The Legacy of Jerry Robinson

The Legacy of Jerry Robinson

Batman is now big business. The character starred in motion pictures that generated the highest domestic box office grosses in two separate years: 1989 (Batman) and 2008 (The Dark Knight). Batman has been reinterpreted over the decades — from Adam West’s campy portrayal in the 1960s television series to the dark and gritty interpretations of writer/illustrator Frank Miller and filmmaker Christopher Nolan. Yet, throughout the years, the mythology of Batman has remained a cornerstone of popular culture.

Artist and illustrator Jerry Robinson, who died this past Wednesday at age 89, was there at the beginning. He was instrumental in developing the mythos and iconography of Batman. His legacy, however, extends far beyond the catalog of his artwork.

Robinson created many of the characters in the Batman comic books and gave life to many others through his illustrations. While there is some dispute over the origins of Batman’s archvillain the Joker, most comic book historians credit Robinson as the primary creator of the character. Robinson also gave birth to many other heroes and villains in the Batman lexicon, including sidekick Robin, loyal butler Alfred, and villains like Two-Face.

Robinson began his professional career at the dawn of the modern comic book era. At age 17, he met artist Bob Kane and began to illustrate Batman, the first major superhero to follow in the wake of the runaway success of Superman. At the time, comic books were viewed as trite — even disreputable — entertainment for children. Now, decades later, Warner Bros. Pictures is hoping The Dark Knight Rises — with an estimated production budget of  $250,000,000 — will be the blockbuster hit of 2012.

Beyond his own work, Robinson taught and inspired other creative artists. He was an early faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in New York. There he taught, among others, artist Steve Ditko who went on to co-create with Stan Lee the characters of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange.

When I spoke with Robinson at San Diego Comic Con last July, I asked whether he was still in touch with the famously reclusive Ditko. He indicated that he hadn’t seen him recently, but quickly added “I taught him, you know.” He was obviously pleased with the accomplishment.

Robinson was also a pioneer in working for creators’ rights. Much of Robinson’s early work was done without attribution (which was a more common practice then than now). His artwork on Batman would be submitted to Bob Kane who would add his signature to the opening splash page and submit the work to the publisher under his own name.

Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster reportedly sold the rights to Superman for $130. Decades later, when the big-budget Superman movie was being filmed, the pair were nearly destitute and largely forgotten. Robinson (along with fellow artist Neal Adams) instigated a public campaign to support the two creators, which eventually convinced Warner Communications to provide them a small stipend and, perhaps equally important, give them credit for their creation. Siegel and Shuster’s victory, modest though it was, became the first shot in the series of legal battles that continues to this day.

Robinson leaves behind a large body of artwork and a rich catalog of fictional characters, but his legacy extends much further — to all the people he touched and the causes he championed. He was witness to — and an active participant in — the entire history of the superhero in comic books and popular culture. His impact continues to live on in the industry he helped to create.

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Update [December 12, 2011]: A few related comments on Jerry Robinson appear in this article in Knowledge@Wharton: The Serious Legacy of Jerry Robinson, Creator of Batman’s Joker.

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