Chances are you may have no idea who these men were. In fact some may think that the Jerry Robinson I mentioned was the dentist from The Bob Newhart Show. ( Which, yes that was the characters name, but I’m not talking about him.) However, both of these men had a huge impact on American culture through their contributions to superhero comic books during what is called the “Golden Age” of the medium. While their names may be largely unknown, their creations are well known. It is a cliché to say this, but like many from that early age of comic books they were true “titans of the industry.”
In 1940, a young journalist by the name of “Jerry Robinson” was hired by Bob Kane, the man who created Batman, to help work on the Dark Knight’s four paneled, brightly colored adventures. There is an old saying among writers that a hero is only as good as two things: his supporting cast and his enemies. Jerry helped contribute to both.
When Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 his only supporting player was Commissioner Gordon. Jerry came along and helped create Dick Grayson; a young orphaned circus acrobat, better known as Robin: The Boy Wonder, Harvey Dent the scarred Gotham City District Attorney known as Two-Face, Alfred Pennyworth; Batman’s faithful butler, and perhaps his greatest contribution: The Joker, The Clown Prince of Crime, the Ace of Knaves, and lest we forget Batman’s arch-nemesis.
It has often been observed by many fans and critics that without these contributions, Batman may not have lasted as long. This claim is not hard to refute. The Joker represents all Batman tries to fight against and continually tests him to his limits. Two-Face represents all he would like to save. And Alfred and Robin are the two who pull Batman back from the brink and remind him what he’s fighting for.
Robin would also become the first of a new trend in comic books, that of the “kid-sidekick.” While Lone Ranger had Tonto, and Green Hornet had Kato none of them were children. The idea of the kid sidekick was not oonly add some light to some very dark books, but to serve as audience surrogates for the kids reading the books and as expositional devices. Now a days comic writers opt for caption boxes that tell us what the charcters are thinking. No such thing existed then, so something, or some one was needed to help explain what was going on aside from using a narrator. Robin fit that bill and led the way for other characters like Speedy, Kid Flash, and Bucky.
Robinson was also a tireless advocate of creators rights in regards to the comic book industry. Durring the “Golden Age” of comics, the companies that would one day become DC and Marvel were notorious for shady business deals and poor treatment of many of the creators, at least those who were not skilled business men like Bob Kane and Stan Lee. It took the efforts of the likes of Jerry Robinson to even get the names of the creators of the Man of Steel (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) listed in the credits for Superman: The Movie. He wanted the likes of himself, Siegel, Shuster, Jack Kirby, Gardner Fox, and Joe Simon to get the credit and recognition for the characters they created.
Joe Simon was hired by Timely Comics and worked along side Jack Kirby in the 1930’s and 40’s. Jack would do the art work, and Joe would write the stories, and together the two of them created a number of Marvel’s Golden Age characters., as well as several for DC Comics. Many of these characters have faded into obscurity with the general public, but one of them stands out over all the rest. That character would end up being on of their first collaborations. This hero would become not just the focal point of the Marvel Universe, but a symbol to a wounded nation during World War II. That character’s name was Captain America.
Joe Simon often recalled that he and Jack would read in the papers and see in the news reels all the things going on in Europe during World War II. Hitler and his goons were goose-stepping all over the continent. In response to this, their creation featured a Blue-Eyed-Blond ( the very Aryan ideal) punching out Hitler on his first issue. While Captain America (much like Superman at DC) had seen his popularity diminish in the wake of the popularity of other heroes, it was Captain America who ignited Marvel.
Much as Superman would be the first Superhero of the DC universe and inspire other figures like him who were in their own ways exceptional individuals representing the best of humanity, Captain America was the first of another kind. Like the other heroes of the Marvel Universe who would follow, Captain America was flawed. Declared 4-F, Steve Rogers was not allowed to serve his country during World War II. He was too short, too weak, and too sick. However he demonstrated a heroic spirit that made him the best option for a super-soldier project that would transform him into Captain America.
Despite the popularity of Wolverine, Spider-Man and Iron Man, Captain America has remained a central figure of Marvel comics for 75 years. When the Silver Age of Comics was in full swing, the crowning moment was when Captain America was found frozen in ice since World War II, thawed out, and joined the Avengers. He would be a character that the other heroes in the universe including the likes of Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wolverine, and even The Punisher would come to respect. Sales figures may have dwindled but readers still love the character and were saddened when he was (temporarily) killed off in 2007’s Civil War Story Arc.
Simon was more then aware of the characters popularity and legacy, and when news broke he is quoted to have said that it was a “shame, we could use him now.” While he may not have worked on the character in decades he still loved Captain America and understood the importance of the symbol of that character. To him, and many readers Captain America represented everything Americans could and should be.
Some reading this may wonder why I am talking more about their creations and not their lives. This is a memorial after all. Fact is, I knew these men the same way any one can know a writer or artist and that is through their creations. Characters like Robin and The Joker or Captain America and Red Skull, and their enduring popularity and long and illustrious history are a far more fitting tributes to these men then anything I could say.
Jerry Robinson died on December 7th the age of 89 and Joe Simon on December 14th, 2011 at the age of 98. They had both lived very long lives and seen a lot in their time. Their passing is sad, to be sure, but rather then mourn them, I celebrate them, and their enduring characters . From films, to TV to comics to video games these characters are sure to last forever.
To them I say, thank you, Jerry. Thank you, Joe. You may not have enjoyed the accolades you deserve early in your careers but know that your characters will last forever. From one long-time comic book fan you will be missed.