Frank Springer was my last interview of 2007, an incredibly productive year. Frank was an under-appreciated gem who did a bushel basket full of work for many different publishers and newspaper work during a long and successful career. He took the time to tell me about his work on Phoebe Zeitgeist, his involvement in the National Cartoonist‘s Society and his time on stage, among other terrific stories.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: Frank, what was your first illustration project?
Frank Springer: The first thing I did for money, you mean?
Springer: I was in the Army and a buddy of mine told me about a drawing I could do and that I could get five bucks for it. I think it appeared in some small, pocket magazine and I think it was a scantily clad gal, but I really forget the exact subject matter. But I got five bucks for it. That was the first one and it was probably in 1953. I was in the Army from ’52 to ’54 and it was probably the first commercial job I’d ever done. It wasn’t much, I’ll tell you.
CB: It started something, though. What led you to comic books?
Springer: Desperate for money, I guess.
Springer: I’d been assisting on Terry and the Pirates with George Wunder and I knew all along that when you’re somebody’s assistant you can never really go anywhere.You know they’re not really looking for innovation.They’re looking for an extension of themselves and I was becoming an extension of George Wunder and he was sort of an extension of Milton Caniff.
So I left there and really didn’t have anything to do and learned through a friend of mine that Dell Comics was looking for guys to do comics and I showed up there and Lenny Cole was behind the desk and he had a whole stack of scripts and he took one off the top and gave it to me and said “When you’re finished with the pencils come back here and we’ll give you a check and when you’re finished with the inks come back here and we’ll give you another check.”And then he reached into his pocket and he said, “If you’re short, right now I can help you out.”And I said, “No, no problem,” and I was desperate, but don’t let them know it, you know? So that’s where it started.
I look at the work now and I think, “What was I thinking?” The title was Brain Boy and I did several issues of that. Gil Kane had done the first issue, which I found out later on. It was issue #2 that I worked on and I did stuff for Dell from 1961 until about 1967. Six years, I guess. I did all sorts of titles for them and I enjoyed it very much. They didn’t pay a lot, but I was glad to get the work. I had a lot of fun there.
CB: Well, if nothing else I’m sure it was an excellent training ground for some of your future efforts.
Springer: Yeah, well, we learn or we’re supposed to learn as we go along in this business.And that really led to everything else.I guess I started with DC and Marvel in the late ’60s.1967 or 1968.Maybe a little bit earlier.By 1967 Dell was just about closing up shop.Too bad.I did some movie adaptations for Dell and they were a lot of fun.You got a whole bunch of 8 x 10 glossy photographs from the particular movie you were supposed to do and it was just great reference for likenesses and the horses and the castles and the costumes and so on.It was a lot of fun.I wish it had paid more, but it was fun.
CB: It sounds like it. Do you remember which titles you did?
Springer: I did The War Wagon with Kirk Douglas and John Wayne and a cast of thousands. Cheyenne Autumn with Richard Widmark and Edward G. Robinson and Victor Jory and a cast of thousands. I also did The Raven, a movie with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff and the wife of Don Taylor. He’d played in Battleground, and he was the groom in Father of the Bride with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor.
Anyway, he was married to this gal who had a huge set of boobs and she was fun to draw. (Mutual laughter.) As a matter of fact, Ann Taylor Fleming, who was a TV commentator and so on; I believe she’s the daughter of Don Taylor. Anyway, that was one of the movies. There were a number of others. Twice Told Tales. A lot of these movies employed actors who were on the way down. I think it was Harvey Korman who was doing a lot of these horror movies in the ’60s and as a matter of fact one of the actors in The Raven was Jack Nicholson.
CB: Oh, really?
Springer: Yeah. He looked like he was about 15. And he had almost nothing to say. He was just there.
CB: Stood there brooding, huh?
