Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Casting Gotham's Shadow: A Visit with Jerry Robinson

Jerry Robinson’s apartment in the Upper West Side is as impressive a collection of comics artifacts as the man himself is a collection of accomplishments in the comics field. He sits in a wooden chair behind an antique wooden table that tends to wobble slightly when leaned down on; the bookshelves in the room circle the central seating area like Native Americans in an old cowboys and Indian movie circling an ambushed stagecoach. One of Robinson’s paintings adorns the wall, hanging above a telephone table.

Robinson himself, a slim man wearing a button-down shirt and slacks, may seem like an unassuming older man at first, but he is the physical embodiment of comics history, one of the remaining of the breed that started the medium while still a kid. What makes him stick out from the rest is his pushing the boundaries of a once-juvenile mode of storytelling, forcing change that needed to happen for the rights of the creators, and changing the business of comics irrevocably and permanently.

His story doesn’t start with fantastic dreams fanned by the flames of science fiction stories read in pulps, or with a maladjusted childhood and a need to fit in and reflect that in archetypal heroes.

Jerry Robinson’s story, and how he entered comics, starts with an ice cream cart.

“I was coming to New York to start journalism at Columbia University,” Robinson says. His voice is raspy and relaxed. “When I was 17, I was selling ice cream to have money for my first semester. I had a cart full of ice cream that I had to haul, that summer of ’39, to my territory in the suburbs. I had to pedal the whole time, and by the end of the summer my mother thought I wouldn’t last: I was down to 78 pounds. She persuaded me to take $25 from my hard-earned royalties from selling popsicles, to go to the mountains to fatten up so I could survive the first semester of college…

“The fad was to decorate a painter's jacket with drawings. It was made of white linen, and I used it as a warm-up jacket for tennis. I was at the courts and I felt a tap on my shoulder and [someone] asked if I did the drawing. Without turning around, I was worried I would be arrested because I couldn’t remember what I drew. The voice said ‘Those are pretty good.’ It was Bob Kane.”

Batman had just come out and Bob Kane, the flamboyant artist behind the crudely drawn strip, had just had his first success with it for National/DC Comics. A classmate of Will Eisner’s at DeWitt Clinton High in New York City, Kane was a self-made ladies’ man with ambitions towards becoming a star cartoonist. Both he and writer (and unsung hero) Bill Finger created a dark and pulpy crimefighter in the same vein as The Shadow or The Spider, with The Bat-Man’s first appearance in 1939’s Detective Comics #27.

“I had applied to Columbia, Syracuse, and Penn and was accepted at all three; I couldn’t decide on where to go, and finally decided on Syracuse, which was more of a college town. Kane said ‘Oh, it’s too bad, because if you’d come to New York, you could work on this comic book with me.’ I’d never read comic books.

“So, we went to this store in the nearby village, where they sold comic books. He showed me Batman, which I wasn’t terribly impressed with. But, he told me he needed someone on his staff, because it was just him and the writer, Bill Finger. I contacted Columbia to see if the application was good, and nit was luckily, so I told them I was coming, and called Syracuse and told them I wasn’t coming. I called my parents and left straight for New York from the mountains.”

With dreams of becoming a journalist still intact, Robinson started working for Kane was a job meant to just put him through school. He admits feeling more excitement about living in New York City rather than working on the first stories of this new superhero.

Robinson’s touch, according to historians, is first seen and felt in Batman in the third story. Kane’s crude pencils gained the added dimension of Robinson’s heavy shadows. Finger and Kane may have defined Batman, but Robinson helped to cement Batman as living in a world of long and sinister silhouettes. For Robinson, it was a time to absorb and filter out new influences, all introduced through Batman scribe and friend Bill Finger.

“Bob may have been a fine talent,” Robinson laughs. “But Bill became my friend, and my culture mentor. I was a really young kid, 17, just out of high school and in New York for the first time. I just really knew how to get from the Bronx to Columbia and back. He took me, for the first time, to the Met, to MOMA, to foreign films, to the Village. That was exciting. I was a sponge that soaked everything up.”

What had made Kane’s artwork in the first story was the stiffness of the figures, while the decay of Batman’s world was also reflected in the art. When Robinson came aboard, Gotham City became more of an exaggerated set of a dark city than a comic book representation of a city. The piss and vigor of youth, combined with the lack of set conventions in the newborn storytelling medium, gave Robinson license to experiment.

“I was closer to Bill, and could describe him better, even though I worked with Bob, obviously,” Jerry recalls. “I associated better with Bill, [although] Bob and I would go out to the Village. I always worked in my own studio and apartment, so we didn’t have that close of a working relationship; we’d meet and go over my work, in those days I was really absorbed. Every minute I wasn’t writing something for Columbia, I was thinking about Batman, the characters, the story…”

A man smiles – a smile without mirth—rather a smile of death! The awesome ghastly grin of – The Joker! “If the police expect to play against the Joker, they had best be prepared to be dealt from the bottom of the deck,” the pasty-faced villain says, steepling his hands sinisterly.

The Joker, as introduced in the story in Batman #1 and created by Robinson, lacked a sense of humor. Clad in dark purple with black bags under his somber eyes, The Joker was an ironically-named character, more somber than Batman despite the bright clown make-up on his face. Shortly before, he co-created Robin, the Boy Wonder, with Finger.

