Hundreds of different artists have drawn Batman over the years. A select few have left a distinct imprint on the character.
That Dick Sprang was among this elite group is all the more impressive when you consider a couple of factors. One is that he was
not engaged to redesign the Caped Crusader or to impose his own, unique artistic viewpoint on the hero. He was hired to ghost.
Another thing to consider is that, like most ghosts, he was anonymous. During his professional career, his name did not appear on
one single Batman story he illustrated. They were all signed "Bob Kane."
Lastly, he was given no creative authority and was expected to be an interchangeable piece worker. They sent him a script, he
drew it and sent it back, usually for someone else to ink. The end product was expected to fit in unobtrusively with the Batman stories drawn
Add it all up and you have the perfect conditions for an artist to do undistinguished work and to go utterly unnoticed. It is
testament to the enormous talent of Dick Sprang that he did neither.
His work was bold and exciting, and his people — especially the villains — were very much alive on the pages. Though
most of Batman's face was hidden by a mask, Sprang made him a thoroughly expressive, emoting character...and no one drew a more colorful Joker, a
more interesting Penguin, a more sinister Riddler. Sprang was, in fact, the first artist to draw the Riddler.
He left comics around 1961, which was a shame, since he was so good. His simple, cartoony style probably would not have worked
for the more realistic Batman that DC began to proffer as of '64, but they surely could have found a place for him. Most likely, it would have
been on Superman, which would have been fine with me, fine with all of us.
Yes, Dick Sprang drew a great Batman...but leave us not forget that he was just as good, if not better, when he drew Superman. He
drew a few stories for the Man of Steel's own comic — including the tale that introduced the first, prototype Supergirl — and a few
episodes in the comics that top-lined Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. Mostly, he drew Superman in those weird, often warped issues of World's
Finest Comics wherein the hero teamed with Batman.
This assignment came about because Bob Kane then had a deal with DC that called for his "studio" (i.e., Sheldon Moldoff) to
produce a certain number of pages of Batman art per month. When comics were 64 or 48 pages, DC needed enough Batman material that, after
fulfilling Kane's contract, it was still necessary to commission other artists to draw Bruce Wayne's alter-ego. Sprang was probably the "star"
of that group.
In the mid-50's, when comics shriveled to 32 pages, fewer Batman ones were needed — not many more than they were required to
purchase from the hero's official creator. Sprang was rotated to World's Finest and the occasional Superman family task. There, he
did a splendid job of adapting Wayne Boring's version of Superman for his own purposes, and melding it with the Kane-Sprang Batman. Dick made
plausible, the coalition of two characters who, when you get right down to it, probably never belonged in the same universe.
The DC editors must have loved the guy. He worked for the company for 20 years and, apart from a few brief jobs for Real Fact
Comics, he worked only on the big guns — Superman, Batman and their ancillary characters. They never wasted him on anything but the
We loved him, too...and by "we," I mean all of us who read those comics. We didn't know his name — the only time it got
into print was on those obscure Real Fact stories. But we sure knew that there were certain Batman stories that stood out.
The situation echoes what occurred over at another company in the Donald Duck comics, which were also devoid of credits.
Quite independently of one another, readers noticed that a high percentage of the best stories shared a certain, common style of illustration.
They didn't know whose style it was, so they referred to "The Good Artist." That's what they called the man we now know as Carl Barks.
A lot of fans who read comics in the forties thought of Dick Sprang as "The Good Bob Kane." But the parallels do not end
Until a relatively few years ago, comics did not pay their creative talents very well. In some ways, they still don't...but it
was once more unjust than it is today, especially in the area of what becomes of a writer or artist in his or her golden years. Some companies
had pension plans — Barks and some others received a modest one from Western Publishing, for instance. Most publishers, though, did
In many ways, comic fandom has fulfilled a function that comic book publishers evaded. Many creative talents have found a source
of income — a virtual pension, as it were — selling artwork or prints or even, in some cases, merely signing their names to collector's
editions. Mr. Barks supplemented his retirement pay — and probably supplemented it well — doing paintings based on his classic Duck
Comics and autographing limited run prints and collections.
So did Mr. Sprang, except that he, of course, was replicating his classic Bat Comics. He did countless cover re-creations and two
of the best signed prints we've seen in years. I have the one of the Bat-Cave in the little bathroom in my office and, every time I'm in there,
I notice something in it I never saw before. For a time, I wondered if Dick wasn't sneaking in when I was out and adding new background
I can call him Dick because of another nice thing fandom did for him and all of us. The august, unsystematic institution of comic
collecting brought Richard "Dick" Sprang to conventions, where many of us had the chance to meet him, to get to know him, to just tell him how much
we admired his work.
One or two of us (ahem) even got the chance to do brief comic book projects with him. When I saw what he drew on mine, I couldn't
have been happier. Had a grin on my face that made a Sprang Joker drawing look like the lady in "American Gothic."
I have said grin right now as I think back on the first time we met, which was at a San Diego con. Our conversation was
interrupted every 120 seconds as someone, my age or a wee bit older, felt understandably compelled to say, "Mr. Sprang, I just had to tell you how
much I've always loved your work." It's always nice when that's said, but I got a special kick hearing it said to a man who'd been so unfairly
anonymous throughout his career.
After the tenth or eleventh such welcome intrusion, I asked him, "When you were drawing all those stories, did you ever imagine readers
would seek you out to say such things?"
Dick shook his head and smiled a tight, prepossessing smile. "I never even imagined I'd hear that from the guys in the DC
That was pretty much the answer I received from another great unlisted Bat-artist, Shelly Moldoff. What a joy to see Shelly
mobbed by fans, buying his lovely drawings and getting him to autograph all those comics he wasn't permitted to sign when he drew them. (He
should be at Comic-Con this year; stop by his table and see if his sketches aren't the supreme Best Buy in the convention hall.)
Speaking of Shelly...I might as well reveal the idea that Dick and I had for a panel. Doesn't look like we'll ever get to do
The idea was to get the main Batman ghosts together for one event: Dick, Shelly, Jim Mooney, Joe Giella, Jerry Robinson...maybe, we
thought, we could even get George "Inky" Roussos to the con. (Roussos never did come out and, sadly, we lost him a few months back.)
The gentlemen would file in and stand in a line in front of the audience. Then I'd say, "Number one...what is your name,
And Dick Sprang would say, "My name is Bob Kane."
I'd say, "Number two, what is your name, please?"
And Sheldon Moldoff would say, "My name is Bob Kane."
I'd say, "Number three, what is your name, please?"
And Jerry Robinson would say, "My name is Bob Kane."
He'd be followed by Mooney and Giella and whoever else was there. Then I'd say, "Will the real Bob Kane please stand up?"
— at which point they'd all sit down and we'd start the panel.
I'm sorry we never got to do it. And I'm sorry Dick Sprang is gone.
Really, really sorry.