It turns out that the Joker — pop culture’s pre-eminent villain — was created by one of the good guys.
N.C. Christopher Couch’s new book, Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics (Abrams ComicArts, 224 pp., $35.00), recounts how, in 1939, Robinson, then a 17-year-old preparing to study journalism at Columbia, met artist Bob Kane, who had an unexpected comic-book hit on his hands in the form of a mysterious crime-fighter named Batman. Robinson, who’d always loved to draw but had received no formal art training, began inking Kane’s pencil drawings and was soon contributing story and character ideas, including a baroquely psychotic criminal based on a playing card.
Beyond documenting eight decades of Robinson’s comics, illustrations, paintings, and photographs, Ambassador of Comics chronicles the adventures of a scholar, teacher, political cartoonist, and human-rights activist. Robinson is currently at work on multiple projects: a memoir, a graphic novel starring the Joker, and an updated edition of The Comics, his seminal 1974 history of the comic strip. Recently, we sat down with the 88-year-old comics legend in his Riverside Drive apartment to discuss political cartoons, jailed dissidents, ripped-off artists, heroes, and villains.
In going through the new book, I was struck by the way your drawing style always seems to inhabit the subject, as opposed to the other way around.
I adopt the method of drawing that I think is best suited to tell that story. So naturally Batman is going to look different from “Jet Scott” [a sleek adventure strip Robinson drew in the 1950s], which is going to look different from “Flubs and Fluffs” [Robinson’s cartoony humor page, syndicated from 1964 to 79] or from my political cartoons. I use the pen line or the brush stroke that’s suited to the subject — if I do a book on the civil war, I use a pen technique that’s more evocative of the civil war; if I do a space thing, I paint it entirely differently.
In the 60s and 70s, you wrote and drew “Still Life,” a syndicated political cartoon done with a quick brush line that featured inanimate objects discussing current events. In 1964, it got you in trouble because of a Goldwater cartoon.
That one led to my exit from the Daily News. The tagline was “All that glitters is not Goldwater.” It just so happened, that day the chairman of the board of the News was having a meeting with the Goldwater supporters, and one of them says, “You’re the chairman of the pro-Goldwater committee, we’re trying to raise funds, and you’re running a cartoon against Goldwater.” He didn’t even know it — he was embarrassed. So he called the editor and said, “I don’t want to see that guy in the paper again.” [Laughter]
Through your cartoons, you’ve been both an observer of and a player in politics for decades — what do you think of the times we’re living in now?
They’re more polarized. I don’t remember it being quite so vitriolic or so far out.
In the early 80s, you were involved in some pretty far-out politics yourself, concerning Francisco Laurenzo Pons. [Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer had asked Robinson to help Amnesty International free Pons, a cartoonist jailed and tortured for his opposition to Uruguay’s ruling junta.]
He had done nothing but draw and write against the regime — he wasn’t a bomb-thrower; he didn’t kill anybody. On that basis I called editorial cartoonists scattered all over the country. I said, “Here but for the grace of God go us — he did nothing more than what we’re doing and he’s tortured in jail.” I invented an award to give him: The Distinguished Foreign Cartoonist Award. Then I had the further idea — I knew the leading cartoonist in Poland, Eric Lipinski. He was a dissident in a Communist country, so that would make the award more believable — that we got somebody from a right-wing country and a left-wing country.
Sandy [Campbell, then president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists] and I went to Washington, to the Uruguayan embassy. We didn’t let on that we knew Laurenzo was in jail. We met with the ambassador and said we had a great honor for Uruguay and we wanted to invite Laurenzo Pons to Nashville, where a leading cartoonist from Poland would also be presented an award.
Well, they didn’t fall for that.
We got the call back, saying, “Unfortunately we cannot let him out of the country, but we’ll give his wife a visa to come accept the award.”
So we held that event anyway. Everybody was walking around Nashville with “Free Francisco Laurenzo Pons!” shirts. [The singer Tom T. Hall, who wrote “Harper Valley P.T. A.,” had had T-shirts printed for the fundraiser.]
The end of the story is that suddenly [in 1984] Laurenzo’s wife gets a notice that he’s going to be released. He’d served almost six years, and his official term was six and a half — of course, that meant nothing, it could have gone on for ten years more. Later I found out that the two men incarcerated on either side of him had committed suicide.
What about the situation with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, what kind of shape were they in when you got involved with helping them? [In 1975, Robinson had heard writer Jerry Siegel on late-night TV telling the story of how he and artist Joe Shuster had lost the rights to Superman, their own creation.]
Jerry had writer’s block and he couldn’t write any longer. He was then working literally as a mailman for some concern distributing mail within some company. Joe was absolutely unemployable and he was certifiably blind. When I knew him, he was working this close [Robinson holds his hand a few inches from his nose as if straining to see a drawing board]. They were both living from hand to mouth.
