Interview: Meet the Joker’s Maker, Jerry Robinson

By - July 21, 2009

This Saturday at Comic-Con, our own Papa Lama (Dr. Travis Langley) and his fellow psychologist Dr. Robin Rosenberg (editor, The Psychology of Superheroes) will delve into the psyche of Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker, with the help of an illustrious panel of industry professionals, starting with the man who created the Joker back in 1940. Recently they enjoyed speaking with Jerry for the better part of an hour while preparing for the panel.

Created by Bob Kane, the character Batman had debuted two years earlier in Detective Comics #27. Writer Bill Finger named Bruce Wayne, invented Batman’s origin, and created so many of the characters, while official credit went to Bob because that’s how the contracts worked. Bob created Batman and employed a team of creative people who told his hero’s tales.

Jerry Robinson, a journalism student at Columbia Univesity, joined Bob and Bill shortly after Batman’s debut and began making his own great contributions. When the team decided to give Batman a Boy Wonder, Jerry named the new sidekick Robin after Robin Hood (not after the bird as Batman Forever might have you believe). When the time came to give Batman an additional series, the eponymous Batman, the first issue was going to launch packed with extra stories and very little time to crank them out.


Detective Comics #69, cover art (November, 1942). Artist: Jerry Robinson. Publisher: DC Comics. Collection of Jerry Robinson.

Detective Comics #69, cover art (November, 1942). Artist: Jerry Robinson. Publisher: DC Comics. Collection of Jerry Robinson.

Jerry: The whole genre was rather new, as you know. The superhero genre had just started with Superman. So that was a big chore overnight for Bill to turn out that many new stories. We were really creating the whole language of Batman and even of comics itself.

My goal was to be a writer. Cartooning was just a way of paying my way through college, I thought at the time. So I volunteered to do a Batman story. They were both aware of my writing. I had done a lot of writing in college and high school before. Short stories were my favorite form, and satire and humor were my favorite platforms for my stories. So I volunteered to do a story, which Bob and Bill quickly took me up on. That was great because that would relieve Bill of one story to do. After we met that night, I went back very excited about writing a Batman story – I was just drawing till then – which fit in with my larger ambitions. I thought, “This is great. I’ll hand in the story for my creative writing class. I’ll get credit there and also get paid for running the story.” So I was thinking at the time.

The first thought that I had was to create a villain that was – we didn’t use the word supervillain at that time – a larger-than-life villain, one that would be worthy of Batman. To set the scene, at the time we were just coming from Prohibition and the Depression in the late ‘30s and certainly the early ‘30s when I formulated my whole psyche, so who were the villains at the time? They were the Dillingers, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machinegun Kelly. They were small time bank robbers, embezzlers, hijackers. So those were most of the villains with the few exceptions of the mad scientist here and there in the comics at the time. [From my own studies of literature – English was my major – I knew that all great heroes had some (antagonist) that really tested the hero, everybody from David and Goliath, Bible heroes, to contemporary literature and classics, Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty.] It seems obvious now, but at the time it was thought by a lot of the field that if a villain was too strong – remember, we were focused on Batman, that was the new creation – that the villain would overpower Batman. Well, I had a different view, and I thought Bill was won over as a writer eventually. So that’s what I set out to do: someone who would test Batman and almost be more interesting. I always felt that heroes were essentially dull. Villains were more exotic and could do more interesting things.

I wanted somebody visually exciting. I wanted somebody that would make an indelible impression, would be bizarre, would be memorable like the Hunchback of Notre Dame or any other villains that had unique physical characters. The other major thing that I realized is as with that a lot of writers, you draw upon your life experiences in some way. Even though at 17 it was limited, I had a life before Batman. In my own family, playing cards played a big role, socially at least. One of my brothers – I had three older brothers –was a lawyer, a Yale graduate, and while he was at college, became a champion bridge player which he continued after college. So cards were always around the house. That’s one influence why I immediately thought of the Joker playing card. What preceded that was that I wanted a villain that had some attribute that was some contradiction in terms, which I feel all great characters have. To make my villain different, to have a sense of humor would be different. That’s how I came upon the name.

