Jerry Robinson: Comic book artist whose most famous creation was The Joker


A central figure in the so-called Golden Age of comic books, Jerry Robinson, who has died aged 89, was perhaps best known as the creator of The Joker, probably the best known villain in comics history.

Although Batman's creator, Bob Kane, for whom he worked, claimed that he and scripter Bill Finger had modelled the character after the actor Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs, even Kane conceded that the Joker's look came from a playing card drawing Robinson made. Since comics were a disposable commodity for children, and publishers controlled all copyright, issues of authorship are often hazy, but historians agree with Robinson's version. And many years later, the artist became a key figure in the establishment of artists and writers retaining the rights to their creations.

Sherill David Robinson was born in Trenton, New Jersey on New Year's Day 1922. Though he exhibited great artistic skill as a youngster he received no formal training, and having finished high school at 17 he intended to study writing at Syracuse University. But after he had earned money for college by selling ice cream off a bicycle, his mother forced him to take a vacation at a resort in the Pocono mountains where he met Kane, who was struck by Robinson's linen jacket decorated with his own drawings. Kane showed him a copy of Detective Comics 27, featuring The Batman's debut, and offered him a job in his studio.

Robinson transferred to Columbia College in New York City, moved to the Bronx and began working in Kane's studio, a bedroom in his apartment on the Grand Concourse. He became Kane's primary inker, his brushwork adding deep shadows to Kane's pencils. The Joker was created for the first issue of Batman's own comic; Robinson also came up with Batman's sidekick Robin, the Boy Wonder, whose look was borrowed from NC Wyeth's illustrations of Robin Hood (also the basis for Errol Flynn's costumes in the 1939 movie), Batman's butler, Alfred, and another memorable villain, Two Face, influenced by the grotesqueries of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy.

When National brought Batman in-house, he became the Batman comics penciller after Kane moved to the daily newspaper strip. In the office, he worked alongside the likes of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. When he and Shuster met girls, Robinson joked it was "Batman and Superman double-dating". Robinson soon joined Mort Meskin and Bernie Klein in their own studio, working for National but also creating heroes like Atoman for smaller publishers, and, in one legendary weekend, producing an entire 64-page issue of Daredevil, for which Robinson devised London, a hero born out of the Blitz. He later worked on adaptations of radio and TV characters like The Green Hornet, Lassie, and Bat Masterson, but by the 1950s was busier outside the comics industry.

For many years Robinson drew for Playbill, the Broadway theatre-programme magazine, and from 1953-55 he produced, with the screenwriter Shelton Stark, a daily strip, Jett Scott, syndicated by the Herald Tribune. He wrote and drew "True Classroom Flubs and Fluffs" for the Daily News, which led to the work of which he was most proud, the syndicated daily commentary strips, Still Life and Life With Robinson, which he produced for some 32 years, and for which he was honoured twice by the Cartoonists Society.

Robinson will also be remembered for what he gave back to the field. For years he taught at New York's School of Visual Arts, where his students included Steve Ditko, creator of Spider-Man, Dr Strange, and The Question. His influence can be seen clearly in Ditko's expressive, fluid style. A hoarder of his own drawings, he led the fight for artists to retain their original works, and in 1974 published the first edition of The Comics, an illustrated history of comic strip art.

In 1975, when the first Superman movie helped turn comics into huge money-makers, Robinson was instrumental, along with the artist Neal Adams, in the campaign that finally got Warner Bros and DC to give credits and pay royalties to Siegel and Shuster, who were living in poverty. "Jerry didn't hesitate a moment, ever, if he had a chance to help someone," Adams said.

He founded Cartoon Artists International in 1978, through which he was instrumental in freeing the imprisoned Uruguayan cartoonist Francisco Laurenzo Pons. He curated "Ecotoon" at the Rio De Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, and the Human Rights Collection for a United Nations exhibition in Vienna in 1993. In 1999 he worked with two Japanese artists to produce Astra, a manga aimed at an American audience. In 2010 he was the subject of a biography, Jerry Robinson: Ambassador Of Comics. Despite all his good works, he knew he would be remembered for the Joker. "Villains, I always thought, were more interesting," he said.

Sherill David Robinson, comic book artist: born Trenton, New Jersey 1 January 1922; married Gro (two sons); died New York City 7 December 2011.

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