Joe told me himself that one time he was picked up in the park as a vagrant and a cop took him to a sandwich shop, not knowing who he was. In the luncheonette were some kids with comic books, so Joe proudly said, “I drew Superman.” Of course, nobody believed him. It was beyond belief: These were the creators of one of the biggest properties of the 20th century.
So I called everybody I knew, as did [comic-book artist] Neal Adams. We got write-ups in Mexico, London, Canada, the Washington Post, and the New York Times about the plight of Siegel and Shuster.
All of that fed into negotiations with Warner [Communications]. The [first Superman] movie was in production — that was the big leverage for us. They didn’t want any bad publicity. We met every day with their lawyer. Jules Feiffer recommended his lawyer, who we got pro-bono. I called Jerry with progress reports, and we’d gotten settlement money for them, lawyers’ fees, health plans, and annuities for so much a year, and we were trying to improve each of those. Toward the end, Jerry [who’d had a history of heart attacks] said, “Settle for the best you can. It’s no good if I’m gonna pop off tonight — I need it for my wife and child.” So I knew the next day we had to settle.
[Warners] wouldn’t give the credit back. But that was the thing that had to be done, just to give the artists back their humanity and self-respect. Imagine, their own creation didn’t have their names on it.
I called [Warners exec] Jay Emmett at home, and said, “Look, you’re dealing with the arts community — you’ve got screenwriters, you’ve got directors, you’ve got all kinds of artisans working for Warner Brothers — none of them are going to support this agreement if you don’t restore [Siegel and Shuster’s] names as creators. You’ll have very bad press. It has to be on everything: print, movies, toys.”
This is close to midnight. I knew he had to call his lawyers before he committed. So he calls back and says, “I can give you the comic books, but I can’t give you the toys because the contracts are done already. And I can’t give you the movie — the movie’s already in production.”
So I said, “That’s a no-go. You’ve gotta restore every print media and the film. I’ll give you the toys.”
“I’ll call you back.” It’s now one or two o’clock in the morning.
He calls back, “Okay, you got all the books, but I can’t give you the movie. The credits are already done.”
I said, “Jay, I know about film. You can put a new title on the credit line tomorrow. That’s a lot of baloney.”
I can’t remember now whether he called back that night [laughter], but he gave up.
I’d promised [CBS News anchor Walter] Cronkite that when we had the signing, if we did, I’d give him the scoop on it. So we’re all gathered around. I broke out some champagne, we’re waiting to hear the announcement, and Cronkite went through the whole show — nothing. Then, at the end, he uses it as the sign-off and says, “Finally, truth, justice, and the American Way win out,” and he tells the story of the settlement.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
[When he met Batman artist Bob Kane, Robinson was wearing a white linen jacket covered with his own hand-drawn cartoons, a college fad at the time. Kane spotted Robinson’s artwork, and the rest is pop history.]
It’s said that Kane sometimes took credit where he didn’t necessarily deserve it. Did he give you credit for your creation of the Joker?
No. He didn’t even give Bill Finger [the writer who worked with Kane on Batman] credit. That’s the thing that disturbed me the most. That’s why I founded the Finger Award in his honor [in 2005]. We give it to a writer who’s passed on and to a current writer, in his memory.
I credit Kane and Finger together — they really co-created Batman. The first Batman stories, when the mythos was created — Gotham city, the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents — that was all Bill. He set the scene.
So what I set out to do — my assignment was to write a Batman story, and I wanted to concentrate on the villain. That’s what I thought Batman lacked at that time. The Great Depression was the time of the gangster — Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly. And so all our villains at that time were bank robbers, embezzlers, maybe a mad scientist thrown in for variety. I wanted a villain that had some contradiction in his character, so a villain with a sense of humor would be different. I mean, Machine Gun Kelly wasn’t humorous. [Laughter]
Adding humor was part of what I was writing at the time. I had in the back of my mind that I’d hand the story in to one of my creative-writing classes — get paid for the Joker and also get a grade. I had an older brother who was a champion contract-bridge player, so there were always cards around. I remembered the vision of the clown, the jester, so the visual came from the card.
Years later, there was an origin story in which the Joker falls into a vat of chemicals; he sort of stumbles into his persona.
I don’t know who wrote that. That was something I disagreed with. In fact, I deliberately didn’t explain him at the time. And I was always against explaining him; I thought it was much better to have that a mystery. Over the years, different editors have to keep the franchise going, and some work out, some don’t.
Do you ever get sick of talking about the Joker?
If I did, I would’ve died a long time ago. [Laughter]