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Old Comics Wednesday: Daredevil #155 by McKenzie, Robbins & Springer

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Frank Robbins owns [or pwns] the monkeyass of any person who has ever held a loaded #5 brush to a piece of paper and been paid for the results. That he may have done all of the art on Johnny Hazard for its entire 33-year run [aside from illness and vacations] is amazing; Peanuts is undoubtedly the greater one-man achievement in the funny papers, but Charles Schulz never had to draw hot women and B-17 bombers in perspective, now did he. When the serialized-adventure strip began to die out in the early ’70s, Robbins transitioned to adventure comic books with a spastic burlesque of the superhero body that suggested he was always more comfortable drawing a hero in a three-piece suit than in a primary-color union suit.

Initially writing/drawing Batman, the Shadow and war/ghost stories for DC — not to mention largely inking his own pencils — Robbins was a more dynamic version of the fully realized but limited-by-definition adventure-strip cartoonist whose syndication lifeline was slowly fraying and splitting while the strip’s actual continuities were still capable of throwing sparks [as compared to Capp or Caniff's published endgames, which were as vibrant and exciting as watching old men try to set fire to wet piles of last year's leaves and newspapers.] But when Robbins moved from DC mystery men to Marvel superheroes, his figure work went apeshit, with results that baffled and/or enraged at least two generations of nerds who grew up and came to value his ebullient but realist cartooniness over contemporary fan favorites like Mike Kaluta and Neal Adams.

It’s a shame that Robbins didn’t live long enough to be properly hailed by the comics press when they, um, matured; on the other hand, getting a TwoMorrows tongue bath [at best a consolation prize for those sad, milky-eyed old timers hunched over drawing commissions in artists' alley with their wife/child/grandchild/future-executor-of-their-will doing most of the talking/translating] seems like a bigger insult to a figure like Robbins than him getting no recognition at all.

As the ’70s wound down, Jack Kirby went to Ruby-Spears and worked on some of the worst cartoons of the ’80s, Steve Ditko drew Transformers/Go-Bots coloring books and Hulk Annuals. John Romita Sr. went to an office and punched the clock to do touch-up work on lesser artist’s drawings. Adams created Skate Man. Kaluta and his Studio-mates disappeared up their kitschy fine-art assholes. Frank Robbins moved to Mexico to enjoy life and paint the last 16 or so years of his life. By any sane standard of life, he wins.

“To Die in Darkness!” is credited to Roger McKenzie [scripter], Robbins, Frank Springer [inker], Bob Sharen [colorist], Denise Wohl [letterer] and Bob Hall [editor]. Stop me if you’ve heard this from me before, but this is not a very good comic book. I share it here because it’s historically interesting, the last interior comic-book art of Robbins’ career. His facility at drawing the unholy living fuck out of everything in a supercomic except what 99% of what its audience wants to see is undiminished while his superduper figures have gone back to looking just as bizarre and distorted as they were a few years earlier, when Robbins was new to Marvel and struggled to dial back what a brilliant slumming comic-strip artist would think the cretins who read this slop wanted in the drawings of their stupid heroes.

Why the regression here? This doesn’t seem like a rush job. Was Robbins fed up with penciling this crap, doing most of the narrative heavy lifting ["scripter" meaning that McKenize only wrote the dialogue, right?] but with the final product still at the mercy of the editor and whoever was picked to ink his work? Did Robbins know this was his last full job to do before his retirement? The issue is dated November 1978; Hazard ended in late 1977. What compels an artist of Robbins’ skill to essentially work two full-time jobs from roughly age 55 to 60? Was he cranking it out all that time to buy his own golden parachute from comics? What sort of relationship did did he have with Alex Toth, his aesthetic brother from another mother, who was born to be the greatest adventure-strip cartoonist ever but was born half a generation too late to realize his destiny? Robbins was born September 11, 1917; Toth on June 25, 1928; Robbins was closer in age to their ur-source Noel Sickles [January 24, 1910] than he was to Toth, yet his career suggests that he had a far easier time finding his way through this ever-modern world than the mercurial and reclusive Toth, albeit without leaving nearly as large a body of century-class work in his wake. Was Robbins merely a “draw to live” artisan with superior skills? His near-absolute disappearance from comics post-1978 suggests that he saw it as a job, and his painting being his art. Would Robbins have been like John Stanley, who died around the same time as Robbins did — a rather bitter man, disinterested in attending comicons where people will ask him to talk at length about some two-week job he did his best on at the time but couldn’t recall much about decades later? No, it would have been better to have interviewed Robbins than not.

I really like that Frank Robbins’ last page as a supercomics freelancer shows a drinkin’-mad Daredevil about to pick a fight with Hercules … the god … after having broken into Avengers Mansion and somehow kicking both Captain America and the Beast’s asses, because he’s mad at the Black Widow and it’s his series so he wins. Two Gene Colan fill-in issues later, Frank Miller joined the DD crew and I never find out how Daredevil Vs. Hercules fight turned out, and that’s OK with me.

5 comments
  1. Alixopulos says: 04/09/201215:25

    This is great stuff Milo!

  2. Michael Corley says: 05/17/201205:20

    This was the style of comics when I began reading and I am still entranced. Something about the way the women are drawn, so feminine yet powerful at the same time. And the men all looked like they needed a good scrubbing. SCRUFFY! :)

  3. Rodrigo Baeza says: 05/18/201219:09

    “What compels an artist of Robbins’ skill to essentially work two full-time jobs from roughly age 55 to 60?”

    Alimony payments, according to rumor.

  4. milogeorge says: 05/18/201223:23

    Alimony makes a lot of sense, but what’s the source for this information?

  5. Rodrigo Baeza says: 05/21/201213:06

    MIlo, I’d have to check, but the source is probably an interview with some other cartoonist from Robbins’ generation. (I realize that’s not very helpful, wish I’d remembered the exact source.) According to the same rumor, this is why Robbins lived his last years in Mexico, he was escaping from his ex-wives.

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