Frank Robbins Fashions

Frank Robbins remains one of the most controversial comic book artists among aficionados. Although his true claim to fame is the Johnny Hazard newspaper strip, which ran from 1944 to 1977, Robbins is best known to most comic book fans for his 1970s work on superhero titles like Batman, Captain America, and The Invaders. His distinctive artwork was a far cry from the preferred “house style” at either Marvel or DC, and was so different, even strange, that many young fans absolutely hated it. But, a familiar refrain in discussions of Robbins and his art is that these fans who reviled it in their youth eventually developed an appreciation for it as they grew up and matured. I certainly count myself among their number.

As a child, I found Robbins’ awkward contorted figures laughable, his faces cartoony and exaggerated to the point of silliness, and his scenes cluttered and overwrought. About the only good thing I could say about Frank Robbins was that his work wasn’t bland. But I was at a loss to understand what people like Stan Lee and Roy Thomas saw in his art that made them so enthusiastic about it. They touted getting Frank Robbins to work for Marvel like a major coup. But as Robbins’ tenure at Marvel was relatively brief and his work was generally easy to avoid, I didn’t think much about him for many years. But as I started encountering the work of Frank Robbins again in Marvel’s line of “Essential” reprints, I found my attitude toward him had softened, and his oddball approach didn’t turn me off as much as it once had. But it wasn’t until I attended the 2006 Masters of American Comics exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and saw original art by Milton Caniff that I finally “got” what Frank Robbins had been trying to do.

Frank Robbins imitated Milton Caniff, in the same sense that both John Byrne and Bill Sienkiewicz imitated Neal Adams, Paul Gulacy imitated Jim Steranko, or Dan Adkins imitated Wallace Wood when they were starting out. Caniff, famous for his pioneering newspaper adventure strips Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, is listed as a major influence on virtually every comic book illustrator of their generation. Artists as disparate as Jack Kirby and Mike Sekowsky would acknowledge their debt to Caniff, but no one aped Caniff’s stylistic quirks as closely as Robbins. Somehow, seeing Caniff’s drawings in person caused an epiphany, and all of a sudden Frank Robbins’ art made sense. I started seeking it out to regard it with a fresh eye, and far from grotesque, I now found it dynamic and fascinating and fun. And what surprised me most of all was that Frank Robbins proved to have a definite eye for the ladies, as well as an unexpectedly kinky fashion sense.

While working on my series of profiles of Obscure Marvel Women, it struck me that several of them were based on the designs of Frank Robbins. I never would have expected that, so I thought it merited a closer look.

Frank Robbins’ most successful series for Marvel was unquestionably The Invaders, which was set during World War II. Here, his Caniff-inspired art seemed appropriate, and his detailed knowledge of the period helped establish a sense of verisimilitude (although, as on Happy Days, the period flavor was undercut by anachronistic 1970s hairdos). In the 14th issue, Robbins introduced a team of British superheroes formed as part of a Nazi plot to undermine the Invaders. These characters, called the Crusaders, were part of a sort of intercompany idea exchange and were analogous to DC’s WWII-era super-team the Freedom Fighters. (DC ran a similar story wherein the Freedom Fighters battled analogs of the Invaders.) The female member of the team, Ghost Girl, was based on Phantom Lady (a character dating back to 1941), but Robbins’ design for the new character was entirely his own. Clad in a sleeveless silver lamé bodysuit with silver opera gloves and a long silvery wig attached to her mask, Ghost Girl easily showed up her more conservatively dressed rival Spitfire in terms of sex appeal.

Frank Robbins also did a fair amount of work for Marvel’s horror titles, and here again his outré approach lent itself more readily to the material. In two vampire-themed stories he did for Dracula Lives! and Adventure Into Fear we find more evidence of Robbins’ penchant for erotically charged fashions.

In “The Lady Who Collected Dracula,” we meet Ursula Lensky, a Manhattan socialite with a serious vampire fetish. Ursula likes to parade around in a black leather minidress with a dangerously plunging neckline, black leather opera gloves, and knee-high boots. Prominently placed buckles are another recurring Robbins fashion motif, as seen in both these examples. Martine Bancroft, featured in the “Morbius the Living Vampire” series in Adventure Into Fear, appears in one story sporting this burgundy leather peek-a-boo ensemble with matching thigh-boots. A big belt accentuates her hotpants, and the outfit is accessorized with a gold lamé cape. Why Martine was dabbling in extreme fashion was not explained, but perhaps hanging out with her vampiric boyfriend brought out the beast in her.

