The Los Angeles Times is reporting the death of Jerry Robinson, a key figure of the comic-book Golden Age best known for his work on Batman—in particular, the creation of Batman’s archnemesis the Joker, and his help in shaping characters such as Robin, Two-Face, and Alfred. Robinson died in his sleep at the age of 89.
Just a teenager when he was hired by Batman co-creator Bob Kane, Robinson quickly became the title’s primary inker, working with Kane and writer Bill Finger to transform the character from his dark, pulp-inspired origins into the more recognizable Caped Crusader of that early era. Much of that softening had to do with the introduction of sidekick Robin The Boy Wonder, whom Robinson named after his own love of Robin Hood stories. Around the same time, Robinson also brought in a playing card he’d drawn with an image of a sinister, smiling jester—the original inspiration, he says, for the Joker.
Over the years, Bob Kane—who adamantly refused to share credit with anyone, even Finger, on the creation of any of Batman’s famed characters—would often, occasionally angrily dispute Robinson’s side of the story, allowing only that Robinson had provided the playing card, and only after Finger, who he admitted helped him with the initial idea, had shown him a photo of actor Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. While the Joker’s true origins remain in contention, Robinson remained steadfast that it was his original 1940 sketch that led to one of the most famous villains in pop culture, and most comics historians give him credit. And what is not in dispute is that Robinson’s polished style had much to do with the overall look and feel of Batman, an influence that lingered long after.
After a year or so of working with Kane, Robinson was hired to work as a company staffer for what would become DC Comics (then known as National Comics), working on some of the most iconic Golden Age-era books and covers, and rubbing elbows with comics legends like Jack Kirby and also Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, whose 1970s efforts to gain credit and compensation for the creation of Superman became a pet cause of Robinson (who obviously had his own sympathies). Robinson would become one of the most vocal advocates for creator’s rights, eventually founding the Cartoonists And Writers Syndicate (currently CartoonArts International).
Robinson also served as president of both the National Cartoonists Society and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, stemming from a prolific 32-year career spent drawing political cartoons for various newspapers, magazines, and books. And he was also known as an important comics archivist and historian, writing 1974’s The Comics: An Illustrated History Of Comic Strip Art, and curating some of the first and most important gallery shows that brought comics into the serious art world. For his lifetime of contributions, he was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2004.