Yes, fnarr fnarr, that's a real guy's real name.
Page for page, dollar for dollar, I think the best superhero trade paperbacks in my comics library are the DC Greatest Stories Ever Told series, published between 1986 and 1997. These bear little resemblance to the cheap, thin, poorly designed, Alex Ross-covered reissues that currently collect dust on many a comic-store shelf; the original Greatest Stories books were thick, exhaustive (275+ page) tomes that lived up to their name, emphasizing the artists, writers and time periods that were most important to the characters and to their company in general. As opposed to cutting half the good stuff and reprinting the one Batman story Brian Michael Bendis ever wrote.
I've got four of these books as of now, the Batman, Superman, Joker, and Team-Ups volumes, and there's a lot to love about them; they're packed with stories, they're cheap on Amazon, they're the best way to get into characters you never knew about before and learn DC history from a comics reader's perspective. But I guess my favorite thing about them is the generous amount of Dick Sprang-drawn stories they reprint: nine in all, over a hundred pages, more than you can find anywhere else. These stories are true hidden gems, the work of one of the most overlooked artists in superhero history, easily standing tall amidst the Neal Adams and Infantino classics they're packaged with.
I remember reading an interview with Dan Nadel a few years ago where he said he would have liked to have included Sprang's Batman in Art Out Of Time, but for some reason it didn't happen. That book's recent adventure comics-oriented sequel, Art In Time, seemed the perfect place to give Sprang to a wider, non-superhero nerd audience, but it also contained none of his work. No great tragedy -- the Greatest Stories books are fine for me -- but it is a shame that Sprang hasn't had more critical conversation around him, the kind Nadel's exhumations have brought guys like Boody Rogers, Rory Hayes, Jesse Marsh. He certainly deserves it.
Dick Sprang is kind of the reverse image of Curt Swan; both did time on the Superman/Batman team-ups in World's Finest Comics, both had styles that reverberated into other artists' depictions of their "signature" characters, and both created so many incredibly imaginative comics that their work makes you figure they could draw anything they wanted to. But Swan's was a gliding, realistic, Apollonian style that came to define the definitive comics character, Superman, influenced everything from the Christopher Reeve Superman movies to Frank Quitely's work on the character, and retains quite a bit of mainstream cachet in the present day. And Sprang... well, his stuff is more obscure, and about as close to pure cartoon as superhero comics came before Bruce Timm; Dionysian, expressionistic, weirdly composed, in their way as strange and immediate and powerful as the best of Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby.
Dick Sprang comics at their best are crammed to the brim with unexpected and often jarring images from a forgotten, ersatz superhero universe, the one that inspired the Batman TV show before imploding with the arrival of Marvel realism and the ascendancy of Neal Adams' illustrative style of hero comics. Full of thick, slippery brush lines and jungles (flora or urban) that dwarf the books' ostensible main characters, they are jolts of pure physicality -- but Sprang's is the physicality of concrete slabs or treetrunk-thick vines, a more understated, tangible thing than Kirby's electricity and brawn. As a set designer, Sprang was completely in a class by himself; he created the iconic look of the Riddler and the classic bat-face Batmobile, but no less strikingly emblematic are his gigantic black orchids, his classical-architecture Gotham cityscapes, his impenetrable Joseph Conrad forests, his eerie undersea vistas, his spelunkings in an inky, stalactite-encrusted Batcave. (Sprang was apparently quite the amateur explorer and is credited with the discovery of important Anasazi ruins. Bonus!!)
These are the backgrounds against which Sprang's vividly cartooned, kinetic action stories not only play out on but war against. Sprang was an excellent artist of typical superhero-style "point-of-impact" fight scenes, but he is seemingly happiest to pull the camera far back from the action, allowing the characters' tiny, musclebound silhouettes all the room they need to bounce one another around. In these long shots, the characters melt into iconographic scenescapes -- loud urban streets or primitivist art exhibits emphasizing the action, the pure, uninhibited markmaking used to create the settings lending an intense viscerality to every thrown punch and slammed jaw.
Sprang is no less the consummate cartoonist in his close-up shots, though. His lantern-jawed, smiling Batman and youthful, slightly chubby Robin were boiled so far down to their essential shapes and lines that they often look stamped more than drawn on to the pages. His Joker was a cartoon clown face abstracted to the point of demonism, looking more like a Picasso or one of the African masks that frequently crowd Sprang's panel borders than any kind of a normal man. His Superman, on the other hand, is a perfect, glossy distillation of Joe Shuster's original squint-eyed, square-chinned vison, slicked up to a nearly reflective sheen. Aside from Curt Swan's work, it is probably the most iconic vision of the character ever to see print.
