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|Interview with Artist's Name Goes Here|
COMIC-ART.COM: I'm speaking to Mr. Dick Sprang. It is May, 6th, 1995. Let me begin by asking you, Mr. Sprang, what kind of art training did you have.
SPRANG: Well, I had a darn good high school art teacher. That's all the formal training I ever had.
COMIC-ART.COM: Where did you go to high school?
SPRANG: Fremont, Ohio.
COMIC-ART.COM: What brought you to New York City?
SPRANG: Well, I, after graduating from high school I went to work for a Scripps-Howard newspaper in Toledo, Ohio. The Toledo News Bee and I spent two years there. That's where I picked up a great deal of art training, because it was the best training for a rapid production of deadline in parodies, graphic, which I wound up doing in the comics. And, you know, we had three or four editions on the street every day and we had to meet them.
COMIC-ART.COM: What kind of things were you doing for the paper?
SPRANG: Oh, everything. Everything from diamond rings to editorial cartoons. Yeah.
COMIC-ART.COM: Did you do any kind of comic strips?
SPRANG: No. Nothing like that. Of course we all studied them then, you know. Flash Gordon was very hot at that time. Alexander Raymond, and the others of that era. Milton Caniff coming along. Great with Terry and the Pirates.
COMIC-ART.COM: Right, right. So, you're talking about probably, like, mid-nineteen thirties?
SPRANG: Yes. Uh-huh.
COMIC-ART.COM: Okay, and when did you first do comic books?
SPRANG: Well, nineteen-forty, well, '41 I did it for DC. I did a couple before for Prize Comics, a few stories here and there, but I didn't do any major work until '41 when I went to work with DC as a freelancer on Batman.
COMIC-ART.COM: How did that job come about?
SPRANG: Well, I had left the paper in '36. Went to New York to freelance and I illustrated for the pulp magazines for many years. I also wrote pulp stories for Standard Publications, oh, Street and Smith, Popular, Martin Goodman's group, and so on. Illustrated for most all of them, did some advertising work. Well, I began, I saw that comic books were coming on and they were about to wipe out the circulation of the pulp magazines. People didn't have to read as much. They could see pictures, plus a few balloons, you see. That made it easier for the reading public, who lived for the pulps. So I thought, well, the pulps are going to die out, and I'd better latch onto something a little bit more permanent. So, I prepared a page, about a Sunday page-type thing with several panels on it, all in color, of every adventure type thing I could think of and showed it to Whitney Ellsworth up at DC Comics, and he liked it, and he gave me a, three script pages of a Batman story, which had alr!
eady been published. And he said, `Take these home. Do me three pages from this script. And I hope you won't look at the magazine in which this appeared. And bring them back in four days. One, I want inked and lettered. The other two, just pencil.' So I did. And he liked them. And he gave me a thirteen-page Batman story. And that put me on the road.
COMIC-ART.COM: That was your first work on Batman?
SPRANG: Yeah, except for the little tryout, the test shot there?
COMIC-ART.COM: Were you nervous doing the test pages?
SPRANG: Oh, Heavens, yes. Scared me half to death. And he wanted them, I think, in fifteen or sixteen days, too. You know, he wanted to see if I could meet a deadline. It's one thing to draw it, it's another to get it in on time. So, I brought them back and by golly, he went through them, not rapidly, not slowly, squared them all up, called the comptroller to write a check for me. Oh, he also paid me for the three script tryout pages if you can imagine that. And I said, `Well, Mr. Ellsworth, I've been in art here for five or six years and I've never turned in a job of this complexity for any outfit. I've turned in a lot less and there's always some minor changes wanted.' And he said, `Well, I can understand that.' But he said, `Not with us. If there's minor changes. We'll have them made in the bullpen. And you just go on with the major production.' Well, that just, that was a hell of an ego boost, but I took it very seriously, and I said, `Now, tell me: why do you like this?' !
He said, `Two reasons. I like the way you interpret the script. And you get the work in on time.' That was it.
COMIC-ART.COM: Were DC's rates very good at the time?
SPRANG: Yeah. They were quite good.
COMIC-ART.COM: Now, the scripts you got, were they very detailed? Would they give you anything as far as camera angles?
