In what has become an alarmingly common trend the last few years, yet another Golden Age Great has met Life’s deadline. The multi-skilled and many-talented Jerry Robinson joined his peers in a world away from ours. He went silently in his sleep–good for him but bad for us. A peaceful, uneventful end to an exciting, major-event-creating career.
Robinson, as you probably know, is responsible for creating or co-creating some of the Batman’s most legendary figures, including The Joker, Robin, Alfred and others. What you may not know–and embarrassingly I didn’t know myself until a couple years ago–is that Jerry was an award-winning editorial/political cartoonist, former president of the National Cartoonists Society (NCS), photographer, book illustrator, founder of CartoonArts International, as well as a historian and author of books on comics history. Can you say, “Huge”?
I was fortunate enough to meet him at one of his many San Diego convention appearances and thank him for his contributions to the field as well as his creations’ influence on my own childhood. He was not only a very intelligent and well-spoken gentleman, but a nice guy as well (most of the truly great ones are). I attended three of his panels back in 2009: one with a plethora of Golden Age artists, one for Batman artists (along with Sheldon Moldoff and Lew Sayre Schwartz–then the last three remaining men to have drawn the Caped Crusader before 1962) and a spotlight on Jerry alone.
In tribute to Jerry, I’ve gone thru my notes from those panels and thought I’d throw some tidbits your way. Hopefully they’re ones you’re not familiar with or had forgotten:
–At age 17 in 1939 (year of Batman’s first appearance), Jerry was an ice cream vendor in Trenton, NJ. One day while wearing a white jacket which he’d decorated with his drawings, Jerry felt someone tap him on the shoulder. It was a 19-year-old Bob Kane, who asked Jerry to come with him. Kane explained he’d just begun the Batman feature and that he an Bill Finger needed an assistant because the feature was going to be “big”. Bob proudly showed him a copy of Bats’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27; Jerry was unimpressed, but agreed to help.
–After a year of assisting Kane, both Jerry (age 18) and Bill Finger received an offer from Busy Arnold at Quality Comics. They were both ready to leave because Kane had not given any raises. When DC found out, they persuaded both to work for them directly by offering each man opportunities to create their own stories and Jerry to draw covers (which he famously and wonderfully did).
–George Roussos came aboard a year later to assist with coloring, then left Kane to work for DC in general.
–Robinson was later accepted to the journalism school of Syracuse University but switched to Columbia so he could continue assisting on Batman.
–Like many of his generation, Robinson’s comic-strip influences included the iconic Hal Foster and ubiquitous Milt Caniff.
–He once rode in a limo with a famous Metropolitan Opera tenor (Jan Pierre?)
–Kane has stated more than once that he and Bill Finger created The Joker, and that Jerry only later brought in a Joker playing card which they decided to use as the character’s trademark/calling card. (Finger was inspired by the rictus Conrad Veidt character in the silent film, The Man Who Laughs and showed pictures of him to Robinson). Jerry’s version was different: DC had decided to do a quarterly Batman book and needed a story. Robinson volunteered to write it and needed a villain. He thought it would be different to have a villain with a sense of humor (as a counter to the Batman’s seriousness). Jerry’s family was full of card players and he got his initial inspiration from a jester-like face on joker card. He brought it in to show Bill Finger, who was then reminded of the Veidt character. Finger fleshed out the character from there, and Jerry’s style on the Joker stories was influenced by the intricate Harry Clarke illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe tales. (See examples.)
–For the creation of Robin, the guys had a list of 30 possible names. (Shelly Moldoff said he was the one who suggested a young boy hero/sidekick). Jerry offered the name Robin, after the famous literary Robin Hood. (No, it had nothing to do with Jerry’s last name!) In fact, Robinson’s design of character’s costume was based from his memory of the classic N. C. Wyeth Robin Hood illustrations.
–Twenty years later, Kane called Jerry and mentioned a new character he “created” called Egghead. Robinson noted he’d earlier illustrated a Simon & Schuster book featuring a Professor Egghead, and thought that the more likely source of Kane’s creation.
–Jerry left DC around 1946 or ’47. For the next ten years he worked for other publishers. These included Stan Lee at Timely, drawing western, romance, crime and science-fiction comics, as well as the Mort Meskin studio, where Joe Shuster and Jack Kirby had also worked at one time. There he worked on The Black Terror, Vigilante and Fighting Yank among others. (Aside: Meskin was a graduate of Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, along with later alumni John Buscema and my Dad).
–Robinson also worked on Bat Masterson and Lassie to pay the bills. According to Jerry, he “learned to hate that dog.”
–Jerry was proud of the Jet Scott sci-fi strip which he drew for two years (recently reprinted by Dark Horse) but his favorite was his historical/political cartoon strip, Still Life (named by his wife), which became Life With Robinson, which lasted 16 years. Robinson noted he spent “17 years at the bottom of the editorial page”. (I could not find any art examples for this one; feel free to share a link in the “Comments” section.)
–During his newspaper career, Jerry also became a teacher at NYC’s School for Visual Arts and Steve Ditko was among his students. Ditko later acknowledged Robinson as his biggest influence on learning the fundamentals of the craft (see Blake Bell’s STEVE DITKO ARCHIVES vol. 1).
–He worked off and on in comics in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. In the ‘70s he teamed with Neal Adams to help fight for compensation for Superman creators Siegel and Shuster.
—Best anecdote by Jerry: The NCS nominated both Kane and Robinson for its first “Best Comic Book Artist” award. Everyone thought Kane was going to win, including Kane. In fact, as the winner was being announced, Kane stood up and began walking to the stage when it was announced that the winner was Jerry Robinson! After Jerry accepted the award, Kane (embarrassed and upset) walked up to him and asked, “What the hell do you mean by winning that award?!”
Two punchlines: 1) Jerry had voted for Bob, and 2) Kane immediately resigned his membership from the NCS. (Yikes.)
Considering the way both men are remembered today, I’d say Robinson came out ahead, regardless of the money made by Kane. I never heard a bad word about Jerry from anyone. And his respect was both earned and returned.
In a career full of accomplishments, surprises, good fortune, hard work, perseverance, a little luck and a lot of achievements, Jerry Robinson not only made his mark, but made it beautifully with a bold and striking line. He’s achieved immortality through his creations and his work–and that is all any artist can wish for.
I only wish I could thank him again.
So what are your favorite memories, stories, or work from Jerry’s long career? Please share them below.
P.S.: If you’d like to have a different take on The Joker, Robin, Batman or any other character, I’m still available for a couple commissions before the year ends. Just ask Craig here!