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.
Read part one of this wonderful interview here.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: Well, yeah, you’ve got a huge body of work and it looks like you did horror titles and adventure and jungle and war and…
Frank Springer: I know.
CB: Was any format preferable for you?
Springer: I liked doing few pages for a lot of money as opposed to a lot of pages for a little money.
Springer: I ended up doing a feature for Sports Illustrated for Kids where I was doing at minimum two pages, and maximum four or five pages per month for a really hefty per page rate.And I enjoyed that and again the writer and I had a very good relationship.I could call him up and say, “Why not do it this way instead of that way?”And they were a good group to work for and of course they made money and they paid a lot.
CB: That wouldn’t be hard to take at all.
Springer: I was never a speed demon at this stuff.So the more money you got per page the better off you were.Some guys were phenomenal in their speed.
CB: Yeah, Al Plastino, of course, used to work with your successor on Secret Six, Jack Sparling and he said he was just incredibly fast and said it kind of influenced his speed a little bit.
Springer: Jack Sparling was one of the guys I met while doing stuff for Dell. He was doing stuff for Dell then also. And when we started at Dell I was doing the comic pages on one half of a Strathmore sheet. You know, they were huge. I think the Strathmore sheet was 29 by 27 or something like that and I’d cut one of them in half. It was a gigantic page. And at one point Jack Sparling said, “No, I do mine 9 inches wide.” Just up a third. You know ordinary comic book art is 6 inches wide in printed form. He did it 9 inches wide. Just tiny. And you can cover a page in a much shorter time. So that was one of his secrets of speed. So I started doing that and my work was sort of sloppy and so on because you’re trying to rip through the thing and everything, but it got by, I guess. But it’s not really the way to do it. You really shouldn’t do something just to get by; you should do the best you can no matter what you’re being paid.
CB: Sure. Your style is quite a bit more illustrative in many cases; do you think that had any kind of effect on the assignments you received?
Springer: I hope so, but it didn’t have any effect on the Transformers. The way comics used to work I think was this way: If the pencils were lousy they’d give it to a real good inker figuring that he could draw with his pen and fix up the crummy pencils, or if the pencils were great, they’d give it to some lousy inker, figuring, “How bad could this guy screw up these terrific pencils?” So it was always this not great, but just good enough to get by kind of an attitude, I thought. But that’s the nature of the business. In commercial art, you were always turning out work that was perhaps 85% or 90% of what you could do if you had more time, and if that drives you crazy, then don’t go into commercial art.
CB: You’re in the wrong business.
Springer: Yeah, and the key is, of course, if your 85% is better than the other guy’s 85%, well you’re okay. If it’s lousier than the other guy, well, you’re not going to get the assignment. But you’re always churning out work that was a little short. And this would go for Saturday Evening Post covers or anything. All this stuff is churned out under deadline, and so you’re never, or you’re rarely turning out anything that’s absolutely perfect. And if that drives you crazy then get out of the business. I read N.C. Wyeth’s biography a couple of years ago. It’s a great one, by the way, written by a guy named Michaelis, the one that wrote the new one on Charlie Schulz. Anyway, N.C. Wyeth was always unhappy that he was “just an illustrator.” He featured himself as a fine artist. And the thing was, his fine art…it was just beautiful paintings, but it was kind of dull. Well, a farmer leaning against the post; a guy with a scythe; somebody else pitching hay. I mean big deal. Whereas his illustrations were exciting. You know, these cutthroat pirates marching across the sand with shovels and muskets and sabers with mean looks on their faces. Guys that you wouldn’t want to meet in a million years in any situation. That was great stuff, to me anyway.
CB: Well, sure, there’s a dynamism in that which would be missing from what you described before.
Springer: Yeah. But he was unhappy doing illustration and he was probably one of the greatest illustrators that ever lived. Of course Norman Rockwell was more or less satisfied with his career and his painting although he suffered from depression as did N.C. Wyeth. But Rockwell was more on an even keel I think and figured, “Hey, this is a good life,’ being probably the greatest commercial artist that ever lived.
CB: You penciled and inked a lot of your own work. Was that a conscious choice or just the luck of the draw?