Invaders #17 introduced us to the Third Reich’s ultimate bad-girl, Kriegerfrau. She was generally referred to as “Warrior Woman” for the benefit of the English-speaking audience, though a closer translation would actually be “Mrs. Warrior” -- which would also be more appropriate given that her number one mission seemed to be to marry the Übermensch. Robbins’ design for this character obviously draws on the stock Nazi dominatrix that was a common fixture of men’s magazines in the second-half of the 20th century. (I don’t know, maybe they still are.) Again we have lots of leather with knee-high boots and gauntlets. She’s covered with straps & buckles, and the only splash of color is provided by her Nazi swastika armband. Her favorite accessory? A bullwhip, of course. How better to punish those liberty-loving men she so despises?

Another “bad-girl” design by Robbins, that seems to have gone a little too far for Marvel’s editors, appeared in Captain America #192, which was his last issue on the title. In the story, Cap infiltrates a meeting of numerous gangsters held by the villainous psychiatrist Dr. Faustus, and on hand is Faustus’s gun-moll Karla. She would return later as the equally villainous psychiatrist Dr. Karla Sofen, a.k.a. Moonstone, and enjoy a long and distinguished career as a super-baddie. At this point, however, she was apparently still completing her degree and working for Dr. Faustus to finance her education. Now, when Captain America #192 was first printed in 1975, Karla was colored so as to appear to be wearing an orange bodystocking with brown leather accessories. Seeing the art in black & white in Essential Captain America v. 5, it becomes clear that Robbins had something more risqué in mind. Karla is meant to be eye-candy for Faustus’s criminal guests, as well as bolstering the rather rotund mastermind’s unspoken claim to sexual potency, so it makes sense she would be practically nude, her modesty preserved only by a strategically wrapped ammo belt and a well-placed holster, as Robbins drew her. I think it more likely, furthermore, that her matching gloves, boots, mask, and choker would be black. I present her here as I believe she was intended to appear.

In the last panel of the same issue, a crowd scene in which Captain America passes among the somewhat shadier-looking denizens of New York City, we see the following woman giving Cap the big eye. She’s a totally throwaway anonymous background character, but her rather striking outfit seems to be the quintessence of Frank Robbins’ fashion sense. A very tight, very shiny, and very skimpy top & miniskirt combo accessorized with knee-high boots and opera gloves of brown leather, with a big brass buckle at her waist. This outfit would not be out of place in a high-end fashion magazine of the 1970s or today. The double-ponytails and big round glasses mark her as “brainy,” adding to her sex appeal. However, given the setting she appears in, it would come as no surprise if a man had to pay cash money to secure this lady’s company for the evening.

Although a great many comic book readers failed to appreciate Frank Robbins’ artwork, it is pretty clear that he enjoyed what he was doing, and we can only envy a guy who was paid to draw sexy girls wearing outlandish costumes.


Tony Television Special #4

At the Tony Television Network, originality is our watchword. We refuse to torture our audience by rehashing the same tired plots over and over and over again. And let it never be said that we shy away from controversial subject matter by playing it safe and sticking to the same bland, inoffensive concepts. No way, José! Our commitment to the startling, the shocking, the never-before-seen, and the groundbreaking -- our commitment to you, the discriminating viewer, is best demonstrated by our fourth television movie event! The drama, the grandeur, the excitement, the novelty that you demand are all here in one gut-wrenching package that is destined to go down in history as one of the greatest films of all time, with undreamt-of cross-marketing possibilities! Nothing you have ever experienced could possibly prepare you for this feature-length drama! Merely burn into your brain this immortal tagline: A Long Time Ago, On an Island Far, Far Away…


The story opens with an exciting car chase through the countryside of Northern Ireland as a 1977 Lotus Esprit sportscar is pursued by a British RAF Police truck. It is the autumn of 1978. The sportscar temporarily eludes its pursuers as it races through a small village. The driver slams on the brakes in front of the village pub, and a large St. Bernard leaps out of the passenger-side window. The driver, a beautiful dark-haired woman, commands the dog to “stay,” then roars off. The military truck speeds past a moment later, taking no notice of the dog sitting near the pub door. Further down the road, the truck finally catches up to the sportscar and forces it into a ditch. Soldiers leap out, guns drawn, and place the woman under arrest.

