When the ninth issue of The Invaders arrived in 1976, Frank Robbins was already one of superhero fandom’s least favourite artists. Or so it seemed, from the anecdotal evidence offered up by fanzines and conversations overheard in London’s Dark They Were And Golden Eyed. Along with the likes of Jack Kirby and Don Heck, Robbins was roundly dismissed as yesterday’s man, his style decried as incompatible with what passed for superhero realism. That Robbins had for nigh-on thirty years written and drawn the classic Johnny Hazard newspaper strip cut no ice with the scanty memories and constrained tastes of many of the era’s more vocal fanboys. Nor had his fine work at DC Comics on the likes of Batman and The Shadow during the late Sixties and early Seventies established his style as valid with many fans of Marvel Comic’s superhero titles. As the years rolled on, the marketplace often appeared to agree with the fanzine firebrands, which, with no little irony, made Robbins a particularly appealing, if left field, collaborator for Roy Thomas’ debuting wartime superteam The Invaders. Set in 1941, the title featured a host of characters from Marvel’s predecessor publisher Timely, with Thomas set on reconciling as much of their Golden Age adventures as he could with the continuity and tone of the mid-1970s. With the research it would demand, The Invaders wasn’t an assignment that a great many artists were either up to or happy to embrace. But given that Robbins’ wonderfully idiosyncratic style couldn’t help but evoke a distant historical era, Thomas reasoned, why not use that on a retro title that might benefit from an appropriately distinct and supposedly bygone approach?
There was much to recommend Robbins for the task, in addition to his captivating, if polarising, artwork, aspects of which I’ll be enthusiastically lauding below. Born in 1917, the artist’s own homefront experience of World War Two gave him a feel for time and place that few if any younger creators could match. Style and subject matter might, if approached appropriately, reinforce each other beautifully. With the insight of the canniest of editors, Thomas twinned Robbins’ pencils with the inks of veteran Vinnie Colletta, another of fandom’s bete noires. At his worst, Colletta delivered his assignments with a speed and reliability that came from ignoring a great deal of the detail and subtlety of the art before him. (Just a few years before, that had led to him being sacked from Kirby’s Fourth World line at DC.) But at his best, Colletta was a highly capable and effective craftsman. Even his less admirable traits served The Invaders well when applied to Robbins’ pencils, which, with their oft-awkward body language, opaque camera angles and gaze-splitting storytelling, could at moments be difficult to follow and enjoy. In short, Colletta preserved many of the strengths of Robbins’ artwork while adding a directness and simplicity that might otherwise be absent. (It is more than possible that Thomas would have asked Colletta to modify exactly those supposed weaknesses in Robbins’ work, although I hasten to say that I can’t recall reading anything of the sort.) Sadly, the collaboration between Robbins and Colletta only lasted a few issues, and it appears that the book’s sales were never as strong after their partnership ended.
By The Invaders #9, Colletta had been superseded by Frank Springer. An admirable, if similarly out-of-fashion, artist in his own right, Springer’s work actually feels more sympathetic to Robbins’ own style. Yet, in the context of The Invaders, it tends to complicate rather than mitigate the more problematical aspects of Robbins’ work when it came to mid-70s superhero storytelling. The difference between Springer’s work and Colletta’s may not be extreme, but it is significant. For all the charm of his approach, Springer’s work with Robbins feels more confusing than Colletta’s did. Springer’s linework was typically thicker, his use of unbroken blocks of black shadow more prevalent; where Colletta streamlined and lightened Robbins’ pencils, Springer’s approach often felt more sluggish and less dynamic. A greater fidelity to Robbins’ cartoonish body language in action scenes further undercut, for the audience of the age, the appeal of the title. For it doesn’t take a huge change in approach to decisively undercut the commercial appeal of an artist’s work, and Thomas has said that The Invaders never sold as well as it did when Colletta was present.
But for all of that, Robbins and Springer’s pages are always captivating and, in places, utterly compelling. (I really ought to admit that I’ve never seen a page of Robbins’ art that I haven’t adored.) To take but a single frame as an example, the middle panel of the above page from The Invaders #9 is in itself a masterpiece of design and execution. I don’t know for sure if this issue had seen Thomas working by plot or script, but I very strongly imagine the former. Robbins, being an accomplished writer in his own right, if not in the post-Stan Lee tradition, would surely not have required such a change from Marvel’s standard period approach. Here, the solutions Robbins develops to deal with this particular moment in Thomas’ story are as efficient as they are effective. At this point of An Invader No More, evening is shading into night at Falsworth Manor in the English home counties countryside. While Lord James ‘Union Jack’ Falsworth stays behind to watch for the return of the vampire Baron Blood, the rest of The Invaders fly back to Blitz-imperiled London. Next to the ageing British superhero stands his foppish nephew John Falsworth, who, as the readers have already been informed, is secretly the very Nazi-sympathising blood-sucker that the various Invaders are searching for. In short, Robbins is presenting three different incidents at once. In the first, the disguised Baron Blood is making sure the bulk of his enemies are leaving the vicinity. In the second, aging British superhero Union Jack is bemoaning his inability to follow the other Invaders to the capital. In the third, the Sub-Mariner’s futuristic VTOL aircraft is taking to the skies while the Human Torch and Toro streak ahead of their comrades towards London. Presenting all of that in a way that’s comprehensible and compelling, while subtly emphasising Blood’s threat and Union Jack’s peril, would present most artists with something of a headache. Yet Robbins’ solutions on the page are so effective that the challenges he’d faced almost pass with announcing themselves. Which is surely the mark of the finest storytelling.
