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Underrated Artists I Love #1: Frank Robbins

The first in a series? Also, coming up: Overrated Artists I Hate! 🙂

Frank Robbins. He’s that Invaders guy. He’s that weird artist who drew rubber-limbed, contorted figures with insanely distorted, grimacing faces. Everything he drew looked bizarre & wrong, didn’t it? He wasn’t very good, was he?

No. He was GREAT! I mean, come on, get a load of this…

The Shadow 7 (1974) cover
Cover of THE SHADOW #7 (DC Comics, 1974).

Mind you, The Invaders—meaning, the mid-late 1970s WWII superhero team comic Frank did with Roy Thomas, not the Quinn Martin classic SF show with Roy Thinnes—was what you’d call a late period piece in Frank’s long career. Frank left the book in 1978, and after doing a few more odds & ends, retired as a cartoonist in 1979. He spent his last years focusing on his painting; he died in 1994.

As a cartoonist, Frank’s career goes way back to 1939. He started with a five-year stint on the famous Scorchy Smith newspaper strip. Created by John Terry, this aviation tale ran for 30+ years, and amongst the many artists working on the run were Noel Sickles and a certain Mr George Tuska, long before his Iron Man days. Sickles, of course, was one of the great Alex Toth’s heroes, and Alex had enormous regard for Frank Robbins too. Sickles was an early studio mate of Milton Caniff, creator of Terry and the Pirates—another fave of Toth’s. One thing that all these artists had in common, which Toth arguably took to a new level, was their bold, extensive use of high contrast—light and shade—also known as chiaroscuro.

After his Scorchy run, Frank created what is probably his prime achievement, the adventure strip Johnny Hazard, which he wrote & drew from 1944 to 1977.

Johnny Hazard 1961 Sunday Strip
JOHNNY HAZARD Sunday Strip from 1961.

You’d think doing this strip for 33 years would be more than enough for anyone, but in the late ’60s Frank also started to work for DC Comics, initially as a writer—so, Frank was already in his 50s when he made his comic book “debut”! It was working on the Batman books where he made his mark, creating the memorably tragic, enduring character of Man-Bat in Detective Comics #400—his co-creator on this classic being a certain Batty legend by the name of N Adams.

But what gets my notice during this period is that, in spite of drawing his daily Hazard strip, Frank also starting drawing the odd story for DC. A modest run of stories written & drawn by Frank appeared in Detective Comics #416, 420, 421, 426, 429 and 435. All inked by Frank himself, these wild, black-drenched efforts—far more “out there” than his work on Hazard, perhaps to some extent due to his crazily busy schedule—are fascinating and, in their own peculiar way, absolutely wonderful.

Detective Comics #416 (1971) pg1
Splash page of DETECTIVE COMICS #416 (DC Comics, 1971).

And so, he started to draw comics somewhat regularly. There are various stories for DC dotted around up to 1975, most notably four excellent issues of The Shadow. But it’s here that Frank jumps ship to Marvel Comics, as an artist (and sometimes co-plotter), with a short run on Captain America (the very end of the famous Steve Englehart era), and, of course, that three-year Invaders run for which he is, for many, best-known.

Captain America #187 (1975) pg31
The final page of CAPTAIN AMERICA #187 (Marvel Comics, 1975).

The Invaders #17 (1976) splash page
Splash page of THE INVADERS #17 (Marvel Comics, 1976).

He did a bunch of other things for Marvel during the ’75-79 period, continuing with his comic book work for a couple of years after Johnny Hazard was cancelled, but, as the ’70s were winding down and he was in his 60s he decided, finally, to retire.

As much as I love the Invaders books, the best of which were ably inked by Frank Springer, it is the work Frank inked himself that I like the best… and particularly that handful of stories in Detective Comics. Of which, there are a couple more pages below, plus another two Marvel pages…

Let’s hear it for Frank Robbins! His work may well be weird and off-kilter, but it’s a lot of fun and, at its best, tremendous, exciting and evocative—he is definitely underrated!

Detective Comics #416 (1971) pg2
Page 2 of DETECTIVE COMICS #416 (1971).

Detective Comics #421 (1972) pg1
Page 1 of DETECTIVE COMICS #421 (1972).

Dracula Lives #9 (1974) pg3
Page 3 of “The Lady Who Collected Dracula”, DRACULA LIVES #9 (1974).

The Invaders #13 (1976) pg15
Page 15 of THE INVADERS #13 (1976).

7 thoughts on “Underrated Artists I Love #1: Frank Robbins”

  1. Chrissie,

    I was one of the few, introduced to Robbins at DC and later Marvel when I was a teenager, who liked his quirky style. His art on Bat-Man was really nice, but quite a contrast to Neal Adams, and I recall quite a few letter writers who could not comprehend his drawing the strip. Over at Marvel I liked his Cap and Invaders, but thought he worked even better on the horror-oriented material. His art is worthy of appreciation, and you post some excellent examples here.

  2. Thanks for that, Chrissie, I never get tired of looking at Frank Robbins’ work. You probably already know this, but just in case: Neal Adams coloured the story FR drew in Detective Comics #416. I love what he did with it.

  3. Thanks for the cross-section of his work. It reminds me of one of my favourites, Gerry Talaoc (before his unfortunate team-up with Ayers). I’ll investigate some of the stuff he drew and wrote by himself.

  4. Frank Robbins was indeed an acquired taste, and I confess it took me quite some time to acquire it, although I do recall mining a splash page (or large panel) from his run on Captain America for a school art assignment circa 1975. As a comics illustrator, Robbins had a very individual style, a strength I’ve grown to appreciate as much of the industry has fallen to a tsunami of bland mediocrity.

  5. I knew of Robbins through books on the history of comics and picked up many of the Johnny Hazard collections that became available in later years, but was totally oblivious to his comic book work until way later! I don’t own a lot of original art, but I do proudly own a Johnny Hazard daily.

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