‘Joker’ creator Jerry Robinson reflects on Gotham and the golden age

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My interview with Jerry Robinson will run in this Sunday’s Calendar section in the Los Angeles Times; here’s an early look at it for you Hero Complex readers. This version is also longer than the one that will appear in print.

Jerry Robinson, an essential figure in the early history of Batman and the American comic book, has many of his vintage ink treasures on display right now at the Skirball Cultural Center, among them his original 1940 sketch of the Joker, the cackling clown who today rivals Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter in popcorn-movie villainy. But, in Robinson’s long and wandering career as an illustrator, this new, sleek installation is hardly the most important art show — that distinction belongs to a one-man exhibit he staged 70 years ago on a tennis court in the Catskills.

Robinson was fresh from high school graduation in Trenton, N.J., and saving his nickels for college, but his mother was worried about his health; he had been peddling (and pedaling) for weeks as a bicycle ice-cream salesman, and the wiry teen was under 90 pounds. At her insistence, he splurged on a visit to a leafy resort and arrived on its tennis court wearing a white painter’s jacket that he had decorated with his cartoons, the same sort that had made him a popular contributor to his school paper.


“That was a fad then, kids would get these linen jackets with all the pockets and personalize them with all this razzmatazz,” he recalled. “I was wearing mine as a warm-up 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.”

Robinson, however, was impressed with Kane’s offer of a drawing-table job in New York. The teenager had been accepted at three universities and had planned on Syracuse, but after the serendipitous meeting, he phoned Columbia in the city and said he was on the way. Just to complete the giddy Frank Capra-esque sweep of the story, Robinson was spared a bus ride when a resort guest, the celebrated tenor Jan Peerce, offered him a lift.

“I went straight from the resort to the city and I had never been to New York before and there I am arriving in a fancy car with a driver and sitting next to a man who would be a star at the Met,” he recalled. “It was the beginning of everything for me.”

Robinson shook his head and smiled. Born on New Year’s Day, 1922, the artist still has the lean physique, tan and alert eyes of a lifelong tennis player. He lives in Manhattan but, on a recent afternoon, he was visiting the Skirball to check on the exhibit of his collection of original drawings from the golden age of comics, an archive that, quite literally, is a lesson in the potential of trash to reach museum walls.

In the years after he met Kane, Robinson worked on “Batman” and other comics and made a habit of rescuing the drawings by his peers that routinely ended up in the garbage. Those poster-sized pages — many worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — make up the heart of the Skirball exhibit that is indelicately titled “ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950.” The exhibit, from the Breman Museum in Atlanta, runs through Aug. 9.

Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Joe Shuster, Mac Raboy, Lou Fine and Robinson are some of the artists featured, a circle of young Jewish artists who became the basis for the ink-stained dreamers in Michael Chabon’s wistful, Pulitzer-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” The Jewish heritage of those creators makes the exhibit a natural for the Skirball, said Robinson, who is now working on a book about Jewish traditions echoing in classic comics art.

“You look at Superman, the story of an orphan coming to America, keeping his identity secret and even the names, Kal-El and Jor-El, you can trace lines to the background of the creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both Jewish,” Robinson said. “Overall, there was a remarkable confluence of events that led to the medium and the Jewish participation.Immigration brought a lot of great talent from Europe and they brought with them their traditions of storytelling and learning and studying. When comics came along in the 1930s there was a talent pool waiting. And one reason is so many areas were closed to Jews. Colleges, advertising agencies, many of the corporations — the doors that were closed led to the one that was open.”

There’s a crowded shelf of pop-culture studies on the sparkling role that young Jews played in the early comics, but this exhibit looks to tap into a more urgent trend — the seemingly unstoppable surge of superheroes in film, video games and animation today. At the top of that list is “The Dark Knight,” which last year pulled in a billion dollars at theaters and won an Oscar for the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. Considering the fact that Oscar-winner Jack Nicholson also made history with a record $60-million payday for portraying the criminal clown in the 1989 film, it’s a bit startling to consider the impact of that small Robinson drawing.


“That’s the one, right there,” Robinson said, pointing to the pen-and-ink piece. “It was based on a playing card and the character had a lot of mystery to him early on. 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 werepioneering a new mythology. We had no past so we had very few rules. We also didn’t expect any of it to last.”

