Thursday, December 22, 2011

Being Punked by Jerry Robinson & Other Memories

I never run into writer/artist Darwyn Cooke without him reminding me of the time I was punked by Jerry Robinson, one of the earliest Batman artists and creator of The Joker. Jerry passed away earlier this month at the young age of 90. I say “young” because his mind was that right up to the last time we spoke, even if his body had begun to slow him down in the last three years to the point of him riding around the San Diego Comicon in his own motorized chariot. (That’s what happens in a solitary occupation like comic books. You often only see fellow professionals once a year, or every other year, which means you come with a picture of how they looked/moved since you last saw them, and it can be a bit sad/jarring to see their health/mobility drop another level.)

I give thanks for the few encounters I had with the man related to my books on Steve Ditko and Bill Everett...including the time when I walked straight into a metaphorical, super-powered punch in the jaw while hosting a one-on-one panel in Toronto with Jerry, clearly still a man with his utmost wits and sense of humour about him. “Punked!”

Everyone in the field knows Robinson for his work on Batman, but his contributions to the comic-book medium include being, first, an inspiration to Steve Ditko and, second, his teacher at (what is now) the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Ditko was unique for many reasons, and one of those was that he didn’t fit the stereotypical profile of a comic-book cartoonist in the “Golden Age of Comics” – he wasn’t Jewish and he wasn’t born in New York state.

Ditko was from Johnstown, PA, and developed his love of comics through Robinson’s work on Batman (as well as Eisner’s The Spirit newspaper strip). Such was Ditko’s interest in the strip that, in his youth, he had his mother craft Batman and Robin costumes for him and his best friend Mike to wander the streets of Johnstown playing Cased Crusader and Boy Wonder.

Inspiration turned to influence when Ditko used his monies from the G.I. Bill (after having served in Germany in the post-War constabulary forces there) to head to Manhattan in 1950 to study under Robinson at the Cartoonists & Illustrators School. Robinson spoke of teaching Ditko in an interview for Alter Ego #39 conducted by Jim Amash: “Steve was quiet and retiring, a very hard worker who really focused on his drawing. Some of the ones who weren’t overly gifted went further than more talented ones, solely because they were driven. They must understand the story’s structure and characterization. Steve understood all of that. He could work with other writers as well as write his own stories and create his own characters.”So impressed with Ditko was Robinson that he helped him get a scholarship for Ditko’s second year. Ditko was so devoted to his schooling that he even remained in school part-time at night in 1954 after being published in 1953.

Ditko was also effusive in his praise of Robinson. In a 1959 letter to fan Mike Britt, Ditko said of his 1953 work, “If Robinson had seen some of that stuff, he’d have me shot. But there’s a big difference in knowin [sic] what’s right and having time to apply everything properly. I’m not alabing [sic] the things I did, a lot of it was pure junk but now I’m in a position to do better and I hope I am.”

In a 1966 interview conducted by Robert Greene for issue 2 of the fanzine Rapport , Ditko expanded on this: “Until I came under the influence of Jerry Robinson, I was self-taught, and you’d be amazed at the hours, months, and years one can spend practicing bad drawing habits.” Of the chief lessons Ditko learned from Robinson: “The basics of art — perspective, composition, anatomy, drapery, light and shade, storytelling, etc. You can’t really draw anything well unless you understand the purpose of that drawing (storytelling), the best way to get the drawing across (individual point of view — composition) and convincingly (perspective, anatomy, drapery, light and shade).”

In my 2008 bio/art book on Ditko, Strange & Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, I put panels of Robinson’s early 1950s work against Ditko’s late 1950s work and you’d struggle to tell the difference. Ditko’s creation of Captain Atom was a homage to Robinson’s 1946 character Atoman in form and function.

In 2005, I had the pleasure of hosting a Jerry Robinson one-on-one at a Toronto comic-book convention. He was an exemplary gentleman, but also had a mischievous look in those eyes when he playfully thought he could mess with a youngster like me. During the one-on-one, I asked all my penetrating questions about his time on Batman and his later career...all leading up to my "true intent": to drill him more about his time as teacher with Ditko.

