THE JOKER, THE JEWISH MUSEUM AND JERRY: TALKING TO JERRY ROBINSON
by Daniel Robert Epstein
Jerry Robinson is best known for co-creating the Batman villain The Joker and for giving Robin, the Boy Wonder his nom de plume. Though Robinson has retired from creating new comic books, he’s still very much involved with his comic strip syndicate and documenting the history of comic books. His latest triumph is the exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City entitled Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics. This show highlights a number of Golden Age creators including Joe Kubert, Mort Meskin, Emanuel (Mac) Raboy and many more. I got a chance to talk with Robinson from his home in New York City.
Newsarama: How did you get involved with the show at the Jewish Museum?
Jerry Robinson: The Jewish Museum approached me to curate the show.
NRAMA: What were their parameters that they wanted you to work in?
JR: The Jewish Museum show is a more focused vision of a show I had done last year for the Breman Jewish Center Museum in Atlanta, Georgia called The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books 1938-1950, which is now on tour. So they asked me to curate a similar show for the Jewish Museum, with more of an accent on the Jewish artists in the New York area, although it’s not exclusively that. Most of creations at the very beginning of comic books including Superman, Batman, Captain America were created by Jewish creators and almost all were overseen by Jewish editors and Jewish publishers.
NRAMA: Do you have any insight into why Jews were such a big part of the comic book industry in the beginning?
JR: I’ve done a lot of research on this and it’s going to become a book based on the two exhibitions and it will be published by one of the major art publishers in America. Jewish artists and creators have been prominent in New York culture since the turn of the century. A lot of artists, writers, poets, also scientists and other professions were in that first wave of immigration in the 1890’s/1900’s. Then the next wave was due to the rise of Nazism and that wave included a lot of artists, writers and theatrical people. So from that whole first half of the 20th Century, New York absorbed a lot of diverse talent, along with many other immigrants of other nationalities, German, Italian, Russian, etc. But many of them were Jewish and were prominent in their areas. For example, the early movie industry was also dominated by a lot of Jewish actors, writers, filmmakers from Europe. They immigrated to New York and settled in the Lower East Side and at one time there were hundreds of theaters around the country that were showing Jewish plays and performances. The film industry, again, had many prominent Jews such MGM with David O. Selznick, Carl Laemmle with Universal. I can’t name them all.
NRAMA: There’s too many [to count].
JR: So naturally a lot of Jewish publishers and printers were all tied in. They filled a Jewish craving to study and learn and be cultured. So there were a lot in the printing industry. So when comic books first started to publish original material, they turned to creators from the New York area, which was already a center of Jewish culture in America. Although they came from other areas too most famously with Superman, [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. But they settled in New York.
NRAMA: Are most of the pieces in the Jewish Museum show from your collection?
JR: No, a percentage of them are, but not all. I think we have about 75 pieces, including a couple artifacts. I think there are about 16 from my own collection.
NRAMA: How did you decide what creators would be included?
JR: Since the parameters are the beginnings of the comics industry, it was about the same as what I did in Atlanta. The Golden Age goes from ’38 to ’50, so it was from that period that I drew from. I selected 15 artists and writers who I think made the greatest impact on the fledgling comics industry. I’ve been in the business about 65 years in all facets of the industry from comic books to comic strips to political cartoons. For 32 years, I was a political cartoonist doing a strip a day. Those were syndicated around the world. I’ve done exhibitions all around the world in maybe 20 or 30 countries. I’ve been on international juries. So I felt that I could make a judgment call on the artists.
NRAMA: What made you pick Action Comics #44 drawn by Fred Ray for the show?
JR: That is perhaps the most iconic Superman cover. It’s the heroic figure of Superman in the background with a shield, the American eagle. It was during the war. It was a very patriotic time. That’s just the most sought after cover Superman outside of Action Comics #1. Fred Ray is one of the non-Jewish artists in the show. He’s not living now, but he was not Jewish. He was a close personal friend of mine. We did a number of covers together, notably some of the World’s Finest covers featuring both Superman and Batman. We would think of the idea together and then he would draw the Superman figure and I would do the Batman and Robin if Robin was involved in it as well. So we worked side by side.
NRAMA: So you picked Captain America #1 just because it’s a very iconic picture?
JR: Exactly. It’s one of the most prized covers. It has additional cache because it is #1. It was when [Joe] Simon and [Jack] Kirby were both working together at the height of their work.
