Jerry Robinson: It All Started with a Painter's JacketA comics interview article by: Jason Sacks, Alex Rodrik
On December 7, 2011, Jerry Robinson, 89, died in a hospice in Manhattan. Not only was he responsible for creating much of what we consider vital to the Batman mythos, but he was also a teacher, cartoonist and historian, among many other things. In other words, he was a major figure in comics who deserves recognition. To honor him, here is a classic interview from the Comics Bulletin archives, conducted by Publisher Jason Sacks and then-Interviews Editor Alex Rodrik.
Please read on, enjoy and take part in remembering Jerry Robinson.
Jerry Robinson was a true legend. He created the Joker, comics’ greatest villain and one of the 50 greatest villains in all of fiction. Robinson also created and developed Robin, one of the most iconic characters in comics, as well as the Penguin, Two-Face and many other important members of the Batman’s mythos. As if all that wasn’t enough, Robinson taught such comics luminaries as Steve Ditko and Don Heck at the School of Visual Arts, traveled throughout the world, produced a daily editorial cartoon for decades, wrote a history of comics, illustrated many books, and probably a dozen other things that have slipped my mind.
Most impressively, he was still going strong in his late '80s, revising his comics history and even creating a new Batman graphic novel. He seems to have more energy than most men half his age. He was also a fantastically interesting, charming and wonderful interview subject, as you’ll see in this interview.
I have to say, I’ve done quite a few interviews for this site, but my chat with Jerry Robinson just might be my favorite. I think you’ll enjoy spending some time with this old master, too.
Jason Sacks: I have a copy of the new biography of you, Ambassador of Comics. My favorite story in the book is how you got started in the comics industry. It's purely by happenstance, it seems.
Jerry Robinson: I've often wondered what would have happened if I'd hadn't worn that painter’s jacket that day. I might have been interviewing you, who knows?
I spent that summer after my graduation from high school at the ripe old age of 17 selling ice cream. At that time you sold it off the back of your bicycle. They didn't have motorized ice cream cars like they have today. As the new man on the block I was given the outermost reaches of the suburbs of Trenton, New Jersey, where I grew up. I was selling the ice cream as preparation for my first year of college. I wanted to earn enough to relieve my family of some of the financial strain because we were just getting out of the Depression at that time, in 1939. Things were just beginning to turn around, but it was very difficult. I had three brothers who were much older than me who were in college. So I was trying to earn some money.
By the end I was on the 98 pound track team. I was very light and skinny. My mother persuaded me to take $25 of my hard-earned royalties from my ice cream. I think I got a cent and a half per Popsicle, or something like that. Towards the end of the summer -- she didn't think I was going to last the summer, let alone the first year of college -- she persuaded me to take $25 of that hard-earned ice cream money and fatten up in the country. So I finally agreed as I went off to this resort – one I didn't know of, I just picked one in the mountains. I was on the tennis team. Sports were a lifelong passion, as it was for my brothers before me. They were all city champs and so forth.
So on the first day out, not mindful that I was there to fatten up, I ranged out to play tennis. I went to the tennis court to find a partner. I was standing there at the court and I was wearing a jacket. They were regular painter’s jackets. They were white linen and had a lot of pockets all over for painters’ supplies. And that was the fad in college at the time. I grew up next to Princeton University, which was only ten miles away from Trenton, so when we were in high school we copied the fads of the college kids. That's what they were doing. The jackets were decorated with their own so-called graffiti of the time. I was already a cartoonist for the school paper, though I never thought of cartooning as a career. I was an editor at the paper and did stories for it, but I also did the cartoons. I'd never taken any art courses, though I'd have loved to. They just didn't give any credit in those days for art classes and I needed the credits for college.
The back of the jacket was decorated with all kinds of cartoons. While I was standing there at the tennis court looking for a partner, I felt a tap at my shoulder and he said, "Who did these cartoons?" Without even looking around -- I thought I was going to be arrested or something -- I replied meekly, "I did." The man replied, "They look pretty good", and introduced himself. It was Bob Kane, who just did the first story published of Batman.