Springer: Yeah. It came out in ’63, I believe and Nicholson is 70 now, so he was born in about 1937 or so, so he was about 25 or so when they made that movie. So I drew Jack Nicholson when nobody knew who the hell he was.
CB: (Laughter.) That’s a great anecdote.
Springer: At that time Grove Press got in touch with me. I did a couple of ads for the magazine Evergreen Review that Michael O’Donoghue wrote and I illustrated and that was before we had met. We finally met each other in an elevator one time at the offices of Grove Press in downtown New York and right about that time started “The Adventures of Phoebe Zeitgeist,” which he wrote and I illustrated. That began around ’65, I think or ’66 and then later they put it into a book in the spring of ’68. Michael eventually moved on to the staff of National Lampoon in the early ’70s and through that connection I did a bunch of stuff for them in the ’70s and ’80s.
CB: So he was obviously impressed with your work.
Springer: Well, we got along well. We were totally different. He was sort of a beatnik. A disheveled looking writer. Huge talent. I mean the guy just had enormous talent. He had a beard and dressed in dungarees in the city, which was really avant garde, while I always showed up in a shirt and tie and a suit.
CB: (Chuckle.) Both ends of the spectrum.
Springer: We were just 10 years apart and came from different backgrounds. He was divorced and by that time I think I’d been married about 10 years, but we got along very well and turned out, I think, some pretty terrific stuff. Because of his writing I had a great interest in illustrating that stuff.
CB: Legend has it that his scripts were extremely detailed. Did that make it easier or more difficult for your job?
Springer: No, easier.I think the more detailed the thing is, the better.That reminds me.When he first started writing so-called continuity I talked to him and I said, “You know, you don’t have to say such and such.We can show they’re at the airport, so you don’t have to say, ‘They’re at the airport.’You don’t have to say such and such because I show that in the picture.”And he caught on immediately.
From then on it was though he’d written continuity for years and our relationship was such that I could say, “Look, instead of saying this, why don’t we say such and such.”In other words he didn’t have the huge ego to dismiss any suggestions and so on.In the meantime he told me how he wanted this pictured and how he wanted that pictured.It was a good relationship as opposed to just having a writer that is on the West Coast and you just get a script and do what they say.
CB: So you had a much more collaborative relationship and it sounds like it was extremely successful, too, judging if nothing else just by the results.
Springer: Well, I thought so and I think he thought so, too.We got along well.
CB: I’m far from an expert on Mr. O’Donoghue, but it sounds like he was a little on the eccentric side and perhaps not the easiest guy to work with.
Springer: Well, he had a temper, but then so do I.I never really…I mean some people got on the outs with him and that was that.I guess he’d never talk to them again.But I must say that never happened with us.We had our differences, but it never got personal and it never affected anything else.It never went anywhere.
CB: Marvelous. Nothing insurmountable, obviously.
Springer: No, no and Michael may have looked like a beatnik, but he was in favor of making money and he did later on. He did movie scripts and he did very well and I think politically we got closer together in the end. I don’t want to characterize his political beliefs, but I think as he got more successful I think he moved more toward the center.
CB: Moderated a little bit. Some of us mature despite ourselves. (Chuckle.)
Springer: There’s nothing like a big fat paycheck and to see the taxes they take out to say, “Gee, I’ve been in favor of Socialism and here we are, already.”Actually that’s how P.J. O’Rourke put it.The first time he got a job and a decent salary and then realized what they were taking out his salary.
P.J. was one of the writers on the Lampoon at that time. They had some great ones. Doug Kinney, who was killed in a hiking accident in Hawaii. Henry Beard, who was a very funny guy and one of the founders of National Lampoon along with Doug Kinney.Brian McConnachie, who was just terrific.I did “Attack of the Sizeable Beasts,” with Brian.They were big squirrels.Not giant squirrels, but rather big squirrels.(Mutual laughter.)God, he was fun.Terrific.I understand he’s been in a couple of Woody Allen movies.