SPRANG: Well, not so much camera angles. They did resemble a movie shooting script. The best scripts, I think the best scripts in the industry were coming from DC's writers. We had the best of all writers, Bill Finger. I'm sure you're familiar with that name.
COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, sure.
SPRANG: And several others, oh, Cameron, and, oh, Otto Binder and so on. And the scripts were detailed. They're not like today, you know, where you do the art and then somebody writes the balloons and all that malarkey. I'd hate to work that way. But the artist had cart blanche on the way he translated that script. The way he interpreted it, the way he brought it alive in pictures. And of course, that was the big fun of it.
COMIC-ART.COM: Now, initially, were pencilling and inking your own work?
SPRANG: Yes. I inked my own work up until 1945. After that, DC put other inkers to work. First it was Gene McDonald and then Charlie Paris took over and inked everything from then on. Except for World's Finest, where Stan Kaye did the inking. I did, let's how many World's Finests did I do? It was, oh, about fifty-eight stories, I believe. Yeah, fifty-eight stories. Only three covers. For Batman I did a hundred and three stories and twenty-two covers.
COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, you did a number of Detective Comics covers I've seen.
SPRANG: I did thirty-five covers and seventy-seven stories. Now, these facts have been dug up by Joe Desris, who I'm sure you're familiar with.
COMIC-ART.COM: I've got Desris's little book from Abbeville Press right in front of me.
SPRANG: Yeah, right. Joe is the leading authority on production at DC, and he dug up these facts for me. Heavens, I didn't keep a records of that accuracy. But, Stan Kaye and Charlie Paris were terrific inkers. Charlie was so good at that. He understood my intent and he really followed it.
COMIC-ART.COM: Would you ink your own covers?
SPRANG: Yeah. All my covers I inked. I think they gave credit to somebody else on a couple of them, but I'm a little doubtful of that. Covers were a sort of a side issue. Whitney Ellsworth would always give me a script to do and then he'd say, `Oh, by the way, I need a cover for a book we've got coming out.' And it wasn't any story I did. Had nothing to do with the story. He said, `Just give me a cover, a good Batman cover, or a good Detective cover.' Imagine, he'd send, I'd go home and do it. Bring it back to him. I don't know if you're very familiar with some of those covers, but you may remember one of a totem pole falling toward Batman and Robin with a huge head of the Joker on top of it.
COMIC-ART.COM: That one I haven't seen. I've seen a lot of the others, but not that one.
SPRANG: Well, that one, the reason I did it that way, I happened to be studying the art of the northwest coast, the Indians of British Columbia and the inside passage of Alaska, you know, and of course I was full of totem poles, so I used that. Another one I did, I was studying the birch bark canoe and Whit gave me a, said, `Do me a cover. Any kind of a cover.' So I had this darn canoe approaching, just about to go over a waterfall, and Robin is aboard the canoe, along with a logger, who is punching Robin and Batman's on shore, swinging on a lasso, trying to save Robin.
COMIC-ART.COM: Now, that one I've seen.
SPRANG: Yeah, well, that just came out because I happened to be studying the birch bark canoe. And Whit was wonderful that way, he'd put the artist on his own recognizance for choosing something that was dramatic and fitting to the actions of Batman and Robin. And of course, that gave the artist great confidence. It's a darn good way for any outfit to operate.
COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, but you said oftentimes the covers wouldn't have any relation to the stories inside?
SPRANG: That's right, and of course most of the time they would and then I'd, they'd tell me to choose a certain panel and do it or something like it, in order to transmit what the reader would find in the book. In those days, you know, the magazines had full cover display on the newsstands, so the covers meant something. You were competing with all the other books. So we always tried to make a very dramatic cover.
COMIC-ART.COM: I noticed that a lot of your covers featured The Joker. Did you have a special fondness for that character?
SPRANG: Yeah, he was my favorite villain. He and the Penguin. You bet.
COMIC-ART.COM: Now, how long did you actually work on Batman before you went to World's Finest?
