Has anyone else had a career like the late Jerry Robinson‘s?
Robinson—who died in his sleep yesterday—did so many things so very well that it’s hard to know exactly how to eulogize him. Many fans will know him primarily as a Comic Book Hall of Famer, an early and influential Batman artist, and the creator of several iconic characters, most notably the Joker, whom he dreamed up, and Robin the Boy Wonder, whom he named. This was the work of Jerry’s youth: intense, formative, ferociously busy, and relatively brief. Straight out of high school, Jerry became a prolific and, in hindsight, very important comic book artist, and for all his life he retained fond (though not rose-colored) memories of that period and the comic books it produced. In fact he saved quite a bit of art from that period that otherwise would have been tossed, burnt, or pulped. This helped him become one of the era’s best historians.
But Robinson did so much more. He was an all-around cartoonist, indeed artist. He did comic strips as well as comic books. He did, for a very long time, satiric panel cartoons (still life and life with robinson). He was a teacher, political commentator, and editor, a curator of comic art, and the author of the well-regarded scholarly books The Comics (original ed. 1974, revised ed. 2011) and Skippy and Percy Crosby (1978). He founded CartoonArts International and the Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate, traveled far and wide, and judged international arts competitions.
There’s more yet. Robinson, uniquely, served as president of both the National Cartoonists Society and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. He consulted, lent encouragement and aid, and involved himself in almost every possible aspect of cartooning, as both an art and profession. Creatively, he experimented, becoming an expert photographer, art directing an animated film, even trying musicals and manga. Morally, he held his head high and chin forward, steering into trouble whenever he thought he could help.
Most importantly, Robinson advocated for human rights, and for the creative and expressive rights of cartoonists the world over. He pushed for change. He secured greater recognition, and in some cases material support, for the near-forgotten pioneers of the comic book’s much-mythologized “Golden” and “Silver” Ages (for example, he founded the Bill Finger Award for Achievement in Comic Book Writing). He watched anxiously for the safety and freedom of artists everywhere. He even smuggled aid to to at least one cartoonist overseas, at risk to himself. No wonder he has been called the “ambassador of comics.”
In other words, Jerry Robinson grew up—and out, out into the world around him, never forgetting his youthful roots as an artist but earning the respect and gratitude of a great many artists and readers beyond the sphere of comic books, some of whom probably never even knew that Robinson had created the Joker and so on. Jerry earned respect by bringing his passion for cartooning of all kinds into contact with moral, ethical, and political considerations that, to me, seem far away from the latest Batman comic. Jerry moved on, worked harder, went farther, and lived. He lived well.
So, has anyone else ever had such a career? Not even close. Jerry Robinson was an uncategorizable mix of curiosity, courage, political engagement, historical far-sightedness, entrepreneurial pluck, and aesthetic sensitivity. He was God’s gift to comics.
I was fortunate to meet Jerry a few times, and happy to help bring him to the 2005 International Comic Arts Festival at the Library of Congress, where he spoke about his life and work. I was lucky enough to see him receive the Klein Award at the 2009 MoCCA Festival, to attend his exhibition ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950 when it appeared at the Skirball Cultural Center here in L.A., and to have the benefit of his scholarship. But I’m just one among very many.
Goodbye, Jerry. Thank you.
A full biography of Robinson can be found in Chris Couch’s book Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics (2010). Many of Robinson’s professional papers are now in the Special Collections at the Syracuse University Library. In addition, Robinson’s own official website offers a wealth of information and images (and is the source of most of the images used above, though I also gleaned images from Comics Alliance, the Hero Complex blog at the L.A. Times, and the official Percy Crosby site). Geoff Boucher has a full obituary of Robinson up at the Hero Complex.