Springer: Yeah, the luck of the draw, I guess.The stuff at National Lampoon was more individual because you were a freestanding feature rather than issue #500 in a Superman book.All those I penciled and inked and the Sports Illustrated for Kids I penciled and inked and all of these ones for magazines other than comic books I penciled and inked.And I penciled and inked all that stuff at Dell.I wouldn’t want to go look at them with a fine-toothed comb right now.I think I’m better than that right now.At Marvel and DC mostly it was a case of, “You know we’ve got these pencils that have to be inked.Call Frank” or “We’ve got this story to be penciled.Call Frank.”I think that was just the case.It was just a case of it was my turn, I guess.
CB: Sure. Probably glad to have it, too.
Springer: Yeah.It was good to have a stack of well-penciled sheets to work on.Sometimes it saved me from having to go to a file every few minutes to find out what a locomotive looks like or an airplane or something like that.I think it was tougher to pencil than to ink, but I enjoyed both.I think one advantage of doing one or the other on occasion is that once I’d penciled a 22-page book, I was tired of it and I was glad that somebody else was going to ink it.I wouldn’t want to go back and take the same ground again.So it was better.Whereas with an individual feature, a stand alone feature, I wanted to see the whole thing to its conclusion because that was my stuff, not somebody else’s characters not somebody else’s creation.It was totally mine.At any rate, I was lucky.I didn’t starve, raised the kids, paid for the house.
CB: You can’t ask a whole lot more.
CB: You were commenting that Marvel was a little bit more enjoyable to work for. Was the Marvel Method part of the calculus there, or did that make much difference?
Springer: Yeah, I think so. I think writers, with the huge exception of Michael O’Donoghue, writers writing continuity kind of get carried away sometimes with things. They’re not thinking visually, whereas with Marvel where you got an outline of the story; just a synopsis, it was tougher to go through and thumbnail the thing and decide what gets emphasis and just how you would do this and so on. The finished product was done by somebody who was visually oriented and knew how to emphasize this and minimize that in the course of telling the story rather than, “In this panel, this guy says this and then that guy says that. Second panel, such and such.” So I think you’re better off having the artist decide just how the story should be featured. Just like doing the movie, a director will decide just how to shoot this scene that the writer has written. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’ve heard that on a movie set, where they’re filming a movie, the last guy they want there is the guy who wrote the story in the first place. (Chuckle.) They want to do what they feel like doing and they don’t want him hanging over there saying, “Hey, that’s not what this guy should say.” “Hey, get lost, buddy. We bought the script. You got your money, now take off.”
CB: Yeah. It’s my interpretation now.
Springer: Yeah. And a good director should know how to picture the scene and how to set the scene and the mood and the lighting and all of that. Well, that’s what the artist does in comics. It’s the same as acting. In fact, I got into amateur theatrics down on Long Island when we lived there for many years in the ’70s and did that for 18 or 20 years. Sing, dance, act and it is exactly like cartooning. The same thing. You are given a line to say and it’s up to you and the director to dope out what kind of body language and expression to use when delivering that line and that’s just exactly what you’re doing when you’re sitting at a drawing board deciding what kind of body language this guy would use in talking to this girl and what kind of body language she would use and what kind of expression and so on.
CB: That is a very exact parallel. I’d never considered that.
Springer: I didn’t consider it either until the first time I got on stage with one line to say and realized how many ways that you could deliver that line and just how to turn your body and how to milk it, in effect. (Mutual laughter.) Who was that, was that Frank? I don’t know, I couldn’t tell. He was on for such a short time. Anyway, one thing is that when you’re on stage, you can’t erase.
CB: No, you’re committed.
Springer: You’re live and there’s an audience out there and there are always screw-ups in the play and you have to get through that some way without the entire play falling apart, whereas on the drawing board you can say, “Well, that’s not the right expression or that leg is too long. I can fix that.” You’re sunk when you forget…there was a time I forgot the name of the other actor I was supposed to be talking to. I mean his stage name, and I knew I couldn’t call him Bob. That would be stupid. What the hell? You get these blocks. I don’t think the audience knew. I got through it okay and then backstage this guy says, “What the hell happened to you, Frank?” I said, “Hey, I forgot your name.” (Chuckle.) Judd Fry in Oklahoma, and I was supposed to go across and say, “Hey, Judd, look at this.” It was about a one minute crossover there and I could not think of the name Judd and I just knew I couldn’t call him Bob. (Mutual laughter.) Anyway, we had fun.