CB: I didn’t realize that.
Springer: I didn’t know that either.I talked to somebody recently who said he was in a couple of his movies.
CB: It sounds like you’re dispelling something I was told. I was told by someone that back in the day that National Lampoon was not a happy place to work, but it sounds like your freelance career there was doing just fine.
Springer: No, the other way around, I think.The guys there were, I guess 10 years younger than I was and maybe more than that.By this time, in the ’60s I was in my 30’s, and a lot of those guys were in their 20’s.Not much of a difference, but I’d already been married and had kids and was an ordinary guy living in the suburbs and everything else and here these guys were, most of them single and that 10 or 12 years or so I guess made a difference as to your attitude on things and so on.
It was the ’60s rather than the 40’s or ’50s where I grew up. That was the difference. But, as a freelancer you show up there on a Tuesday and talk about the script and what you have to do and when you have to do it and so on and chat with these guys and then leave. So I don’t know what went on there hour by hour and day by day. The impression that I got was that it was fine.
Springer: Different from the impression I got some other spots, but…
CB: I was gonna say, I think you’ve just about covered the gamut as far as the various publishing houses and so forth. You mentioned Dell and I understand you did work for Gold Key and Marvel and DC. Was any particular company a better fit for you?
Springer: I liked Marvel.Marvel seemed looser than DC.A more fun outfit.I had the impression that DC was kind of like there was some kind of intrigue under the surface which nobody dared to speak of.I got that impression.I may be totally wrong.So it seemed.People were afraid to speak out or something.Marvel was more of a looser, “What the hell?Hey, let’s try this,” attitude.
CB: Throw it up on the wall and see if it sticks.
Springer: Yeah, and I think that DC was trying to do what Marvel did, whereas Marvel did what it felt like doing. Marvel at that time was Stan Lee. If Stan Lee thought it was a good idea to do such and such then that was a good idea. So I think that Marvel seemed to set the pace at that time. This was in the ’60s and ’70s. I don’t know about now. Do you think that’s the case?
CB: I don’t keep up a whole lot with the modern titles, but those that I’ve spoken to tell me that the pendulum swings back and forth and once again many are predicting the death of the medium and who knows? I’m hopelessly locked in a time warp as far as my interests, quite obviously. It’s interesting. When I was talking to Gaspar Saladino a few months ago…
Springer: Oh, Gaspar. Good man.
CB: Oh, isn’t he? Wonderful guy.
Springer: Oh, fabulous.
CB: He was saying that Marvel was whipping DC currently, but I’m not sure what he based that on exactly.
Springer: Well, you know I had the impression at that time that DC was larger than Marvel, but it was the other way around. Marvel was selling more than DC by quite a margin.
CB: I didn’t realize that.
Springer: I’m talking about the late ’60s and through the ’70s and into the ’80s. In the mean time I hooked onto doing freelance for the Daily News in their editorial, doing editorial cartoons.
CB: How was that?
Springer: That was great.I would show up on Fridays and look through the wire copy and look through the newspapers to try to anticipate what the editor would choose as a topic for the cartoon for the next day; Saturday, in my case.
Then we’d go into the editorial conference where the editorial writer would give his ideas and the editor would say, “Well, let’s lead with Mayor Lindsey’s latest such and such.” Mayor Lindsey was the mayor at the time. The Tower of Jelly. (Mutual laughter.) And then we’ll go with such and such and then we’ll wind up with the opening of the baseball season, a paragraph there pointing out that the Daily News has the best sports coverage of any paper not only in the city, but in the nation.Something like that.
Meanwhile, I and the other editorial artists would be sketching away on various things relating to what these guys were talking about.And we’d submit them and the other freelancer was there to do Monday’s cartoon, which was not based on current news.You know, because who knows what’s going to happen in two days?It was more of a generic kind of thing.Mine was more of a current kind of thing.And you’d get your idea OK’s and we’d go into the bullpen section of that floor and do the cartoon and go back to the editor, get it OK’s and take off.
