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Jerry Robinson, key creator behind the Joker and Robin, dead at 89

Batman (fictional character)Robin the Boy Wonder (fictional character)

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.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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