CB: Oh, yeah. When you were at DC in particular did you have a favorite scripter? Someone who could give you that visual?
Springer: At DC? You know I can’t think of anything.I did several titles there, but none of them very memorable I don’t think.
CB: Okay, then Marvel perhaps?
Springer: At Marvel I liked Nick Fury, because when I drew him he didn’t wear a costume or anything. He was just a guy in a pair of slacks and a dress shirt, open at the collar with the sleeves rolled up of course, and I liked that better than some guy in some fancy uniform with all sorts of dopey pockets. So I enjoyed Nick Fury and what else did I do for Marvel? The Avengers and some other related things that Frank Robbins penciled. I inked that series and that was a lot of fun. Frank Robbins was just a fabulous artist and his pencils were just terrific. Everything’s there and I just loved jumping into that. I think that was the favorite thing I did for Marvel. Perhaps the easiest.
CB: So his pencils were very tight then, huh?
Springer: Yeah. And black I mean like he used a 9B pencil. But everything was there. All the shadows. All the muscles. All the fingers and toes and so on. It was really good.
CB: You only did the first two issues, I believe, on Secret Six. Were you in transition at that time or do you remember why you left that project?
Springer: I don’t remember. I wouldn’t have known that I did just two. I really don’t recall.
CB: Well, the whole series only went seven issues, but you did something really unusual, at least for the time, maybe they’ve done it since then, on issue #1 where the cover was actually the first page of the story.
Springer: That’s right.
CB: So in essence it was the splash as well. Was that your idea?
Springer: That was their idea.They actually got the idea from an illustration I did.I guess it was actually the cover of Phoebe Zeitgeist where they had the car crashing over a cliff or something and they liked that idea, so they asked me to incorporate that into the thing, but the idea of putting the splash on the cover, that was their idea and I guess that was good.I guess I got paid for the cover when we got more money than for the inside of the books.
CB: Exactly, and I know you did some covers in addition to interiors. Did you have a preference?
Springer: I did some covers on Nick Fury and I did some covers on The Dazzler and I did a number of covers for Dell on Ghost Story. Oh, boy what a weird job, but you know it was all drawing and I loved that.It was great.I look back on that and as flawed as the drawing was back then and everything else, I look back on that as a fun time in my life even though we were worried about bills, we had little kids and expenses and everything else and all the things that go with being a young guy with a lot of responsibility and everything else like that I guess you look back on those times when you were younger as great times.
CB: Yeah, just struggling through and making it.
Springer: Yeah. That’s right. Times long ago seem like simpler times, although at that time you don’t think they’re simpler, you thought the times earlier were simpler.
CB: Yeah, exactly true.The lens of nostalgia, I guess.
Springer: That’s right.Gasoline then was 28¢ or 30¢ a gallon in the ’50s and ’60s.
CB: Is it true that you worked at Neal Adams’s Continuity Studios for awhile?
Springer: Yeah. I did some work there. I forget what it was. It was very little work there. I did work on Space Ghost. That was a Saturday morning cartoon in the ’60s. That was for Hanna-Barbera. They sent us the thumbnail for the continuity and on animation boards we did the key action. It wasn’t real animation, but it was the key drawings, like drawings 1, 5, 7, 15, 20 and then somebody would do the in-between stuff out on the west coast. Bill Lignante and I did Space Ghost. We turned out I think one six minute adventure in a week and three other guys working at Bill’s house actually at that time, that summer, did “Dino Boy,” which was a caveman thing and it involved more characters, so as things fell into place those three guys turned out that adventure in a week and Bill and I did Space Ghost adventure in a week. Next week you’d get another set of thumbnails and another set of thumbnails and so on and it lasted all summer in either ’65 or ’66. I’ve forgotten. It was part time stuff, but that was enjoyable. It was a different phase of cartooning.
CB: Yeah, that had to be a breath of fresh air or a change of pace, whatever you care to call it.