SPRANG: Well, I, I think even while working on World's Finest, I'd do a Batman story occasionally. It just depended on what kind of a hole they had. And Detective, too. But I enjoyed World's Finest the most of all. I think it was just fun, you know, having Superman in there because he could do anything, you know, beating the devil out of a mountain. Things like that that were enjoyable. You could get a lot of speed lines in there and terrific action and energy. So, that was fun. You know, the whole thing with this comic business is, you try to, you try to, bring it in a, action, as you would visualize it in the movies, or on a legitimate stage. You know, you could compose from the angle of view, from the orchestra, or looking down from the top of the proscenium, from left or right stage, or looking straight on. And you tried for a variation, and never repeat the same scene, never the same degree of sequential medium shot or closer, long shot. Always vary it. And in all this mo!
ving around you try to bring a rhythm into the way you draw the continuity of action and setting. The slant of a building, an exaggerated perspective, leads into the opposite, a bridge, or some other building in the next panel, something that always keeps the reader interested, and alive visually. He's supposed to read this story, but to keep him reading, you can't bore him with repetitious panels. Now, today, we find these younger artists have got this mastered, almost to the point of too much. There's so much variety in it, that it's kind of difficult. You get lost on a page because there's so much different angles and so on. You can't, you mustn't overdo that. Although today we have excellent younger artists. My, some of those guys can just draw rings around me or anybody else from the old days, except Jack Kirby. But, you, good filmmakers use this trick all the time. The camera moves and that's what you are, the camera. You're probing constantly for the interesting shot. N!
ow, remember, we're drawing dramatic action stuff, not pretty pictures, so the camera probes, trying to get the best effect of movement and suspense. When you study the top continuity illustrators like Caniff, you can see them doing this all the time. It's a great tool as to evoking a mood and the composition of panels, establishing danger, serenity, suspense, fear, humor, all by the arrangement of the panel components, and so on. I've always thought of comic art in the long story as a frozen frame movie, and it's a lot of fun in that respect because the artist is the director. You're alone with the script. Now, the director has a whole raft of technicians helping him. And you, the comic the artist, are all of them. You're the production designer, you're the casting department, you're the set designer, the set decorator. You're the property department, all the historical and modern props that are needed. You're the costume designer And in a historical thing, like those back in!
time stories I did with Bill Finger, that was a lot of fun, digging up those costumes and horse gear and weaponry that was authentic. You're the makeup artist, for instance, Two-Face. You're the hair stylist. You do all the research. You're the technical advisor, machinery, so on. Lighting design. You're the cameraman. You're the artist. You try to be Gregg Toland doing Citizen Kane. You are all of these people, plus being the director. You draw, you also have to know a little bit about acting. The facial expressions, the body english of the characters. Listen, it's a big challenge and it's fun. But, it's a heck of a job. It's a lot of work in there beyond just sitting and drawing. A lot of research, but very enjoyable.
COMIC-ART.COM: Well, from what you're saying, it sounds like you're a big movie fan.
SPRANG: Oh, yeah. I, you know, when I was a kid in high school, I used to, I worked in a sign shop, doing movie posters from the old press books we got from the studios, and I did one-sheets. You know, they used to mount them outside the theater behind glass, one-sheet size. You could, there were maybe three colors. No shading between, but from across the street they looked shaded. And as a result, I got passes to two of the movie theaters in my home town. Well, I'd seen these darn movies, and thank God for that, because it was a great influence in my later career. I studied movies and I retained what I saw in the good adventure movies of that era, of the nineteen thirties. And it's just sort of like an undeveloped reel in my brain. When the script comes up and calls for certain things, it just seems as if I have some pictures on that undeveloped reel that I've packed away in my brain from seeing all those movies, that picture suddenly develops, and there it is. That's the way!
to draw it, right there. It's not a direct copy of anything, you understand, but the feeling, the mood that those movies conveyed.
COMIC-ART.COM: Do you have any particular favorites that stood out in your memory?
SPRANG: What, in movies?
SPRANG: Well, one of the earliest ones was The Black Pirate. It was one of the first color films. It was, oh my, who was the great, athletic actor of those days?
SPRANG: Yeah, that was Fairbanks.
COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, I've seen that one. That had some tinted sequences didn't it?
