign Cartoonist Award,” to be given by the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, and we would give the award to Lorenzo Pons, supposedly not knowing that he’s in jail. To make it more authentic, we would also give it to another cartoonist, and old friend, the dean of Polish cartoonists, Eric Lapinski. Poland was still under communist rule. This way, we’d have a right-wing government and a left-wing government to make it sound more authentic.
We invited Eric to come over as a legitimate — he was a world-class cartoonist, he was the dean of Polish cartoonists, as I said, and founded the international humor magazine Spilki. We gave an exhibition of his work to make it even more legitimate. And he was free to come.
So we wrote the Uruguayan government an official letter from the AAEC, inviting their prominent cartoonist Lorenzo Pons to receive this very distinguished award — an honor for Uruguay — and also for an artist in Poland. This is the highest award that American cartoonists give and we asked for a meeting at the embassy in Washington to give them the details. So they gave us an appointment to come. The ambassador then — I guess, briefed by Amnesty — was really a crony of one of the worst leaders there, the Fascists, and he himself was one of the worst guys there, that’s why they made him an ambassador to Washington. You know, plum assignment. [Groth laughs.]
We were really worried about meeting with him. But Sandy and I met with him. It was a very tense time, he brought us into this big conference room and laid out the thing. Of course, we described this award, and lo and behold, we feigned great surprise, we were told he was in jail. We said it would be a great honor if he was were able to release Pons to receive this award, it would be an honor for Uruguay. That was our pitch, just as it was an honor for Poland, who was sending over their leading cartoonist. Well, I knew from Amnesty that they never released a political prisoner, and we didn’t really have much hope for that. But we also asked his wife and child to come with him for the award. That’s how it was left. We didn’t hear anything from them until about a week or 10 days before the event. We got a call that they were giving a visa to the United States to his wife and child, not him of course, he remains in jail as a hostage to ensure that they would come back.
We were all amazed that that would even happen. It was the first time they ever allowed the family of a prisoner out of the country, because they usually would never go back. She wouldn’t stay; she went back because she wouldn’t stay leave the country with her husband in jail, being tortured. So she stayed about a week, and we had a celebration in Nashville and she went back.
She told us that she was able to visit him once a month a few minutes or so, and we kept sending money to her and informing her of all the things we were doing, people we were meeting with, and so forth, and she would convey that to Lorenzo. She was convinced that our efforts kept him alive, that the Americans are involved, fighting for him. He was so amazed that American cartoonists who didn’t know him, never met him, knew nothing about him, were trying to get him out of jail. It was incomprehensible to him.
As we learned from her and from Amnesty, the thing that kills most prisoners is when they give up hope. Most of them don’t have any family or anybody on the outside or if they do, they don’t dare to contact them because they’ll be persecuted. So most of them wither away or commit suicide. In fact, this happened to prisoners in cells on both sides of him; they committed suicide while he was there. And others, if they’re sick, they get no health care, no doctors, nothing.
Well, we soon learned, sending this courier back and forth, that his wife has said that once we got involved he was taken to the infirmary and given some medicine. It wasn’t great treatment, but at least they gave him something. And the torture stopped. The torture was awful. I mean, they would have vats of excrement that they put the prisoners in head first, and keep them there until they couldn’t stand it, and ingested the filth, which they would get infections and die from.
ROBINSON: I mean it was the worst kind of torture, they did all kinds of things. So that was big step, that they at least didn’t torture him.
GROTH: Now this was, they were torturing him for — I mean, they weren’t trying to get information out of him.
ROBINSON: No, no, just for being in opposition.
GROTH: Just a punishment.
ROBINSON: He was a cartoonist and a writer for the magazine, that just opposed the regime. It was for that he was tortured. I don’t think he had any secret information.
ROBINSON: The other amazing thing that happened was, I had told you we had contacted Senator Tsongas of Massachusetts. Well, my son Jens was then in either Dartmouth … he went to undergraduate at Dartmouth or to Northwestern law school. He was probably in college. When he went to Washington for a couple semesters, he got a job as an intern with Senator Tsongas. Not because I had this casual meeting with Tsongas, it was just a coincidence he got the job with Tsongas. So then when I wanted to get the support of Congress, Tsongas was the logical one to go to. When I contacted Tsongas and made an appointment to see him, he got interested in the Pons cause. Elliot Abrams was then in the State Department. He was a real bad man, you know. You know anything about him?