He introduced himself and we got to be friends. He was quite a bit older but still young enough to pal around with. He was at that time 24 and I was 17. He immediately showed me a copy of Batman, which I'd never heard of -- of course, it was the first issue -- but I'd never even seen a comic book before. I must say, I wasn't terribly impressed with it. I was used to the Sunday strips. I loved the major strips like Prince Valiant and Terry and the Pirates and the humor strips like Bringing Up Father and Mutt and Jeff. All the classic comics.
Once he said that he had just started the strip and needed somebody else on the staff -- it was just himself and the writer, Bill Finger, who was really the co-creator of Batman and wrote all the stories and developed all the characters and really developed most of the whole mythos of Batman, Gotham City, the base story of Batman and so forth. When Kane said that he needed an assistant and I could make some money, my ears perked up. When he found out I was going to Syracuse, he said it was too bad that I wasn't going to New York, because he could give me this job on Batman.
Fortuitously, I had applied to Syracuse, Columbia and Penn, because my faculty members said they were best for journalism. That was my goal, to be a journalist and writer. Fortuitously, I had been accepted at all three places. I chose Syracuse really for no good reason except that it sounded like a college town. I never visited either one of them. I'd never been to New York or to Syracuse, though I had been in Philadelphia many times in high school. That was a favorite date place because it was only 30 miles away.
So I raced to the phone and called Columbia to see if my application was still good. Luckily it was, so I called Syracuse, told them I wasn't coming, and called my home and said I got a job in New York and I went immediately from the mountains to New York to start on Batman and the first semester at Columbia.
So that's how it started.
Sacks: All because you were wearing the right jacket at the right time.
Robinson: The right time and the right place.
The other kind of fun thing that happened is when I decided to go right from the mountains to New York, not having been to New York. I asked the manager the best way to go to New York and it sounded very complicated. He said, Jan Peerce -- you may not know his name now, but at that time, Jan Peerce was one of the leading tenors at the Metropolitan Opera. He had given a concert at this resort the night before. The manager said that Mr. Peerce was going back to New York, maybe he'll give you a ride if you ask him. So I went over meekly to the great tenor and said, "Umm, ahh, Mr. Peerce, I'm going to New York, can you possibly give me a lift?" He said, "oh sure, kid, hop in." Then a big black limousine pulls up with a chauffeur, a private car. I got in, and that was my entrance to New York. By private car with a famous tenor for the Metropolitan.
We got to New York and of course he kicked me out in The Bronx. So that's how I got there.
Sacks: Talk about arriving in style!
Robinson: Exactly! It was quite a day!
Sacks: Your first impression of Batman was that you weren't very excited, which is understandable because the early issues were pretty primitive compared with Milton Caniff and the other artists that you were enjoying.
Robinson: Exactly. And I wasn't even used to the form, though I had seen comics reprints in comic book form. That was in a larger form. I'm not sure if you’re familiar with them. There were a series of comic reprints. The publisher was Cupples and Leon and they published 12x12 books that were all reprints of comic strips. They were my favorites as a kid. I remember I went away for the summer and I kept begging my parents to keep sending me those books if they could find them. They were reprints of comic strips. So that was my close attachment to comic strips at that time -- or comic books, actually.
The early comic books, as you know, starting with Famous Funnies in 1934, were reprints of comic strips.
Sacks: That's one of the reasons that Superman was such a blockbuster at the time, because it was one of the first real comic book stories as opposed to comic strip stories.
Robinson: It was the first super-hero in the comics. There were a few original stories published in comic books form, like Detective Comics -- in fact, Siegel and Shuster did some of them before they created Superman. But what happened was that the comic publishers were buying the comic strips to reprint but began to run out of suitable strips to purchase for the comic books because they came out so often. Then they began to search for original material, and that's when the era of the comic book began.
Sacks: I think it's fair to say that between you and Bill Finger, you created so much of what we think of as Batman's world, which has become so iconic. You were so closely involved in the creation of the Joker and Robin and Two-Face and the Penguin and Two-Face and so many of the other components of his world, not to mention the artistic view of it. Was that fulfilling times for you, and how do you feel now about those characters becoming so much a part of our iconography.