SPRANG: Yeah. You remember that? He was up atop the mainsail?
COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, sure where he did the bit where he slid...
SPRANG:...and he's slicing the canvas and he rode that knife down?
COMIC-ART.COM: Everybody's copied that bit.
SPRANG: That's the kind of stuff you remember, see? And those old movies of that day, you know, we have all these wonderful special effects today, but go back and look at some of those movies, and I'm telling you. Those old directors knew how to do it.
COMIC-ART.COM: The thing is, they had to actually do it. They couldn't fake it with a computer or something.
SPRANG:...You know some of those of actors were quite athletic. The best way to develop this comic art technique is to study the best things done in film and the best...been done, and also, of course the great old illustrators of the magazines. N.C. Wyeth and men like that who could really make static action move on a page. They used tricks. You try to identify those trick by studying their illustrations. And some of that comes through.
COMIC-ART.COM: Were there any comic book artists who influenced you? Will Eisner perhaps?
SPRANG: Yes, of course, and Joe Kubert...Well, yeah, Joe Kubert was really running strong back in those days and everybody admired his work. Heavens, I admire it today. I know Joe. I've met him at conventions and he's a heck of a nice guy.
COMIC-ART.COM: I agree.
SPRANG: He's one of the very top artists of all time. Alex Toth was another one.
COMIC-ART.COM: Did you know Toth in the old days?
COMIC-ART.COM: Did you know Toth in the old days?
COMIC-ART.COM: Alex Toth. Did you ever meet him?
SPRANG: Oh, no. I never met him. I've corresponded with him once. A good friend of mine, Jim Amish(sp?) in North Carolina, knows him well, and got him to do some interviews with an APA journal, and my, that was the most revealing I ever read. He accompanied it with sketches on how to compose a page, you know, things like that. Well, I never met him, but I have great respect for him.
COMIC-ART.COM: On the subject of Batman, did you ever meet with Bob Kane?
SPRANG: I met him once, to shake hands, to say hello. Whitney Ellsworth introduced me to him.
COMIC-ART.COM: Was this up at the DC offices?
SPRANG: Yeah. Yeah. But, you see, I never worked with Bob or for Bob. I worked for DC. Shelly Moldoff was the one who worked with Bob and for him.
COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, I've heard a lot of stories about Moldoff, and I've met him. Was he someone that you knew very well?
SPRANG: I didn't met Shel until two or three years ago in San Diego. I hardly knew any of these guys because I worked at home. I didn't, I met Charlie Paris once in New York before he went to work with me, illustrating, and then I didn't see him again until about two years before he died down in Tucson. I met Jack Kirby once, while he was working at DC in the bullpen, doing Boy Commandos. And that's the only time until two or three years ago in San Diego, I met Jack again, and Charlie Roberts took our picture. And old Julie Schwartz was there, too, and so on. Three real old-timers.
COMIC-ART.COM: It sounds like you were basically working in isolation.
SPRANG: I was.
COMIC-ART.COM: Did you prefer that, working at home?
SPRANG: Sure. I never worked in a bullpen. I preferred to work alone, yeah. I'd just pick up a script and deliver it. That was contact with DC.
COMIC-ART.COM: Once you moved to Arizona, did working through the mails present any problems?
SPRANG: Not at all.
COMIC-ART.COM: You never had the mails lose one of your stories or anything?
SPRANG: No. Thank Heaven, no. I always sent them registered. And that helped.
COMIC-ART.COM: Well, back in the old days, how long would it take for a story to get into DC through the mail?
SPRANG: Oh, of course we had air mail then. It would take two or three days. It wasn't bad.
COMIC-ART.COM: What year did you move to Arizona?
COMIC-ART.COM: '46. Ever live in Tucson?
SPRANG: Nope. Nope. I lived in Sedona until '56, and then I saw what was happening to that community. It's become a carnival up there. And I went up in southern Utah, bought a ranch, a hundred and sixty acres, pasture ranch. And I did my work there until '61, when I retired.
COMIC-ART.COM: Were you punching cows up there, too, or just drawing?