GROTH: He was one of the prime liars during the Iran-Contra scandal.
ROBINSON: Right, I think he was jailed or something.
GROTH: He was either indicted or served time or should have.
ROBINSON: Or should have, real evil. So he was supposedly in the office of human rights. Something involved with that [Groth laughs]. As they usually do, they put the wolf in charge of the henhouse [Groth laughs].
GROTH: You have to admit, our government has a good sense of humor.
ROBINSON: Yeah. So we presented the case to Tsongas, and he got interested in the justice of it. We established that he was a prisoner of conscience, and moreover, that they were calling him a communist in Uruguay. Anybody in Uruguay at that time who was left of Attila the Hun was a communist. Tsongas asked for proof of that. So Eliot Abrams sends over proof, which turned out to be clippings from the Uruguayan press. [Laughter.] So, you know, they closed up every opposition press, including the magazine that this guy worked for. So Tsongas was a very good man and saw through that right away. In fact, he even bawled Elliot Abrams out on the phone for taking that position and swallowing that line. So, Tsongas calls Jens in, he was the intern, and said, “Look, I’m working on this case for some cartoonist trying to get this guy out of jail in Uruguay, and here’s the statement I’ve written up, I’d like you take it around and get as many co-signers as possible in the Senate.” And of course Jens knew about the case; and told Tsongas, “That’s my father.” Imagine the coincidence? [Groth laughs.] I mean, it’s just unbelievable that he appointed Jens to go around to get signatures.
GROTH: That is something.
ROBINSON: Which he did. And we got, a couple dozen from the right and left, Republican and Democrat. He got Kennedy, He got Baker, who was the top Republican at that time. God, I can’t remember them all. I remember those two specifically. About 19 senators and congressmen. That’s when Abrams got wind of this, and sent over a packet saying that Pons is a communist and we shouldn’t try to get him out of jail. And he sent that to all the Senators and Representatives who had signed this letter that was going to go to the Uruguayans to free him, telling them to take their names off it, because they don’t want to be tarred with trying to help a communist.
Imagine that? That’s when Tsongas asked for the proof, and they sent over the clippings, and that’s when he bawled him out. Only one person, I can’t remember who, took their name off it.
GROTH: Is that right? One person did.
ROBINSON: Only one did. Tsongas gave the rebuttal to all of them and they all held fast. So that went a long way. Tsongas presented that letter to the Uruguayans and so from that time on, he wasn’t tortured, but he was held prisoner.
GROTH: That’s amazing.
ROBINSON: Another really remarkable coincidence that happened, it’s kind of an epilogue, really — I’ll jump ahead and say that Pons was originally sentenced, I think, for six and a half years. Of course, that means nothing, they had people there sentenced to six months or a year that were there 10 years later, even when the sentence was through. So even though that was the sentence, he could have been there rotting the rest of his life. Finally, he was released, I think it was some months, or maybe six months, before that original sentence was up. We’ve been in touch since. He was a trained architect, he went back to the field of architecture, and that junta eventually was overthrown. But as they told us later, they were there for enough time to build in a lot of bureaucracy of their people. So even though the top ones were ousted, there was a still a lot of Fascists in power so it was still dangerous some years later.
The other strange coincidence happened, in fact I don’t think I told this to anybody, because it happened more recently. A nephew of mine got married in New Jersey. Gro and I went to the wedding, and we didn’t know the family he was marrying into. There was a group of young people who were talking, and I just overheard one say he was in the State Department. So I kind of edged in to join in the conversation or at least listen. Believe it or not, when I asked him what position he held, he said, “Oh, I was a human-rights officer in Uruguay.” And then my ears were really burning. This was the U.S. State Department Human Rights Officer to Uruguay, this was the guy we were depending on for help with Pons. The coincidence was beyond belief. He was describing the kind of things he dealt with there. “There was one case where these American cartoonists were bugging the hell out of me to get this guy out of jail in Uruguay. [Groth laughs.] And then I didn’t have to answer anything.”
“Why was that?” I asked.
And he said, “Well, he was in jail for something. He was probably a communist. And I was supposed to get him out.”
So I asked, “What did you do?” So he said, “Well, you know, things like that, they don’t understand: When you’re a Human Rights officer, or anybody at an embassy, our job there is to make friends with the regime, and not to provoke them.”
GROTH: [Laughs.] Right.
ROBINSON: So he says, “I couldn’t go say, ‘go let his guy out of jail.’”
