Crosby got rich and traveled in high company, lunching with Jerome Kern and John Barrymore, palling around with Robert Benchley and Harold Ross. He took to strolling with a Malacca walking stick, in a derby. He became a celebrated fixture in Manhattan nightlife. He drank too much. As Newsweek once reported, Crosby went out one night for a round of visits to New York hotspots, and he could not explain the next day how he ended up in a railroad yard in Cleveland. Before long, Crosby swore off alcohol and settled with his second family in an eighteen-room fieldstone mansion on 200 acres in Virginia, and that is where he was living when he proceeded to undo everything he had accomplished, spiraling in a diminuendo that gives his story one of the strangest last acts in American pop culture history. That is to say, he was ideal to be the first subject of a comic-artist biography; his life (tragedy) is as compelling as his work (comedy).
In 1939, when Jerry Robinson was a student at Columbia’s journalism school, he lived in a rented room with a family in the Bronx. The family knew a would-be artist in the neighborhood, Bob Kahn, who, under the pen name Kane, was developing a new comic-book character called The Bat-Man. It was barely a year since Superman had first appeared and almost instantaneously made the new cartoon format, the comic book, wildly popular among young people, if not their parents. Robinson’s landlords, knowing their boarder was interested in cartooning and could draw as well as write, helped him get a part-time job as an assistant to Kane, and Robinson proved useful, suggesting that The Bat-Man take on a boy partner, whom Robinson recommended calling Robin. Another day, Robinson brought Kane a playing card, a joker, and persuaded him to create a villain based on it.
At the time, comic books were to newspaper strips what journalism was to literature: a kindred art commonly seen as something lesser, simpler, less sophisticated. In the world of cartooning, provenance in newsprint had an elevating effect; in the world of prose, its effect was diminishing. Robinson started his adult life on the disreputable sides of two pairs of tracks, and he came eventually to see writing historical books on newspaper cartooning as a way to jump both sets of rails at once. While others had written articles on cartoons of all sorts, few writers were doing full-scale, grown-up, hardcover books on comics; Robinson, moreover, would fix his focus on newspaper strips, the more reputable of the two spheres of cartooning.
There had been serious writing on comic strips—or writing of varying quality by serious people—since the earliest days of newspaper funnies. Much of the first journalism on the strips, by people such as Ralph Bergengren and Sidney Fairfield, was severely critical—attacks on the slangy, rough-edged, highly visual form of mass entertainment by defenders of the genteel tradition. By the Jazz Age, critics disposed to modernism, such as Gilbert Seldes, editor of The Dial (and first publisher of “The Waste Land” in the US) saw a kind of democratic radicalism in the idiosyncrasy of strips like “Krazy Kat,” and intellectuals on the whole warmed up to the funnies. By the 1960s, a sizable body of serious essays and short works of criticism on comics had been published, the best of them collected by the editors David Manning White and Robert H. Abel in the 1963 anthology The Funnies: An American Idiom. This was the environment Robinson entered in 1974, when he published his first book, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art, a heavily illustrated overview of newspaper-strip history, written under the aegis of the Newspaper Comics Council, an organization of cartoonists protective of their legacy. (The group held the copyright to The Comics.) While researching this book, Robinson developed an interest in Percy Crosby.
Skippy and Percy Crosby is, by design, a work of popular history, not an academic study. After all, Robinson is a journalist by training, a cartoonist by vocation, and a historian by aspiration. Besides, even if Robinson (or anyone other than a well-established historian) had been fully equipped and determined to write a dense, scholarly study of Crosby’s life and work, there is no reason to think any publisher would have wanted it. Robinson’s book, an authoritative but readable and somewhat boosterish short biography, was the book appropriate to its time, the book necessary to make possible longer, more penetrating biographies of comics artists.