Indeed, Skippy was the first realistic, believable child in the comic strips, as Robinson points out early in his book. “The brilliance of Skippy,” Robinson argues, “was that here was a fantasy with a realistic base, the first kid cartoon with a definable and complex personality grounded in daily life.” Skippy is invariably occupied, to the low degree that he is occupied by anything, by the everyday matters in a young person’s life—working a gumball machine, bringing home his report card, avoiding a bath.
As I mentioned, I had seen the 1931 live-action Skippy movie in a film-history class session on child actors, and I had found it sweet and gently humorous; Jackie Cooper, at age nine, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in the title role. Until I read Jerry Robinson’s book, though, I had not realized that the film, just like all the movies made from comic books in recent years, was only one element in a multi-platform franchise that predated those buzzwords by half a century. Once Crosby moved “Skippy” from Life magazine into newspaper syndication in 1925, it reached millions of readers in hundreds of newspapers around the United States. There was a Skippy radio show; novels about Skippy written by Crosby; a popular song about Skippy (“You can always see him in the daily papers/you’ll love his capers”); Skippy dolls; Skippy trading cards; Skippy jigsaw puzzles; a Skippy wagon; a Skippy sled; and Skippy eyeglass frames (complete with a sticker certifying, “This case contains a pair of genuine ‘Skippy’ glasses,” despite the fact that Skippy didn’t wear glasses).
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.