Robinson: It's incredible. After 70 years, nobody could have foreseen that. If I knew, I would have created several other multi-million dollar properties [Laughs]. You never know which one's going to hit.
They were really very exciting times. I was so young, and thrown into this field, new in New York. Bill Finger turned out to be my mentor. We were very close friends, socially as well. He was about the same age as Bob. And later when he was married, we were close friends with his wife, Portia, as well. He introduced me to everything in New York: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, the Modern Museum, all the foreign films, all the out-of-the-way theatres. It just opened my eyes. I was like a blotter, soaking everything up.
It was a very creative time. Of course, at the same time I started my studies at Columbia, which became more and more difficult. I was burning the candle at both ends, trying to make classes during the day and work all night. Then I switched it the other way around to try to relieve it. That lasted two or two and a half years, doing them both. By that time, although I wanted to be a writer and journalist, which fortunately I was able to pursue during my career. At the time I didn't think of doing both writing and cartooning. After a couple of years, when I created my own comic strip, London, under my own name -- this was when I was still doing Batman -- that opened my eyes to the possibility of combining the careers of writing and drawing. Once I found I was adept at drawing as well, that convinced me that this was the path to go. And besides, I don't think I would have lasted another year doing both.
Alex Rodrik: The Joker's personality has changed a lot of over the years, from psychopath to campy trickster. How does that match your original vision of the character?
Robinson: My original vision -- well, the character was created at a particular time and for a particular reason. Batman was very successful in Detective Comics and within six months the publishers decided to put out a whole comic of Batman along, who was appearing just once a month in Detective Suddenly we were confronted with doing four new stories for Batman #1, in addition to the one per month for Detective, and I think at that time he was appearing, or was shortly to be appearing, in World's Finest in another story. We had been writing and drawing one story a month but now suddenly we needed five at one time.
So Bill Finger, while he was undoubtedly, in my opinion, one of the best comics writers of that time, was a very careful and slow craftsman. It would have been very difficult for him to turn out that many stories overnight. With new characters, new plots, new stories, etc. You have to remember Batman was still in its infancy. So I volunteered to do a story, because it was my goal to be a writer. They knew that, and they had seen some of my creative writing, my short stories that I wrote for my creative writing classes. They were appreciative of what I was doing.
They immediately thought that was great. I was going to do at least one of the four stories for the new Batman book. So I went home that night, very elated and excited to do my first Batman story, and I also had in the back of my mind that I not only could get paid for the Batman story but also that I could hand it in for my creative writing class and get credit for it there. Trying to get a little extra out of that story.
So I went home that night to try to write that first story for Batman. The first thing I had to think of that I thought was lacking in the comics, particularly in adventure stories like Batman was a new character for Batman. I wanted a strong protagonist to be pitted against Batman, who was worthy of Batman. And I didn't think that -- remember, this was 1939, we were just coming out of the Depression, this was the era of the gangster -- John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, that whole era, prohibition. There were embezzlers, bank robbers. They were the usual villains. Occasionally a mad scientist would show up.
I wanted to do something that was more literary, more learning from my readings from literature that the heroes all had great antagonists. Sherlock Holmes had Moriarity. Even in the Bible there was David and Goliath. Always a strong opposition. But strangely enough there was a dichotomy in the comics at that time that if you made the villains too strong, they would overshadow the hero. I took the opposite view. I thought that heroes had to win in the end. They're heroes, after all. But heroes can also be dull. You know they're going to win.
But villains can be bizarre. They can be more interesting. That's what attracted me to write a character that was much more interesting than what we had. That was my first thought, to write that first story that night. To come up with a worthy villain for Batman. I guess everything in your past somehow -- that's what you are, it comes out of your experiences in your life. There were two things that were operating. The stories that I had written in college and in high school were mostly satires and humorous stories. My favorites were Guy de Maupassant and Mark Twain. Stories that had a twist and had some edge to them. That was part of my thinking at the time.
Knowing the components of good writing from my knowledge so far, I knew that a good character had some contradiction in their character. A contradiction in terms. So a killer with a sense of humor would be different. You don't think of a villain with a sense of humor. I think now you do, with the Joker, even though it's perverted and strange. Those two things I immediately put together: a villain with a sense of humor.