Names, of course, are very important. It’s one of the first things we try to associate with a character. At least I did. So once I thought of the villain with a sense of humor, I began to think of a name and the name “the Joker” immediately came to mind. There was the association with the Joker in the deck of cards, and I probably yelled literally, “Eureka!” because I knew I had the name and the image at the same time. I remember searching frantically that night for a deck of cards in my little room in the Bronx where I was holed up and did my work. Luckily I had it and it had somewhat the same image as the classic one, and that was the marriage. That’s how the Joker came into being.

That very night, I drew the first concept sketch – which fortunately I found in the back of a drawer a few years ago. Now I think it’s priceless. It’s now on tour in an exhibition I curated, going around the country. I did the exhibition called [The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books 38 to 50] It started in an Atlanta museum. It went to Detroit, Cleveland. It’s now at the [Scerbel?] Museum in L.A. That original is a prized piece that’s in the traveling show.

Robin: Even in the first couple of decades of the Joker’s ‘life,’ his personality changed quite a bit, mostly I imagine because of the Comics Code, but I wonder if you have any thoughts of the evolution of the Joker over time.

Jerry: Well, it has. All characters that have some essential truth about them, some ingredient that makes them memorable, go through that. At some point it’s a tribute to the character that it can grow and evolve and still retain its essential persona. Certainly the Joker has a blank face for everybody to etch those own creation on and add wrinkles of their own. It is a character that has grown obviously and can be interpreted and reinterpreted. Certainly in the comics, a visual medium, that’s important. There are exceptions. I guess you could say James Bond has remained essentially the same.  Another one that’s essentially the same, Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs has endured.

Even Superman has remained the same. They’ve had a harder task to keep it up because of his essential invulnerability. They had to invent new Achilles’ heels for him. We were published by the same publisher. I was very good friends with Siegel and Schuster, and we would be in kind of a friendly rivalry. I always thought that Batman was a better concept just because of that. Superman’s weakness was his invulnerability, and I thought that would never last. You can see how much I knew.

Travis: Why has this particular character stood out so strongly? Why is it ranked number one among top comic villains out of all these others?

Jerry: Not only that, but there was a poll in England – number one villain in all of literature, not just in comics.

Travis: I know the poll you’re talking about. It used to be Dracula that was very frequently the number one .

Jerry: It blew my mind when I saw that list, with Shakespeare and Dickens and so forth. But he is kind of Dickensonian in many ways.

Robin: So what do you see as those enduring characteristics of the Joker?

Jerry: God, well, you don’t know. If I knew the formula, I would have had five Jokers by now. No, that combination, I’m afraid, only comes once in a lifetime. So you might analyze it and probe it and give many explanations, but that’s after the fact. If we knew before the fact, then we’d have something priceless.

They’ve given many origins of the Joker, how he came to be. That doesn’t seem to matter – just how he is now. I never intended to give a reason for his appearance. We discussed that and Bill and I never wanted to change it at that time. I thought – and he agreed – that it takes away some of the essential mystery. He fell in a vat with chemicals was one explanation. Well, once you know that, anybody can fall into a vat and they get grotesque scarring, that’s another Joker.

Robin: Did you intend for the Joker to be really evil? You can have a criminal who’s clever or wacky, and then you could have someone who seems like they’re evil personified.

Jerry: In later versions, there are so many nuances of the character. The writers had to focus on one or another. That was another element that I felt was best left not defined. You didn’t know whether he was a criminal psychopath or criminally insane or just weird, or what his motivation was exactly. I thought it was best to let that evolve and let it grow. That’s one of the elements of a newspaper strip that I felt should be incorporated in the comics and I’ve written about that in the history of the comics (The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art).

Originally published in 1974, Jerry’s book comic strip art history is getting a new face. Dark Horse this year, and Jerry has been working hard on the update. The book goes decade by decade up into the 70s, after which Jerry has added 15,000 words to bring it up to date with all new color art. He said the perviously is had been mostly black and white.

Jerry: Anyway, in that book I tried to show how the comics have grown in part along with the readers. As the readers grew and aged and matured and had different viewpoints, so the characters of that time – the good characters – grew and evolved. And so it was with the Joker. He evolved. He’s essentially the same but has many nuances to his character now. So there’s room to grow and change. If we had established definitively what he was at the very beginning, that he was criminally insane and so forth and so on, he would have been closed up in a box. I think it was good that we didn’t do that because then it was able to grow and different artists have added their own vision to.

