Looking Back With Frank Springer
Down the track when I really began to take notice of artists name I discovered that any book with the name 'Frank Springer' on it was an instant buy. Why? Because no matter how bad the story might have been, the art would be solid. When it came to inking artists as diverse as John Buscema, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Romita, Frank Miller, Jim Mooney or Alan Kupperberg, Frank Springer brought something to everyone - quality. Frank didn't appear to change anyone, he didn't overpower them with his own style either unlike say a Klaus Janson (not to knock Janson, just that everything he inked look like, well Klaus Janson, same as almost everything George Perez inks looks like George Perez, no matter who penciled it), instead he enchanced what was there and managed to bring out the best in a penciler. Slowly over time, as I grew older, his name began to vanish from the books until one day it was just gone for good. By that time a lot of the artists I enjoyed had also vanished from mainstream comics.
Where did Frank Springer go? I had no idea but I'd ask other artists from time to time if they had a handle on him. I rang a number I was given a few years only to speak to a nice gentleman who assured me that, although he was indeed an artist, he wasn't the Frank Springer I was looking for. Eventually I was given Frank's email address and made contact and, well, you can read the rest. It was a pure delight to speak to Frank, he's a damn good guy and he deserves all the accolades that he's given. Without Frank Springer a lot of my favourite books might not look as good as they do.
DANIEL BEST: What is your background, where do you come from?
FRANK SPRINGER: I was born in Queens, New York, right outside of Manhattan on this day in 1929.
DB: Happy birthday!
FS: Thank you! During the depression I always liked to draw. We moved out to Long Island, to Nassau County, when I was almost ten and I grew up there and went to High School there. I always drew, I didn’t know exactly how I would eventually fit into the commercial art field because I didn’t have any idea what it was all about. I didn’t have any idea how you went about that and all of us who liked to draw at that period of time wondered if we should draw comic strips or do Saturday Evening Post covers. How’s that for chutzpah? [laughter] Thinking, “Do I want to be a movie star or be the President of the United Stats?” [laughter] I went to Syracuse University in the fall of ’48 and took art course there, got a degree in 1952 and was drafted that same year. The Korean War was going on and I was sent to Fort Dix to do infantry training and fortunately they kept me there drawing pictures, drawing charts and that kind of thing. I found out that if you could draw the army would put you to work doing that kind of thing as opposed to shooting people. That is if you were lucky, and I was lucky. It’s not very heroic but I got a lot of training in the army in doing sports cartoons with a deadline and so on. I was turning out what amounted to commercial work but, of course, we were still paid eleven cents an hour or whatever it was. We were forced to churn out a product and that was good training for the real world when you have to do the same.
I was discharged in ’54 and started to freelance. It was a two year hitch in those days and I think the draft is a good thing looking back. Just as an aside, I think if we had a draft in this country where every and I mean every, able bodied man had to spend two years in the service, Congress, who’s own sons would then be in the service as well, would be less likely to get into these wars all over the place.
I got out of the army in late ’54 and started freelancing in New York City doing spots. I still did not know much about the ‘business’. I was essentially a line artist and it was through one of the freelance jobs that I learnt that George Wunder, who wrote and drew Terry And The Pirates, was looking for an assistant and I was given his number. I called him up, was hired and I stayed there for five years doing some backgrounds and foregrounds, answering his mail, colouring the Sunday strips. That was good training, watching a professional churning this stuff out, day after day, writing the synopsis, then writing the strips and so on. I loved the strips when I was growing up. I grew up on Terry And The Pirates, Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant, those were the main adventure ones. There were a lot of adventure strips at that time, Buck Rogers, Smilin’ Jack and all of that, so I leaned towards all of that rather than the gag cartoons. In other words”little foot” rather than “big foot”. After a while I realised that when you’re somebody’s assistant you can’t get ahead. They are looking an extension of themselves, they’re not looking for a new Frank Springer, they’re looking for an extension of George Wunder or whoever you might be working for. There’s nothing wrong with that but you can’t really get anywhere that way so we parted company and I started to do work for Dell comics and that led to doing work for DC and Marvel. I got a call from Evergreen Review, a magazine that was published by Grove Press, and that led to “The Adventures Of Phoebe Zeit-Geist”. Michael O’Donoghue wrote it and we did monthly adventures for a couple of years when Grove Press decided to put all the adventures in a book. It was published in 1968.
