By: Dave Astor
The actor who plays the Joker in a blockbuster 2008 movie is gone. The cartoonist who created the Joker in 1939 is still around.
He’s Jerry Robinson, and he thinks the late Heath Ledger’s acting turn in “The Dark Knight” is “a tour de force.”
“A brilliant performance,” said Robinson, 86, when E&P reached him by phone at the currently running Comic-Con in San Diego. “Very nuanced. The Joker is psychotic, but you believe in Heath’s portrayal.”
How does Ledger’s portrayal of the supervillain compare with Jack Nicholson’s hammy turn in the 1989 “Batman” film? “They’re really different,” replied Robinson, who has also had a long career in newspaper cartooning and syndication. “Nicholson made him kind of a mad terrorist. It wasn’t exactly the most interesting view of him. It was more of a satirical, TV take on the Joker — though it was a great performance.”
Robinson said the way “The Dark Knight” and Ledger portray the Joker is closer to the way the character was conceived nearly 70 years ago. Back then, Robinson was a teenage Columbia University journalism student working on comic books with “Batman” co-creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger. (The name of Batman sidekick Robin was inspired by Robin Hood, not Jerry’s last name.)
For “The Dark Knight,” Robinson served as “creative consultant.” He was on the set of the movie last fall in London, after filming moved from Chicago.
Robinson recalled that the scene in which the Joker threw the Rachel Dawes character (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) out a window was first shot in Chicago and then finished in London — where Batman (played by Christian Bale) saves Rachel before she hits the ground. Robinson joked that being thrown out of a window in America and landing in another continent is quite a feat.
The cartoonist also said the movie makeup of Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent/Two-Face) was digital, not actually applied to his face. “I spent a lot of time on the set with the makeup artist, and she didn’t mention him,” recalled Robinson. “Now I know why!”
Bale, recalled Robinson, “was an interesting guy” to talk with on the London set. “Very literate and articulate,” said the cartoonist. (Bale has since landed in some hot water with this week’s report of his arrest for allegedly assaulting his mother and sister; the actor denies the charges.)
Robinson didn’t meet Ledger in London; the actor had finished his Joker scenes and flown back to the U.S. at that point. Ledger died this January in New York City of an apparent drug overdose.
“It’s such a tragedy,” said Robinson, who added that there had been plans for he and Ledger to get together in New York.
The cartoonist did see various “Dark Knight” actors at last week’s New York premiere of the movie. They included Bale again, Gary Oldman (who played Lt. James Gordon in the film), and Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth). Robinson said Caine was so good in the role of the butler to Bruce Wayne — aka Batman — that he’d like to see the character focused on in another movie.
Robinson also ran into Danny DeVito, who played the Penguin earlier in the “Batman” movie series. The Penguin was a character Robinson also drew during his comic book days.
What did Robinson think of “The Dark Knight” in general? The cartoonist replied that he was very impressed with it, though he didn’t find the film perfect. For one thing, said Robinson, it could’ve been tightened up in a way that would’ve made it about 15 minutes shorter.
And did Robinson expect the movie to pull in a record $158.4 million during its first weekend? “I knew it would be big, but didn’t think it would be THAT big,” commented the cartoonist, who said he’s contractually not allowed to comment on how much he might or might not make with the movie. Like most cartoonists who worked decades ago, Robinson didn’t have ownership rights to characters he created.
Robinson will be part of a Friday panel on “Batman” at the San Diego Comic-Con. This afternoon, he’s also on a “Golden Age of Comics” panel, and Sunday he’ll speak on yet another panel focusing on famed cartoonist Jack Kirby.
In addition, Robinson will present the Bill Finger Awards at the San Diego event, and do daily signing sessions at the DC Comics booth.
Speaking of DC Comics, Robinson is authoring an original graphic novel for that company starring the Joker. “It will be the first time in 60-some years I’ve personally created something with the Joker,” he told E&P.
Robinson is also updating his 1970s history of newspaper comics for Dark Horse (possible release in fall 2009), and a biography of Robinson is being written for the Abrams publishing company (also for possible release sometime in 2009).
The cartoonist’s newspaper connections are many. He’s founder and president of the Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate/CartoonArts International — now marketed by the New York Times Syndicate. He also did the syndicated “Life with Robinson” social/political satire feature, as well as the syndicated “still life” and “Flubs & Fluffs” offerings.
In addition, Robinson served as president of both the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and the National Cartoonists Society, has authored many other books besides his comics history, and has curated many cartoon exhibits.
Before all that, how did Robinson come up with the Joker? He told E&P back in 1989: “I wanted to create a master criminal; a protaganist worthy of Batman. In my reading of literature, every great hero had his opposite — David and Goliath, Sherlock Holmes and Moriarity.
“I had written a lot of humor at Columbia, and I loved stories with satire and a twist. So I thought it would be interesting to have a villain with a sense of humor. It would give him some contradiction, some depth; make him unusual.”
Robinson then thought of the Joker name, and realized he could use the picture of a joker on a playing card as a model for the character’s look. The cartoonist remembers “searching frantically that night for a deck of cards.”