Sometimes you won’t know which direction your life will take, or the people you meet who may change your life. For Jerry Robinson, his life particularly his early years reads like a serendipitous graphic novel. Through his love of tennis he met Lee Falk who created such iconic characters such as The Phantom. And then, there was that meeting with Bob Kane. As Robinson tells it, he was not enamored with Kane’s dark knight. Yet with that it would not occur to him that he someday he’d create another iconic character – the Joker.
Jerry Robinson could draw, ink and color. He did not consider himself professionally trained. But he had it, that intangible thing that makes a person great. Still what makes this biography invaluable to the comic book fan is his ability to track his life trajectory without being intrusive, or making his audience envious. Jerry Robinson could write as well as draw. You root for that 17 year old kid when he meets Bob Kane for the first time. His description of Kane may even remind you of a young Bruce Wayne. And that’s just in chapter one. Then there’s the artwork. While as a student at Columbia, Robinson constantly made notes on what Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson would look like. From drawings to comic books covers Batman and the Boy Wonder had a particular style. You can see the youth in Robin’s boyish cheeks as one of the covers has him in profile. Always with some sort of smile on their faces, this duo was having fun. Even more interesting are the way the covers are seen coming to life. One panel is shown penciled in. You recognize the characters but they are still elements missing. The next panel shows a completed cover. Even the Penguin’s umbrella is colored in. You see the process and how Robinson helped define the iconic looks of several characters who are still evolving in the DC universe.
Did you know that Bill Finger was a co-creator of the Batman comics in the early 1940’s? Perhaps, but for the casual fan that may be a tidbit which will lead you to reading more about Robinson and his seemingly charmed early life. Finger as writer, Kane and Robinson as artists created a complex hero. With no overt superpowers Batman has always been a realistic invention. So when Robinson saw an opportunity he created a bad guy who had to be at least, equally formidable. That man was the Joker.
Reading about Robinson’s creation will make go out and get a library card. From Edgar Allan Poe to Sherlock Holmes, to the history of playing cards, Robinson crafted together, arguably the ‘first supervillain.’ He wasn’t just someone who you could vanquish and he wasn’t a one-shot wonder. The Joker had staying power because he imbued fear and didn’t have superpowers. He was someone who was unapologetically bad and gave no explanation as to why he did such evil acts. In a sense, Robinson created a character that stands shoulder to shoulder with Moriarty. The Joker, as Robinson discusses has been on literary lists as one of the top villains in literature. Considering how comics were treated as being a thing for children years ago, that’s a big feat.
Equally as important as the origin of the Joker, there’s all the artwork including finished stories that haven’t been colored in. The language lends itself not to camp, but to intelligent drama with leveled humor. Those early comic books were smartly written and well-drawn. And Robinson had a big part in that. So much that Batman had worldwide appeal even in the 40’s and 50’s. On his travels Robinson relays the impact of Batman. Along the way he made friends and got out of incidences that may have ended his life.
Even more interesting than being creator of the Joker were Robinson’s circle of friends. His stories of their adventures are just as vivid as his artwork. He was a solid storyteller. This led to, fighting for the rights of fellow creators to own their own work, a meeting in the Nixon white house, a stint working for ‘Playbill’ among other career moves and humanitarian works that would make a good film. You want to continue your journey with this man and see where he goes to next.
Unfortunately Jerry Robinson passed away in 2011 and this graphic novel memoir is a posthumous gift to any fan of comics and Batman in particular. You’ll want to keep this to read it initially for the stories, then pour over it again for all the art. Then a third time to reread all the good bits and the chapter from his son Jens Robinson. Essentially, it’s like visiting an old friend.