In 2006, I had the privilege of interviewing Jerry Robinson, one of the earliest ghost artists on Batman and a true class act, in my research for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.
I ended speaking with him multiple more times, including once at his New York City apartment, which was chockablock with priceless Golden Age art and other mementos.
Most if not all of the numerous interviews I conducted for the book contain gems that did not make it into the book, so here is my chance to share them nonetheless. Upon rereading them, I am surprised how much info they contain that I had not—and still have not—read elsewhere.
So this is the first of a series. The interview is transcribed (and slightly edited) from a
recording, as with the upcoming interviews in this series (Shelly Moldoff, Lew Sayre Schwartz, Alvin Schwartz, Joe Kubert, Arnold Drake, Carmine Infantino, Irwin Hasen, plus Bill’s second wife Lyn Simmons and her son Steve).
How did you meet Bill Finger?
I met Bill Finger I think the first time at Bob’s apartment when I first joined the team. He introduced me to Bill when I joined Batman. It was only a couple of months after it started.
Did you get a different impression from him than you did from Bob?
They were definitely different personalities.
How would you describe Bill’s personality?
Bill seemed very soft, kind. Not outgoing. Reserved but very easy to get to know. He wasn’t standoffish…
Did you become friends?
We became fast friends. He actually became my I say cultural mentor. … Remember, I was a 17-year-old kid. Just graduated high school. I knew nothing of New York. I was still going to Columbia, studying journalism, and commuting from my little room in the Bronx. Bill introduced me to everything in New York. Museums, galleries, movies. I soaked everything up like a sponge. I was fortunate that we hit it off. Personally, I think we each appreciated each other’s contributions.
Do you remember what you talked about besides the work?
Everything. Bill was widely read. He also was interested in everything, as I was, in learning everything. And he had very good taste. I don’t know how he was introduced to all these things himself, but he certainly knew them. [unintelligible] …the Metropolitan, MOMA, and foreign films, and other talks and things around town. The galleries.
Did you ever meet his friends who were not in the industry?
That’s a good question. I don’t remember. I knew his wife very well.
Is that Portia?
[unintelligible but affirmative] When he was first courting Portia, I think she came from Rochester was it? Or Albany? You probably know… [unintelligible] Before I met her, he was going with her … I remember several occasions where we’d be going out for lunch or dinner and he’d stop and say “I’ve gotta call Portia.” He’d get in the phone booth. At that time, they had the Superman-type phone booths. I’d stand and wait for him. He had endless conversations with Portia on the phone.
Was she interested in his work?
Yes. She knew what he was doing intimately. They were very close. She was a very intelligent gal. Once she came to New York they were married. They were both friends. I would go out to dinner with them, just the three of us.
Was she more dominant or more outgoing than he was?
I guess maybe in those terms, somewhat. She wasn’t [unintelligible]. She was very articulate and expressive.
What did she think of his work schedule? He was working late into the night.
We all did. (laughs)
So she just accepted it.
Yeah, I’d say so. [goes on in mumble about how some writers were night owls, some morning people]
Was Bill allowed to tell people that he was writing Batman?
They couldn’t stop him from talking to anybody. I think any of us knew…well, of course I knew. His name wasn’t on the feature, obviously.
If his name wasn’t on the feature and he said he wrote it, would people be suspicious?
I don’t think so. I don’t think anybody would just make that up. [unintelligible] They knew every strip wasn’t done just by the author, or the artist signed his name in many cases.
What was Bill proud of?
I think he was proud of his work. He was a very careful craftsman. He was proud of his creation. All of us were. I think that was part of the tragedy of Bill, as it was Siegel and Shuster, that they weren’t credited with their genius.
Do you think that shows a lack of business savvy on Bill’s part or did he just accept that that’s how things were?
Well, he was naïve, as most of us were. If we knew then what we know now, it’d be a different story. I might be head of Warner Bros. We were dealing with very wise publishers who had dealt with artists and contracts before. Some of these cases [were] the first thing they ever sold. It was the beginning of the industry.
Did Bill ever originate a character without an artist?
He wrote many television scripts, and I think even a couple of movie scripts.
That was later in his career, right?
Yes. He worked for a lot of publishers so I’m sure he had a hand in creating a lot of the characters.
[I mention Green Lantern, Wildcat, and he says he doesn’t know others besides those I mentioned]
Do you know if Bill read any fan mail?
I don’t think we were privy to it. I don’t they generally showed us the fan mail. We knew it was popular in sales and so forth, but that wasn’t gotten into until later. [mentions Stan Lee developing rapport with readers]
Would you describe Bill as one of the guys? If you ever went out with a group, was he chummy and social and making jokes?
The apartment I shared with Mort Meskin and, before he left to the army, Bernie Klein, it was kind of the hangout for [contributors who were near?] DC. Bill would be a frequent visitor. I think I have a, one of the books you have, you know, where people who visit draw a cartoon or…
Like a guest book?
Yeah. And there were usually crazy drawings or serious or whatever. And the old girlfriends would write in it.
You have it still?
I have [something, yeah?].
So Bill’s writing is in it?
I’m pretty sure he’s there saying, uh…we [sounds like “found” but might be “had”] a dart board on the wall. I remember that was a pastime for everybody. We challenged…in darts. I think Bill wrote something that was like “Damn it, Jerry, beat me again.”
[NOTE: Bill’s page is reproduced in Bill the Boy Wonder…and the original suffered a sad fate.]
Would you shoot around Batman ideas while you were playing darts?
We would always be…you know, if [we weren’t on another topic?], we would do it in social [situations with?] other artists around, unless we were talking about comics. But Bill and I, and sometimes we were with Bob, we would always be kicking around ideas. We used to live, breathe, eat, and sleep Batman. [Wild age to be in?]