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It’s taken me a while to get around to taking a look at Bernard Krigstein on this column, though that’s hardly because I haven’t wanted to. Quite the opposite, in fact: every week when I write one of these things, he’s the first artist I think of spotlighting. The reason he’s gone unmentioned for so long is that the challenge he presents to the analyst of comics art is just so daunting. Even when one sets aside his razor-sharp drawing ability, his intuitive, museum-worthy compositional skill, and his unsurpassed way with graphic design to look at the sequencing alone, there’s more going on than could possibly be said. So I ended up giving up on finding a single, telegraphing Krigstein sequence and elected to pack as many as possible into today’s column, because put simply, Krigstein wrote the book on sequencing — his every page a bold statement about effective, economical, and above all dramatic presentation of content.
That content, unfortunately, is very much a product of its time. Krigstein did his best work during some of comics’ leanest years: the early and mid 1950s, during which the stories were stupefying at worst and immaturely gruesome at best, editors portioned out pages to artists like feudal lords to serfs, and the specter of censorship loomed before eventually railroading comics into total aesthetic irrelevance — and forcing Krigstein out of the medium entirely. The great tragedy of Krigstein’s career is that he was born too soon to do what he wanted: the most accomplished formalist of his generation, he dreamed about creating what would today be called graphic novels, but was never allowed to illustrate even a feature-length pamphlet comic. It’s anyone’s guess as to what marvels Krigstein would have produced if he had been allowed free rein, but as the situation stood he batted out six-pagers, five-pagers, eight-pagers, and packed rows or single pages of panels with enough brilliance to power entire books, not so much enhancing as forcibly elevating the workaday genre material he was stuck drawing. A few such elevations follow.
Above is a prime example of Krigstein’s masterful facility for negotiating the small amounts of space he was allowed to work within. Originally scripted as a single “opening splash” panel, Krigstein renders five panels from one sentence, planing the single moment described open and dissecting it part by component part. Panels two through five are especially worthy of note, with the camera observing the action from above in the first frame, catching the figures straight on in the next, moving down to floor level to finish off the tier, and then stretching a sweeping panoramic shot across the next one, the characters’ feet all that we can see anymore. Any one of these shots would be dramatic enough to function as an opening splash image, but Krigstein simply sees more potential for drama in the material he’s been given than can fit in one image. Not to mention, the sequence he comes up with here manages to show readers both the interior and exterior of the story environment: where the characters have come from and where they’re going.
On the same story’s final page, Krigstein engages in more of his trademark subdivision, hammering in the claustrophobia of the cave its lead actors are trapped in beautifully. But what’s really impressive is the artist’s virtuosic use of screentoned dot matrices to control the page’s pace. Each panel is slapped with a little more gray, until it covers panel eleven almost entirely, and then gives way to the only logical conclusion for the process Krigstein has set in motion, papering over panel twelve with pure and total black. This page is full of herky-jerky movement and fractured blow-by-blow storytelling, but it’s also one massive, sweeping artistic gesture.
A prime example of how Krigstein was able to enliven the fairly maudlin content he was often saddled with: here he brings an immense consideration to the blocking and acting of a typical EC Comics suburban penny dreadful. The page, divided neatly in half, sets up a husband and wife’s twin attempts to do away with one another on the night of their anniversary with a downright mathematical symmetry. Act is matched to act, and even gesture to gesture, but it goes past that into the content of the pictures themselves. On the second tier the wife places her object inside something while the husband removes his from one (holy Freud, Batman), and on the third the wife puts on an outer garment as the husband takes one off. Even when a male presence enters the female’s side of the page in panel one, the wife remains on the left, just as the husband remains on the right when his side of the page is trespassed onto in the final frame. Of course, the two panels rhyme wonderfully, unifying the entire grid as a single unit.
It brings the material a depth that simply isn’t there in the words, getting at just how fundamentally disconnected the story’s two characters are with images — and not just images, but the way they’re put together. Krigstein wasn’t a writer, but he possessed a colossal understanding of what made the material he was drawing work, and how to go about making it work as well as possible. No, not a writer, and more even than an artist. Krigstein was exactly what comics needed at the repressive, quagmired time he was drawing them, even if they ended up not having enough to give him. He was the form’s first great melodramatist, and the work he made still outshines even the brightest subsequent entries comics has seen in that particular field.
Continued next week! There’s a lot more to be said here…