Batman's Joker artist Jerry Robinson dies

Comic book industry pioneer Jerry Robinson, who helped create Batman sidekick Robin the Boy Wonder and their arch-nemesis The Joker, has died at age 89.
Jerry Robinson, the artist who helped create The Joker in the classic Batman comic series, died Wednesday in New York at the age of 89. (Jerry Robinson/DC Comics/Associated Press)

Comic book industry pioneer Jerry Robinson, who helped create Batman sidekick Robin the Boy Wonder and their arch-nemesis The Joker, has died at age 89.

An editor and friend, Charles Kochman, said Robinson was different from most artists in the field because he worked on every kind of comic genre, from political cartoons to theatre illustrations.

"Jerry brought a realism to comics — and a sense of humour," said Kochman, his editor at Abrams Comic Arts, which last year published a book called Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics

Robinson not only used his fame and position in the industry to serve as its ambassador but also fought on behalf of other artists and creators — especially to win credit for their work, including the Superman series. Initially, in the 1930s and '40s, publishers owned the rights and would discard drawings after they were used.  

Robinson died in his sleep Wednesday at a hospice in New York where he lived.

He was a native of Trenton, N.J. who was only 17 when he was hired by Batman creator Bob Kane. The two had met by chance at a resort in the Catskill Mountains, where Robinson had a summer job selling ice cream. Kane noticed Robinson because he was wearing a white jacket decorated with his own illustrations. 

In the early 1940s, Robinson "illustrated some of the defining images of pop culture's greatest icons," said Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Entertainment Inc., the parent company of Batman publisher DC Comics.

While Robinson is credited by many comic enthusiasts as the primary creator of The Joker for issue No. 1 of Batman, he and Kane clashed over who was first to dream up the caped crusader's arch-enemy. In a 1994 interview, Kane said he and writer Bill Finger had come up with the idea and Robinson then produced a joker playing card for inspiration.

Robinson was hired away from Kane's shop by the Batman publisher, for which he drew many of the most striking covers from the golden age of comics, such as that of Batman No. 13, showing the caped crusader parachuting down.

Comic artist Jerry Robinson, shown in an undated photo, also helped create Batman’s sidekick, Robin. (Mark Evanier/Associated Press)

In the 1950s, he started drawing newspaper comic strips, political cartoons and cover illustrations for Broadway's Playbill.

Later in life, Robinson taught at New York's School of Visual Arts and was president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and the National Cartoonists Society.

"He saw the value of comics as an art," Kochman said. In recent years, rare issues of comic books have fetched hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.

Robinson also served as a historian, authoring The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art and curating gallery exhibits, including one of the biggest at the Kennedy Library in Washington in 1973 that included all the genres of the strip comic art form.

Mike Marts, editor of the Batman line at DC Comics, said Robinson was "an innovator, a pioneer in storytelling."

"The streets of Gotham City," Marts said, "are a little lonelier today."