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.
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.