He must have sensed this because, when the questions at the end died out, I explicitly went after him to relate some untold stories about that period. Without a hint of sarcasm in his eyes, he said, “Blake, did I ever tell you about the time at the school when Steve Ditko saved a woman from being raped?”

My ears, eyes and entire posture shot to attention with the glow of a naive researcher coming across a gold nugget of history never before discovered. I exclaimed, “No, Jerry, you’ve never told that story!” Jerry then replied, “Oh, that’s because it never happened. I’m just messing with you.”

I quickly turned to the maddening crowd and said, “I just got ‘punked’ by the Joker!” and the audience roared in approval at my folly. (Punked was the Ashton Kutcher show at the time where he pull practical jokes on his Hollywood peers, Kutcher famous for his part in the That 70s Show, being married to Demi Moore, and replacing Charlie Sheen in Two And A Half Men.)

Darwyn Cooke was amongst those in attendance, and has never failed to remind me of my shame and humiliation. Secretly, it was, and is, a great joy to share any memories with one of the industry's original members.

I also had occasion to talk with Jerry in person at the 2008 San Diego Comicon about Bill Everett and, like most of Bill's peers in the 1940s who worked for Marvel, Jerry had few memories of the man, just admiration of his work. (Everett worked in Lloyd Jacquet's Funnies Inc. shop that supplied Marvel with all that Golden Age material such as Bill's Sub-Mariner, but Everett never worked in the offices.)

When my Everett book debuted at the 2010 San Diego Comicon, I spoke with Jerry again, this time while he was in that scooter, his legs having begun to fail him (at least in terms of getting around a behemoth like that convention). That was the first moment where it hit home that time stands still for no man, no matter how much you freeze them and their work in your mind as eternal.

I started writing this post on December 12th. Since then, Joe Simon has passed away, as well. Joe was Jack Kirby's partner for many years. Together, they created Captain America, the romance genre and countless titles in the 1940s and 1950s. Joe was one of the first employees for Martin Goodman at Marvel Comics (then known as Timely Productions).

With the passing of these two legends, we are again faced with the reality that almost all members of the first generation of comic-book creators are gone. Few still stand, like Stan Lee and Al Jaffee, and we are blessed to have them around still, as we were to have Jerry and Joe with us for so many years. They lived long, healthy lives and leave a legacy up and down the comic-book industry. I'm glad I had the chance to appreciate them while they were still with us.

PS. My co-conspirator, Dr. Michael J. Vassallo, on our book, The Secret History of Marvel Comics, has a lengthy blog post with rare art, photos and videos of both men.


  1. Just wanted to let you know that I thought this was very warm and moving.

  2. That's a great story, I was at that convention, did an interview with Jerry there, but sadly missed that panel. I was so new at attending conventions I probably didn't know what a panel was then.

    I do vividly recall interviewing Jerry - he was dressed in a sharp suit and his mind was sharp as a tack. I didn't expect that for a man in his 80s. I was also impressed at just how smart he was.

  3. Blake, Very nice posting on Jerry Robinson, I never met the guy, seems the old timers never made it to the Chicago show, ah, but most of the time I was stuck behind my table anyway. I did better at the retailers shows, meet, Stan Lee, John Romita, Will Eisner, and others lots of fun. Especially Eisner, I had a copy of Feature Comics #27 first Dollman for him to sign, he looks at and says I had nothing to do with this book! There I was with my mouth hung open, punked like you! Except he meant it. Jonathan Jensen

  4. Yo Blake, I must say this is one of your more inspired thought patterns on some of our favorite comics creators. Thanks for posting this !!

    I was first in Jerry's NYC apt late summer of 1973. Jon Campbell and I were there offering Jerry some original comics art he was interested in. We kept encountering each other over the decades at various comicons on both sides of the coast. My appreciation of him, his fight for "creator's rights" was inspiring in the fight to gain Siegel & Shuster a stipend from Warner's in the mid 70s.

  5. Great article.
    Congratulations from Brazil!