At any rate that’s really it. Along the way I did editorial cartoons for the New York Daily News. I did some limited animation for a period of time for “The Adventures of Space Ghost”, which was a mayhem filled Saturday morning cartoon. Lots of creatures getting zapped, they didn’t hurt any people, it was large insects and that kind of thing. [laughter] That really brings us up to date. You lose one account, you gain another and now I’m doing some oil painting and doing some recreations of comic book covers and I’m generally retired. That’s 78 years in a nutshell. [laughter]
DB: You have had a long career.
FS: Yeah, yeah. Well unless you get run over by a bus you should stay active for a long time. Cartoonists last a long time because they rarely go anywhere or do anything hazardous. Sitting at a drawing board for most of the day isn’t dangerous. For some there is the temptation to drink or over eat but that was not me. We can last for a long time, unlike professional athletes.
DB: You did a fair bit of ghosting on a couple of newspaper strips, like the Phantom, the Heart Of Juliet Jones…
FS: I did, I did. I did very little work on the Phantom but I did do some. Sy Barry was doing the strip at the time and he used some one to pencil it most of the time. I did work with Stan Drake, which was a marvellous experience because I’d known Stan and this was for a really brief period because Stan was always a little bit late and he used a number of people. I think Stan was about the finest penman that ever lived. It was just great to watch him in action. Besides being a terrific guy he was an absolutely marvellous artist and that was fun. I worked with Leonard Starr for some years doing part of that strip. Leonard always handled the figures but I’d come in once a week and do the backgrounds, pick up a cheque and leave. [laughter] Leonard was a great guy to work with as well. There was a strip called Friday Foster drawn by a Spaniard in Spain (Jorge Longeron). I knew the writer (Jim Lawrence) who lived here in New Jersey, he’s gone now, but I got a call a couple of times from Lawrence who said they hadn’t gotten the material through from Spain, it was published by the Daily News at that time, and I said, “Look, if I do the Sunday page and seven dailies and the stuff comes through from Spain in the meantime then I still get paid, ok?” [laughter] I guess over the years I did two Sunday pages, maybe three. Lawrence told me there was an old saying, “Never hurry a Spaniard.” [laughter] God, he was a marvellous artist, just terrific.
DB: When you worked at Dell you were pencilling and inking your own work…
DB: But when you went over to Marvel and DC you did one or the other and you were predominantly an inker. Did you prefer pencilling or inking?
FS: I didn’t have a preference. I did a lot of pencilling for DC and for Marvel. I think I did more pencilling at DC than at Marvel. At Marvel I did maybe half and half. I loved to ink stuff. It was easier to have a pile of pages to ink that were neatly pencilled, than to do the pencilling and have to jump up every few minutes and go to the reference files to see what a sewing machine looks like, or a freight train. The stuff was all down there for you. I did enjoy pencilling though. With DC and Marvel they wouldn’t really have you do both. They found it was more efficient that if you were pencilling character X then they’d keep you pencilling character X because you became familiar with it. It was good for the artist as well because after you’d finished pencilling 22 pages of such and such a character you’re ready to go off and do something else rather than to start over again at the beginning and go through the whole thing again. So it was really more interesting to get a new story to start pencilling or go inking something that somebody else had done in the meantime.
DB: At Marvel the one artist who leaps out to me that you worked with was Frank Robbins.
FS: Yes. That was a great experience. Frank was a terrific artist and he drew everything there. Everything was down so you could fall asleep at the board and still ink it. I loved doing it because his stuff was good and it was clear. Some guys were good but their stuff was very sketchy and you had to do a lot of drawing with the pen. With Frank’s stuff it was all down there and I think it was a good combination. I kind of worked in his style, or at least I thought that way.
DB: It almost looked as if Milton Caniff had come to Marvel.