Later, as she is interrogated at an RAF base, we learn that she is Lady Leah O’Grady, and is suspected of conducting espionage for the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). She remains defiant, despite the cold, intimidating demeanor of her asthmatic captor, Group Captain Garth Eder. He accuses her of stealing the blueprints for a new bomber the RAF is testing at the base, but she responds with only wisecracks and mockery. He orders her taken back to her detention cell, and promises her she will regret not cooperating. Meanwhile, as evening falls, a Rolls-Royce pulls up to the village pub where the St. Bernard is still patiently waiting. A butler gets out and clips a leash to the animal’s collar, on which is attached a decorative brandy barrel. The dog happily bounds into the posh vehicle, which then pulls away and disappears into the night.

The next morning, the butler and the dog are found staying at a nearby bed & breakfast, which is a farmhouse owned and operated by Lawrence and Beth Owens. Their orphaned teenage nephew, Skye Walker, takes a shine to the St. Bernard. The butler, who introduces himself as Mr. S. T. Keough, tells the boy that the dog’s name is Artie. He goes on to say he needs to deliver the pet to an old friend of his employer, Owen Kearney, who is thought to live in the area. Skye replies that the only Kearney he knows of is Old Ben Kearney, a reclusive drunk with a mysterious past. Later that afternoon, while playing with Skye, the dog escapes from the yard and runs off into the hills behind the farm. Skye and Mr. Keough give chase, but are soon accosted by a gang of local hooligans. They are saved by Old Ben Kearney, who appears suddenly with his shotgun and scares off the troublemakers.

Kearney takes Skye and Mr. Keough to his ramshackle cabin, where Artie the St. Bernard is waiting. Skye is in awe of the huge crucifix hanging on the wall, and notices the various other religious paraphernalia scattered throughout the tiny hovel. Old Ben reveals that he is, in fact, Owen Kearney, the notorious IRA explosives expert who made a name for himself nineteen years before during the Border Campaign. He claims to have known Skye’s father back in those days, before he was murdered by RAF Group Captain Garth Eder, a ruthless operator known to have ties to MI5. He takes out a pistol, saying it belonged to Skye’s father, and offers it to the boy. Then, Kearney opens the brandy barrel at the dog’s throat and removes a small canister, which contains a microfilm of the stolen blueprints and a note from Lady Leah. Saying he needs to get the microfilm to Londonderry, Kearney tries to recruit Skye to the republican cause by playing on his Catholic sympathies, but the boy is not interested. However, on the way home, Skye sees smoke rising from over a hill, and as he reaches the top, he discovers that his farmhouse is on fire. British troops are standing around doing nothing but watching it burn down. Then he sees his aunt and uncle, in handcuffs, being pushed into an RAF Police van. Skye watches in horror as his uncle suddenly fights back, only to be shot in the head. His aunt’s anguished screams are silenced by a second gunshot. Gripped with a desire for revenge, Skye returns to Kearney’s cabin and says he wants to join the IRA.

Knowing military roadblocks would prevent them from driving all the way to Londonderry, Kearney takes Skye, Mr. Keough, and Artie into Omagh, where they visit a rowdy pub with a shady reputation, the Moss & Ivy. There, they strike a deal with two drug smugglers, a Swede named Hans Olaf and his incomprehensible sidekick “Debacle,” a Rastafarian ganja-head, to ferry them north aboard their twin-engine Cessna the Maltese Falcon. They narrowly avoid a police raid on the pub and a subsequent attack by gangsters gunning for Hans to reach the airfield and take to the skies. But, upon reaching Londonderry, their flight over the O’Grady estate reveals only a smoking crater -- the manor house has been bombed into oblivion.

