Whether you're a comic book fan or not, there's a good chance you would recognize the cover art for "Superman" #14 and "Detective Comics" #69. The former, drawn by Golden Age artist Fred Ray, features the Man of Steel standing nobly before an American shield with an eagle perched on his arm. Meanwhile, "Detective" #69 shows the Joker eerily looming over Batman and Robin with two guns in hand as famously rendered by Jerry Robinson. Such iconic images make these two original pieces of artwork some of the most sought-after pieces ever created. And now the owner, Robinson himself, is about to auction them off.
CBR News recently spoke to the legendary Golden Age artist at DC Comics' New York headquarters, where the valuable covers were also on display. Robinson revealed that he's had "countless" offers to sell them over the years (Christie's and Sotheby's called him every year, he said laughing), but now feels it's finally time to part with them.
"I've saved them and preserved them for 70 years, so I feel like they should find another home," said the 88-year-old. "These are some of the earliest and maybe the most historical pieces of that period ever saved. I hope the home eventually will be in a museum. A number of museums would like to acquire them, so maybe someone might donate them to a museum in the future."
When asked if it was difficult to let the artwork go, he replied, "Very. In fact, I may change my mind any minute!"
Looking at the history involved with the cover art, it's easy to see why Robinson would have a hard time giving it up. Reminscing about creating the Batman cover when he was just 20 years old in 1942, the artist told CBR, "It was one of the first Joker covers, and it was about two years after I created him. We were still trying to impress the image and the aura of the Joker, so I made a very large image showing the menace hovering over Batman and Robin. The mystery of the Joker was captured by him coming out of the Aladdin's lamp."
Robinson added that because it was the only cover image that showed the Joker holding guns, the artwork became even more iconic. "After that, we didn't show him with guns, nor did he use guns," he explained. "But this was very early on and we hadn't resolved that issue at that time."
During these years, Robinson also worked alongside - literally, at the next desk - his good friend and colleague, Superman artist Fred Ray. He remembered being awe-inspired by Ray's cover to "Superman" #14. "When I saw him execute that particular cover, even before he finished it, I knew he had conceived a great cover," Robinson said. "That cover symbolized America during [World War II] - the American shield, the American eagle - it's beautifully rendered. I just had the impulse that it shouldn't be destroyed and to save it, fortunately."
"Saving" the comics meant remembering to call the engraver, because in the early days of comic book publishing, covers and artwork were routinely destroyed after they were printed.
"I shudder to think of what was lost," said Robinson with a tinge of sadness. "[All the artwork] should have been saved. Unfortunately, there were many times I called and they said, ‘Too late, we destroyed that yesterday or this morning.' It would break my heart. But when I was absorbed in meeting my own deadlines, I didn't always have the presence of mind to call in time to save them. I wish I could've saved even more."
Now, these two pieces of comic history can be owned by fans with the deepest pockets. They're currently up for auction on ComicConnect.com until December 1st, and could fetch a pretty penny for Robinson. The online marketplace has a track record of selling rare comics for high prices: the first issue of Superman was sold on the website earlier this year for a whopping $1.5 million.
Robinson couldn't guess how much his art will go for, but he does have some ideas on how he's going to spend the money. "I have two terrific great-grandchildren who are just about to go to college, so I think that might take some of it," he said. "Then maybe I'll take a trip around the world with my wife and see a few places we haven't been. That would be exciting."
No matter where the covers end up, however, the Joker's legacy will forever remain in popular culture thanks to Robinson.
"All the villains at that time were mostly gangsters, embezzlers and petty crooks. I wanted a villain that was bigger than life to test Batman," Robinson remembered of creating the Dark Knight's most famous nemesis. "In shadier characters, it's always good to have some element in their nature that's contradictory, so a villain with a sense of humor I thought would be different. And that's how I came upon the villain and the name of the Joker, and that led to the Joker playing card as the image."
"I wanted him bizarre and memorable," he added, "and apparently, I succeeded because some 70 years later, we're still talking about him!"