Frank Robbins was born in Boston in 1917. Following a stint as an advertising illustrator, he turned his attention to the world of daily comic strips in 1939. He found work on the airplane adventure strip Scorchy Smith, which had been drawn by the great Noel Sickles a few years earlier. The strip added a Sunday during his run. He left Scorchy to launch his own globe-trotting adventurer, Johnny Hazard, for King Features in 1944. During this time he also did some illustrations for mass-circulation magazines like Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post.
In the late 1960s newspapers began dropping daily adventure strips and Robbins sought work in comic books to make up the lost income. His early comic-book work was mainly as a writer of Batman, Superboy and Flash stories. The stories, many around 8 or 15 pages long, were tightly structured, briskly paced. The dialog was breezier and more natural sounding than the florid, stilted style that was soon to predominate in comics. Each short tale reached a satisfying conclusion.
In addition to the writing and daily “Hazard” duty, Robbins began to draw occasional stories for DC’s Batman and mystery books. He later did a beautiful self-inked run on DC’s limping revival of the pulp and radio crime-fighter The Shadow, which unfortunately he was not hired to write as well.
In the mid-‘70s Robbins took on more art jobs, penciling a wide variety of issue-length stories for Marvel titles: Ghost Rider, Captain America, “Morbius the Living Vampire,“ The Invaders, The Human Fly, an issue of Daredevil. Robbins’ Marvel work was inked by others, not always sympathetically. But fellow strip veteran Frank Springer was best able to echo the vigor and dash of Robbins’ own inks, and got the job most often. Meanwhile, incredibly, Robbins continued his work on Johnny Hazard, until 1977.
“He could pencil several pages a day,” recalls Ghost Rider scribe Tony Isabella. “I don’t think it ever took him more than a week to draw a standard 22-page comic.”
Robbins, who had reached working age during the Depression but later lived in a grand Beaux Arts apartment near Central Park, eventually retired to Mexico with his wife. He spent much of his time painting. His works have been exhibited at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He died in 1994 at the age of 77.
Robbins' art is for many an acquired taste. Because he worked quickly, his work can leave a first impression of being undisciplined. The figures, while often graceful, can be at other times oddly disordered and weightless, like balsa-wood marionettes. But the storytelling power of the drawing soon overcomes our objections: the rich, convincing, tangible atmosphere created by the dashingly executed backgrounds; the keenly alive, well-individuated characters. His Hazard, Batman and Shadow work in particular show masterful composition, achieving variety and depth within the confines of limited space.
His work is avidly collected, largely by artists.
Besides Robbins, many artists followed in the influential footsteps of Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff, including John Romita, Al Toth, Lee Elias, Art Sansom, Ray Bailey, Johnny Craig. Robbins is a standout within this distinguished group. His work is less austere than that of Sickles, his characters more energetic and alive--if less regally proportioned—than those of Caniff. Robbins' work is fun. Writerly attention to the essences of his characters, a la Caniff, keeps them consistent within themselves, both in their personalities and their delineation. Like Caniff, Robbins was a master of visual "typing." He made each character distinct, coherent, and human, a type of one.
Mike Manley, editor of DRAW! Magazine and a Robbins collector, hails Robbins for his “atmospheric and accurate backgrounds and machinery, snappy writing, the ability to draw so many types--from beautiful femmes fatales to rugged-chinned heroes.”
Dan Brereton, creator of The Nocturnals, says, “I’m not sure there's another artist who can so easily imbue the quality of life into a line, or so simply convey emotion with areas of black on a page. It all seems effortless--the work is just there. It has that impressionist's energy, that ability to transport you.”
Characters created by Frank Robbins