Once I did that, the next thing, and for all characters, it's very important to give them good names. We spent a lot of time creating the names for all of our characters. So I began to think of the names that fit that concept. It wasn't long, maybe a few minutes, before I immediately thought of the Joker. And again that related to my past because cards were very common in my household. One of my older brothers was a champion contract bridge player, where you got points like a master chess player who gets points. He was on that level. One time he won 17 tournaments in a row. My mother played, and I was a very expert player as well. I was not in their class but I loved the game as well.
So we always had a deck of cards around. I immediately related, when I thought of the name of the Joker, with the Joker playing card. I search frantically that night in my room for a deck of cards, which I usually had somewhere even though I hadn’t used them for a long time in New York. I found one, and it had the classic kind of look of the Joker playing card that I had in mind. That's what I used as the visual image, to begin with, of the Joker. Then I fleshed out the lines of his M.O., how he operated in his story. I sat up all night working on that and couldn't wait to rush in the next morning to show Bill and Bob the start I had on my story. And of course they loved it immediately. We knew it was a great concept, as did the publisher and editor. It immediately got slated for story #1 in Batman #1. And that's how it all began.
Rodrik: He's become the iconic villain. He really has. You think villainy and –- hey, it's the Joker!
Robinson: I was very excited. I was in London when they were filming The Dark Knight, and they had a poll there among their literary critics -- not just comic critics but literary critics -- the Top 50 Villains of All Time. I forget what number he came out, but the Joker was up there with a bunch of Shakespearean villains and whatnot.
I heard there was one taken here by a comics magazine, a poll of the greatest comic villains. The Joker came out #1 and I was very pleased by that.
I think the Joker, as you mention, has gone through a lot of metamorphoses, transformations from the comic, to the sinister, to the psychotic. I think its longevity is due to the fact that at its core, there's something very unique among the villains. It was made susceptible to various interpretations over the last 70 years by other great writers and artists. That was pleasing. One thing that I've come to believe is that inadvertently, in the beginning, he came to me visually and in the name having such a visceral impact. Because at its core there's something unique about the image. The image of the Joker or the clown or the jester, it has that tradition. It goes back to medieval times and before.
Actually the image of the clown can be very scary, just the clown alone. You'd think it would be fun, but children almost with a phobia to the image of a clown. In fact there's a name for it, coulrophobia, the fear of a clown image. I think all of us have a little bit of that, which makes the image a little edgy. That was just -- of course, I didn't think of all those things at the time, that was just how I viewed the image, not realizing what it psychologically came from or historically.
I think that's part of the attraction of the Joker and the emotional reaction you get from the image.
Rodrik: What did you feel about not only the look, but Heath Ledger's interpretation of the Joker for The Dark Knight?
Robinson: Again, he gave a new twist to it. Visually he changed just a little bit, made it a bit more bizarre than I had made it. In the beginning I wanted a villain that was bizarre. He took it to another level, I think, above that. It was an excellent, excellent performance.
As did Jack Nicholson in his own interpretation. It was lighter, obviously, and had more sardonic humor to it than Ledger did.
Rodrik: I can keep going for hours! It's funny for me, because as a kid I can remember I was always terrified of the Joker.
Robinson: You're a coulrophobic!
Rodrik: Yeah, I was afraid of clowns, thanks to my aunt! My aunt had a very distinct knock when I was a child, and on my 5th birthday, she knocked on the front door. Naturally, I went running to the door all happy, "It's my aunt! It's my aunt!" I opened the door and there she was...in full make-up! She went "Hey!" and I went, "AGGGGHHHHH!!!"
Robinson: [Laughs] Yeah, that is the reaction. And it could be the other way around, instantly attracted to it. That is a part of it, and you’re a living example of it. Where did you grow up, by the way?
Robinson: Miami? I spent a lot of happy time down there. My first visit to Miami was around 1940 or '41. Miami and Miami Beach were only open half the year at that time. During the winter, everything would be boarded up on the beach. Only a rare hotel or rare restaurant would be open. It was another deserted city, almost, in the summer, since they had no air conditioning in those days. It wasn't a summer resort at all in those days because it was too hit.