Sprang's art has a remarkable aesthetic unity, creating an entire world that's apparently all made of the same stuff, a dense, springy material blocked in by a deliciously fat, deceptively simple, boilingly sinuous ink line. Instances of tonal inconsistency are simply not to be found in his comics. Indeed, Sprang's unmistakable interpretations of the Bat-family have become visual shorthand not just for the characters themselves, but for an entire era of Batman comics: the dangerously bizarre, at times almost Dadaistic late '50s and early '60s, when camp ruled and every issue's contents were truly and entirely unpredictable. Bat-Hombre, the Batman Puppet, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, Batwoman's Publicity Agent, Bat-Hound... Movie Star -- Sprang drew it all and so much more, but more importantly than that, he made every bit of it work perfectly.
What follows is a gallery of some of the best Sprang bits from the Greatest Stories books, with a little informal commentary thrown in just for fun. Enjoy....
This panel (above) is a great example of just how far out in an unusual direction Sprang was: the matter-of-fact, almost Archie Comics framing of perhaps his most bizarre design piece, the Jokermobile. Note also just how packed the panel is: Sprang wasn't one to waste space and his work, though vigorously cartoony, is never minimalist but always packed with meaty details.
Something a little more conventional: Sprang drew the unofficial first appearance of Supergirl in a tester story to gauge how readers would respond to the character. This Supergirl wasn't Superman's bright-eyed Kryptonian cousin, though, she was a sexy dream babe Jimmy Olsen used magic to bring to life for his pal Superman to get with... look out! The panel on the bottom also showcases a great use of sound effects, a device Sprang utilized quite well but not nearly often enough. (Though I can't be sure if they're by him or his wife Laura, who was his regular letterer.)
Another more conventional panel: Sprang was a hell of an architectural artist, whether it was on Frank Lloyd Wright skyscrapers or medieval French castles. Here, an almost archetypal image of the Dynamic Duo, the perfectly spotted blacks making color a mere compliment. Sprang drew weird stuff, but he was certainly capable of the more common DC Silver Age slickness.
This is my favorite panel right here. I did a post a while ago about the way Curt Swan showed time travel -- Sprang's approach could not be more different. It's an immersive blast of an image, scattering the characters around pell-mell with Fletcher Hanksian disdain, a completely overwhelming picture that gets the reality of what's happening across, and then some. Exhilarating. There's a definite fine-art feel here, too, both in the surrealism of the composition and in the way Sprang leaves big swaths of space open for color, almost like painterly brushstrokes in reverse. (Tom McCraw's color reconstruction is especially nice, too.)
More time travel, similarly immersive. The first picture smacks of Kirby, but has a neatly composed, almost pin-up quality to it that the King never went for. Again, Sprang draws back from the action just a little more than Kirby would have, encompassing more of the totality of time and space. For most artists, just showing everything in this frame would take a multi-panel sequence; for Sprang, it's one big psychedelic poster. Also, a look at the intense futurism of his fantastically-designed planet Krypton. That's about as abstracted as you can get with a city skyline, even a sci-fi style one -- just shapes and lines stacked on top of one another and somehow forming a fully realized whole. It isn't far from Yuichi Yokoyama, in a way.
A good example of the ridiculous shit Sprang was expected to draw in basically every comic he worked on. There's a pretty obvious charm to this kind of material, a baffling innocence that goes a long way on its own merits; but Sprang pulls off this type of superheroic, larger than life absurdism with an aplomb that just isn't there with anyone else. Like, it's cool in a kitsch way to see all the ridiculously campy robot and alien stories that Toth and Kane and Infantino worked on back in these same times, but the Sprang "zany Silver Age" comics have a conviction behind them. Sprang tears into panels of this sort like he was born to draw them, and there's a great elevation of the actual material that occurs when it's being done by a guy whose talents lie in the primitive, the surreal, the downright daffy -- especially when you compare it to the same kind of stuff as drawn by the high-toned illustrators who worked in the DC house style. Sprang's best comics are his weirdest ones, because it's in them that medium and method meet. (No accident, then, that the Joker book in the Greatest Stories series features a string of no less than six Sprang stories, one after another; he was the king of this stuff.)
The last few scans below are from Sprang's story "The Jungle Cat-Queen" in the Batman Greatest Stories. Full disclosure: this comic has a sentimental place in my heart as one of the very first that I can remember reading. For that reason I'm probably not the best guy to critically unpack these images -- I'll just say they still hold a hypnotic, transportative fascination over me, and beyond that I'll let them speak for themselves. And in the end, that's what all Sprang's work, like any great comics art, does.