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A mad ace up his sleeve

Jerry Robinson upped the stakes in comic book villainy with the Joker. Rajiv Arora writes.

india Updated: Dec 15, 2011 23:00 IST
Rajiv Arora

On December 7, cartoonist Jerry Robinson’s name was added to the rather lengthy list of creative greats who died in 2011. But forget outsized headlines or prominent obituaries, many eminent publications didn’t even record Robinson’s demise. The 89-year-old draftsman who made the Golden Age of Comic Books (the 1940s) truly gilded wasn’t quite a household name. But this didn’t get in the way of Robinson invading every young boy’s mind and cupboard with his creations.

You don’t have to be a Batman buff to know Robin, Alfred, or the Joker. And you will be forgiven for not knowing that Robinson singlehandedly devised a battalion of characters for the comic book series created by Bob Kane. It all started in 1939 when Kane shot to fame with the Batman, an orphan billionaire by the day and a caped crusader by night who takes upon himself the task of keeping Gotham safe. It’s a different matter that this hero never possessed any ‘super’ power — unless constant brooding counts.

One fine day, Kane chanced upon a teenager in a white jacket that was covered with his own illustrations and offered the 17-year-old Robinson a job at his National Comics (which would go on to become DC Comics). Back then, Batman was a comic strip. But his rising popularity meant that the time was ripe to take him out and present him as a standalone series. This, in turn, created the need for an extensive cast and themes to keep our scowling hero busy for five-six stories a month.

Which is where Robinson entered the scene. In interviews, he talked about how he had “decoded” the formula for success for a comic book. He deduced that like Sherlock Holmes needs his Professor Moriarty as an equal sparring partner and to make himself appear less out-and-out cynical, the stiff lower-lipped Batman also needed a first-rate arch-enemy. And the Joker made his entry in the spring 1940 issue of Batman.

This sinister, forever-grinning homicidal character, with a twisted sense of humour and total unpredictability, soon became more popular than the hero himself. Soon after, Robinson provided the Batman series with a wussy sidekick, Robin, and another deranged villain, Two-Face. But the real trump card in Robinson’s deck was the Joker. And remains so till this day.

rajiv.arora@hindustantimes.com