I loved it because I could play tennis every day. At 17, 18, 21, you didn't mind the heat at all. It was the place to vacation.
One of those trips in the early days I took a boat from Miami to Havana, which was only a half-hour ride as I recall, which was very easy to do. Just in the spur of the moment my friend and I went over. And that was in the pre-Castro days. There was still the dictator Batista. Havana was still ruled by the Luciano Mob. It was all Mob-controlled in Havana, the nightclubs and whatnot. The irony of it is that when Castro took over and Batista fled Cuba, he lived his life out in Florida, not far from Miami.
Sacks: You obviously were working and playing hard when you were young. Sounds like you had a fun life in those pre-War years.
Robinson: When you're young and foolish you take on a lot. I remember later on I was teaching five hours a day at the School of Visual Arts and doing my comic book all day. I did that for the better part of ten years, teaching five days a week, five hours a day and doing my comic and other illustration work at the same time. You can only do that when you're young and foolish.
Sacks: I can tell you really enjoyed teaching.
Robinson: I did, yes. I learned a lot as a teacher, myself. My own work became fuller and richer. I had to analyze what I was doing. I never went to an art school. So I had to analyze what I did, what I learned, in order to convey it to my students. So I really had to go back over and affect what I was doing in order to convey it to students.
So I did enjoy it. It was a challenge. And when somebody in my class made it as a professional, I was as pleased as if I had sold something of my own.
Some of my students became very successful, notably Steve Ditko, who was my student. Somebody who wrote a book about him -- I gather he doesn't do a lot of interviews, but somebody reached him and asked him about his early life and his experiences at the School of Visual Arts. He wrote somebody a letter and -- I don't know if it's quoted in my bio or not -- but he wrote a very kind and nice things that he started his career and learned a lot in my class. And he was very good. I got a scholarship for him the second year to study.
One of the leading cartoonists in The New Yorker was in my class. There were other cartoonists who became successful in comic books as well. My memory isn't as good as it used to be, but they're listed in my book.
Sacks: That must be flattering, to teach people who end up having great careers.
Robinson: It really has been. And a lot of them have kept in touch with me over the years, sent me copies of work they've published and so forth. That’s been very satisfying.
Also, we talked a lot about the Joker, but maybe the naming of Robin may be of interest.
Finger came in with the idea of adding a boy to the strip. Again, it became very important as to the name. We considered a lot names. I ruled out anything that hinted of a super kid, as some of the names might have been. We had a list of 30 or 40 names -- Mercury, all sorts of names. I wanted to carry out the fact that one of the concepts of Batman was that he wasn't a super character. We were in hot competition with Superman, who were, by the way, very good friends of mine. We worked for the same publisher, but professionally we were competitors. In fact, I used to double date with Joe Shuster when he was young.
When it came to naming him, I came up with the name Robin. That came from Robin Hood. I was given a book when I was about 12 or 13, The Adventures of Robin Hood, that were beautifully illustrated by a great illustrator of the time, M.C. Wyeth, whose son and grandson became famous painters as well. I have that book to the day, illustrated by M.C. Wyeth, and I used to love those stories and knew every illustration in the book. Some were in full color and some were in black and white.
That's how, again, things in your past pop up. Robin popped in my head as a name that would be great for a kid, and wouldn't give any sense of being a super character. The others agreed that it was the best of the suggestions we had. So I immediately sketched out the costume of Robin that I remembered. I knew every inch of that drawing by M.C. Wyeth and if you look at the illustrations, you can see it was the Robin Hood costume with the fringe and the vest and so forth.
That's how the name Robin came about.
Sacks: Another character that captured peoples' imaginations and is going to live forever.
Robinson: It was a great addition to the strip because it immediately enlarged the demographics of the readers. The older reader related to Batman and Bruce Wayne, and the younger one was attracted immediately to Dick Grayson and Robin. And it was great for Bill because it gave him additional story material, enlarged the parameters of the story, they could talk to one another, get each other out of dire predicaments as we say. It was very good for the strip, storywise as well as visually.
Sacks: It's always striking to me how he's a very bright character next to a very dark character. It's almost like Robin can't help but to shed light on Batman's world.
