Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Art That Was Bad For Your Heart

When you get to be my age, you learn to love the unusual.

But I can't tell a lie--when I was a kid, Frank Robbins' art freaked me out!!

This come to mind because on Monday, I reprinted a few panels from an old Invaders story, and there were a couple of commenters who were surprised by the goofy angles and obtuse anatomy drawn therein.

Which made me realize that a lot of people out there today don't know Frank Robbins' work...which is a damn shame, and which I am to correct.

First a few more panels from that Invaders story:

It's like nothing you've seen before or since--it's insane!!

Now let's be clear--I'm most certainly not dissing on Robbins at all. The man was a great artist, a prodigy. He was winning art scholarships before he was 10. He's had his paintings featured in museum showings. He did tons of promotional and advertising work. He was working in comic books back in the Golden Age, and his syndicated newspaper adventure strip, Johnny Hazard, ran for 33 years.

So when I say his 1970s Marvel work was terrifically insane, I mean that with the highest regard and respect.

Click on this link for a look at some of his 1970s DC work--trust me, if you haven't seen it before, his Batman will freak you out, too.

Robbins started doing mostly Marvel work in the late 1970s, and is best known for his Invaders and Captain America and Human Fly work.

His work was pretty controversial among fans at the time. Fandom wasn't as organized back then, and there was no internet to ruin everything good about comics. But based on my anecdotal experiences, Robbins' was sort of the Rob Liefeld of his day, at least in the strength of the reactions (often polar opposite reactions) among readers. Love him or loathe him, and there was no in-between.

How to describe his work? I'm pretty illiterate when it comes to artistic talk...let's just say that, in my limited art vocabulary, he work always struck me as sort of a hybridization of Kirby and Colan, only with both hopped up on speed.

Every character in his books, in every panel, was constantly in tension, ready to explode, practically vibrating with an energy that leapt off the page and made your heart race like you'd just washed down 20 Pixie Stix with a couple of cans of Jolt. Check out some panels form What If #4 (1977):

Special fun: The original Human Torch fries Hitler:

Even the Watcher, just sitting there narrating, looks like he's ready to jump off the page and go 5 rounds with you:

His characters were human speed lines, always moving, even when just sitting still. Check out some Nomad action:

It's a style that is unlike anything that was going on in super-hero comics at the time, far cartoonier, far less concerned with formal anatomy--in many ways the antithesis of the modern "photorealistic" approach taken by many pencillers today.

But it's not that Robbins' didn't know or couldn't draw "normal" anatomy--look at his newspaper work. This was a choice, a style he wanted for the super-human action of super-hero books. Robbins' wasn't concerned with how "accurate" his style was; he was more concerned with the energy and emotion it conveyed, and in boosting the adrenaline with action ACTION ACTION.

Not to say that cartooniness meant no accurate anatomy--as far as I know, Frank Robbins was the only one to depict Captain America's package on page:

(Plus, just look at the way everyone on that splash is vibrating, even when standing still. Even comatose Falcon looks like he's going to jump up and smack someone!)

Plus, Robbins could give you a Cap ass-shot that would make Hal Jordan jealous:

Seriously--when you were an 11 year old kid in 1975, reading a Frank Robbins drawn book was like mainlining 8 or 10 Red Bulls--after the comics was done you were jittery and excited and disturbed and you weren't sure why.

So look up some 1975 Captain America (where all the Cap and Nomad panels are from) or almost any issue of the 1970s Invaders or those absolutely nutty Detective Comics Batman stories (which Robbins wrote, as well as drew). Just make sure you cut down on your daily caffeine intake first...


googum said...

Robbins took a while to grow on me, too. But, he did some Morbius stuff that's pretty balls-out. Still, we can look back on Robbins now and say that was all right; I have to wonder if history will be as kind to Liefeld.

(I personally don't mind Rob, but he strikes me as someone who gets so excited for what he's doing next, he's not focused on right now.)

vancouver mark said...

I especially liked the handful of Power Man issues he did with Don McGregor, probably my favorite Luke Cage stories ever.

seefish3 said...

I remember Robbins doing Morbius in Fear. Weird stuff. Was never quite sure whether I liked it, but it definitely stood out !

Captain Blog said...

Robbins (oddly enough, the name of the town where I lived at the time) art wasn't appreciated by me until I understood more about actual design as opposed to 'drawing'.
Leifeld's name should not be included in any discussion of Robbins as he knows only how to 'draw' and not design.

Siskoid said...

I've always disliked his work, found it ugly, but you've turned me around. I think your Kirby-Colan comparison is a strong one. His bodies are distorted and energetic like Kirby's, but his faces are anxious and disturbing like Colan's.

Good job!