Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Crowded Life in Comics – Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson


by Rick Marschall

International Batman Day was observed recently. Holy contrivance! (There. I have gotten that cliché or meme out of the way.) My “mind” swung back to some Gotham memories.

I met Bob Kane in the late 1960s or early 1970s. As young as I was, I was known a little bit as a collector of comics and original art in the New York City area, at Phil Seuling conventions and such. I think it was at one of those cons, or maybe through a friend-of-a-friend, that we met. It seemed strange to me, but not unwelcome, and neither a rare occurrence with professional cartoonists back then, that an older, established cartoonist would want to discuss old comic strips, and pick my brain.

Especially a cartoonist who was a legend. Which Bob Kane told me he was. Several times.

He had a small collection of newspaper-strip art; or I should say one time I visited him in his Manhattan apartment, he had several magnificent originals. He must have scored in a great trade. He wanted to sell them, but I had not the money they were worth. We DID trade – he was a tough bargainer – and I forget most of the pieces I gave up or received. There was a Calkins Buck Rogers I received; and pre-Popeye Segars. Sappo or The Five-Fifteen; and a magnificent but primitive (as per most early Segar) Looping the Loop. (A few years later the Segars were stolen from my portfolio as I made convention rounds behind dealers’ tables. I was always fairly certain which dealer lifted them… but we all have stories full of “sighs” through the years…)

Back to Bob Kane, and two strange aspects of visits.

One: after our trade, he owed me value-money or more artwork, and nothing he offered was of interest to me. I believe we had a $600 difference. No worries, he assured me; he would send me a check. A “spoiler”: short of hiring the We Never Sleep collection agency, I could not squeeze a nickel out of him.

Fast-forward three years or so, and I was Comics Editor at United Feature Syndicate. Later syndication jobs were more demanding and responsible – but some day I will tell the story, here, of how I made a MAJOR goof, editing a Peanuts Sunday page at UFS. But one of the chores at UFS was reviewing submissions when they arrived for consideration. Most were by aspiring cartoonists, and a few by veterans looking for new fields to conquer. One envelope surprised me: the return address was “Bob Kane” in the city,  lettered with predictable flourish.

In the envelope were samples of – not a crime, suspense, or superhero feature – but a panel; a humor panel; and the “star” was an Archie Bunker type character. Beer in hand, in front of the TV, the guy spouted off complaints in every panel. One detail I have omitted: these were about the worst-drawn cartoons imaginable. It hardly seemed possible, because (as the blind cover letter stated) Bob Kane was a legend of cartooning.

I don’t mean to claim the duplicity of a Gotham villain… but saw an opportunity to exercise Justice. The package was not addressed to me, but “Comics Editor”; Bob had no idea what paths I took during the years he was evading his obligation. I will plead guilty to the following string of events:

I called Bob Kane, and identified myself as the Comics Editor at United Features. God help me, I told a white lie, and said I reviewed his samples and was interested – well, actually, I WAS interested, in a certain way. “Yes? Yes?” Bob responded, seemingly ready to throw Batman under the bus forever. Then I introduced myself… and invited him to remember our exchanges (or incomplete exchanges).

He vaguely remembered – he said – me and the original art he traded away and received. But he was “happy” to complete the deal and would send a check. He actually did so, within the week. Eventually I will get back to him about his submission.

The second interesting occurrence was related to a sketch of Batman and Robin. I think it was during my first visit. He asked if I would like a drawing of Batman. Sure; thank you! He brought out a huge sheet of Ross Board (a drawing paper with a patterned grain), and with a Flair pen, in one corner started drawing the famous outline of Batman’s head, bat-ears (or whatever they are) and all… until the right “ear” was drawn shorter than the one on the left.

A curse under his breath, and Bob spun the paper and started drawing in another corner. A similar discrepancy. To myself, I thought, “Why not do a pencil preliminary?” and “Hasn’t he drawn Batman a million times?”

– Adam West, Bob Kane, Frank Gorshin– 

The fourth time was a charm. There was Batman. There was Robin. There was the inscription, the date, the signature. He handed the whole sheet to me… almost. Before I could accept it, he held it back and asked, “You know I usually get $250 for these sketches. I get requests from museums.” I looked at the famous creator of Batman, and politely declined – maybe the first such person to do so that week – and reminded him that I did not ask for, or commission, that artwork. Of course I am not sorry that my disinclination was unsuccessful. The piece is now on my wall. My response was not a bluff, but mirrored my offense at his revelation as an old-fashioned schnorrer, not a world-beloved creator. He yielded, however, out of generosity and, probably, regretting that he had already committed my name to the piece, in effect ruining it for the next potential customer.

Not too long afterward, and not related at all, I became friends with Jerry Robinson. He had worked with Kane on Batman when he was a teenager. Jerry, first as background artist and letterer, rose quickly to do major art duties and even is credited with the conceptions for Robin and the Joker. When he laterally switched from Kane’s employ to DC Comics, he worked with other eventual friends of mine: George Roussos; Siegel and Shuster; Jack Kirby. He eventually worked everywhere, seemingly – political cartoons, newspaper humor panels, syndicated strips, book illustrations. In fact when I first met Jerry, my initial enthusiasm was to shake the hand of the guy who illustrated a schoolboy favorite of mine, the Scholastic paperback Moon Trip.

Jerry, who clearly wore several hats, as well as toupees, was president of both the National Cartoonists Society and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. I assisted him with research on his history book The Comics. I probably saw him, in later years, more often at overseas comics festivals than in the US. (He operated an international syndicate of editorial cartoonists, enabling him to make frequent foreign trips.)

He drew a sketch of Batman for me, too, and did not hint anything about the going rate.

A final Batman memory. A few years after leaving Marvel Comics, and never having been associated with DC – despite having several good friends whom I respected there – I was asked to write the Foreword for the first volume of their DC Archives series. The first Batman volume. I was known, certainly, more as a historian than as a Batman fan, so that evidently was their motivation.

… and I dove in, with appropriate response, feeling honored and responsible. As I remember, my assistant at Remco Worldservice Books would camera-sep and clean up the old pages too; part of the deal. I talked to many cartoonists, including Jerry; I researched antecedents of fiction and the stage whose personas foreshadowed the Bat Man; I considered the feature’s unique (if possibly unintentional) focus on revenge, at least equal to justice; and – I think gave Bill Finger a portion of credit before justice was eventually accorded him. I was proud of the piece.

The DC Archives now number in the skillions of titles, it seems. My casual relationship with Batman enabled me to be part of another origin story (so to speak). Eventually I saw Bob Kane at a Comicon, and had him sign a copy. He did indifferently, making no claims; charging me no signing fee.


No comments:

Post a Comment