'Ben Friday' (23 July 1950).

John Spranger is one of the more mysterious entries in American comic history. He made an impression during the 1940s as either a ghost artist for Jack Cole's 'Plastic Man' and Will Eisner's 'The Spirit'. He then moved over to work on newspaper strips like 'Bodyguard', a.k.a. 'Ben Friday' a.k.a. 'The Bantam Prince' (1948-1951) as well as 'The Saint' (1951-1959) before completely disappearing off the radar.

Comic book artist
Almost nothing is known about John Spranger's personal life, except that he was born in 1922. Spranger started in the early 1940s as a comic book artist through the Binder Studio and then the Eisner-Iger Studio. He drew for many Fawcett and Quality titles and features, often with Andre LeBlanc as his inker. He surely made an impression, as Gil Kane would mention in an interview with The Comics Journal in 1996 (#186) that "at one point he was probably the best artist I ever saw in comics".

Story with art attributed to John Spranger from 'Plastic Man' #8 (1947).

After stints on Fawcett features such as 'Bulletman', 'Captain Midnight', 'Mary Marvel', 'Minute Man' and 'Spy Smasher', he worked at Quality as one of Jack Cole's ghost artists on 'Plastic Man'. Kane stated in the aforementioned interview that "Spranger imitated Cole so well that they were able to start doubling and tripling the number of Plastic Man books because you couldn't tell the difference". Both he and Alex Kotzky worked on the comic throughout at least the decade. His comic book career was interrupted by his military service, which he fulfilled in 1944. During this period, he made army humor cartoons for his camp newspaper, The Fort McClellan Cycle.

Sergeant Spranger at work, and one of his military cartoons (from: The Anniston Star, 2 April 1944).

At Quality, Spranger also succeeded Reed Crandall on the 'Doll Man' feature (1947-1950), and also drew 'Blackhawk' and 'G-2', among other things. He additionally worked for other companies, including Better Publications ('Fighting Yank'), Feature Comics ('Green Lama', 'Yank and Doodle') and Street & Smith Comics ('Blackstone', 'Black Crusader', 'Hooded Wasp', 'Rex King'). He allegedly worked together with Dan Barry on some occasions under the joint signature "Barry Spranger".

'The Spirit' (29 September 1946).

Work for Will Eisner
After the war, he joined Eisner's personal crew as the penciller and sometimes inker of his weekly comic book insert 'The Spirit' (with Jerry Grandenetti doing backgrounds). Stories about how much he actually drew vary and probably will not have been the same every week, but for a couple of years he was clearly very important. Jules Feiffer (who started as an office boy and later came to write the feature) says about this period: "When I first worked for Will there was John Spranger, who was his penciler and a wonderful draftsman; better than Will."

'Bodyguard' (14 November 1948).

Bodyguard/Ben Friday/The Bantam Prince
After a couple of years he turned to newspaper comics. In 1948 he created the adventure strip 'Bodyguard' with cartoonist/writer Lawrence Lariar. It was a daily and weekly strip from the Herald Tribune Syndicate, which debuted on 5 May 1948. The hero, Ben Friday, was an adventurer in the style of Roy Crane's 'Captain Easy', but the drawing style was closer to what Spranger had been doing on 'The Spirit'. In fact, many of the secondary characters looked as if they had walked out of one of Will Eisner's stories. Despite the terrific artwork and engaging stories, the syndicate had trouble selling the strip (as they had with all of their product in the late 1940s) and on 11 July 1949 it was decided to drop the bodyguard gimmick and continue the strip under its hero's name, 'Ben Friday'. In October 1950, Ben Friday himself was dumped in favor of his comic relief sidekick The Bantam Prince. The strip was renamed after him (with Ben leaving after two weeks to get married). In June 1951 John Spranger himself gave up and left. 'The Bantam Prince' was inherited by another comic book refugee, Carl Pfeufer, who continued it until its demise on 28 February 1954.

The Saint, by John Spranger
'The Saint' (5 February 1956).

The Saint
Spranger did not leave, though, because the weekly grind of a newspaper strip had got him down. Soon after leaving 'The Bantam Prince', he took over as the artist on Leslie Charteris' 'The Saint', replacing Mike Roy, who had started the strip only four months after 'Bodyguard'. Although 'The Saint' never looked as lush as his previous strip, Spranger had a succesful run with Charteris' Robin Hood-like criminal until dropping out in mid 1959. Bob Lubbers took over anonymously, while also drawing the daily and Sunday comic 'Long Sam'. Doug Wildey was the official artist of 'The Saint' during its final year, from 10 January 1960 until 16 September 1961.

Further life?
And here ends the road for John Spranger. Did he die in 1959 and was that the reason for his replacement? He was only 37, but weirder things have happened (although that would have been a reason for people like Jules Feiffer and Will Eisner to mention it, when talking about him). Did he turn to advertising or storyboarding? No one ever mentioned it or showed some of his work. Gil Kane said Spranger had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized after his work on 'The Saint', while Albert Beccatini mentions Spranger as an assistant on Leonard Starr's 'On Stage' as late as 1972. It's a mystery only Simon Templar himself could resolve.

'The Saint', 6 October 1957.

John Spranger posts on Ger Apeldoorn's blog

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