FS: Yes, that’s right. Frank Robbins was really a Caniff clone and I mean that in the best way. They said of Frank that he drew the “bottom” of everything. It was always kind of a top light so shadows under the brow, under the nose, shadows under the chin, under the deltoid muscle, the pectorals, [laughter] it was kind of Milton Caniff taken to another stage, almost a cartoon stage. Although look at Caniff’s stuff, look at the faces of his characters. He was really a cartoonist, a Bigfoot cartoonist. Along with all the wrinkles in the right places and the great scenes of the Far East, or the Middle East, the trains or whatever he was doing. That was all very realistic and you could smell the motor oil leaking out of the fighter planes parked on the tarmac, [laughter] but his characters like Happy Easter, or almost any of the ancillary characters in Steve Canyon or Terry had rather “cartooned” faces. Another guy who had that combination of “Big” and “Little Foot” was Roy Crane. Roy Crane was somebody that Milton Caniff idolised. Crane came along much earlier with his Wash Tubbs strip and he used the blacks and action and the Ben Day process really before anyone else was doing that kind of thing; even before Noel Sickles. Anyway Frank Robbins did Scorchy Smith which had been done by Noel Sickles years earlier; Noel did that in the ‘30s. Robbins then did Johnny Hazard which was really Son of Scorchy Smith, an airplane adventure strip. He was very fast and very good but it was cartoony, a Caniff style taken to another level.
DB: You worked with a lot of different artists other than Frank Robbins. Does anyone stand out for you?
FS: Let me see, I did stuff pencilled by John Buscema. He was excellent. They were good pencils to work on. I can’t think of some of the others. I inked some of Dick Ayers stuff, he’s still around. I can’t think right now of some of the other pencillers I might of inked and I’ve forgotten some of the inkers who inked my pencils. [laughter] John Romita might have been one who did the pencils or inks. John Romita is a fabulous artist and some of his Spider-Man stuff brings huge prices today.
DB: You inked Frank Miller’s first Daredevil stories when he was trying out for the book on Spectacular Spider-Man.
FS: Yes. It was a ghost kind of thing wasn’t it?
FS: I’ve forgotten the name of it, but yes I did. That was for Marvel. I’d never heard of him at the time but I’ve heard of him now. [laughter] The idea was to keep the work rolling in and most of the guys in comics started there when they were very young and stayed there. I was a little different in that I had grown up with the strips, I always thought of the strips as being more sophisticated and being written for adults than the comic books which were not as sophisticated. When you look at it objectively the idea of people flying through the air with little tiny wings on their ankles, like the Sub-Mariner, well it’s really absurd. But that was what they did so I tried to keep in touch with clients besides the comics, with the editorial cartooning, the sports cartooning, and magazines and so on, so I wasn’t as wrapped up as others. The comics were less of a percentage of my life as they were for other people who’d never really done anything else and never wanted to do anything else. There’s nothing wrong with that but it wasn’t the way I was put together. I really wanted to be known as an artist who could do other stuff and did do other stuff. I have to admit that a large percentage of the work I did was for the comics because of the volume of it. You don’t get a two page story in the comics, you get a twenty two page story, whereas a magazine piece might be a two page story, but you got more money. [laughter]
DB: You worked at National Lampoon as well.
FS: I forgot about that. That was because of Michael O’Donoghue. I’d done Phoebe Ziet-Giest with Michael for Grove Press, he was now with the new “National Lampoon” and called me up almost right away to do a piece called “Tarzan Of The Cows”. I don’t know what issue it was in, but it was one of the earlier ones. I did several other pieces for the magazine and I worked with several of the other writers, Henry Beard, Doug Kenney, Brian McConnachie; all fabulous writers. These guys were really funny and I think I did some of my best work because the writing was so good. I know you’re supposed to do your best work no matter what the subject matter is but it doesn’t always work out that way. [laughter] I think when you’re doing something that’s really funny or really exciting then you’re bound to put more into it.
DB: You’re also a member of the Cartoonists Society. In fact you were the president of it for a while.
FS: That’s right. I went on the board in the late ‘80s and surprising to me I became president in ’95 and served two years, to ’97. A lot of fun. A great organisation. I never thought that I’d do anything there except be a member but I’d been there for thirty years, [laughter] so by that time I knew where a lot of the bodies were buried. [laughter] Then it was finally my turn and it was a lot of fun. I don’t think I screwed up [laughter] and I was happy about that.