So I said, “What did you do?”
He said, “Well, I was at a party somewhere and I saw my counterpart, I’d say ‘Anything new on the Lorenzo Pons case?’ And they’d say, ‘No,’ so at least I’d make an inquiry. I couldn’t bug them about it — or I’d be transferred or lose my job.”
That was what they did (or didn’t do). All the effort that we put in to galvanize our State Department and our human rights efforts. And the other coincidence was the Secretary of State, Jeane Kirkpatrick, was going to stop in Uruguay, on her way on a tour and wind up in Europe. And so we had petitioned her to make a presentation on behalf of Lorenzo Pons when she’s in Uruguay. We were assured she would. So, after this group broke up, I called this guy over and I said, “That was very interesting, what you said.” I said, “Incidentally, I’m the guy who was bugging you.” [Laughter.]
So I said, “At one point, the State Department assured me that Kirkpatrick would take it up with the Uruguayan government.” At her level, that might have done something.
So he says, “Oh, no. She never mentioned that, nor would she. That was too small a thing for her to get involved in.” So that’s the people we have in these countries trying to further human rights, who wouldn’t dare bring anything up. The job was just the opposite.
But anyway, that was one effort of time. But we really felt wonderful when Pons finally got out of jail. I’ve spoken to him about a year ago, a year and a half ago. told that now that boy who was probably about four or five at the time, a youngster, “Yes, he’s now in college.” And he said, “He still has the picture of Batman framed on his wall.” [Groth laughs.] I forgot I ever did that.
There was one other case too, but I don’t know if you want — that one took so long to recount — because it was involved. But the other case in Russia. I was able to sell the work of a Russian cartoonist, Slava Sysoyev, then in the gulag and I subsequently met with him in Moscow. I brought royalties to him and showed him the copy of The New York Times where I had sold his drawing. A huge drawing in the middle of the Op-Ed page. And he was happily flabbergasted. He was a fine artist and a cartoonist, who couldn’t be published in his own country and suddenly sees The New York Times with his art. It was a moving experience. I visited Slava a few years later in Berlin, where he and his wife had moved.
The Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate
GROTH: You started the Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate in 1978. What prompted you to start your own syndicate?
ROBINSON: Well, you know, how most cartoonists dream of having their own syndicate.
GROTH: Sure. [Laughs.]
ROBINSON: And I among them.
GROTH: But it seems like a daunting task.
ROBINSON: Yeah. It was in a way very scary, because, you know most cartoonists are anchored in our own studio. We meet very rarely with a syndicate salesman. We hardly ever meet with the editors of the papers that publish our work. Nothing about the whole sales procedure and contracts and this and that and the other. So it was daunting. But there have been some attempts in the past and maybe a few even successful ones in the history of syndication. So, I decided to take a stab at it, and if I don’t try it, I’ll never know.
Now, I had the usual reservations about syndication that most of the cartoonists do: They don’t promote your work enough, they don’t get you around, or get enough for your work. The fact is that the big syndicates take on a new feature, the first year or two they promote that as much as they can, and then they have to take on a new property; they don’t promote the other ones again. Whatever level you rose to that’s where, the odds are, you’ll remain — except for a few breakout strips that are so incredibly successful, like Peanuts or something like that. So most of the cartoonists who don’t break through the top level have those complaints, which are justified on behalf of the cartoonists, and justified on behalf of the syndicates, because they can’t keep promoting the same thing. They invest a lot in launching a new property, so they have to put their sales force to selling that one.
I realized all that. I thought, “I’ll try.” I went to Bob Reed, who was then the head of the Chicago Tribune/New York News syndicate in New York, and I told him my plans. I had a decent list. I’d intended to start off with my feature and then add others, but I hoped that what would sustain me was my own feature. Then I would not have to pay the syndicate the 50 percent, which I was doing. I could survive, you know, while starting up the syndicate.
And he was very good about it, I must say. I was grateful to him. He sent a letter to all my subscribers that I was starting my own syndicate and he wished we did well and he hoped that they would remain subscribers. Something to that effect, which was very unusual. [Laughs.] I don’t know that would ever happen again. I think I only lost one paper because one salesman knew I was leaving and went to that paper, not knowing about Reed’s letter, and sold them something else right away, as syndicates do. When losing a feature, they try to replace it right away with their own.