Kearney learns that Lady Leah is being held in the military prison on an RAF base several miles to the west and plans a jailbreak. Skye convinces Hans and Debacle to help by playing up Lady Leah’s great wealth and influence and suggesting they will be rewarded handsomely for their efforts. Their greed gets the better of them and they agree. Kearney spends some time teaching Skye how to fight, and tells him how to draw extra strength and resolve from prayer to Saint Michael, the Archangel, patron of all Heaven’s warriors. When they are ready, the quartet infiltrates the base with Skye and Hans disguised as British soldiers and Debacle pretending to be their prisoner. While they work on freeing Lady Leah, Kearney goes to sabotage the base’s power station and cause a blackout.

The plan goes flawlessly until they get Lady Leah out of her cell, when they are spotted by a group of armed guards. Hans holds them off, but Skye isn’t sure what to do. Seizing the initiative, Lady Leah takes Skye’s gun and shoots the hinges off a metal grating covering a window. She then smashes the window and they all jump out, landing in a trash dumpster. Unfortunately, the dumpster is lifted just at that moment and emptied into a garbage truck, with the four unlikely comrades tumbling down among piles of rubbish. They are nearly compacted before Mr. Keough arrives and forces the truck driver to switch off the mechanism. They commandeer the garbage truck and make a break for the rear gate in a blazing gun battle, waiting for Kearney to kill the lights.

Unfortunately, at the power station, Kearney is confronted by Group Captain Eder, which leads to a shootout in which Kearney is mortally wounded. The garbage truck pulls up and Skye yells to Kearney to jump in, but the old man has a different plan. Though he draws a bead on Eder, he pauses, intentionally allowing the soldier to shoot him dead, confident that his martyrdom will bind Skye to their cause more than ever before. As Skye screams in rage, Hans floors it and the garbage truck smashes through the poorly-defended rear gate and escapes. They soon reach the Maltese Falcon and take off, leaving their pursuers far below. They escape from a couple of RAF helicopters by executing some daring aerobatics inside a cloudbank.

Lady Leah directs them to a hidden IRA stronghold outside Ballycastle, where she and her comrades plan a daring attack to blow up the RAF base and destroy the new bomber in its hanger. The leader of the cell, Dooley, informs Leah that the new plane was used to destroy her estate, killing her family and all their servants, as a test run. Outraged, Skye insists on participating in the attack, but, to his disappointment, Hans and Debacle say they’ve had enough, take their money, and leave. The IRA assembles a convoy of explosive-laden trucks and drives them to the base under cover of darkness. Skye is behind the wheel of one, with Artie the St. Bernard on the seat next to him as a good-luck charm.

Upon arriving at the base, the trucks smash through the front gate, scattering the soldiers. They quickly regroup and open fire. However, as the trucks crash into the base’s buildings, they explode. The fires spread rapidly until the entire complex is a raging inferno. Group Captain Eder leaps on a motorcycle and daringly rides among the trucks, shooting the drivers through the windows and windshields. The out-of-control trucks crash into each other, going up in enormous fireballs. Meanwhile, Skye directs his truck at the hanger containing the new bomber. He crashes through the door and slams into the plane, but the explosives fail to detonate. He and Artie get out of the truck, dazed. Reaching the edge of the hanger, Skye watches the battle raging outside. But Group Captain Eder spots him and steers his motorcycle towards the hanger, getting Skye squarely in his sights. Suddenly, the Maltese Falcon buzzes the airfield and Debacle fires a machine gun from his open door, causing Eder to wipe out. Seizing the moment, Skye spins around, draws his father’s gun, and aims at the gas can on the back door of his truck. His head is still a bit fuzzy from the crash and his eyes won’t focus. Then he remembers Owen Kearney’s words and says a solemn prayer to St. Michael. He pulls the trigger. Multiple explosions rip the truck and the bomber to shreds and set the hanger on fire. In the confusion, Skye and Artie steal a Jeep and flee into the night.

Skye, Artie, Hans, Debacle, and the few surviving IRA guerillas rendezvous at Ballycastle the next morning, where Lady Leah congratulates them on a decisive victory for their cause. Mr. Keough brings out their best whiskey and they begin their celebration. Debacle proposes a toast to something no one can quite make out, so everyone merely drinks to whatever it was with a hearty laugh.

The End. Cue sweeping orchestral score.

We here at TTN can really see this leading to a six-movie epic! It’s gonna be huge!! And just wait till you see the Holiday Special…!!!

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