DB: You’re an incredibly fit man as well. You rode your pushbike across Iowa, you ran the New York marathon. I can’t think of any other artist who’s done that.
FS: Oh, there are other artists who’ve done that. I guess in my middle or late 30s I got the idea that as I was in such a sedentary profession that I better start moving around a little bit and keep my health up. I had a friend down on Long Island and we used to go down to the local school running track and do a few laps after dinner. A little later the running craze hit and I started running. They say, ‘if you want to get drunk fast, drink martinis, if you want to get into shape fast, run’. So I’d go out in the morning, do a couple of miles, come back, have breakfast, take a shower and get to work. This became a routine and later on, in the ‘90s, when the kids were out of college I had a little more time and the pressure was off, I heard about this Iowa bike ride. I got interested in that and applied for it, they accepted me and I went out there. It’s strenuous but there were little old ladies out there, guys fifteen years older than me were out there. It was a lot of fun. I had never seen the mid west before, I had no idea. I’d been to California and I grew up on the East Coast, but nobody goes to Iowa really [laughter] and for the most part people from Iowa, stay there. [laughter] I did some athletics in high school but at best I was a mediocre athlete, I wasn’t fast enough for the sprints and I didn’t have the endurance for long distance. As for the marathon, well anybody can run a marathon given the training. The training is the toughest part. Once you’re there at the starting line you should be confident of finishing. You know it’s going to be over that day and that’s that.
DB: You’re the only artist I’ve spoken to who has run a marathon. [laughter] I have to ask, were you friends with Joe Sinnott?
FS: Oh yes! Well not friends really, I met him on a couple of occasions and I know his work very well. He lives up on the Hudson a ways, and one thing we have in common is a love for
BOTH: Bing Crosby.
DB: That’s why I asked, you’ve both got Bing Crosby in common.
FS: That’s right. Bing Crosby was kind of the Milton Caniff of the music business. He really began the crooning style, the casual style of putting across a ballad and he was a great jazz singer in his early days. The early Crosby music history is classic. I kind of got into that late, but when you sit at a drawing board all day long you listen to the radio so you get a love of baseball, which used to be played during the day, opera, which is on Saturday afternoon, popular music, dramas and the news. All that stuff. I think one follows the other. [laughter]
DB: Going back again, what had the most influence on you when you started out?
FS: It was the comic strips I think, and the magazine covers. I was very taken by Norman Rockwell, Dean Cornwell, J.C Lyenedecker. At that time, in the ‘30s, those magazine artists and illustrators, belonged to the golden age of illustration. They did realistic paintings and were true artists. That and the strips. Prince Valiant was just a marvellous looking strip. Full paged, standard newspaper with those beautiful drawings, the mountains, the oceans, the Viking ships and the battle royals between Prince Valiant and his group and some vandals from somewhere. The whole thing was just fabulous. Flash Gordon with the strange characters on the planet Mongo. That was what really turned us on at that time, that and radio drama and the movies. The movies were a big deal at that time, in the days before television. To go into a theatre and see a drama unfolding in front of you. It’s hard for people to realise what a big deal going to the movies was at that time. It’s not anymore and I can’t remember what the last movie I saw was.
DB: What kinds of movies did you see?
FS: Just about anything that was there. There were pirate adventures with Errol Flynn, just about anything that was playing. We couldn’t afford to go more than once a week and really we didn’t have the time because we were going to school. Saturday morning or Saturday afternoon prices were ten to twenty cents and that was the time to go. I think you look at any of the movies that came out between the early ‘40s and the late ‘40s and I guess you can figure that any kid at that time in their late teens would have seen just about all of the big ones. Casablanca, that era. There were a lot of war movies of course. The war began the day after my twelfth birthday, on December 7th. We watched just about everything at that time. I can’t pick out any one particular one. There were horror movies also, I saw Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, all that stuff. It was just a big deal to go to the movies that we didn’t care what was playing. [laughter]
DB: It’s interesting that you mentioned artists like Rockwell in regards to painting, because now you’re doing fine arts and oil painting.