So that got me started, but it was rather daunting. I never sold directly to the newspaper. I was conversant with the promotions they had done on my behalf, and I was able to design the promotion for my own feature, and others when we got the hang of it, but the whole business of getting the thing underway, engraving, reproduction, mailing, the syndicate list, the newspaper list and so forth. At that time, Steve Flanagan was my associate, and he was great. We really started the syndicate together, along with my son, Jens, on summer’s leave from college. Steve helped in so many ways, particularly when I launched the first feature, Views of the World, where we had to gather the talent from around the world. That was the impetus. I figured, “Well, if I don’t try it now, I won’t, I’ll never get around to it.”
GROTH: That’s right. You started by syndicating your own strip. But how did you acquire other strips and how did you create the bureaucracy necessary to do all that work?
ROBINSON: Well, because I really knew nothing and was stupid [laughs], that’s how I was able to do it. [Groth laughs.] If I knew what was involved, I probably never would have done it. I’m sure you’ve probably went through things like that in your own career.
GROTH: Well, that’s true of so much.
ROBINSON: It’s always more involved with things you don’t know about in the beginning.
GROTH: [Laughs.] If you knew it was impossible, you wouldn’t have done it in the first place.
ROBINSON: Exactly. Well, the first feature was Views of the World. And that’s another whole story.
GROTH: Tell me that, if you would.
ROBINSON: There was a yearly book that was endorsed by the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists called The Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year.
Well, everybody in the society could submit, and everybody would get at least one cartoon published and he’d select all the others. So it was really a society book, and it was labeled as The Best Cartoons of the Year. So a lot of the top cartoonists stopped submitting to it, because the level wasn’t high enough. The book was very uneven.
And the other thing I objected to is that they were all American, as if we were the only ones in the world that published top editorial cartoons. So, as you know, I’d been traveling around I knew a lot of excellent cartoonists who were just as great in their country as our Oliphants and Herblocks here. So I decided to present a world collection. It was The Best Cartoons of the Decade, because I didn’t want to do an annual. This was in the late ’70s, ’79 probably, and I went to McGraw-Hill with the proposal. They said, “Yeah, that looks great.” It had all the top cartoonists, the really five-star people from here and abroad. But they said, “We can’t publish it with the foreign cartoonists, because nobody knows them, but the others are published in American papers, that’s viable.” So I said no, the whole idea of the book was to show the world of cartooning, and that we’re not the only ones that have great cartoonists. I said I would only do the book if it’s half American and half from around the world. When I said I wouldn’t do the book otherwise, they finally agreed and they did it with much trepidation. They didn’t think it would sell and so forth. Well, the book got marvelous reviews all over. It sold out. A lot of the reviewers said almost the same thing in different words: How interesting it was to see this work from around the world, the great cartoonists in France and London and so forth, and it’s too bad we only see it albums or collections like this. So that set me thinking, if I could devise a way to incorporate the best from around the world, and sell it to American newspapers, I think it would be a genuine service, a valuable feature. And I knew the problem was no American paper would print the cartoon, let’s say Plantu, on the front page of Le Monde in Paris everyday, one of the most famous French cartoonists. Their readers would say, “Why are you publishing Plantu from Le Monde?” So if I could put together a collection every week of different points of view from different countries, then they could sell that to their readers — I want to show readers what the world is thinking about the major issues, not just France. So I did a mock-up of a weekly round-up of six cartoons. For each one of them, I would prominently credit, each artist, the originating paper, city and country. So the readers could see where it came from and what their point of view was.
It took us a year to put together the first group, I had to sign up enough artists to make it viable. I finally rounded up maybe 20 top cartoonists from about 15 different countries to launch the feature. And I worked up a promotion and as it turned out apparently it was quite a good one, showing all these artists from around the world with their bios and samples of their works and samples of the launch and the feature. Mailed it out to most of the leading papers in the country.
It was like producing a play. You work for a couple of years, and on opening night, sit back for the reviews, and you might close the next day. I mailed them all out, and the day after they were received, I get a call from the Los Angeles Times who wanted to subscribe. That was the very first sale. And we let a yelp here heard around the block [Groth laughs]. I knew that we had something if the L.A. Times, one of the best newspapers in the country at the time, bought it. And to make things more emphatic, the next day, The Herald Examiner called to buy it, and luckily the L.A. Times called first, The Herald Examiner subsequently went out of business. The L.A. Times have been a subscriber since.
