Thursday, 22 October 2009

Frank Robbins

I don't think anybody polarized opinion more during The Bronze Age than Frank Robbins. Amongst my comic reading friends at the time, pretty much everybody absolutely loathed his work. Me, I liked it, if only to annoy those selfsame friends.
At least, I liked it up to a point. If I knew Frank was doing a book regularly, like say The Human Fly or The Invaders, well ok, that was fair enough. I had the choice there. It was when Marvel cheated that used to annoy me. Y'know, like getting Gil Kane to do the cover of a book you bought regularly ( 'cos I'd buy the phone book if it was illustrated by Gil ) then sneakily getting Frank in for that one issue to do the inside.

So why didn't some people like Frank's art? Here's a few quotes I'm sure we all heard at the time: His people look like they're made out of rubber! or The human body can't make those kind of contortions! or howabout Everybody looks like they're covered in slick black grease! or even the ever popular His art is just so damn ugly!
Even Frank's biggest fans would have to agree with at least one of those, and I'm as guilty as anyone else, there were times I thought his stuff was hideous, but y'know what I think it was, really?
I think the real issue was the kind of assignments he was given. Let's look at his great newspaper strip Johnny Hazard for starters.

Now, in anybody's eyes that is brilliant work. Sure, it reeks of Milton Caniff, but what cartoonist of Frank's generation wasn't a Caniff disciple at one point or another? Even if you don't like the style, you can't argue with Robbins' storytelling chops or his sense of design.
Of course, It was when he hit Marvel that the naysayers came out in force, me included. But don't forget, both Stan & Roy were thrilled to have him there. Here they are at a con in '74, just as Frank had been inducted into The House of Ideas.

From left to right, that's Frank, Joe Simon, Phil Seuling, The Rascally One & Mrs. Rascally Jeanie Thomas. And here's another shot of Stan, Frank & Joe.

Here's the thing, Frank was an arch stylist and a uniquely individual artist. What he wasn't was a superhero artist, at least not in The Mighty Marvel Manner like, say, the Buscema's. Take a look at his Cap & The Red Skull.

Brilliantly frenetic, yes. Almost a fever dream parody of the Marvel style, in fact. But not really that style. Not what we were used to. We wanted our heroes to look like heroes, dammit, not coke addicts in the throes of withdrawal. Or how about Frank's contribution to Steve Englehart's classic Nomad phase of Cap.

I love that panel now. At the time, I know for a fact I hated it. Nomad was the best, coolest idea anyone'd had in ages for Cap, and here was Frank Robbins ruining it!

But in a sense it wasn't his fault. He was obviously trying his best to adapt his idiosyncratic style into material that didn't suit it. Take that issue of Marvel Premiere there. Alfredo Alcala should've done it, or Mike Ploog at the very least.

Frank did a great, surreal job, but he just wasn't the right artist for the project. And I'd've said the same if Big John or Jim Mooney had got the job. I'm not saying Robbins couldn't do horror. Just that it didn't feel right. Or howabout the regular series he did, The Invaders. With hindsight, I can see how much fun Roy Thomas' love letter to The Golden Age was, ( tho' I suspect it was more fun for Roy than the readers ), but at the time, it was second only to The Human Fly for me and my friends in the area of 'last book in the shop you'd buy & then only if there was nothing else.'

Never particularly cared one way or the other about Cap, and wasn't even vaguely into the original Human Torch & Toro. Liked Subby, but he was much more fun over at The Defenders, where he stormed off like a petulant teenager each and every issue. Oh, and Bucky was interesting 'cos technically he was dead. But no, just didn't care. And as much as I enjoyed pissing my friends off by admitting to Robbins love, I didn't like him enough to invest in a series by him, particularly with characters I didn't give a stuff about.
Always liked that issue of Ghost Rider Frank did though, the one with The Phantom Eagle, even if it did come with a classic 'cheat' Gil Kane cover.

Interestingly, over at DC, Frank seemed to get a little more respect. He wrote tons of great Batman stories, of course. Though again, his version of The Caped Crusader was just too wrong-headed for me.