FS: Yes. I hadn’t done any oil painting since college. There was no call for it and it never occurred to me. I was kind of afraid of it actually, working in line so much, when I started it I really had to re-learn and get through some books just to learn how to go about it. I find that having drawn for many years it really aided my painting ability and I find that painting helped my drawing. I wish I’d learnt that years ago. [laughter] With painting you’re working in masses and with line you’re working in line, but of course there are crossovers there. I enjoy it and I’ve looked into some books which I had for years but hadn’t studied them. I bought a number of new ones when I bought my easel, I bought some paints and found out which brushes are good and which aren’t and I really enjoy it. I found a book that I had for years, called “Making Faces” by Fritz Willis. Willis was a girlie artist really, a pin-up artist, he’s been gone for many years, but he was just a beautiful painter and he wrote a step by step method, a “How To” book. I found I had this book for years and re-discovered it when I started painting. I found some really valuable stuff in there and I would recommend it to everyone. Good luck finding it, by the way, it’s perhaps 40 years old.
DB: What prompted you to start painting after all these years?
FS: I had to do something. The comics were in the past and I’d been doing a feature for Sports Illustrated for kids through the ‘90s. That was a lot of fun because it wasn’t that many pages and it paid really well. When that finally ended I only had a few other things going that didn’t take up too much time and I found I really had to do something. The idea of just sitting around reading a book and so on just wasn’t enough. My wife bought me an easel and soon after that I started. Nearby there was an art league and they had model sessions several times a week. I started showing up there with my paints and brushes and learned by doing. When the three hours are up you should have something down on the canvas. The classes were three hours long, so it was back to deadlines again. Without deadlines I’m not sure what would happen to artists. [laughter]
DB: So many artists miss deadlines though.
FS: Yeah, yeah. But I don’t think you can get away with that forever. It’s like borrowing money.
DB: What made you so disciplined?
FS: Five kids and the mortgage. I don’t know if that was really it, but I think if you go into freelance art then you have to be the kind of person who gets up in the morning or at night if you work at night, and turn out the product. I think that’s it. It’s easy to say that the rent was due and I had to work, but, and I’m not alone in this business, I’m self motivated. You have to be, I believe. It’s a self motivation type of thing. It’s like running a marathon. If you’re going to run a marathon then you know you’re going to have to get up every morning and run a certain amount of miles for a period of time, it could be months, or years, in order to show up at the starting line with any hope of finishing. If you’re going to be an artist then you have to show up every day if you’ve got any hope of churning it out.
DB: Your comic book career petered out in the late ‘80s through to the early ‘90s, was that a conscious decision on your behalf or was it the companies?
FS: I think that they were going on a youth movement. When Stan Lee was there at Marvel, if Stan wanted you, you worked and if Stan didn’t want you, you didn’t work. When Stan went to the West Coast and left the day to day editing, there were a lot of individual editors who hired people who some of us old timers didn’t think could really cut it, but that’s what they did. I know some artists at the time, better than I, who could not find work. Fortunately I had some other accounts so that wasn’t a huge problem with me, but gradually the comic work did disappear and they used younger artists, figuring the younger artists would get along better with their young clientele and so on. I don’t think that improved things, but that’s what happened. It was a similar thing at DC. I didn’t press it. When they didn’t call me I didn’t call them.
DB: it’s a shame because as an artist you have a lot to give and you have things that you can’t buy in a young artist, experience and knowledge.
FS: I know it, I know it. But look, Don Heck, a long time artist who’s been gone now for years, he was one of the top comic book guys ever. He could not buy a job at any of these places. That’s one thing if they say, “Don’t call Frank,” but if they don’t call Don then that’s really stupid. Part of it I guess is that I was not one of these guys who believed in these characters in the first place. Guys like me and Frank Robbins, we liked to draw and here were muscular bodies in action which is what we did when we were kids before we got hired by anybody, and that was fun. In our minds we might have thought that the stories were, you know, [laughter] really absurd and the characters don’t really talk like adults talk and everything, but they’re not paying me to write this thing so that’s that and I’m going to do as good a job as I can on the drawing. I think they might have sensed that with us. We weren’t one of those gung ho guys who’d sit there and say, “Gee, what is Captain America really like?” That kind of thing. I guess we didn’t care. It was just the idea of illustrating the adventures as best as we knew how. I hope that’s not a shock. [laughter]
DB: Not at all.