So that’s how I launched the first feature. Gradually I began to add more and more artists. I traveled a lot, and subsequently, not just for the syndicate alone. Overall I traveled to over 40 countries. Some places, I had to sign agreements with the paper to reproduce the work, where the artist didn’t have control of their own work. I think I helped in that regard a lot, too, because a lot of the artists were then able to get rights to their work. That happened in a lot of cases.
At that time, Russia was still under the communist government. I signed the first Russian artist, I had to do it through their literary organization, all foreign rights had to go to them. I later found out that all the monies that they got from us, when we reprinted the Russian cartoonists, they either didn’t get it all, or the tiniest fraction. So later, when I made contact with the artists, I was able to get it directly to them. On several visits to Moscow, I smuggled in the money in a belt — so the artists got all the royalty. One time it was $5000.
GROTH: How did you actually find all of the foreign cartoonists that you wanted to sign up?
ROBINSON: Ah. Well, that’s interesting too. At that time, I said Steve Flanagan, he was working with me at the syndicate …
GROTH: Now tell me who Steve Flanagan is.
ROBINSON: Steve was originally a student of mine at SVA. Very, very talented. At the level of the others that I mentioned. I hired him as an assistant right from school, and then when I started the syndicate he became editor and later became a partner on a lot of my things. And then Jens would come into town — he was still in college — and he would work during the summer on the project. We would visit all the foreign consulates in New York, where I did research to get their countries’ papers, I worked with their press officer to find out who their leading cartoonist was, see examples of their work, see whether it was publishable here. If they did things of international interest … and so each country had to be researched individually. So as I said, that took us over a year of work to do, to put together the initial group. I had traveled already and knew some of them, was able to contact them, and they, in turn, recommended people so we used all those sources. A lot of it was just digging in here, New York. Fortunately the U.N. is here, and most of the countries have consulates here, we were able to do much of the research here. Our goal was to have opposite points of view. If we got a cartoonist from Israel, we’d want to get someone from Egypt, from Lebanon, then Syria. If we got England, we’d want Ireland, and so forth. France and Algeria. So it was able to show all views of issues, it was a groundbreaking feature. No American newspaper had regularly published cartoons from around the world before.
GROTH: How many cartoonists do you now syndicate and to how many clients?
ROBINSON: Well, we have over 200 to 300 clients worldwide. With all the features, we added humor features as well, caricatures, symbolic. So all in all, the artists contribute with varying frequency. One might send three a week, one might send one week, one might send one a month. All told, there’re over 350 cartoonists. And I think now, up to 75 are countries represented. So, you know, a paper could say they’re doing a story on the Israeli-Egyptian War, we could dig back for over 25 years and get something from that country, or a contemporary issue. It’s a very good resource — the most comprehensive archive in the world available to the media.
Of course, we started out in the horse-and-buggy age where the artists had to mail us cartoons; that was a big problem. But the papers, they get the cartoons a week or so after the fact. But everyone allowed for that at that time, they knew you couldn’t get the work transmitted faster. Now, we send the work out the same day as it appears in the foreign press.
GROTH: Is your financial arrangement that you pay the cartoonist a percentage of what you get?
ROBINSON: Yes, basically the same as all major syndicates. In addition to leading cartoonists around the world, we represent five of the very best American political cartoonists; Kevin “KAL” Kallaugher (Baltimore Sun and The Economist in London), winner of the British Cartoonist of the Year and this year’s prestigious Thomas Nast Award; Jeff Danziger, three-time Pulitzer finalist and author of W is for Wreckage; and three Pulitzer Prize winners: Joel Pett, USA Today and Lexington Herald-Leader, Ann Telnaes, who was honored by the Library of Congress with an exhibition and a book, Humor’s Edge, and Jim Morin, Miami Herald, who is also a great caricaturist. It’s really an incredible group. They’re friends. I believe in them and get more pleasure in selling their world that I did when I used to sell my own work.
GROTH: How many people does the syndicate employ?
ROBINSON: We have six in California and New York. Recently, we signed an agreement with the New York Times and the New York Times Syndicate that now represents us around the world.
So we have their salesmen in Europe, Asia, Middle East, South America and in the U. S. So that affiliation is very important to us. CWS is able to give content to the N. Y. Times Syndicate, which previously didn’t distribute graphics and editorial cartoons. You know, they’re the top syndicate for text material, so it was a good fit. The Times also has the largest newspaper website. Our features appear on nytimages.com (listed as our corporate name, CartoonArts International) fully searchable by artist, topic and country.