Robinson: He brightened a lot of the stories as well. Some of the mystery was gone when the two of them were together. It had to be a little lighter in effect. Storywise you concentrate on one or the other for the story. As you notice, in The Dark Knight, we didn't have Robin, so he could be darker in all respects.
Another character I created was the Penguin. I created the first Penguin cover and helped flesh out the visual looks of him. I did the first Two-Face cover as well. And Alfred. I did a lot of Alfred. In fact, I did a second story just about Alfred for a couple years. It was called "The Adventures of Alfred."
Sacks: I wanted to include in this interview some of the international travel you’ve done. Cartooning has really opened the door for you to do some personal diplomacy. You’ve gotten to travel all over the world to help improve human rights, the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union when the Cold War was going on, and other trips.
Robinson: That was very fruitful and I was very grateful for those opportunities. It did take me -- in fact, I’m writing more of my memoirs now, which tells more of the anecdotes about some of those travels. I made a number of trips entertaining the soldiers in camps throughout Europe and North Africa. I made friends with some of the cartoonists that we traveled with. I usually traveled in groups of four or five and we became lifelong friends on those trips. Those trips were four or five weeks living and working together, and traveling. We also went to Japan and Korea.
I met all the foreign artists at that time. I think that’s what led to my founding the syndicate that introduced foreign cartoonists to America, and also American cartoonists abroad.
At last count I visited around 45 countries, and many of them many times. Favorite places are Japan, where I collaborated with I think one of the first manga with a Japanese artist, from the musical I collaborated with a writer on here in the US. We first wrote the musical here. It’s called Astra. That was quite an experience.
I traveled to China, and lots of South America. Places in North Africa and the Far East. I can’t complain about that. I’m very grateful for that opportunity.
That also led to my curating a number of exhibitions to the United Nations. I’ve done four or five major shows. I took the exhibitions to Rio for the first Earth Summit on the environment. I met the then-Senator Gore, who was in our delegation to Rio at the time. It was the largest exhibition there. I also covered it for newspapers while I was there.
That was so successful that I followed with three others at the invitation of the UN. The human rights exhibition I did the following year in Vienna and in Cairo in housing and development. Another one in Denmark. And then last year or the year before I reprised the exhibition on human rights here at the UN headquarters in New York for the 14th anniversary of the one I did originally. That was the anniversary, also, of the original human rights covenant. That was really a rare opportunity. I must say that all the artists that I met around the world who were invited to participate were really artists who were concerned, as I was, about the problem of human rights. I always had great support from my fellow cartoonists, both here and abroad.
Sacks: I tend to think of cartooning as an introspective art, but you’ve really used it to change the world in positive ways.
Robinson: That’s what happened in my battle for Siegel and Shuster. When Neal Adams and I represented them to get back their rights in their name on their property. I’ve always had great support on those causes. I was grateful for the opportunity to do it. What helped me was when I served as President of the Cartoonists Society and also as the Editorial Cartoonists. Since I knew the top editorial cartoonists, I was able to reach them right away. They always came through, 100%, to support. That gave us great leverage in negotiating on all these fronts.
Sacks: Certainly the Siegel and Shuster story was one of those ones where the good and evil in the story were so clear. The lives they were living at the time of the settlement were rough.
Robinson: It was just tragic. You know, they were very good friends. I couldn’t have been more pleased than to be able to help them in some way.
By the way, the other thing in the Ambassador of Comics book that I was very pleased with was that not only did they follow my career and tell a lot of stories. A lot of my career has been as an editorial cartoonist. For 32 years I did one every day, six days a week. That was in addition to illustrating 30 books and whatnot.
In the back of the book they published a portfolio of other things that I’ve done. I’ve been very interested in all my life, wherever I went, as a photographer. I had several photography shows. The book also has my painting, both for illustration and for fine art painting. They did include portfolios in back of my painting and photography and my sketchbooks, in addition to the comics features.
I was very pleased with the book in that regard.
Where is Comics Bulletin located?
Sacks: I live in Seattle, and Alex is in Miami, but we have contributors from all around the world.