The page-wide horizontal panel, in its ‘widescreen’ guise, is now often put to indiscriminate use in the American action/adventure comic. That it is a type of frame with particular advantages and disadvantages is frequently ignored. For many, it has become the default setting for their page designs. As a taken-for-granted habit, it has led to storytelling that’s marked by a bland uniformity of approach. Worse yet, the result has been a disastrous mismatch between the demands of the story and the capacity of constrained storytelling to maximise the narrative’s potential. But in this Invaders panel, Robbins shows his mastery of this particular type of frame. In short, the panel exists not because of habit and fashion, but to efficiently deliver a significant amount of information in the most appropriate form. Skillfully carrying the eye from left to right, from threat to disappearing allies, also adds action to a scene that might otherwise have been little but talking heads. Along with a sense of dynamism comes a suggestion of enchroaching doom. Fusing movement with emotion, Robbins sweeps us from predator to unknowing victim and beyond to the disappearance of Union Jack’s only allies. The hopes of Lord Falsworth are traveling with the departing superheroes, but, it’s implied, they won’t be nearby when he needs them the most. Even the variety and scale of that single, central page-wide frame offers variety to a side that’s otherwise composed of four square panels.
In this, Robbins can be seen putting the rule of thirds to exceptionally good use. It’s true that figures and flying vehicle don’t sit with mechanical precision on the panel’s sweet spots, but that lends the frame a sense of liveliness that never sacrifices our ability to follow the action. (After all, each individual situation in this page is part of the other, and to separate them more deliberately would only undercut that.) In the first third, there’s Baron Blood. In the second, Union Jack. In the third, the other Invaders. Each exists in their own individual moment as well as sharing the scene as a whole. (Our gaze is brilliantly – I think that’s an appropriate term here – from left to right by both Robbins’ art – from head to head to vehicle to flying superheroes – and by J Constanza’s word balloons, the placement of which may have been contributed to by Thomas.) With no little craftmanship, Robbins also places Union Jack at the front and centre of the frame, where his presence divides the panel between the situation he’s unknowingly trapped in and his disappearing allies. (Compartmentalising the frame so effectively further helps the readability of the scene by ensuring there is no dead, dull space in the panel.) The direct centre of such a frame is always an awkward spot, the eye falling naturally, as it does, to either side. Once again, the clarity of the storytelling combines with the emotional subtext suggested by the composition. Union Jack is clearly very much alone, clearly made uneasy both by the panel’s design as much as by Robbins and Springer’s finished art.
Each of the panel’s three narrative components holds its own pleasures. With Baron Blood in disguise, Robbins and Springer lend the supposed harmless popinjay the physical threat suggested by an alert, straight-backed pose matched with a sinister, restrained smile. Union Jack’s body-language is far less composed and alert, his shoulders slightly rounded, his expression by contrast to his nephew’s melancholy and unsure. But it is the third section that’s the most immediately compelling, with Robbins and Springer capturing the retro-futurism of Namor aqua-jet as it powers upwards into the sky, both far in advance of 1941’s technology and yet charmingly old-fashioned to our eyes. (Springer’s deft, sparse, deliberate strokes essay the form of the aircraft given by Robbins’s pencils with a captivating simplicity and directness.) Adding an impressive sense of dynamism to the design, and in doing so propelling our eye to the edge of the frame, is the arc of the two Human Torches as they blaze across the sky towards distant London. For all the panel’s relative calm, there’s a palatable sense of both urgency and abandonment here.
It’s easy to bemoan the loss of old creative traditions in modern-era comics. In all artforms, there’s always a sense that too much of the past is abandoned with the passing of time. If only we could console ourselves with some Darwinian model of artistic development, if only we could believe that certain styles die out because they are no longer relevant in key artistic and commercial senses. But the truth is, styles change for a variety of a reasons, and the likes of whim and ignorance are just as likely to be the reason as changing tastes and superior knowledge. In Robbins’ mid-Seventies work, which sits so clearly in line of influence from Milton Caniff, we can see a strand of storytelling that’s pretty much extinct in the superhero comic. But that loss isn’t just a question of style and the diminishment of alternatives. Even if many of today’s storytellers wouldn’t care to adopt the surface aspects of Robbins’ approach, and that’s entirely understandable, they might just benefit from paying close attention to the design solutions he often brought to the page. In the single panel discussed above, we can see how Robbins clearly understood the demands of what today is known as the ‘widescreen’ frame. He knew when to use it and how to use it. Whatever style is chosen, the compositional knowledge that’s evidenced in the likes of The Invaders #9 could surely be of great benefit. That styles will and should change is undeniable. But the decades of accumulated knowledge concerning composition and technique: it’s hard to grasp why that should ever be pushed aside as yesterday’s business.