Like all of his characters, Bruce here seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown, yet another thing fans didn't like about Frank's art. His people were always frantic and sweaty, even when there was nothing to be frantic and sweaty about. And again, Bats looks like he's completely made out of rubber, even before he puts his cowl on.
But, on the flipside, there's his work on The Shadow, where's the Caniff inspiration is to the max. For instance, here's one of the all-time great covers ever done by anyone.

An absolute masterpiece of design and style. And here's Frank showing how good he is at sweaty Nazi's & sexy chicks.

He drew kinda foxy women, it must be said, even if they moved in ways only a russian gymnast would find appealing.
I think for all the work Frank did throughout The Bronze Age, where his style really worked was in the humour pieces. He was a cartoonist, as opposed to an illustrator, and in the pages of books like Plop! the insane bodily contortions actually worked.

I still don't think I could say I loved Frank Robbins' work, not like I love Chaykin's or Cardy's, to name but two, but I certainly don't recoil from it like I might've back in the '70's. It's bizarrely fascinating in a way, and if Twomorrows feel like doing a book about the guy, I'll be there, tripping over my legs going in six different directions to get it.


  1. I had a love/hate relationship with Robbins work for Marvel and DC as well, but as odd as it was, I never thought of it as bad, just different. I actually liked his run on Cap, perhapps because I was so bored of Sal Buscema, whose storytelling was fine, but lacked personality. Robbins did get a lot of hell in the letters pages of Batman, especially in comparison to Neal Adams. Robbins also did some very nice covers, as shown with the Shadow and a number of Marvel covers, including A Ghost Rider inked by Bob Layton, and one inked by Terry Austin.

    Nick Caputo

  2. I always liked Robbins on the Invaders but as a kid wasn't keen on him on any other title (How daft was I ? !!)
    I think it might be that as an adolescent of 12 or 13 we so want our super-hero comics to be SERIOUS and straight, none of that wonky idiosyncratic stuff.
    Kirby was getting stick over at marvel at the same time of course.
    I remember being at a comic convention in Manchester and they had a panel covering all the news and stuff that was coming out, when they mentioned Kirby's Silver Surfer graphic novel .. it was booed !
    Looking at Robbins stuff now, I love it... it has a personality and that's what I want these days, might be a bit wonky but there's the charm !!

  3. I had a strong dislike for most of Robbins' comic book work--even his work just as a writer at DC. I did, though, enjoy his period pieces such as the Shadow or the Invaders...or I woould've if he hadn't continually given all the male characters except Subby modern, blow-dried hair!

    That said, I dearly love the early years of Robbins' JOHNNY HAZZARD newspaper strip and bought multiple volumes in the seventies and eighties! Go figure.

  4. In my youth, I'm afraid I wasn't a great fan of Robbins, but his Invaders grew on me so much that he managed to put his mark on them in my adolescent brain, and finally accepted his style as the way they should look. Now, I love his stylistic approach when I look at the old issues.

  5. Count me among the guys with a love/hate stance on Robbins. I liked him on the Invaders, but hated him just about everywhere else. And I can't say that I have a new appreciation for his work now, years later - that infamous Nomad panel would only look right in an issue of Crazy or Mad...
    Those Johnny Hazard panels are astounding, though, and now I'm really curious about the Shadow - although I'm assuming copyright issues are making it impossible for those to be published in some kind of nice collection.

  6. thing I didn't say was that of course with a lot of Robbins' Marvel work he didn't ink himself and with an artist like him where most of the drawing IS in the ink he suffered more than others.

  7. I'm new to this blog, but based on this post, looks like I've got a lot great reading to catch up on here.
    I hated Robbins' work on Captain America when I was a kid, but loved his work on the Invaders. Go figure. Those panels above showing the Red Skull, and the Nomad were burned in my brain when I first read them and seeing them again brought back a ton of memories.
    He did draw nice looking women. I totally had a crush on one of the Cap villians, Nightshade (I think) when I was a kid. Thankfully, I've matured some since then.
    Thanks for the great post!

  8. Pete:

    As a kid, Robbins work made me almost physically ill, I disliked it so much. Which really goes to show how hooked I was on the Marvel house style of the time. In retrospect, I really like his work in the Invaders, and if he was still with us, would LOVE to see him on a period crime comic with Ed Brubaker.

