Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics II

As promised earlier, here’s a review of the new book about the career of artist Jerry Robinson.

My main takeaway from the tome was a greater appreciation of Robinson’s wider field of accomplishments. When my wife and a friend worked for his Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate years ago, I remember being sort of dismissive of his post-Batman career. Who’d want to stop doing something cool like helping create one of the most famous comic books in the world, and then go on to do a lot of stuff I never heard of? This is a widespread attitude, popularly known as “immaturity”. Robinson expanded in many different directions in later years, producing deeper and richer work, and grooming and supporting the work of others. In other words, he grew. What was he supposed to do, just keep inventing copies of the characters he’d already invented, like everybody else did?

And what were the characters he invented? Why, only the Joker and Robin, for Pete’s sake! To co-opt John Lennon, they’re more popular than Jesus! Robinson was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor of a brand new art form. The only superhero franchise older than Batman is Superman, so a lot of the tropes we take for granted were indeed invented by Robinson. (NB: In the early years, Robinson was the junior member of a team that also included Bob Kane and Bill Finger. But that didn’t prevent him from inventing the Joker and Robin, and contributing to the look of all the other characters, as well as the entire layouts of the books.) He also devised the original Batman logo, which has morphed into subsequent ones over the years, but always based on the original. He worked on Batman until the mid 40s, and also worked on some other interesting characters, such as his creation Atoman:

It makes me wonder, was there an Atom-Woman? And when they coupled, did they become a molecule?

If the early accounts of Robinson’s career remind you of Michael Chabon’s excellent novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it may be because Robinson’s story and that of his colleagues was the direct inspiration for that book. In one particular case, Robinson’s real life makes it into the book virtually unaltered. Robinson was the creator of a blitz-era superhero named London, a sort of anthropomorphic representation of the city (hm…kind of like Athena)…and, just like in Chabon’s book, in one issue he actually has London socking Der Fuhrer in the jaw:

Robinson worked on comic books (including some hard-hitting Korean War combat comics) until the late 1950s, and then he began to move into other fields. The least interesting to me is his work illustrating textbooks and the like. While Robinson undoubtedly kept improving as an illustrator, it seems to have been little more than a source of income to him. More interesting is his move to daily strips, which I wasn’t aware of. His Flubs and Fluffs, which ran from 1964 to 1979, illustrated children’s cute malapropisms in school assignments. He also branched into political cartoons, in which his draftsmanship continued to blossom, and his verbal wit came to the fore. His Still Life series (launched 1963 and running into the 1970s), had an innovative format in which a different pair of inanimate objects would form a sort of vaudeville two-act, one delivering the set-up, the other the punchline. In 1977, he switched to Life With Robinson, carried by his own syndicate, which ran until 1995. Since then he has concentrated on running the syndicate, and various political causes and activities.

The book, insomuch as it enhances one’s appreciation of Robinson’s career, is a valuable account, but it has some gaps. Written by N.C. Christoher Couch, apart from a couple of testimonials by admirers like Jules Feiffer and Pete Hamill, it seems to rely almost exclusively on interviews with Robinson, some of which seems digressive, and all of which is from one point of view. Doubtless it is difficult at this late stage to get interviews with Robinson’s colleagues from the 30s and 40s, but one imagines that research would have turned up something. The book feels less objective because of the narrowness of its sources — awfully close to a ghost-written autobiography, as opposed to the tapestry of appreciation Robinson’s career richly deserves. Still, it’s a valuable addition to the comic-lovers’ library. One of those rare times I don’t regret actually having paid for something!

2 comments

    • Actually more like Eleanor.

      darn! You just reminded me of something I meant to put in the post but didn’t. So I’ll do it now. Robinson said he was strictly thinking of playing cards when he devised the Joker…but the look has other forerunners…Conrad Veidt in “The Man Who Laughs”….and also the laughing mascot of Coney Island’s Steeplechase amusement park. any others?

      Like

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