SPRANG: No, grazing cattle. I didn't own them. I'd just lease out my grass, but I'd do the irrigation and all that. I built it up with fertilizer and good techniques, but I kept doing the work until, oh, I got so busy with other projects and it just wasn't fun anymore. So, I figured, well, after twenty years, maybe I better get out. So, I did.
COMIC-ART.COM: How long did you work on World's Finest?
SPRANG: Well, I think that was, oh, I don't recall. Mort Weisinger was the editor, you know. Of course he had been and editor with Jack Schiff and Whit in the early days of everything. They only had three guys up there, and Bernie Breswell (sp?) who died quite young. But they edited everything, and then Mort finally gravitated to Superman, and he was a very good friend of mine. I know Mort's come in for some criticism from others who worked up there, but he and I got along splendidly.
COMIC-ART.COM: Did he always treat you well?
SPRANG: Oh, he treated me like a prince. Heavens, I'd go out to his home on Long Island on weekends. I don't know. We just happened to hit it off.
COMIC-ART.COM: You left working for DC around the mid-fifties?
SPRANG: Beg pardon?
COMIC-ART.COM: You left working on DC Comics around the mid-fifties, didn't you?
SPRANG: No, '61. 1961.
COMIC-ART.COM: And what did you do after that?
SPRANG: I ranched. I did a lot of historical work, some writing. I didn't do much drawing. I explored a lot of the canyon country of northern arizona and southern Utah. And I, of course I'm an old river runner. I ran the Colorado in my own boat, Glen Canyon several times, six weeks at a time, taking a lot of pictures of the graphic art of the prehistoric indians, or the pre-Columbian indians, rather, and I just love that country. And then I remarried and we moved to Prescott in '73. And along in the mid-80's someone proposed that I could do recreations of my old covers, so I sort of got back into the business and DC licensed me to do them and still does, and do anything I please, splash pages or conceptual art.
COMIC-ART.COM: Are these paintings or big illustrations?
SPRANG: Well, they're done in the original working size. You know, we were twice up in those days. And, they're all painted, they're colored. They're inked and colored with Eberhard Farber's design markers, which are artistic markers. They aren't the ordinary marker, as you probably know. And they're permanent as long as they're not exposed to excessive ultraviolet light. And I just finished a great big 23" by 33" for Joe Desris and we don't know what we're going to do with that. We may issue it as a limited edition print.
COMIC-ART.COM: Have you done many prints like that?
SPRANG: No. No. All my work so far has been either for DC, it's a few covers or pinups. In fact, I've got one on the board right now with a deadline next wednesday.
COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, really, what is it?
SPRANG: Oh, it's for a book that Scott Peterson is the editor of, it's a sort of an album of Batman artists. And the one he gave me is Bane attacking Batman and Robin. So, we'll see how that turns out. Graham Nolan made the sketch and he's going to ink it, so I'm just doing the pencils. Do you know Graham Nolan's work?
COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah. I think he's got a real clean style. I like it.
SPRANG:...Sounds like a swell guy. I've talked to him on the phone, too.
COMIC-ART.COM: Have you seen any of Kelley Jones' work on Batman?
SPRANG: Yeah. Very excellent work.
COMIC-ART.COM: Really moody. It's got a lot of feel to it.
SPRANG: As I say, some of these young artists coming along today are just excellent.
COMIC-ART.COM: I interviewed Kelley recently and I was struck by something he said. I'd read old interviews with Bob Kane where he said he was going for that kind of Warner Brothers fog-infested look. And Kelley said basically the same thing, with Batman, that he was trying to make it look like it was lit like a Warner's B-movie.
SPRANG: Yeah. Uh-huh.
COMIC-ART.COM: That seems to be a good look for Batman.
SPRANG: Well, it does. Some of the stuff they're doing today on Batman, I sort of question it's being able to hold the readers. I don't know, it's like Sheldon Moldoff, or not Shelly, oh, who was the guy who originated the San Diego Convention? Shel Dorf? He once asked Julie Schwartz, he said, when are you going to put the mystery back into Batman? And I think he had a point there.
COMIC-ART.COM: Well, let me close with one more question and then I'll let you off the line. The question I was going to ask is: you worked on Batman a long time. Why do you think the character has last as long as he has?