    Probably the best part of running blogs like yours and mine has to be the chance to revisit old favorites — or, in this case, not-so-favorites — and see them again through fresh eyes.


  9. Too bad Robbins isn't around to see that superhero comicdom used several decades but finally caught up with him in the end. Like Toth, he seemed to be able to adapt to any genre.

  10. I remember Frank's Invaders very well. His art was so different. His style definatly fit that type of book. It had a very golden age feel which was what I loved so much. His 'horror' stuff was great too although I couldn't get into his work on other titles like Cap, it just didn't seem quite right on other types of storys. Love that Johnny Hazzard work. I'm going to have to dig some of that up.

  11. One thing you neglected to mention was his long run writing Superboy in the late 60's. Like Bob Haney he didn't give a rat's hind end about continuity, but he could generate a good plot on command. I liked Frank's art style, but he wasn't flashy enough to hold my youthful brain then, so I overlooked him as I did many fine artists. Still, he DID have Batman playing Rusian roulette YEARS before Frank Miller thought to do the same in Daredevil.

  12. Dammit, misspelled Russian. Don't lock me away, Mister Putin!

  13. wow...didn't know of all the Robbins hatred back in the day...then again as a kid i doubt i read many letter columns. LOVED his Invaders to death and was annoyed when he stopped drawing it.

  14. I guess I'm in the minority but I never had a love/hate relationship with Frank Robbins' comics artwork. I absolutely adored the hell out of it and still do today. As an 11 year-old kid back in the 70's, I fell in love with Robbins' comic work the very first time I laid eyes on it which, as it so happens, was in the issue of The Shadow following the one pictured above (#8 -- Night of the Mummy!).

    I agree his best work was when he got to ink his own pencils, a concept DC seemed to grasp a lot more than Marvel did (Thank God Coletta was eventually replaced by Springer on The Invaders!) Frank's work in Detective Comics and The Shadow are classic in my opinion (not to mention the occasional horror stories he did for House of Mystery and House of Secrets and great war stories in Weird War Tales). I used to cringe at the amount of hate mail he got in The Shadow's letter pages when he took over the book from Kaluta.

    But I'm glad to see that most folks who hated his style back then, grew to like or even love his style later on. That happened to me with the likes of Pete (PAM) Morisi and Luis Dominguez. Didn't care for their style back in the day, love it today...

  15. Nice piece. I'm a cartoonist, a big time Frank Robbins fan and a regular BACK ISSUE! magazine contributor, and the first article I ever wrote for TwoMorrows was about THE HUMAN FLY series (BACK ISSUE #20). I'm also writing about another Robbins series for the upcoming issue #55.

    And in the current issue of ALTER EGO #100 (the big fat anniversary issue), I've got an article about Roy Thomas and Frank Robbins on INVADERS.

    I also pitched the idea to do a Frank Robbins book with the title LOVE IT OR HATE IT: THE ART OF FRANK ROBBINS in 2008. At the time TwoMorrows did not see it as commercially viable and passed. However, the cult of Robbins appears to be growing online so perhaps they'll reconsider and create a Robbins book. Anatomically incorrect fingers crossed, Robbins style!

  16. I absolutely despised his art. I couldn't wait for his run to be over when he drew Cap...(opening the new ish..."Oh, crap, he's still here").

  17. See? Even on this blog, four decades later, Robbins still stokes those love him or hate him feelings! Uncanny!

  18. Yep, I had a love/hate relationship with his art, too. I LOVED him on Invaders, particularly once Colletta was replaced by Frank Springer and really missed him when he left and (ugh!) Kupperberg took over. (It helped that the early Springer-inked issues were moody and featured Baron Blood and a lot of night-time raids.) I'm actually rereading that series now (which is what prompted a little Google search and the visit to this blog); it's one of my childhood favorites, even got a subscription to it.

    Conversely, I did not like him at all on Captain. America; the rubber legs didn't work in a modern super-hero setting. Ditto Daredevil, Ghost Rider and Human Fly. While I still cringe a little over his attempts to do "super-hero action", I appreciate those issues more now.