Springer: Yeah. And you know who sent us the model drawings or who did the model drawings sent from Hanna-Barbera? It was Alex Toth.
CB: Oh, that’s right.
Springer: He did the model drawings and it was just…what a sensational artist. Those beautiful lines! The Space Ghost character was about 6’5″ with shoulders like condor wings and there were two teenagers, a gal and a guy in this thing, and a monkey and a giant insect that looked like a Praying Mantis. That was another character in the thing. The name might have been Zorack or something. I’ve got some Xeroxes of the model drawings. They’re great.
CB: I’d forgotten Alex had done that work. He did quite a bit of animation there for awhile out west, I think.
Springer: I think he did mostly the character design. I don’t know how much actual animation he did. He might have done what we did, I suppose, the key drawings. He was too good to do the day to day animation. I think he probably did the key drawings.
CB: I read where you’ve been heavily involved in the National Cartoonists Society for years and years. You’ve obviously enjoyed that.
Springer: Oh, yes.We’re professional and fraternal and that’s it.In the early days we would meet once a month in New York and drink and eat and have fun and swap stories and so on.Incidentally, we’d learn about what’s going on in the business and who needs what help and so on.I joined in the spring of ’65, so that’s 43 years this spring.
CB: That’s a good long association.
Springer: A lot of fun. You know Jack Sparling, who was a member, took me to the first N.C.S. meeting and I guess that would have been in ’63 and God there was Milton Caniff and Bob Dunn and all the great idols from my childhood there. It was tremendous.
CB: Oh, it had to be wonderful.Did you interact with Jerry Robinson?
Springer: Oh yes, yes. Jerry’s still around. I saw him last year and I’ll see him this year I guess when we get together for our yearly bash. A lot of the old-timers are gone now.
I just got a newsletter the other day and I learned that Red Wexler passed away. He was a terrific illustrator. He was 85 or so and he did comics, he did illustration, he did just about everything. In fact, he did a soccer column. He illustrated a soccer column which I guess he quit at one point and I continued the thing for about two years after that, so I can say I followed Red Wexler. I had a lot of fun with that. That’s one of the sports I don’t care about at all, and argued for not doing it, but they convinced me to do it. I said, “I don’t like soccer.” They said, “We don’t care.” I said, “I think it’s the dullest thing.” They said, “We don’t care about that, we just want you.”
I would get the scrap, good scrap photographs from which I would do the illustration on the column. I lettered it myself. They’d send me the type, the script and it was just a lot of fun. Penciling in these figures and then inking them and turning it out, it was great. I guess I did a week at a time. One day a week, something like that. No, I did a month at a time. It was three or four a week, so they’d send me about 12 or 15 things at once and I would turn that batch out in maybe a day or two and then turn it around. A lot of fun. Bodies in action, again. The sport was stupid, but I had the photographs of these bodies in action and I got to draw the bodies in action.
CB: Wonderful. I see where you contributed to How to Draw Comic Book Heroes and Villains. What was that like?
Springer: It was fun. I got paid for it. It was a little difficult in that I had to think about “How would I do this?” How would I show somebody else how I would do this? But it was a one shot thing. Along that line I would enjoy teaching figure drawing or something like that if it were something where I was nearby and it didn’t take too much time.
CB: Yeah, I was gonna say you’re out of the commuting area of most of the art schools.
Springer: Yeah, that’s right, but all those teachers that you had, some of those thoughts are still rattling around in your head as you draw. “Get those planes in there, Francis, get those planes in there.” (Chuckle.) Those ideas, the good ones, don’t leave you or shouldn’t leave you. You still refer to them.
CB: Absolutely. It seems like I saw where you were on a roster for the Berndt Toast Gang. Do you still do anything with them?
Springer: Yes, well I’m still a member there even though I’m up here in Maine.I’m still on their roster.In fact, we have this house for sale.We intend to move back to Long Island at some point when this place sells.I hope it will be this spring and then I’ll be able to go to their meetings every week and be back in the swing of things.I miss hob-nobbing with artists every once in awhile.
CB: It seems like it’s a very well organized and dynamic organization. Joe Giella was telling me he never misses a luncheon if he can help it.