The regrets are understandable but, thanks to his salvaged art and a long career after comics, Robinson fared far better than many of his peers under the old work-for-hire system. The heirs of Kirby, for instance, have watched as half a dozen films have been made out of his Marvel Comics creations such as the X-Men and Hulk without any significant compensation, and four more movies are in the pipeline. Siegel and Shuster were famously broke in their advancing years even as “Superman” became a box-office sensation. “It was appalling,” said Robinson, who stepped in to help the pair get a settlement from Warner Communications in the 1970s. The late Shuster’s sad trajectory was made even clearer this year with the publication of “Secret Identity,” which collects an unearthed cache of his sordid bondage art that he did during his desperate days in the 1950s.

Robinson was far more nimble in his career. By the late 1940s, Robinson had left Batman and was working with Stan Lee at DC’s rival, Timely Comics, which would later be known as Marvel. In the 1950s his comics work veered away from superheroes and into romance, war and adventure. In 1961, he moved into an art sector that was closer to his original aspiration, journalism, by becoming a political cartoonist and he would serve as president of the National Cartoonists Society in the 1960s, when that professional organization was still in its glory days with Schulz, Capp and Caniff among its ranks. He would contribute to magazines and more than two dozen books, including his well-regarded 1970s survey “”The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art.”

“I did 32 years of political cartoons, one every day for six days a week, I wrote and drew every word, every line,” Robinson said. “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.”

More recently, he has been a historian and curator, including a a series of exhibitions for the United Nations on human rights and the environment. Dark Horse Comics will also soon be publishing new collections of some of his rarer works, such as “Jet Scott,” his 1950s sci-fi strip for the New York Herald Tribune, and “London,” his tales of a masked man fighting Nazi plots that were originally published before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Robinson, with a wink, says that George Clooney would be a perfect star for a film adaptation of “London,” and who could blame him for daydreaming? Last year, Robinson traveled to London to visit the set of “Dark Knight,” which gave major screen time to the Joker, Two-Face and Alfred the butler, characters that he created or helped shape in a fundamental way. The same goes for the Penguin and Robin the Boy Wonder, a character that young Robinson named and one that, considering his protege status and sprightly persona, seemed like a metaphor for his role during his days on “Batman.”

Not all of Robinson’s Batman memories are pleasant. Kane, a decade older than Robinson, gave the Jersey kid his big break, but he also took the public credit as well when Batman became a sensation. Comics historians now credit writer Bill Finger with co-creating the caped crusader, and they also acknowledge the spirited, polished style of Robinson is in many issues that do not bear his name. In the earliest issues, Batman had seemed more like Dracula than Dick Tracy, but that changed with Robinson’s ascension and the arrival of Robin. Kane, who died in 1998, disputed Robinson’s claim to the creation of the Joker, and Robinson, with a shrug, said he won’t argue with ghosts.


Mark Evanier, a comics writer and author of ‘Kirby: King of Comics,’ said Robinson has no need to argue, his legacy is secure: “Most visitors see this exhibit as a tribute to super-heroes like Superman, Batman and Captain America. I see it as a tribute to super-heroes like Siegel, Shuster, Kirby, Simon and Jerry Robinson. If all Jerry had done was draw, we’d still be celebrating his accomplishments. That he has also done so much to champion creator’s rights and even human rights is a nice bonus. Jerry is one of a handful of folks who created iconic images that the world knows and will never forget. The Joker keeps dying in Batman stories but will never die in popular fiction.”

Michael Uslan, an executive producer of six live-action Batman films released since 1989, says that Robinson’s vitality has made him an engaging elder statesman. “He remains creatively vibrant,” Uslan said. “He is one of the leading forces in the comic book having finally been accepted as a legitimate American art form and his books, exhibitions, and lectures on the subject are definitive and first-hand. Jerry is the godfather of Batman.”

Robinson revealed last Wednesday that he plans to sell his entire collection of original art, a staggering bit of news for the comics world. “There are hundreds of pieces,’ Robinsons said, and among them is the classic Superman by Fred Ray (shown above, right) with an eagle perched on the arm of the Man of Steel. ‘There’s nothing like [this collection] anywhere else in the world, but I’d like to sell it intact. I won’t do an auction. I spent 70 years bringing all of it together I don’t want it dispersed now.” There is one piece of art that he doesn’t own that he wishes he could get his hands on, even if only for a moment. “I wish I had that old jacket I was wearing the day I met Bob. You know, I can’t even remember what the cartoons on it looked like. That’s something I’d like to see again.”

-- Geoff Boucher



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CREDITS: Photos of Jerry Robinson by Mel Melcon\Los Angeles Times. Vintage examples of original art and comic books courtesy of Jerry Robinson and the Skirball. The Joker by Brian Bolland courtesy of DC Comics. Batman, Joker and Superman are DC Comics characters.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this story had Milton Caniff’s name spelled wrong.