SPRANG: Well, for one thing, in my era, he was, you know, he used his brains more than his strength. He was actually a detective. In the Batcave, they had a crime laboratory where they would do esoteric tests on suspected crime, and although he was very athletic and could hold himself in a physical fight, still he was vulnerable, unlike Superman, and I think the reader would react to those Batman stories the way he'd react to a good short story. The hero's in trouble. He keeps getting in deeper trouble, but he solves his problems and wins out in the end. And Batman always did. It's as simple as that. But sometimes, not particularly Batman, but a lot of these characters today, all they do is fight on full panels for the whole damn book, and there's no story. I don't understand that. I think Batman has lasted, oh, I really don't follow Batman too much today, in the books, but somehow or other, he has lasted, and I hope he continues to last, and I...Of course, he's going to go th!
rough various stages of interpretation by various editors. It's bound to happen, and interpretations by various artists. We go through phases with these things. I don't particularly approve of some of the costuming being done, not necessarily on Batman, but on some of these characters, and they look like armored hulks. They're encased in improbably defensive stuff, and they're using claws for fingers and so on. I don't know. It seems to me we're just overdoing it.
COMIC-ART.COM: I thought Bane's costume looked like something from one of those Mexican wrestling movies.
SPRANG: (Laughs) Yeah, right. Exactly. I don't know much about Bane. I didn't even have him in my files until Mr. Nolan sent me a book that he had done on it, so I've got him for a reference. And the funny thing is that I'm going to do Batman and Robin in the old Golden Age style and coloring, with Bane, this modern guy. That was Scott Peterson's idea, so I don't know what they're going to do.
COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, so you're going to use the old Golden Age costume for Robin?
SPRANG: Yeah. For Robin and Batman. I don't know, maybe they'll have to run a little cutline on it: Bane attacks the Golden Age, or something like that. Anyway, he's huge and looming down on them. Nolan sent me a sketch of the page. I asked Peterson, I said, `Well, you guys better give me the idea of what you want because I don't read enough of the books to know what would work.' So, they did that. We'll see how it turns out.
COMIC-ART.COM: Before you go, let me ask one final question that just came to me. When you were doing Batman, did you change the character in any way as far as your perception of how you thought he should be done, as far as how he looked?
SPRANG: Well, yeah. At first, of course I copied the published stuff directly, and then Whit Ellsworth told me, he said, `Look, I want you to go your way with Batman. If you think of any minor changes you'd like to make in him, go ahead and do it.' So, I did. I widened his waist a little bit. I shortened his ears of the cowl. I made him more athletic, more fluid in action. And, that went on for quite a time, and then Whit told me: `Go ahead and change him all you want.' Well, I thought about that and I thought, My God, why change him? He's a success. Let him be the way he is. So, I never did change him. And I never went for all the enormous display of muscles that we see today on these superheroes. I just used Bob Kane's anatomy as far as just the simple deltoid and bicep muscles and so on, those. I didn't go for all this exquisite, some of this stuff today looks like the skin was stripped off and we're looking at an anatomical chart.
COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, I agree.
SPRANG: You can see tendons and veins and so on that, hell, I don't know that much anatomy.
COMIC-ART.COM: Was there any actor or athlete that you used as a real-life physical model for Batman?
SPRANG: No. Not that I can recall.
COMIC-ART.COM: I know that Kane has said that he kind of based his Batman on Fairbanks.
SPRANG: Oh, did he? Well certainly. A lot of the action we all used in the stories was probably influenced by Fairbanks. I think we all admired his work. But I don't think any physical characteristics were apparent in my work. I never followed Fairbanks that closely, but I know he was a master of this superlative action. In fact, I have some of the old Fairbanks movies that John Robins sends me now and then, and they're fun to look at, they really are. Terrific action.
COMIC-ART.COM: When I lived in New York, I was fortunate enough to see the re-release of The Thief of Baghdad. They did it at Radio City with a full pit orchestra and Fairbanks' son, Fairbanks, Junior, came out and introduced it. It was a real thrill.
SPRANG: I'll bet.
We thank interviewer Steve Ringenberg for this transcript