Jerry Robinson, a pioneer in the early days of Batman comics and a key force in the creation of Robin the Boy Wonder; the Joker; Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred; and Two-Face, died Wednesday afternoon in New York City. He was 89.
The illustrator with a far-ranging career — after shifting in the early 1960s into political cartooning, he would serve as president of the National Cartoonists Society and then author the exhaustive and well-regarded “The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art” — died in his sleep during a late afternoon nap, according to Michael E. Uslan, a close family friend and an executive producer on all the Batman feature films since the 1980s.
Born on New Year’s Day 1922 in Trenton, N.J., Robinson was a still a teenager when he stepped into the fledgling comic book industry after a chance meeting with Bob Kane, who showed the youngster the just-published issue of Detective Comics No. 27, which introduced a masked man-hunter called Batman. Robinson was at a resort in the Catskills and wearing a white painter’s jacket that caught the eye of Kane because the teen had covered it with his own illustrations.
“That was a fad then, kids would get these linen jackets with all the pockets and personalize them with all this razzmatazz,” Robinson told Hero Complex in 2009. “I was wearing mine as a warmup jacket and someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked, ‘Hey, who drew that stuff?’ It was Bob Kane, who had just finished the first issue of Batman [which was “Detective Comics” No. 27]. I didn’t even know what that was. He showed me the issue that was on sale there at the local village. I wasn’t very impressed.”
However, Robinson, fresh from high school graduation and selling ice cream, was impressed with the offer of an art-table job in New York City. He left the resort and, just 17 years old, went straight to the city where he would ink over the pencil drawings of older artists, do the lettering in the word balloons and help with design and background. Eventually, the gifted youngster moved up to the job of penciling, which is a marquee spot in the production chain, although it was not exactly a time of glamor for the American comic book.
Working with Kane — who was a decade older — opened up new frontiers for the gifted young artist, but Kane took the credit when Batman became a sensation. It was Robinson, who started working on Batman in 1939 with Kane and Bill Finger, who came up with the name “Robin” for Batman’s sidekick, and he was the creator or key contributor to the first and formative appearances of enduring characters such as the Joker, Two-Face and Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler. As comics historians now credit writer Bill Finger with co-creating the Caped Crusader, they also acknowledge that the polished, high-verve style of Robinson is clearly evident in many issues that do not bear his name.
In those early days of the comics industry, the product was seen as totally disposable and all the original art in the office would be thrown away. Young Robinson, though, so admired the work of his older peers that he fished the pages out of the trash and saved them. That led to Robinson possessing perhaps the most esteemed collection of original art from the golden age of comics. Key artifacts from that pen-and-ink archive were displayed at museums, including the Skirball Cultural Center in 2009, and then sold at private auction in 2010.
For today’s comic book artists, Robinson was one of the last and most admired links to the genesis era of the American superhero.
“Jerry Robinson illustrated some of the defining images of pop culture’s greatest icons,” said Jim Lee, perhaps the most popular comic-book artist of the last 25 years and now the co-publisher of DC Entertainment. “As an artist myself, it’s impossible not to feel humbled by his body of work. Everyone who loves comics owes Jerry a debt of gratitude for the rich legacy that he leaves behind.”
Neal Adams, the comic book artist who became a fan-favorite in the 1960s and a champion for creator rights, said that young Robinson brought an energy and intuitive understanding of his audience to the Batman comics. Nothing showed that more, Adams said, than the addition of Robin, the plucky daredevil sidekick who provided an entry point for every kid who spent their nickels on Detective Comics, or characters such as Two-Face, which showed Robinson’s affection for Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy.”
“You say ‘Batman,’ I say ‘Batman and Robin,’ it was the team that mattered to me as a kid and Robin was the guy every reader wanted to be,” Adams said Thursday by phone from New York. “As I grew up and fell into this stuff, I realized that everything I liked about Batman ending up being the stuff that Jerry Robinson created. ‘Who is this guy? He did all that? Yes he did all that.’ When I started doing Batman the stuff that came back in — Two-Face, who they hadn’t used in years, and the Joker and Alfred — all was from the stuff that Jerry Robinson did and when you go see the films, a lot of that it is there, too. You can’t make a Batman movie without Alfred.”
Comic books were just one stop in Robinson’s long and eclectic career. “He was no one-trick pony,” as Adams puts it. There was also the 1953-55 comic strip “Jett Scott,” created with screenwriter Sheldon Stark, that was recently collected into a lavish hardcover by Dark Horse Comics, and his work as a curator with a specialty in art-as-activism, which led to his invitation from the United Nations to produce two major exhibitions, the Ecotoon collection of environmental art at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the Human Rights collection of political commentary in Vienna in 1993. Robinson also drew for Playbill, contributed to more than a dozen books and shot photographs around the world for exhibition and publication.
“There was an intellect behind everything he did and no one that ever called Jerry and asked for help ever got a ‘No,'” said Adams, who sought and got Robinson’s help in the 1970s for a successful campaign seeking a pension for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman who had fallen on hard times even as their brainchild continued to pile up hundreds of millions of dollars for Warner Bros. “Jerry didn’t hesitate a moment, ever, if he had a chance to help someone.”
Robinson’s satirical eye led to two award-winning newspaper features, Still Life and Life With Robinson, which were syndicated throughout the 1960s and ’70s and part of a three-decade career of published political commentary. The New York Times once praised Robinson and his newsprint humor for “a commentary more humorous and his approach more timeless than that of most other political cartoonists.” Far from Gotham City, Robinson considered this to be the defining core of his career.
“I did 32 years of political cartoons, one every day for six days a week, I wrote and drew every word, every line,” Robinson told Hero Complex. “That body of work is the one I’m proudest of. Looking at the Batman pages is like revisiting my youth. My first seven years in New York were the first seven years of Batman itself. While my time on ‘Batman’ was important and exciting and notable considering the characters that came out of it, it was really just the start of my life.”
Still, Robinson was proud of his years working in comics, especially of his creations Atoman and a masked wartime hero called London. During his time in the field he drew sci-fi, horror, romance, war, crime and spent time on adaptations of well-known characters from other media, among them Green Hornet, Lassie and Bat Masterson. The success of the recent Batman films brought Robinson back into the spotlight — he even visited the Cardington, England, set of “The Dark Knight” and attended the premiere — but watching the Joker break box-office records was a bittersweet experience for Robinson.
“It was based on a playing card and the character had a lot of mystery to him early on,” Robinson said of the creation of the Joker. “We had no idea, of course, that we’d still be talking about him all these years later. When I think of the money from that movie — a billion dollars — I get a chill when I hear that. We should have copyrighted what we had done. But of course, we didn’t know. We were young and no one could have seen all of this…. It was a new industry and we were pioneering a new mythology. We had no past so we had very few rules. We also didn’t expect any of it to last.”
Robinson is survived by his wife, Gro; his son, Jens Robinson; his daughter, Kristin Robinson-White; and two grandchildren.
[UPDATE : In a statement from the family, Jens Robinson wrote of his father: “In addition to those closest to Jerry who knew him as husband, father, grandfather, father-in-law, uncle and dear friend, Jerry was adored personally and respected by so many people around the world. His comics creations, especially the first supervillain, the Joker, are cherished by many millions more. Jerry was one of the last remaining links to the Golden Age of comic books in the 1930s and 40s. Among his numerous awards and accomplishments, Jerry was most proud of his fight for creator rights, notably on behalf of his friends the Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and oppressed political cartoonists abroad. In his later career he revolutionized the way political cartoonists worldwide are distributed outside their own countries through the formation of the cartoon syndicate he founded.”]
— Geoff Boucher
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