April 7th, 2009 at 2:56 am

Goodbye, Frank Springer

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I’m sorry to hear that inimitable artist Frank Springer has passed away. I don’t have much to add to the concise and insightful obits by Mark Evanier and Tom Spurgeon, so I’ll just note that I always admired Springer’s work because it was so idiosyncratic and eccentrically powerful. His influences were always up front, and yet his stuff was invariably sui generis, the mark of a confident professional secure in his own talent.

A lot of comics fans will remember him for the superhero stuff he paid the rent with in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Much of that work was undervalued at the time – while editors like Archie Goodwin and Roy Thomas appreciated his nonconformist approach to their mainstream properties, their readers were occasionally turned off by the fact that he didn’t draw the big muscle guys like everyone else did. He landed the unenviable task of following Steranko on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD and teamed with fellow iconoclast Frank Robbins on The Invaders, a dynamically retro strip that didn’t always sit that well with fans who preferred their Captain America in the Kirby or Buscema molds.

Their loss. Even when saddled with dopey superhero scripts, Springer could find ways to bring the set pieces to unexpected life, selecting unconventional split seconds of the action that could transform a page from just another widget on the assembly line into something unique and memorable.
Other readers, of course, will look back fondly on the satirical pieces he did with writer Michael O’Donoghue – the celebrated graphic novel Phoebe Zeitgeist, originally serialized in Evergreen Review, is probably their most famous collaboration. Personally, I’m inordinately fond of the wonderful “Tarzan of the Cows” (“Moooo!”) that they did for National Lampoon in the early ‘70s, the best of several memorable strips Springer drew for that magazine in its brief heyday.

I’m old (and fortunate) enough to remember picking up his earliest work when it was new, his contributions to Dell Comics’ experiments with adventure and horror in the early and mid-‘60s. Some of the covers he did back then were particularly striking; even his Charlie Chan, not exactly the kind of character likely to set the comics world on fire, was intriguing enough to convince 12-year-old me to part with a chunk of my weekly allowance.
Though he isn’t particularly associated with the genre, he was also a terrific artist for a certain kind of horror story. He could draw the hell out of your basic gooey monster if that’s what the script required –
but it was the quieter, more psychological kind of horror at which he excelled. Some of his best stuff in that line was done for Dell’s Brain Boy, particularly its weird little backup series, “The Strange Mr. Ozymandias.” Though some regretted that Springer replaced Gil Kane as artist on the lead feature, it was really an inspired choice. Kane was unparalleled at swashbuckling, balletic action, but writer Herb Castle was attempting to turn Brain Boy into a quieter and more mature piece of work, adventure comics that relied more on suspense and situation than in-your-face action. For that approach, Springer was perfect. The series’ final issue, a science fiction tale in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is filled with understated horror and nailed down perfectly by Springer’s renderings of smiling hollow-eyed living zombies trying to entice the hero into joining their ranks.
Even in those earliest days of his comics career, Frank Springer was a master of his craft, and a man who mastered it on his own terms. Talented people who march to their own beat are always at a premium, and I’m sorry that there’s now one less of them among us.

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