Of the literally hundreds of artists to draw Batman, perhaps no other was as important and influential as Richard “Dick” Sprang. As the preeminent penciller of the Batman’s adventures during the Golden Age of Comics, Sprang polished and refined the look of Batman and Robin for the then-fledgling comics industry. Indeed, his significant redesigns became what most Golden Age Batman fans recognize as the classic look of the character. As one of only a small handful of artists that affected a truly lasting and significant impact on the characters mythos Sprang’s contributions to Batman cannot be overstated.
Born in Ohio in 1915, Sprang began a career in commercial art at age 15. He then moved to New York where he worked as a freelance artist. In 1941 he joined DC Comics, where he soon began a long career in ghosting the Batman comics under Bob Kane’s (the co-creator of Batman) name. His first work on the Dark Knight appeared in Batman #19 in 1943. Along with writer Bill Fingers (Kane’s fellow Batman co-creator), Sprang’s 1950s work on Batman became known for putting the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder through elaborate death traps, often including over-sized objects and strange schemes. In 1955 Sprang took over World’s Finest Superman/Batman team-ups from Curt Swan. He continued to do these regularly until 1962 with an occasional adventure appearing in 1963.
Sprang’s distinctions while working on Batman include an impressive list of firsts. Sprang drew the cover to Batman #20, featuring the first Batmobile cover, Batman #22, featuring the first Alfred cover, and issue number 23- a classic Joker cover. On Detective Comics, he drew the first Batsignal cover (issue #108) and the first Catwoman cover (issue #122). He also drew Detective Comics #168- the origin of the Joker – and Worlds Finest #94 – the origin of the Superman-Batman team.
Like all Batman artists during the Golden Age and Silver Age, Sprang’s name was uncredited in the books. But he was the best of the Bob Kane imitators and, indeed, he was better by far than Kane himself. His backgrounds were detailed, his figures clean and his layouts cleverly designed. Thus, fans took notice of the high quality whenever his artwork appeared and it made a lasting impression in establishing how the Batman family of characters would look for an entire generation.
Sprang worked on other titles and characters for DC including Strange Adventures, Superman, and others before he retired from the comics industry in 1963. He moved to Utah where he started investigating western history. But the ever-growing medium of comics produced a legion of collectors and nostalgia seekers. Sprang appeared at comic conventions meeting fans and signing their comic books. He even offered recreations for sale to his many admirers. He quickly realized, however, that the wait time grew to seven years for recent additions to his list of commissions and so took no more fan requests. The few pieces he did complete became highly prized by collectors.
When modern comic artists imitate a Golden Age style Batman, they invariably turn to Dick Sprang. His is the style imitated on the ’60s TV show opening credits – the animated scene that runs while the Batman theme plays is heavily indebted to Sprang. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini honored Sprang’s artwork in the fan-favorite episode Legends of the Dark Knight from Batman: The Animated Series. Sprang himself even briefly returned to the comics’ field in the early 1990’s to provide three special covers for Detective Comics issues 622-624.
The sci-fi-influenced, humorous, even campy Batman of the 1950’s and 1960’s may be out of style with modern comic readers that prefer the darker, grimmer version of the Dark Knight. Yet many fans and collectors nevertheless feel a certain nostalgia for Sprang’s work. Many professionals also site him as a major influence on their own artistic careers.
After a month-long illness, Sprang passed away on May 10, 2000 at the age of 84. But his work lives on in the comics he drew. In all, including his art on Detective Comics, Batman, and Worlds Finest Comics, Sprang drew the Caped Crusader in 238 stories and on 60 covers leaving a lasting legacy for generations to come. Modern comic artists still draw inspiration from Sprang’s work and new comics fans continue to discover and appreciate a remarkable artists impact upon Batman- one of the most enduring fictional characters of the Twentieth Century.