Robin: That’s really prescient of you to restrain yourself.

Jerry: (laughs) Well, I don’t think we thought, “This is going to be great for future artists.” {Everyone laughs.} That was great for the feature at the time, for ourselves and for the next issue or two.

Travis: Have you ever gotten to discuss the role with the actors who’ve played it? I know with Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, it interfered with sleep for both of them. It probably was easier for Cesar Romero.

Jerry: I always thought that Bill Finger could have written a much better script than the early ones they did while he was living, the ones that Romero did and others. I would have loved to have done a script myself, a film treatment. But no, they have full rights to do what they want with it.

No, I didn’t. This time I thought I would have more input. I was supposed to meet with them in Chicago when they were filming, but I had a wonderful invitation which I had accepted some months before to go to China to give a paper on the comics to about a thousand artists from southeast Asia, who were meeing in China. I would have had to cancel that while it was first being filmed in Chicago. I had a choice of China or Chicago and I chose China. I was so anxious to talk to Christian Bale and Heath and the director about it. I regretted missing that but I knew that I would be back in time to go to London for some of the filming there – which I did when I got back.

I did meet Cesar Romero – but before he played the Joker.

At a very early age, I was on my first flight ever to California, to Hollywood, in about ’42 when they were filming a Batman serial. DC arranged for my trip to join the filming there to talk to writers and artists. That was an experience that I was just writing about, actually, in my memoirs. It took 17 hours, I think, for me to fly from New York to L.A. It took about  4 or 5 stops to get there, no non-stop flights. I remember Pittsburgh and St. Louis, Albuquerque. Every time the plane went up and down, half the plane threw up.

Anyway, I did sit in on the story conferences for that first Batman serial, which was an experience in itself.

Travis: That’s the one where they had all the anti-Japanese propaganda in it, right?

Jerry: Right. It didn’t start out that way. That’s why the writers had a big job because it started out with some fraud out west with gold mines and in the middle of that they decided that with the Japanese being the “villains” (of Pearl Harbor), they switched the whole story to have Japanese villains. That’s when I first thought that would have been no problem in the comics and we could have done a better job of writing that serial than they did. I think they didn’t really know the comics.

Travis: Out of the various movies and TV shows and cartoons, is there one that stands out as doing the best job of capturing the character of the Joker?

Jerry: I thought undoubtedly the Nicholson and the Ledger performances stand out. Those were unique interpretations that were quite different. Nicholson’s was a lighter version than what Ledger did. I thought he gave a bravura performance for what it was. My biggest objection to that was the script, but Nicholson saved it with his performance.

Travis: That script also reflects what you were saying earlier about how the villain can overpower the superhero in terms of presentation. The villain was really strong in that particular movie.

Jerry: Right.

Jerry opined that the biggest problem with the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher series of films was the sheer number of villains in the sequels. He has been much happier with the two Bale/Nolan movies.

Jerry: Christian Bale was a very fine actor. I was very pleased when they told me that Nolan and his brother liked the original concept of the Joker and they wanted to evolve their version from the original. I think they caught part of that.

Jerry then solicited our thoughts on the character, which we discussed for a bit but that’s not what you came here to read. Stay tuned for part two of this great interview, which picks up when the conversation returned to what Jerry had to say about many things, like Conrad Veidt and “The Man Who Laughs.”

Part 2: The Joker’s Maker Tackles the Man Who Laughs


Last year's Comic-Con International in San Diego, California: Jerry draws while we look over his shoulder in admiration.

Last year's Comic-Con International in San Diego, California: Jerry draws while we look over his shoulder in admiration.

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4 Responses to “Interview: Meet the Joker’s Maker, Jerry Robinson”

  1. Sky the Limit says:

    Fascinating series on this panel.

    Best wishes, your constant reader

  2. […] Interview: Meet the Joker’s Maker, Jerry Robinson  […]

  3. Linda Judd says:

    Do you know how I can get in contact with Jerry Robinson? A mailing address.
    Linda Judd

  4. […] to have a larger-than-life antagonist. Robinson explained the genesis of the Joker a while back in an interview with Rocket Llama: The first thought that I had was to create a villain that was – we didn’t use the word […]

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