    His art on Detective Comics was bizarre in a good way. Creepy, again a nighttime atmosphere. The Shadow was absolutely great, too, although I preferred Kaluta and Cruz. His scripts for Batman and Superboy were great fun. Still, he really shone when he got to do "normal" people, and was particularly adept at noir styles (period and otherwise), even though everything was printed in color except the newspaper dalies.

  19. I have to also admit to he love/hate of Frank Robbins. Captain America was my absoulte favorite character. And I loved what Roy Thomas was doing with Invaders in the 70's. So I purchased every issue and didn't really like artwork very much. As has been mentioned, it wasn't the Marvel house style. But by the time I actually sat down and carefully read each issue, I had nearly all of them. So in reading them all in a row, I quickly fell completely in love with the Frank Robbins/Springer style. Invaders quickly became one of my all-time favorite titles. However, I was told over and over that Frank Springer was the one responsible for the hypnotice eye look of the characters. Which I found hard to believe. Most comic dealers and "art critics" of the day claimed that Springer was somehow altering Robbins otherwise more normal and natural style. This was hard to believe,.. until one looked at other inkers like Vinnie Colletta (who people also either love or hate).

  20. Is there a tendency for older comic book fans to give props with retrospection? I think his superhero work fails on all objective art standards.

    Never dug his work, thought it was bad then and I don't think it holds up now. Not sure why his stylish anatomy, weird faces, and mind boggling action shots is getting props with this 20/20 hindsight.

    I was baited and switched with a Ron Wilson cover for Frank's debut issue. His Viper in Captain America looked good and he drew women better than Sal Buscema, but that's about it for his superhero work.

  21. I dislike Robbins' artistic style completely!!!!

  22. Genius. He really was. If you're a doubter then look again, you may need a few looks. But then you'll see it. And as for his batman in detective comics; if only batman looked so good now.

  23. Thank you, Pete-
    This blog entry has afforded me the opportunity to completely re-evaluate my opinion of the talented Frank Robbins. As a kid, I did not care for his work at all. I recently picked up the entire run of 'The Human Fly' along with some issues of 'The Invaders'. I'm looking forward to re-reading them now through more appreciative eyes. I've only just become aware of his work on Batman, and I must say that his brush work on 'Detective Comics' #420 is phenomenal!
    -E. Lamont

  24. I knew only his DC work and I loved it as a kid.

  25. Honestly just about my favourite creator from the bronze age.
    Go and look at the trio of Power man he did or to be more specific check out The Human Fly #6 with its really astonishing compositions and remarkably
    fluid storytelling.
    still not convinced?
    That issue is sublimely coloured by Francoise Mouly and the combined strength of these creators cements it in my mind as one of the most precious
    works of the late 70s.
    I love you Frank!

  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I had a love/hate relationship with Frank Robbins'art in the 70's, but now I realise what a great cartoonist he was. He was perfectly suited to The Invaders, I have a soft spot for his Morbius art and he did a brilliantly pulpy, gritty Batman.

  27. Hey Dean! You must be the Dean Willetts from Haverhill, who would never swap your best comics with me, Sean Phillips or David Holman, am I right? How are you? Still into comics like the rest of us? ( Sorry only just seen this reply or would've responded sooner )

  28. Frank Robbins did have a style that perfectly suited a book of Timely characters, as his style does have that rough and tumble "Golden Age" feel... his work on The Shadow was likewise, sometimes disturbing, but... right for the stories and era depicted.

  29. As I say, he wanted to be Canniff really.

  30. Boy, am I late to the party! anyone home??
    I was a kid when Robbins came onto Captain America. I wasn't sure what to make of his art, TBH. Hated the crazy way Cap's "Pirate Boots" seemed to slosh around, for instance. But there was something resonant in the art, too. The Red Skull was scary as hell compared to the depictions I'd seen by Kirby in Marvel's Tales of Suspense reprint book. And Deadly Nightshade. I remember Gabe and Peggy's romance interracial romance and how that irked the Nazi Skull. Englehart could be a great writer, often. And Robbins brought something quite different than the competent but "meh" Sal Buscema.
    I absolutely hated when Kirby came back. Awful, obvious writing

    Now, finding out so much more about Robbins, I respect the man and admire his life's work.