DC Comics' "Rebirth" Character Designs for Batman, Wonder Woman and More
Here’s last week’s installment, featuring an intro to who Krigstein is and what he’s all about. Short version: the best artist to work for the best genre-comics publisher of all time (EC), unsurpassed in his masterful use of sequencing, but — this is the important part — frequently hemmed in by the undercooked stories he was assigned to draw and the limited length he was given to explore what dramatic potential they had in. Krigstein never drew a story longer than twelve pages. However, the way he went about solving these problems, as we’ll see, was a big part of what made him not only unique but truly great.
And now to business.
Here’s a prime example of how Krigstein seamlessly elevated less-than-inspired script material. Saddled with wordy, adjective-weighted narration that nonetheless transitions between scenes at the snap of a finger, from bundled up on the streets of London to pajama-clad in a hotel room with a single narrow panel in between, Krigstein has no hope of giving the action a blow-by-blow reading. The rapid jump cutting employed here is a necessity, not a choice; but look at just how elegantly Krigstein carries it off, by placing an element in each panel that ties it to both the previous and the next. We move smoothly from the lamp in panel one to the streetlight in panel two to the wall torch occupying the same exact spot in panel three. Then Krigstein takes advantage of the strict top-to-bottom reading the high, thin panels he’s boxed into creates, ending panel three with his character’s feet before featuring them in the tier’s final frame. It’s an incredibly awkward format somehow made to flow like melted butter, a beautiful little bit of work.
Krigstein the formalist gets such an incredible amount of (well-deserved) attention that his actual drawing too often goes unremarked upon. This is despite the facts that he left comics for a much more rewarding career in single-image painting, and that one of the modern era’s greatest cartoonists, Dan Clowes, basically assembled his drawing style by imitating every Krigstein mannerism he could. Here, on a page with a straightahead three-tier layout, it’s Krigstein’s drawing ability that really shines, both in drafting and composition. The clean, flat, almost Cubist areas of unlined space and flat color rattle up against crammed, claustrophobic pictorial constructions in the first five frames; these are images that scream off the page, not far at all from today’s avant-garde noise comics. Krigstein, always a master at creating atmospheric chiaroscuro effects with screen tones and spotted blacks, leaves everything open for his era’s bright, garish color on the first two tiers, making the final two panels’ tone-drenched, starkly minimalist compositions that much more effective.
It’s punctuating an exclamation point with an exclamation point, and it works wonderfully. Blow any one of these panels up and slap it on a canvas and it’s more than ready for the high-end galleries, a fact the man himself eventually came around to.
Rain is always a challenge that the great formalists rise to — my theory is that creating the sense of “wetness” when holding a comic book invariably puts readers in physical contact with something definitively “dry” inspires the best to go the extra mile. Krigstein, of course, is no exception. The sequence above is a perfect example of his ability to create atmosphere with the relatively stolid, austere mechanism of screen-tone dots: slashed to ribbons with no small amount of art-brut flair, the filmy surface of the tone sheets just about grays the images behind them into incomprehensibility, the rain they evoke becoming as much the subject of each panel as the gunshots or headlights that occasionally burst through their murk. It’s a perfect way of showing “blinding rain”: it literally doesn’t much matter what the pictures are of behind the storm — the real subject here is clear as can be.
As should be obvious by now, the ultra-short stories Krigstein was stuck illustrating frequently forced him into a rigid, tightly packed mode of working: sliver-like panels standing precariously in rows like slats on a picket fence, tiers subdivided down to the bone. Krigstein had no small amount of compositional genius for the tall, thin panels he made his stock in trade, however. A stunning amount of figure movement is wedged into the top tier of this sequence considering there’s no room for anything to go from side to side. But of course the real standout is the first panel on the bottom tier, the almost shockingly sparse minimalism of which strikes a hugely bold contrast to the dutifully realistic rendering of the first four panels. It’s the same trick used two sequences up — the maximal giving way to the minimal in order that the sudden lack of something feels bolder and more important than what’s come before — but compressed, with not a single inch of space wasted.
Not a single inch wasted: Krigstein played out his short, frustrating, and consummately brilliant career in comics that way, because he had no choice but to work that way. The real testament to him is that he made the astonishing work that couldn’t help but drop from his hands seem like it came about because of the limits placed on him, not in spite of them. So much great work, and yet Krigstein will forever remain one of comics’ most sobering missed opportunities: who can say what he could have achieved had he only been given a chance?
* * *
NOTE: A few people marked the absence of pages from Krigstein’s classic story “Master Race” in last week’s column, an absence that continues here. There are a few reasons — first, “Master Race” has been reprinted numerous times, and remains easily available to anyone interested enough to do a bare minimum of searching. Second, Krigstein did so much truly wonderful comics art outside those eight pages, great as they are, that remains woefully under-seen, and I think it’s more important to feature that work on this column. Finally, I already wrote a big long thing on sequencing in “Master Race”, which you can see here if you’re curious.