Written by N. C. Christopher Couch; illustrated by Jerry Robinson; introduction by Pete Hamill; foreword by Dennis O’Neil
Jerry Robinson is described on the cover flaps of Ambassador Of Comics as “one of the living legends of American comics” and it’s something you can’t really argue with. He may not have created Batman with Bob Kane and Bill Finger, but as part of the team responsible for creating the earliest Batman stories his contribution to the history of comics is ensured.
That so much of his work forms the basis for the character some 70 years later is testament to how important he was in the history of Batman. He’s also responsible for the creation of perhaps the most iconic comic villain of them all; The Joker, and the co-creation of Robin, setting up the archetype of the hero sidekick. So yes, “living legend” certainly describes Jerry Robinson.
(Jerry Robinson strikes a pose worthy of his own Crown Prince Of Crime in his studio in the NYT building, 1940. Photograph courtesy of the Jerry Robinson collection copyright © 2010. All rights reserved)
But despite all that, I have to admit that Jerry Robinson the artist held very little appeal for me on picking up this book. I know he’s often referred to as “an artist’s artist” but what limited amount of his work that I’d seen didn’t really do anything for me. I’ve never really been a fan of the early artwork of superhero comics, never saw the beauty in Kane, Shuster et al and always preferred the more kinetic, cultured lines of Eisner, Caniff, Pratt or Toth (okay, maybe not all of these were contemporaries of Robinson but in my discovery of early comics they all came under the heading of pioneers).
So reading something like Ambassador Of Comics was more interesting to me in terms of finding out about both Jerry Robinson’s development as a comic pioneer and his involvement in the earliest days of the comic artform.
Both aspects are covered extensively in this book, although I’d really have preferred it if Couch tempered some of his fulsome praise of Robinson – at times it becomes almost too gushing and is almost off-putting. But that’s merely a minor criticism in what has proven to be a fascinating and illuminating book.
(Page from “Duel By Deceit,” Bat Masterson no.3, May-July 1960, Dell. Art courtesy of the Jerry Robinson collection copyright © 2010. All rights reserved.)
Ambassador Of Comics breaks down into two distinct parts: The first half covers Robinson’s Batman work and subsequent superhero work whilst the second half covers his work since then. And within the first fifty pages I’d not only had a fascinating read, with details of Robinson’s involvement in the very beginnings of the comics medium, but seen some absolutely lovely artwork, much of it in the raw pencil stages. And I have to acknowledge I was way off in my simple disregard of his work. Sure, some of that early Batman work is a little too static and staged for my tastes but there’s definitely more to it than I always thought.
(Robinson’s Flubs & Fluffs strip, April 7, 1968. Part of a series that ran in The Daily News, based on the everyday errors sent in by teachers, parents and students. Art courtesy of the Jerry Robinson collection copyright © 2010. All rights reserved.)
And when we get to Robinson’s post Batman work I was completely sold – suddenly I found myself realising just how good an artist he was. Gone were the sometimes static, lifeless poses I’d associated with his work from Batman. In their place was a beautifully light and dynamic line with an incredible stylistic range, something I’d never have identified as Jerry Robinson’s work before reading this volume. And the humour in his line is quite magnificent.
Whether it was his work through the 50s on all manner of genres (Western, War, Crime – Robinson turned his hand to all of these with a multitude of styles), or his work in commercial illustration, children’s book illustration, comic strips and political cartooning, the artwork was a complete revelation to me.
(One of Robinson’s Still Life editorial cartoons, published c. 1973, but just as relevant today. Art courtesy of the Jerry Robinson collection copyright © 2010. All rights reserved.)
So as an art book it’s been rather revelatory, but it’s also a very interesting and educational biographical work, with Couch taking us all the way through Robinson’s fascinating life, never allowing us to forget that Robinson was genuinely a pioneer in comics, entering the newborn artform as a completely self taught, novice artist and growing as an artist as the fledgling medium took shape. But there’s also major sections of the book covering Robinson’s teaching, humanitarian work, and his championing of artists rights.
(Jerry Robinson in a 2008 portrait, every bit the living legend. Photograph copyright © 2010 Holger Keifel. All rights reserved.)
As with other Abrams ComicArt artists volumes I’ve seen (Harvey Kurtzman and Jaime Hernandez) I was expecting nothing less than a beautifully presented book, full of excellent design and packed with reading. But both the Kurtzman and Hernandez volumes were ridiculously easy sells to me – after all, what’s not to adore about these beautifully lush artbooks on artists I love?
But in many ways, this volume on Jerry Robinson is even more successful than those – since this volume has not only provided me with hours and hours of fascinating reading on a comics pioneer but has actually forced me to change my previously held views on Robinson the artist. A valued addition to any bookshelf.