Springer: The thing is there are so many artists on Long Island and they’re so concentrated that it’s not difficult to get to the luncheons. You know that began really with that Space Ghost stuff. The five of us that worked on that back in ’63, ’64, ’65, the five of us who worked on Space Ghost would go out to lunch. Then when the Space Ghost stuff ended, every once in awhile we’d call each other up and say, “You know, it’s been awhile since we’ve been out to lunch,” and we would go to lunch and then a sixth guy or a seventh guy would show up and that really began the Berndt Toast.
CB: So you’re actually a founder.
Springer: Yeah, and one of the guys that would show up was Walter Berndt who did Smitty, that feature, for 50-some years. He was still doing it at that time and eventually instead of five or six or seven, it would be twelve or fourteen and then even more than that. Walter Berndt died in 1981, I think and we went to his wake, went to his funeral and came back to our usual meeting place, this restaurant in Huntington and somebody said, “Well, you know, we ought to drink a toast to Walter every meeting from now on and I think it was Creig Flessel that said, “Ah, Berndt Toast.” Ba-boomp-boomp. So we’ve been the Berndt Toast Gang ever since. It’s one of the most active chapters in the Cartoonist’s Society. But there’s no format. Bill Kresse plays the harmonica sometimes and Al Skaduto the late Al Skaduto, who did “They’ll Do It Every Time,” died just recently, a great talent, would sing a song, but like most of these things it’s more of a free-wheeling kind of thing.
CB: Well, when you get creative types together that’s what you get.
Springer: Yeah. A lot of fun.
CB: We were talking a little about lettering earlier and of course with the readily available fonts on computer software and so forth that work seems to be drying up somewhat.
Springer: That’s right. Well that’s what Gaspar told me the last time I talked to him, which was not long ago. This past year at some point. “Nah, I’m retired. Nah, to hell with it.” He was great. He did the lettering for me on The Virtue of Vera Valiant, the strip I did with Stan Lee for a year and he’s terrific. What a swell guy.
CB: One of the very best. I loved getting acquainted with him.
Springer: He’s great. At one point we presented Mort Walker with the Golden T-Square. We have a Silver T-Square award for outstanding service to the Cartoonist’s Society. It’s not something you’re paid for. It’s not something you’re elected to. It’s just doing a lot of work for the Society. We have a silver T-square, but in this case we awarded him with a golden T-square and it had a commemorative sentence on it. Something about for outstanding service and commitment and love and so on for the National Cartoonists Society and I called up Gaspar. I said, “Gaspar, I want you to letter this. You’re the guy that can letter this so the people at the foundry can etch it into the T-square.” “Nah, I don’t want to do that. You do it.” I said, “Look, charge the Society for it.” “Nah, I’m not going to do that.” Anyway, he did the line and he did not send a bill and so the golden T-square that Mort has hanging in his studio has the lettering on it of Gaspar Saladino.
CB: Oh, fantastic.
Springer: Of course there was Ben Oda years ago.
CB: Yeah, Gaspar told me in his typical unpretentious way that Ben Oda was the real genius.
Springer: Ben Oda lettered Phoebe Zeitgeist. He lettered the whole thing.
CB: There was plenty to do, too.
Springer: Yeah, and he lettered for everybody. He lettered for George Wunder when I worked on Terry and the Pirates. He would show up with this portfolio that weighed a ton. It was this huge portfolio just jammed with strips and he worked for Stan Drake, he worked for Leonard Starr, he worked for Hal Foster, he worked for George Wunder, he worked for Milton Caniff, he worked for this, he worked for that…
CB: Wow, he really ran the gamut.
Springer: He was in the studios of all these people and we thought if Ben ever wrote a book about what he saw in some of these studios, everybody would have to leave town. (Mutual laughter.) He was just terrific. A World War II veteran. He saw combat in Italy with the Nisei, the Japanese-Americans unit there while his family was interred in Wyoming.
CB: Oh, goodness. And another one that was taken from us too soon.
Springer: Yeah, a great guy.
CB: I understand you’re still doing commission work these days, Frank.
Springer: I did one recently, yeah. It was a cover format. I did the pencils and Joe Rubinstein did the inks.