Cartoonist and cartoon aficionados headed to SoHo on Monday when the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art hosted a panel discussion to celebrate Arie Kaplan's book "Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed!" (Chicago Review Press).
Jerome "Jerry" Robinson, the legendary creator of Batman's archenemy, the Joker, was featured along with R. Sikoryak, who creates comic book adaptations of classic books of literature and philosophy. Also on the panel was a former Spider-Man editor at Marvel Comics, Danny Fingeroth, who is author of "Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society." The Sid Caesar biographer, Eddy Friedfeld, moderated the discussion.
Mr. Friedfeld said comic books started out modestly more than seven decades ago, tapping into American mythology, capturing people's hopes, and becoming a multi-billion dollar industry.
Mr. Friedfeld asked Mr. Kaplan about the various comic artists he interviewed in his book, such as Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, and Neil Gaiman. What did they have in common? He replied that they were "elevating the art" and helping the audience realize that comics could be "art with a capital A."
He said a lot of people make fun of comics since 80% of what is produced is of the superhero variety. "It's as if every movie you saw was an action movie," he said.
In another film comparison, Mr. Kaplan said the comic book generation of artists like Mr. Robinson and Stan Lee was like the early generation that led the movie industry. They were "incredibly smart, good at business, and had the common touch."
Mr. Robinson said he first saw comics as a way of earning his way through college, but in his second or third year, he began to see the potential of the medium. "Like early days of movie pioneers, we were inventing a new language," he said. "We knew we were on the threshold of something."
Nowadays, Mr. Kaplan said, cartoonists were more likely to have studied screenwriting or playwriting. The comics industry, he said, had become "a lot slicker." Actors and producers began using it as a springboard to build movie properties for them to star in. He recalled Mr. Lee saying that being a comic book artist today is somewhat like being a script artist in the '30s. "Now we see sitcom producers segueing into comics," he said.
Mr. Robinson worked as an inker helping Bob Kane, who created Batman. Mr. Robinson later suggested the name "Robin" as Batman's sidekick.
Mr. Robinson said once Batman became popular, there was need to create more villains for him. In creating new villains, he wanted the shape of the new characters to involve some humor in some way.
One of his younger brothers was a champion bridge player, and so there were a lot of playing cards in the house. This led him to come up with the basic idea for the Joker.
Actors who have played the Joker include Cesar Romero Jr. and Jack Nicholson. Mr. Robinson told the Knickerbocker that he had met Romero, who played the villain on the ABC television series.
In his talk, Mr. Robinson praised the cartoonist Bill Finger (1914–1974) as his cultural mentor, and he said Finger was influenced by Orson Welles.
Mr. Robinson said he worked for years as an illustrator (including books) and didn't include his comic book credits in his portfolio. Those were the days when it was "not so good to be a comic artist."
Mr. Friedfeld recalled a comment by Mr. Lee who said at parties, people would sometimes walk away when he said he was a cartoonist.
Mr. Friedfeld asked Mr. Robinson about his spearheading support for Jerry Siegel (1914–1996) and Joe Shuster (1914–1992), co-creators of Superman.They were in a legal battle against the owner of DC Comics, and eventually the duo were awarded $35,000 a year. All Superman properties were required to include a line saying Superman was created by Siegel and Shuster.
Mr. Robinson told how the champagne was broken out when the Superman creators won their award, and they waited for Walter Cronkite to announce it on the news. Mr. Cronkite ended the news showing Superman across the screen. He recalled Mr. Cronkite saying, "At last, truth, justice, and the American way win out."
Speaking of compensation, Mr. Friedfeld said Eli Wallach played Mr. Freeze on the Batman television series and got about $350. He said Mr. Wallach saw that 20 years or so later Arnold Schwarzenegger earned $20 million playing Mr. Freeze in a Batman film. Mr. Wallach complained to his wife that it was unfair. His wife said, "Go lift weights."