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.
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.