CB: Nice. Not a bad gig at all.
Springer: And of course get a check. I enjoyed that. I did it for about five years. I did some sports cartoons also at that time. Something that I had thought when I was younger to be a great thing to do for a living. But two things happened. Number one, there are almost no sports cartoonists anymore and number two, there are some sports that I just had no interest in at all and you would have to cover those and try to feign interest in something you couldn’t care less about. Hockey and basketball come to mind. They’re great sports, but it’s not something that I was ever remotely interested in. As far as I’m concerned I’m dormant until the baseball season opens in the spring. (Chuckle.)
CB: You and my grandfather would have been famous friends.He absolutely adored baseball and used to take me to the farm league games when I was a kid.
CB: I see where you were a special guest at the Boston Comic Convention this last July. How was that?
Springer: That was fine.I sold some stuff, did some sketches.It was fun.
CB: Do you do many conventions or was that a rarity?
Springer: Well, I was a guest out in San Diego about 4 years ago in 2004.That was a lot of fun.What a zoo!Holy mackerel, that huge building and they had a hundred and some odd thousand people come there that weekend, so you could barely move.
CB: Yeah, Jim Mooney was telling me he used to go to that and he said it was a ball, but you had to plan going to the bathroom. (Chuckle.) According to my notes they gave you an Inkpot that year.
Springer: Yes. That’s right. You got an Inkpot Award for showing up.
Springer: I was very happy to be there and it doesn’t happen very often, but when you’re asked to talk about yourself; well that’s a subject you know everything about.
CB: Yeah. The undisputed master.
Springer: So, how tough is that? If I had to get up in front of people and talk about just anything in general then that would be something else again. As a matter of fact, I recently got some publicity up here. You know when the Spider-Man movie came out?
Springer: I don’t know how they got my name, but anyway I’m probably the only guy in Maine who ever touched Spider-Man. They suddenly realized, “Gee, we’ve got a guy who lives in Maine who actually drew Spider-Man on occasion.” So the local newspaper and the local TV and so on came out. It was a lot of fun.
CB: Oh, I bet. Has there been any similar interest since the Transformers movie came out?
CB: Okay, that’s not as well known that you worked on that.
Springer: No, and I hated that.
Springer: Yeah. Because, well, I thought that I could draw girls pretty good. I was pretty good at humans and these weren’t humans, and they certainly weren’t females, and you just went crazy when you’re drawing these things as to what kind of feet this one had as opposed to what kind of feet that one had. What kind of a design this one had on the top of his head and so on. I did a bunch of issues…and it shows you what we do for money.
Springer: Just about anything is the answer.(Chuckle.)But I thought, “This is stupid.I can draw people and they’ve got me on this thing.Why not get people who are weak on people to draw these machines?”You know some guys can draw cars and trains much better than they can draw people.Put them on it.But they didn’t.I wasn’t running the show, they were.
CB: That sounds similar to what Carmine Infantino told me about doing Star Wars. It about drove him crazy. He said, “R2-D2; I never want to see that again.”
Springer: I didn’t even like the [Star Wars] movie. For one thing the hero; the guy flying that machine. He sort of had that turned up nose, I’m pushing my nose up, so it kind of looked like rabbit teeth, just that kind of a face and the gal that he was rescuing should have been a really good looking gal instead of…Princess Leia, was that Eddie Fischer’s daughter?
Springer: Well, get some gal that really looks good, okay? I mean, her mother’s a doll. I loved Debbie Reynolds, but the daughter I think had too much of Fischer in her and not enough of Reynolds. Not the kind of movie that I liked, although you know I inked some Star Wars issues, I think. I say, “I think,” because at this point I’ve forgotten half of the things I’ve done. I mean they just slip my mind. So many comics.
Come back next Friday for part two of our interview with Frank Springer!