The Serious Legacy of Jerry Robinson, Creator of Batman’s Joker

Photo by Kendall Whitehouse

Jerry Robinson, 89, creator of Batman’s iconic Joker and other characters, passed away last Wednesday. Robinson’s work enthralled at least three generations of comic book lovers, and will continue to do so in the future. Less widely known, however, are his contributions in elevating comic book art to a respectable profession, training future generations of artists and helping those in his trade to share in the profits their creations generate from movies and merchandise, says Wharton’s director of new media Kendall Whitehouse.

In his seven-decade career, Robinson “was witness to — and an active participant in — the entire history of the superhero in comic books and popular culture,” Whitehouse wrote in his blog. He credits Robinson with being “a key player in making [comic book art] a professional field.” His comments were echoed by Batman movie producer Michael Uslan, who, according to a CNN report, said that Robinson “elevated comic books as art and fought for respectability for all his fellow artists.”

Robinson joined what would later become DC Comics (now DC Entertainment) in 1939 at age 17 as an assistant to Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and is generally credited as the creator of the Joker in 1940. Back then, work as a comic book artist “wasn’t considered a serious profession,” Whitehouse notes. “This was an industry that was looked down upon, and comic books were viewed as trivial, and somewhat disreputable, entertainment for children.”

Decades later, the characters Robinson created or helped to shape through his work were featured in movies including in the 1989 box office hit Batman and 2008 top-grosser The Dark Knight. “Batman as a brand has stood the test of time, and it is amazing how it has evolved,” says Whitehouse. The newest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, is scheduled for release next summer. Over the years, the Joker has been interpreted in many ways: as a prankish, funny character or as a powerful and menacing villain.

The comic book industry, too, has evolved. Robinson was instrumental in fighting for artists’ rights and working to secure for comic book creators a share in the profits they helped generate, says Whitehouse. He recalls how Robinson helped negotiate with Warner Communications to compensate Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who reportedly sold the rights to that character for $130. Years later, when the big-budget Superman film was being shot, Siegel and Shuster were “essentially destitute,” Whitehouse notes. “Robinson, along with follow artist Neal Adams, led a campaign to shame Warner Communications into providing them a small stipend and giving them credit for the creation of what was by then a source of many millions in revenue.”

One of Robinson’s biggest contributions was in training future generations of artists and helping create institutions for such work. 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 the characters of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, says Whitehouse.

Whitehouse recalls asking Robinson once if he was still in touch with Ditko. “‘Not very often,’ he indicated. But he quickly added, ‘I taught him.’ He was clearly very proud of that contribution.”

See also: Movie Producer Michael Uslan on Superheroes, Comic Books and Why Hollywood Doesn’t Get It

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