NRAMA: Is that the original artwork from the cover of Detective Comics #71 in show?
JR: Yes. It’s an original. That one is a fan favorite Batman and Joker cover. It was a very early one.
NRAMA: The Joker concept sketch is also in the show. What made you decide to go with that one?
JR: That was actually the first visualization of the Joker. That was the concept sketch that I drew the night before we wrote the story. I found it just stuck away in the corner of a drawer one day.
NRAMA: I read that the Joker may have been based on Conrad Veidt from the film The Man Who Laughs, is that true?
JR: No, it was not. That’s been written about, but that’s not exactly correct. What happened was [Batman co-creator] Bill Finger knew of Conrad Veidt because Bill had been to a lot of the foreign films. Veidt was a great star of European films and in the film Veidt had this clown makeup with the frozen smile on his face. When Bill saw the first drawing of the Joker, he said, “That reminds me of Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs.” He said he would bring in some shots of that movie to show me. That’s how that came about. I think in Bill’s mind, he fleshed out the concept of the character.
NRAMA: You, of course, have many other people you honor at the Jewish Museum show like Lou Fine and Irwin Hasen. Do you feel like it is time for them to get their due?
JR: All of those who I had in the show I feel need more and that’s why I included them. I think they were the best of their time and they were groundbreaking. They invented the new language of the comics and storytelling. It was a very exciting time. I think Siegel and Shuster, Joe Simon, Irwin Hasen, Alex Schomburg and all those I have in the show were pioneers of the industry and have made a profound impact on American life and culture.
NRAMA: I had heard years ago that the reason that Bob Kane was able to get a credit on everything Batman was because his family had enough money to hire a lawyer.
JR: That may be partially true. I don’t know. I was not there.
NRAMA: Do you feel that with the Finger Awards and things like that, that Bill Finger is finally being properly acknowledged?
JR: I think it’s certainly being acknowledged. To set all things right, I think the strip should be “by Bob Kane and Bill Finger” like Siegel and Shuster were credited for Superman. But now that he is being acknowledged, I’m just delighted because in any interview I’ve done for the last 50 years, I’ve credited Bill with his contributions as co-creator. I was honored to have founded the Bill Finger Award, which is given now every year at San Diego Comicon for Finest Writers Living and those who have passed on. I think it’s entirely justified and right to honor Bill. He wasn’t in his lifetime. It’s a sad story.
NRAMA: What do you think of the Batman movies?
JR: I was more impressed with the last one [Batman Begins] than the others. I didn’t care for most of the others, mostly the writing and not necessarily the acting. I hope the next one [The Dark Knight] will be good. I might be acting as a consultant on that.
NRAMA: Oh really?
JR: Possibly. That’s being discussed. So if that’s true, then I hope it’ll be the best one.
NRAMA: I’m sure I know the answer to this question already, but have you seen this new The Batman cartoon that’s on Saturday mornings?
JR: What do you mean new?
NRAMA: It’s been on for about a year. It’s got a whole new look for the Joker.
JR: Oh no. I probably haven’t seen that one.
NRAMA: He looks more like a circus clown than ever before. It’s strange.
Do you still have your syndicate?
JR: Yes, I do. I represent mostly political cartoonists although we do have a number of pop humor cartoonists that work for The New Yorker and other magazines. We have cartoonists in 50 countries. We have five American star political cartoonists. Three of them are Pulitzer winners.
NRAMA: Do you still draw much?
JR: Not too much anymore. I’m busy writing. I have a number of books in the works. Back in the ‘70s I wrote what is considered the definitive history of the comic strip at the time. It was called The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art. Dark Horse is going to republish that this year. So I’m working on that and updating it. It’s going to be all beautiful color art. It’s the same text, I’m just adding a review of what’s happened in the last part of the century.
NRAMA: Do you read comics anymore?
JR: Not too much anymore. Just the history of them [laughs]. I am doing another book with my syndicate and the New York Times syndicate. We’re doing a book about current events. It’s going to be commentary on major stories of the year and art reflecting those stories.
The Jewish Museum offers free admission on Saturdays
"The film industry, again, had many prominent Jews such MGM with David O. Selznick, Carl Laemmle with Universal. I can’t name them all.
NRAMA: There’s too many [to count]. "
boy am i glad they threw in that "to count" in edits.
thanks for this. it's nice to know someone we all worship is doing something more than struggle in poverty for once. apparently i'm a subway ride away form the first picture of the joker. that's oddly comforting.