Robot 6

Your Wednesday Sequence 39 | Bernard Krigstein (2 of 2)

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.

From "Murder Dream" in Tales From The Crypt #45, 1954

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.

From "Murder Dream"

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.

From "In The Bag" in Shock SuspenStories #18, 1954

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.

From "The Last Look" in Marvel Tales #159, 1956

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?

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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.

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13 Comments

One of my heroes. Simply the most innovative storyteller of his– maybe any– era. He’s on my comics Rushmore.

I do appreciate Krigstein — enough to purchase everything by him that’s in print, including everything he did at EC — but calling him “the best artist to work for… (EC)…” stretches things a bit far. The man surely had a talent for storytelling, but Krigstein lacked the true gift for drawing faces and figures. And that’s part of being a great artist, too.

At EC, I much prefer Wally Wood, John Severin, Johnny Craig, Reed Crandall, and even the grotesque stylishness of Al Feldstein. And I’m not going to count Frazetta, because he did so little work for EC.

Krigstein reminds me of Harvey Kurtzman, in that they were both great storytellers who never felt the need to learn how to accurately draw faces and figures. A comics artist can be great at storytelling AND drawing. (Like, for example, Neal Adams, John Buscema, Gil Kane, etc.)

Thanks for your entertaining column, Matt. Hope you don’t mind me respectfully disagreeing with you. Make sure you buy the hardcover “B. Krigstein: Comics”, if you don’t already have it.

Don’t mind at all, but I gotta respectfully disagree right back. Look at Krigstein’s paintings: his understanding of facial construction and the figure runs at least as deep as any of the EC artists you named. But Krigstein, like Kurtzman, was a cartoonist, not an illustrator — he simplified for clarity and exaggerated for effect rather than striving for any kind of realism. It’s why his comics work so much better as stories than the rest of the EC guys (Kurtzman, perhaps, excepted). Look at the subtle figurework in that last sequence, or the note-perfect facial expressions in the second one down. His work lacks the surface polish of a Wally Wood, sure; but there’s something to the fact that Wood began to simplify his work along much the same lines as Krigstein as his career wore on, disavowing his earlier, detail-weighted art in the process.

Krigstein is the pure stuff, stripped of all showy adornment and never less than deadly accurate. His work in that area may not be to your taste, but to claim that Krigstein somehow lacked skill in drawing people is just incorrect. I’ll take any of Krigstein’s drawings over the rest of the EC bunch.

WHAT THE—-?!?!

The very notion that a cartoonist cannot be a great one because he doesn’t draw “realistically” is one of the most idiotic, asinine notions I have ever come across!

You simply cannot draw this well without having full knowledge of the human body/humanity. Krigstein, Kurtzman, etc. are masters because they were able to strip the characters into a beautiful, stylized bare minimum. Artists are supposed to interpret, not reproduce, and interpretation can vary from slavish cross hatching to blocks of squares.

But, if you’re so set on your notion of Krigstein’s failure as a cartoonist because he had no interest in drawing realistically, or just couldn’t, I HIGHLY suggest you check out comicartfanst.com

http://www.comicartfans.com/GalleryPiece.asp?Piece=818563&GSub=121569

I guess Matt, in his own far more eloquent way, beat me to the punch.

Anyway, oh, how I wish one day DC would let a smaller company properly reproduce the gold they have buried deep in their archives. I drool at the thought of Fantagraphics lovingly producing a complete DC Krigstein collection, or maybe IDW doing Toth.

Cole Moore Odell

January 18, 2012 at 8:37 pm

And I would love a volume or series devoted to Meskin’s DC work as a companion to the forthcoming Out of the Shadows; also Ditko’s pre-superhero work for Marvel extracted from those Masterworks and presented a la the Ditko Archives. Finally, is there enough Krigstein EC work to fill one of the new Fantagraphics volumes, or is it more likely we’ll see his stories scattered throughout other themed volumes?

There’s more than enough Krigstein EC stuff for a full book. Given that Fanta has pretty much been the sole curator of his legacy recently, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see one. BUT those Fanta books are in black and white, and the work Marie Severin (the stories’ original colorist and EC’s house color artist) did on the Fanta B. Krigstein books is really nothing short of astonishing. I’d HIGHLY recommend that anyone who’s interested track down Greg Sadowski’s profusely illustrated Krigstein art book/biography: it’s my vote for best book about comics of all time, and it reprints a sizable chunk of Krigstein’s very best work, including “Master Race”.

Cole Moore Odell

January 18, 2012 at 8:48 pm

Thanks; I do have the B. Krigstein Comics companion book that came out afterward, mentioned by Jake above, and that’s astounding.

The Sadowski (I think those were his) colors are atrocious though.

I think those colors are pretty good, a lot of them. Flat, understated but expressive, done by the original colorist, and they never get in the way of the line art. About as good as it gets with recoloring jobs for me. But then I’m not the biggest fan of straight-to-the-scanner reprints on old pamphlet comics… newspapers it’s a different story, but those things were just ugly so often.

Cole Moore Odell

January 19, 2012 at 4:26 am

The back of the book says 14 of the stories were newly recolored by Marie Severin herself.

I just moved, so all my books are packed away, but I think Sadowski recolored some. Severin didn’t do all of them, bu I do remember all of hers being gorgeous. The one I remember sticking out like a sore thv was the one about the gold coins…? The computer colors were garish and completely unfitting. I think that was Sadowski.

I do wish they would reproduce them in color, but I can see that going better in line with series collections rather that artist spotlights.

I knew Bernie Krigstein in the final 4-5 years of his life, and he was reticent to talk about comics. Considering his experiences, I fully understood. He already knew my illustration work from THE NEW YORK TIMES Book Review when we first met, and he was very encouraging about the design in the pages of my first graphic novel for DC’s Piranha Press, THE SINNERS.

Regarding drawing, there is a fine interview (from 1962) with BK conducted by John Benson and Bhob Stewart in SQUA TRONT #6, published in 1975. In it Krigstein makes it clear that he prefers to draw ‘real’ people, not these slick, glamorized, commercial types that one saw in advertising (and, to a degree, even in some of his E.C. peers’ work), and that he felt that those who did the latter were disingenuous. BK’s ‘reality,’ of course, was heavily informed by German Expressionism, Italian Futurism, and Art Deco, and other sources, such as Russian silent films (Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, etc.).

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