Robinson: My syndicate represents, or has represented artists since 1979, ’80, ’81, in 50 countries. We still operate. My son is editor of that. The Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate, Cartoon Arts International. They include a section about that in the book.
Dark Horse is putting out three books of mine. One of them is two volumes and is already out. I did a strip in the ‘50s called “Jet Scott.” It’s a science adventure. Dark Horse just published the whole run of two years, daily and Sunday, in two volumes. Every Sunday in full color, and the dailies. That was just published.
And in the spring, they’re republishing a new edition of my history of the comics which I did about 25 years ago. I’ve written 20,000 new words to bring it up to date. There’s all new color in the book plus the original script. That will be in the spring. It’s called The Comics.
As a comics website, I’m sure that’s something you’ll enjoy seeing. I just got the working copy of it and I must say, I think they did such a beautiful job with the the color and the design. It’s a big, big book. It covers the history of the comic strip from 1895 to the present.
It’s been a big year for me. At 88 I suddenly have 4 books coming out.
Sacks: I was going to say, when do you slow down?!
Robinson: As long as I can keep creating, I’m happy.
Sacks: And it all started because you were in the right place, at the right camp…
Robinson: With the right painter’s jacket…
I’ve been asked many times if I still had that painter’s jacket. I think if I had it, it might be a museum piece or something. But unfortunately, it was given to my nephews when they were kids. They were also three brothers, sons of my oldest brother. They handed it down from one to the other, so it was probably in threads. Of course, none of us thought of it as having any value at that time.
Sacks: Same as your work on Batman at the time.
Robinson: Fortunately I’ve preserved some of the key pieces. I couldn’t bear to see them destroyed, some of the great work of Fred Ray, who did some of the iconic Superman covers, like Superman #14 with the eagle on his shoulder. He did all those iconic covers and a strip called “Congo Bill.” He was a very good friend. I saved his work, literally from salvage.
They would routinely destroy each cover, and were sorry as we did them. I had to call the engraver to prevent them from destroying those. Not because they had any value at the time. It didn’t have any value to anybody else but myself. I used to just tack them up on the studio walls. I really saved from destruction Ray’s covers, my own. A couple of the first Joker covers. A couple of Simon and Kirby covers. And some of the insides. It was just fortuitous that I felt that way, and that’s a theme that I’ve always pursued.
I look at comics as a true indigenous American artform. That’s why’ve I’ve written a history about it, put on exhibitions about it here.
I’m not sure if you’ve seen the one I did that’s still traveling, called The Golden Age of Comics from ’38 to ’50? It’s been traveling around the country in museums. I did it first for a museum in Atlanta. It has all those early covers and other artifacts from the Golden Age.
It opened in a museum in Atlanta, then it went to museums in Detroit, Cleveland, Miami, and last in LA. Early next year it’s opening in Phoenix and then back in Atlanta. If you ever get a chance to see it, I think you’ll love it. It took us three years to put together that exhibit and it looks beautiful.
All the collectors tell me it’s so exciting to see the originals from that period. They’ve never seen them in that form before.
Sacks: I’m looking through the book right now and enjoying seeing so much of the original art reproduced in it.
Robinson: A lot of that is from the collection. A lot of the work shown in the show is Superman work, but a lot of the Batman work in the book is from the collection -- the Joker covers and all that good stuff.
Rodrik: Can I ask one more question before you go? With your talk of being a teacher... I hope to be able to talk DC into letting me write an origin for the Joker, one of these days. Do you have any advice or warnings?
Robinson: Well, Alex, you’ll have some competition. One of my next projects is that I’ve been working on -- I started, but I laid it aside for these books. But I have been working on a graphic novel of the Joker. I do touch on his origins also. But there can be a couple different versions of it. They’ve had enough different versions of the Batman and the Joker already, so why not two versions of the origins? I am working on that. Let’s have a friendly competition, Alex!
Rodrik: That would be awesome!
Sacks: Don’t slow down. We look forward to reading your work for another 20 years, at least.
Robinson: Well, that’s optimistic but I’ll take it. I did have a great-grandfather who is written about in the book, who lived to be 116. I don’t think I’ll reach that, but any portion of that I’ll be happy about!
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.