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Jerry Robinson. He created the Joker. And Robin.

Jerry Robinson created the Joker. And Robin. That’s always the headline, but it’s really not the story. Not at all. I was on a panel at the NYComicon about The Spirit and Batman, and the first question out of the box in question time was, “Did Jerry create the Joke?” I immediately answered, “Yes!” Paul Levitz, always gracious, with insightful as an added bonus, drew on his own creative experience to explain, you can never know who truly created what when you’re working together. What goes on in the room is always Rashomon. In some ways, that explains what Jerry did better than who did what first. (But he did create the Joker. Oh, and Robin.)

Comic books didn’t really even exist when Jerry started working in them. The medium was new, and for him and Bill Finger—but especially for Jerry—the whole world was new. He was a freshman at Columbia, and he’d just moved to New York from Trenton, New Jersey, to work at Bob Kane’s first art assistant. He’d been to New York, but now suddenly it was his home (as it would be forever after), a treasure house of culture to explore and new experiences to have.

When Finger and Kane created Batman, and the character suddenly became successful, they didn’t have any plan mapped out. As Anthony Tollin has recently shown, the very first Batman story was completely lifted, hook, line and chemical plant, from a Shadow novel. Kane was using the adventure strips as inspiration for his pages (or even more than inspiration—Jerry remembered Kane handing him Hal Foster panels to copy into a story).

Like all the smart urban kids who created comic books, Jerry was superbly well educated. At Trenton Central High School, like DeWitt Clinton in the Bronx, there were great teachers who brought literature alive for the striving Depression kids who filled their classes, and even professionals like the charismatic theater teacher at Trenton who later left for Hollywood. Then Jerry got a new education in New York, or he and Bill educated themselves together. They breathed the heady air of art house theaters and the new Museum of Modern Art, and Jerry and Bill together explored the still-living world of German Expressionist films.

When Jerry created the Joker (yes, he created him), it wasn’t a one-off. He was inspired to create a contradictory character by his creative writing class at Columbia, but when he began to bring the Joker to life on the comic book pages, the dark psychology of Caligari and Nosferatu flowed through his brush. Like Picasso and Braque inventing Cubism, he and Finger found the way to bring Expressionist film and modern art, Weimar angst and the urban anomie of Expressionist painting and woodcuts, into to their comics.

And Poe was there, too. There were working just a few blocks away from the most tragic of the Poe houses, the Bronx cottage where his wife Virginia (“Annabelle Lee”) died of consumption. Jerry and Bill would sit there for inspiration. Jerry was a preternaturally gifted artist with a superb visual memory, and he tapped into another Poe source for his expressionism, the pictures in the Harry Clarke Poe that he’d received for his Bar Mitzvah.

As the villains flowed from the collaborations in the studio, and came to life through Jerry’s brush, Expressionism and its American children (Freaks gave us the Penguin) entered comics for the first time, and by the time the Scarecrow haunted the pages, Jerry used slashing, abstract brush lines to define him that were worthy of Kollwitz or Masereel.

Jerry only worked on Batman for six years. He said he left because the excitement was gone, but I think things had just gotten too corporate. Jerry just didn’t want to do anything unless there was some rebellion in it. So he teamed up with Mort Meskin, and they did the Black Terror over at Nedor, where they were left alone to do whatever the hell they wanted. They never met the scriptwriters, and Jerry started in again, he and Meskin challenging each other like the young tyros they were until there weren’t any challenges left there, either.

Sometimes, I think, Jerry was such a natural artist that it came almost too easily for him. When illustrated children’s books exploded in the huge outpouring of educational product for the Boomers in the 1950s, Jerry did a bunch of them, producing incredibly sophisticated, sometimes deeply affecting drawings for editors who didn’t care in books that were lost in the welter of offerings filling school libraries. He loved doing things for kids, and about kids. Oh, maybe that has something to do with how he created Robin. Bill Finger decided Batman needed a teenage sidekick, and Jerry knew just where to find him.

When I had the honor of writing a book about Jerry’s art, one of the most exciting days was when I brought Jerry a gift, a copy of Robin Hood with N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations. He still had a lot of the books from his youth, including the Clarke Poe, but not this one. We pulled out his Howard Pyle, and he said, no Robin didn’t come from there. Then we looked at the N.C. Wyeth paintings, and that was that. Trust Jerry to go to just the right source. Suddenly the tradition of Medieval romance was part of Batman, because Robin Hood, and good King Richard and King Arthur were part of the readers’ visual world because of N.C. Wyeth and his illustrated classics.  And Robin’s laughter echoed with the laughter of Douglas Fairbanks, the witty and dashing Robin and Zorro and Musketeer of the silent screen. Anybody else would have stuck Batman with Dick Merriwell or Andy Hardy or some lame mascot; only Jerry, who always knew what it meant to be a kid, knew just what kind of kid to create.

