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R.I.P.: Jerry Robinson,
Joker Creator & Comics Ambassador

December 9, 2011 by Kiel Phegley

Jerry Robinson, a pioneer of the comics form best known by fans for creating the Joker but also praised for his work as a comics historian and creator rights advocate, has died at age 89.

First word of the creator's passing came from Christopher Irving's Graphic NYC blog, which learned of Robinson's death via a Facebook message from "Batman" film producer Michael Uslan. LA Times' Hero Complex later confirmed the news.

Robinson was born in Trenton, New Jersey on New Year's Day in 1922. At only 17 years of age, the aspiring artist was hired as an inker by Batman creator Bob Kane, and over the next several years, Robinson offered as much visual input into the character's world and cast as his originator. Robinson co-created Robin, the Boy Wonder and is often credited as the primary influence for arch-villain the Joker, though Kane and Robinson would clash over credit for the villain's creation in later years. The artist was soon hired away from Kane's shop by "Batman" publisher DC/National Comics, for which he served as a staff artist, drawing many of the most striking covers of comics Golden Age.

Over the course of his early years in comics, Robinson proved a creative and social dynamo, moonlighting as a comics artist on projects such as the infamous "created in one night" issue of "Daredevil" while taking classes in Journalism at Columbia University. "I was always a political animal," Robinson told CBR News last year. As the production of comic books wound down near the end of World War II, Robinson moved primarily to newspaper comic strips where he remained for the late '50s, '60s and '70s, becoming known for Editorial illustration, political satire strips such as his long-running "Still Life With Robinson" and lush cover paintings for Broadway's "Playbill." The artist also served as President of both the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) and the National Cartoonists Society (NCS), and remains the only person to receive both honors.

In the 1970s, Robinson returned to the national spotlight as a comics historian and advocate for the rights of artists. "Starting in 1972, I curated the first comics at a fine art gallery. That was, I think, the year after, or almost simultaneously, with a show at the Louvre on comics, which I went over to see. I think that started it," the artist recalled in a conversation with CBR earlier this year. "The following year, I was a guest curator at the Kennedy Library in Washington, where we did I think the largest show ever held on the comics. Certainly in the US. It was the size of a couple football fields and had all the genres of the comics. So it's been a long time, but more and more universities and colleges have taken it on as a course of study, serious scholars and so forth." That renewed interest in the medium combined with Robinson's curatorial interests to create "The Comics" -- one of the first definitive books on the strip comic artform as a whole, written by Robinson in 1974 and recently published in a new edition by Dark Horse.

Shortly thereafter, Robinson became a key figure along with artist Neal Adams in the fight to get Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster proper credit and pay for their hero from DC Comics. Robinson himself saw the benefits of a corporate culture at DC and Warner Bros. become arguably more appreciative of its original creatives in recent years as he served as a paid creative consultant for the company on projects including Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" which drew heavily on Robinson's original stories in its portrayal of the Joker.

In recent years, Robinson rode a wave of publicity and public appearances surrounding not only the books by him and about his life, but also for his contributions to comics as a whole. He curated more exhibitions of original comics art, and last year auctioned off some of his most acclaimed original cover artwork from the Golden Age.

UPDATE: DC Comics has released the following statements from its senior staff:

“Jerry Robinson illustrated some of the defining images of pop culture’s greatest icons. As an artist myself, it’s impossible not to feel humbled by his body of work. Everyone who loves comics owes Jerry a debt of gratitude for the rich legacy that he leaves behind.”—Jim Lee, DC Entertainment Co-Publisher and artist of "Batman: Hush"

“Jerry Robinson was one of the greats. He continued to be a vibrant, creative force well into his nineties, with ideas and thoughts that continue to inspire. Jerry was a great advocate for creators. It was my pleasure to meet and work with him. He will be missed.”—Dan DiDio, Co-Publisher, DC Entertainment

“It’s impossible to work at DC Entertainment­ without feeling the impact of Jerry Robinson’s contributions to the industry. His influence continues to resonate today.”—Bob Harras, DC Entertainment Editor-in-Chief

“Jerry Robinson was an innovator, a pioneer in storytelling. His artwork was always astonishing, but his contributions to the Dark Knight mythology go far beyond art. The streets of Gotham City are a little lonelier today...Jerry will truly be missed.”—Mike Marts, "Batman" editor

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