FS: I think that might have been part of it.
DB: No emotional attachment to the characters?
FS: Yeah, we had an emotional attachment to drawing, and an emotional attachment to getting the next assignment because it might be a juicy interesting thing to draw this character picking up a submarine and throwing it at an aircraft carrier. That was a challenge and that was fun. But did we eat and breathe these guys? No, I don’t think a lot of us did. Eventually, of course, the money got a lot better but none of us had any ownership over these things so we weren’t going to last. They had put in a royalty system after a while and I still get cheques when they reprint stuff, so that’s good.
If you look at Spider-Man, the person who co-invented Spider-Man, actually more than co-invented it was Steve Ditko and I don’t think he made a dime out of that movie but it wasn’t in his contract to make a dime. The case of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sure they were treated poorly, but legally they didn’t have a leg to stand on. In fact they drew a character and there was nothing in the contract that said they owned that thing. As it turned out that was really all they had and as kids they gave it away, because nobody knew at that time what was to become of that character, but legally they didn’t have a leg to stand on. When they came out with the Superman movie, DC Comics looked so chintzy when it was learnt that these guys who had invented Superman were practically indigent. They were really embarrassed into giving them a stipend. Bob Kane, it turns out had signed a contract (giving ‘Batman’ to DC) when he was a minor – seventeen. It was invalidated and Kane was able to ‘collect’ for Batman for the rest of his life, although he did little or none of the actual art or writing. But Siegel and Shuster didn’t insist on any kind of a contract that would give them ownership.
People do things out of self interest, which is ok if you’re a moral type of a person, but those publishers weren’t particularly moral, they were out to get everything they could without giving anyone else any kind of rightful share. If you don’t sign a contract, if you don’t have something in writing you can really be up the creek. You can’t say, “Well the corporal told me if I did this I wouldn’t get into trouble,” “Not so fast buddy.”
DB: Were there any artists you didn’t work with that you wanted to?
FS: In the spring of 1952 I was still in college and I was home for Easter Vacation. A friend of mine, also from Syracuse, phoned me up and said, “Can you get into the city this afternoon?” I said, “Sure, what’s up?” He said, “We’re going to go see Dean Cornwell.” I thought, ‘what moxie this guy’s got to actually call up Dean Cornwell, a couple of jerk kids and ask for an interview’. So we went in there and went up to his studio in the ‘50s and he was fabulous. We were there for an hour and a half and watched this guy pad around the studio and looked at his drawings and paintings. If only he were working today I’d love to spend time in the studio there watching him work. Another guy would be Haddon Sundblom who for years did the Santa Claus with the Coke bottle in his hand. He did those from the early ‘30s through to the ‘40s and into the ‘60s. He had this Chicago school of illustration and he was sort of the chief guy in this painting style, which included Andrew Loomis and a bunch of other guys working in Chicago, working in this juicy, royal medium. I’d like to see them, watch them work and see how they do hair, how they do hands, that kind of a thing. I’d liked to have seen Charles Dana Gibson, or James Montgomery Flagg. When I look at some of those illustrations from those eras I realise how good those guys were and whether or not I should shoot myself in the head before the day is out. [laughter] As for cartoonists, I’m fortunate to have seen Stan Drake, Milton Caniff and Leonard Starr in action, and Alex Raymond also, briefly. I saw and met some of the greats and I was certainly fortunate in that regard. And to make a living doing something I enjoyed and supporting a family at the same time. Life is good!
If you'd like to contact Frank for a commission, or just to say "Hi, love your work!" then feel free to email me and I'll pass it all on directly to Frank. Just make sure you include the words 'Frank Springer' in the email subject line.
Interview copyright 2007-2008 by Frank Springer and Daniel Best. Interview cannot be reproduced without the express permission of both authors. Interview copyedited by Frank Springer, conducted and transcribed by Daniel Best.