I always tell my students that artists are attuned to the social world around them in ways the rest of us are not. I don’t think anybody ever appreciated just what an amazing artist Jerry was, except Eddie Campbell (read his incredibly illuminating blog, linked here: http://eddiecampbell.blogspot.com/2007/10/on-pictorial-space.html)

My book about Jerry is an artist’s monograph, organized by the diverse media he worked in—because that’s who he was, that’s the kind of book he deserved.

He just seemed to be able to channel whatever was happening in art into his comics, so effortlessly, so masterfully. In Jet Scott, an otherwise unremarkable science fiction strip that ran for two years, he took the most useful parts of Piet Mondrian’s late and Stuart Davis’s mature, modernist works and seamlessly melded them into his adventure strip vocabulary.

It’s really just too damn bad that Jerry’s editorial cartoons have never really been recognized for their innovations. Still Life completely channeled Pop Art in its earliest moments into editorial cartooning, and Life With Robinson brought the life and innovation of cartoons by Steig or Steinberg into the slightly retardataire world of the editorial page. Again, only Eddie Campbell really seems to have gotten this (http://eddiecampbell.blogspot.com/2007/10/polka-dots-or-not.html, http://eddiecampbell.blogspot.com/2007/10/skippy.html#comment-form). He always had to go his own way, and that didn’t help. He syndicated the cartoons himself—but at least we can be grateful, because that led him to start the first international cartoon syndicate.

Let’s say that again. The First. International. Cartoon. Syndicate. Does anything more really need to be said? International understanding through cartoons. Bringing cartoons from everywhere, to everywhere. A way to financially support cartoonists in countries where they barely made a living, where they were sometimes subject to violence, censorship, imprisonment. It’s all part of the whole. Like the part where he led the campaign to free Francisco Lorenzo Pons from a prison cell in Latin America. And the campaign he and Neil Adams led to get pensions and health insurance from Warner for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, you know, the guys who created Superman. Jerry’s friends.

The thing Jerry really fought for, the thing he understood the most deeply about Jerry and Joe and Superman was that they wanted their names back on their creation. He knew what it meant to be an artist and a writer, your creations, they’re like your children. He’d been to Hollywood, he was running his own syndicate, he’d been in publishing and licensing, he was the person in comics who knew best how these things worked, he was the only person who could have gotten their names back on the comics and on the books and TV shows and movies, and he fought for that even after Jerry and Joe said, we can’t take any more. And he won.

So Jerry Robinson, he created the Joker. By himself. It was his idea. And Robin, he did that too. But that’s hardly the whole story. It’s true, he did that. But what he really did was free comic books to be things that nobody would ever in a million years have thought they could be. He thought they were art when nobody else did, except Will Eisner. That’s why he saved his best Batman covers when everybody else threw them away.

Jerry loved how much comic fans cared about his contribution to the field. He was always willing to be interviewed, to talk to people, to sign things, he was really kind and open. But I think he was, finally, a little disappointed that people in some ways just didn’t get the amazing career he had. Some of the first truly scholarly books on comics (The Comics, get the revised version from Dark Horse, and Skippy and Percy Crosby, still the best book ever on a comic strip, read David Hajdu’s appreciation here http://byliner.com/david-hajdu/stories/not-for-laughs). Over thirty years as an innovative editorial cartoonist. (He believed deeply in the power and value of political cartoons, and was saddened at the decline of the field in American newspapers.) He curated of the first exhibitions ever to treat comics as art (at the Alexander Gallery in New York and the Kennedy Center in D.C.), as well as emotionally powerful cartoon shows for the U.N. (http://www.un.org/events/humanrights/udhr60/exhibit.shtml), and the first and best exhibit on the Jewish contribution to comic books (http://www.thebreman.org/exhibitions/zap-pow-bam-golden-age-of-comics.html), which has traveled around the world. Maybe it’s just too much. When my friend Steve Weiner and I wrote The Will Eisner Companion, Will sent us a letter saying we’d found the unity in his diverse career. I think that’s what Jerry hoped the comic fans could find, the commitment to comics in all their diversity, all over the world that marked his life and work.

He believed comics were art. All comics. Comic books, comic strips, editorial cartoons, they were art, they are art, when you create them you’re artist, just like Picasso and Braque and Da Vinci, and when you do them, you make the best comics that you can, because you’re an artist. And a writer. When you create an editorial cartoon, you’re Damon Runyon and Mort Sahl, you’re Ernie Pyle and e. e. cummings. And maybe I. F. Stone, and George Seldes, too.

In comics, we call our artists and writers creators. That’s what Jerry was. An artist, one of the best. A writer, an historian, one of the best. A creator. One of the very best. Ever.

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