Robinson remained with Kane for a brief time, soon jumping over to work directly for DC. It’s there that his comics career picked up even more and he began friendships during the tumultuous time before World War II, including his best pal Bernie Klein.

“Bernie was from my hometown, Trenton, and I would trek back there some weekends,” Jerry says. “We met at a New Years’ party ’41. They said that somebody was very anxious to meet me and they invited him to the party. It turned out to be Bernie, who was an aspiring artist and a Golden Gloves boxer. He worked for the Trenton Times at the loading platform. At times, he would sell freelance cartoons to the Times for sports for $5. He asked how he could get into the field. I liked him immediately when we met at the party. He was like a young John Garfield, and looked like him, and we took a liking to each other right away. That evening, at the New Years’ party, I told him what samples he would need.

“At eighteen, I was the elder statesman,” Jerry fondly chuckles. “I forgot all about it and a month or two later, I got a call, and it was Bernie. We got to chatting. I said ‘Where are you?’ He said ‘I’m in New York City,’ and we met for dinner. It turned out that he went home and started working on samples that New Year’s Eve and probably, within days or a week, he came to New York on his own and got a job and started working. He was a talented artist and got a job at MLJ and was already working when we met. We decided to get an apartment together, and I also met Mort [Meskin] at MLJ.”

MLJ was a small publisher of superhero comics like The Shield by Irv Novick, The Hangman (the first character to use the handle “The Dark Knight”) by Bob Fujitani, as well as The Comet by Jack Cole. When Henry Aldrich knock-off Archie Andrews premiered in the back pages of an issue of their title Pep, he eventually took the entire company line over, rechristening it Archie.
Robinson, Meskin, and Klein all lived together around 1941, working freelance on accounts, with their apartment serving as the nexus for comics pros of the time.

“Our apartment at that time (Bernie’s, Mort’s, and myself) was near DC Comics on Lexington, so we were not too far,” Robinson says. “Our apartment became a hang-out for the artists, so they were all there during the day and night. [Superman creators] Joe [Shuster] and Jerry [Seigel] were among them, particularly those around DC, and as we started to moonlight with other publishers…I knew Joe more because he was single and Jerry got married. Joe and I, in fact, used to go on double dates together. When we met, it was Superman and Batman going out.”

One of their accounts became legend when writer/cartoonist Jules Feiffer related it in his book The Great Comic Book Heroes. Artist Charlie Biro was asked to come up with an entire 64-page comic book (the standard Golden Age length) over a weekend, starring publisher Lev Gleason’s character Daredevil. Biro, the Wood brothers (Bob and Dick), and Robinson all shared a studio spot, and also brought in Klein and Meskin to produce the comic book during a blizzard of almost Biblical proportions. At one point, Klein was sent out in the blizzard to procure food, through five feet of snow. They existed off of coffee and scant bits of food, getting the entire comic turned out with little sleep.

Daredevil went on to become a successful series for Gleason. With the advent of World War II, Klein went into the service and was later killed in action in Anzio in 1944, a young talent snuffed out before really having his chance to shine, and Jerrry Robinson’s best friend.

The story of that issue of Daredevil was also the basis for a scene in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, and is a defining moment of the Golden Age of comics. In that series of Daredevil, Robinson created London, a World War II hero who personified the courage of Great Britain in its fight for survival against the Nazis. London had a run of over a year.

Robinson and Meskin contined working together on comics after Klein’s death, working on Johnny Quick and modern cowboy The Vigilante for DC. For Standard/Nedor, they packaged the Fighting Yank, as well as The Black Terror. Their work on the Terror, especially, dealt in mood and implied line, the Terror and his identically costumed kid sidekick lithely moving from action scene to action scene.

“I also did work for Crestwood where I did Atoman for two issues when they went bankrupt,” Robinson remembers. “I was already on the third issue, and in Florida for the winter, drawing, I got a call from Mort asking what I was doing and I said I was drawing the third issue of Atoman. He said ‘What page are you on?’

‘I’m only on page three.’

‘Well, you can stop. They just went under.’”

Robinson laughs. The comic book industry was a fickle and tempestuous creature then.

Things came full circle for Jerry Robinson and comics in 1975, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s legal battle over compensation over Superman came to light. Jerry and Joe, practically destitute and penniless, were fighting to regain creators’ credit, as well as financial reparations before the release of the 1978 Superman feature film. Robinson single-handedly procured the support of the National Cartoonists Society, the Writers Guild of America, and the Screen Cartoonists Guild. With the help of cartoonist Neal Adams and others, Robinson negotiated a deal with Warner Brothers/DC Comics to restore Siegel and Shusters’ creators’ credit.

Back in Robinson’s apartment, he poses for a photograph. Sitting in an armchair, he puts his hands up into a steeple and, for just a moment, he looks like the Joker in his first appearance. I mention this to him, and he laughs heartily.

This man, now in his 80s, has exhibited artwork, won awards, written several books (including the seminal comic strip history book The Comics), helped define an entire storytelling medium, and used his success to give back to the two men responsible for jumpstarting comics in the first place.

Jerry Robinson may be long remembered as the creator of the Joker, but he will always be credited with helping give hope and happiness to the creators of the Man of Steel in their last days.

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