Bob Kane created Batman, and Bill Finger came up with a lot of the character's look. But without Jerry Robinson, who died today at age 89, the Batman universe would be way less exciting.
Jerry Robinson not only created everybody's favorite psychopath, the Joker, but he had to win over Kane, who didn't want Batman 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 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, Machine-gun 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.
You can see that concept sketch above, with the playing card.
Robinson also influenced the art style of Batman comics, creating more contrasts of light and dark so that there would be big shadows — instead of everything just being uniformly dark. Robinson told WTV-zone that he was influenced by German expressionist film-makers, such as Fritz Lang. Robinson also came up with the name of Batman's sidekick, which was based on Robin Hood — not the bird.
As famed Batman artist Neal Adams told the Los Angeles Times, "As I grew up and fell into this stuff, I realized that everything I liked about Batman ending up being the stuff that Jerry Robinson created."
After his time on Batman ended, Robinson had a long and fruitful creative life, including 32 years of newspaper political cartoons and comic strips with titles like Jet Scott, Still Life and Life with Robinson.
And Robinson became a crusader for the rights of his fellow creators. He was instrumental in getting financial compensation — and creator credit — for Superman's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, when Warner Bros. was ramping up to promote its first Superman movie in the late 1970s. And when editorial cartoonist Francisco Laurenzo Pons was locked in an Uruguayan jail for six years, suffering beatings and electric shocks, Robinson invented a bogus award, with the help of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, and named Pons as the first winner. The resulting publicity forced the Uruguayan government to release Pons.