Being a cartoonist at the head of a syndicate — it gives me a unique perspective. It has been an exciting adventure — most of all, to work with my son, Jens, who is Editor of CWS. Jens is a graduate of Dartmouth, with a law degree from Northwestern University and a masters degree in International Relations at the London School of Economics.
I’ll tell you, this is the truth, during the first years when I was personally selling myself — I still do it, somebody’s work, their feature or more particularly, one of the individual artists that we represent, the top editorial cartoonists — it’s like selling my own work. I get a big and bigger thrill about selling their work. First of all, I think I’m better at it. You’re much better at selling somebody else’s work. I can’t go and sell, “Oh, you should have my work, I’m so great,” you know? I can show something of my work, or talk about it, but I couldn’t do that. But, if it’s about another artist, then I’m on full gear, for somebody I admire or appreciate. Then you can do it. You can understand that. So that’s been exciting for me.
Gary Groth is the Executive Editor of The Comics Journal, and a co-founder of Fantagraphics Books.
Will, Burne, Jack and Me
ROBINSON: I think mentioned a picture that was taken of Burne Hogarth, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and myself.
GROTH: About what year do you think?
ROBINSON: I think it was about ’90. I think I was at the [San Diego] ComicCon in ’89, when I got the Gold Key Award. It’s a color picture.
I thought that’s a nice group. And unfortunately — God, come to think of it I’m the only survivor.
GROTH: That’s a little scary, huh?
ROBINSON: Yeah. They were all great guys and good friends. Kirby, Hogarth, and Eisner … you couldn’t want a better group.
GROTH: You know that Hogarth and Eisner didn’t get along?
ROBINSON: I can imagine that. Well, Burne didn’t get along with a lot of people. That was part of his plus and minuses.
GROTH: I was going to say, it’s probably not hard to conceive of Burne not getting along with someone, but …
ROBINSON: Yeah, when you knew him and got along with him, it could be a very enriching experience, because he had a lot to offer.
I’ll read you something, it’s a letter I found in the files. It’s a letter from the University of Missouri dated March 19,1979.
Dear Mr. Eisner and Mr. Robinson,
On behalf of the faculty of the department of art and art history, the student’s artists league and the program committee of the college of arts and sciences, I would like to thank you both for your captivating lecture on the comic strip as an American art form. As I’m sure you are both aware, there was a great enthusiasm for your lecture, and the discussion session afterwards among the students. It is indeed rare to find speakers who are able to captivate an entire university audience for over two hours. It was very good of you both to give so freely of your time, even though I know the extra hour you spent with the students cut into your other commitments here in the city. Again, thank you for your enthusiastic lecture on a subject of great interest to both the faculty and the students.
— Bertram Dunmar, Professor of Art History, Chairman of …
Anyway, this is obviously a lecture that Will and I gave at the time. We did a few of these lectures together. We decided at one time to form a Speakers bureau to represent us. We had plans to add others in the field as well. I don’t recall. We did a couple of lectures, and we even printed up a very nice folder listing the different kinds of lectures that we would give. [We] had planned to tour the country to colleges. It was quite lucrative, but after we did a couple, we both decided that this was not for us, you know? It took up too much time going back and forth. It was very — how shall I say — enriching and interesting to do, to meet with all of the students, but it was very tough on our schedule, the wear and tear. After we did a few, we gave up on our new venture.
I’m pretty sure all of the lectures we gave were somewhere around 1979. We did this folder, which we mailed out and began to get inquiries and bookings, and then we decided that it was just too much to travel around back and forth … to do our own work. We were both pretty heavily involved professionally at that time. But to somebody who sits there at the drawing board and sweats out drawings day and night and stories and whatnot, to have all expense paid and thousands of dollars’ pay, it was attractive to us for a bit.
GROTH: Yeah. It sounds like fun.
ROBINSON: Yeah. We thoroughly enjoyed it, and being as we both had taught for years, at the School of Visual Arts and others, it was something we were used to doing and it did get us around the country. Well, anyway … I think it was about the time I founded Cartoonists and Writers, so that probably was one reason I had to curtail it.
GROTH: Well, that’s exactly …
ROBINSON: … and probably Will was doing the same thing.
GROTH: Yeah, that’s exactly right. You started it in ’78.
ROBINSON: Uh huh. A little sideline to our career.