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Like a New Dragon in a Land of Ancient Dragons: The Art of Bernard Krigstein

A column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Jason Sacks

Welcome to the first part of our multi-part look at the great EC cartoonists! This time we look at perhaps the most underrated yet arguably the greatest cartoonist of the 1950s: the incomparable Bernard Krigsetin.

Every one of us is always looking for perfection. We want to achieve the perfect moment, carve out the perfect memory, create the perfect work of art. We want to fly like Daedalus. We want to have the opportunity, even for just one tiny, fleeting, breathtaking, amazing moment to soar close to the sun. We want to grasp flawlessness and freedom and grace and genius in our life. In the moment that we fly close to perfection, we transcend ourselves. We create something amazing. We create art.

But like Daedalus, we can only stay in flight for a short amount of time. Even the most successful and brilliant of our creative heroes – name your hero, be he Mozart or Barry Bonds or Bob Dylan or Will Eisner or Bernard Krigstein – can only stay at his or her level of maximal brilliance for a painfully, wistfully, unhappily short time before their wings of wax start to melt, before that creative hero crashes back down to Earth. He or she is not transcendent. He or she is a mere mortal with feet of clay like all of us, a being who once had a touch of the divine but finds themselves flung back to mere humanity. And that person's  mortality is all the more pathetic because once, for a short, magical, wistfully transcendent time, they knew what it meant to be a god.

Bernard Krigstein had a career like Daedalus. His career in comics was maddeningly fleeting, but for a short time Bernard Krigstein nearly touched the sun. For a mere handful of stories created in the mid-1950s, Bernard Krigstein was the greatest cartoonist in comics. In fact, Krigstein was arguably one of the two or three greatest cartoonists to have worked in comic books up to that time, producing work that was as far above his peers as Mozart's was over his peers. Bernard Krigstein was, as one of his most transcendent tales declares, "like a new dragon in a land of ancient dragons."

Krigstein was one of the finest cartoonists of the 1950s. In fact, he should be ranked in the pantheon as one of the all-time greats to create comics art. He illustrated perhaps the single greatest comic story of the 1950s – the astonishing "Master Race" – along with an excruciatingly small collection of other stories.

Ironically, Krigstein illustrated some of the most breathtaking works of comics history at a time when the medium was under attack by the kinds of small-minded modern day Neanderthals who had no conception of the brilliant art that they condemned. At that time, comics were almost universally seen as banal and frightening kid stuff that was corrupting the morals of America's youth. But those critics were painfully wrong in their comments and Krigstein's art shows why they were wrong. Bernard Krigstein's comic art can be read now, six decades later, as a nearly textbook example of an artist tailoring his work to meet the tale he was telling.

There's a new collection of Bernard Krigstein's comic art out now, from the good folks at Fantagraphics, the same people who are producing the gorgeous collections of comics by Krigstein's counterparts at EC Comics including Wally Wood, Jack Davis and the sublime Harvey Kurtzman. Messages in a Bottle collects 40 Krigstein stories from his work at EC and other publishers. This is a mind-blowingly amazing collection of creative work.

If you've never read Krigstein's comics – or never even heard of the master cartoonist – Messages in a Bottle is an eye-opening experience, an often stunning exploration of comic book storytelling at its most captivating. Even for those who know and love Krigstein's work, who have collected and reread his stories for decades, this new book is a revelation.

About half of the pieces in this book boast new coloring by the great Marie Severin, the same person who colored Krigstein's work when she worked as the staff colorist at EC. As we'll discuss a little later in this essay, Severin's coloring on these tales is often astonishing. She makes familiar stories feel new, and newly revived stories feel contemporary. Like Krigstein, Severin is a new dragon in a land of ancient dragons.

But as always is the case with reprints published by Fantagraphics, the production quality of the material also makes Krigstein's art feel extraordinarily exciting. As managed by Greg Sadowski, the restoration in this book is the impeccable work of a true fan. Not a stray mark appears anywhere in the art, not a single line isn't printed in the most perfect black, not a single color bleeds out of the corner of any image. In short, this presentation is as impeccable and lovely as you can ask for.

And that immense level of loving care helps make this book an amazing treasure for those who love the comics artform. Because though Bernard Krigstein created these 40 stories some six decades ago, they still glow with a touch of the divine. Readers can see the reflection of the sun in this material. The best of Krigstein's work still thrills and delights with astonishingly insightful storytelling.


 

The noted comics critic Bhob Stewart once called Krigstein's art on  "The Flying Machine" (adapted from a short story by Ray Bradbury) the greatest comic story of all time. With Marie Severin's remarkable new coloring on the story, it's easy to see why Stewart may have felt that way (though my vote for greatest comic story of all time would go to Jaime Hernandez's "Flies on the Ceiling", incidentally, or maybe Krigstein's "Master Race" or "The Catacombs", or maybe "The Cask of Amotillado" adapted by Reed Crandall, or possibly Kevin Huizenga's Ganges #4. Oh, I could go all day…).

Appropriate for my analogy at the top of this column, "The Flying Machine" tells of a man in ancient China who invents wings that allow him to fly. As one caption in this story describes, "the man was clothed in bright papers and reeds to make wings and a beautiful yellow tail, and he was soaring all about like the largest bird in the universe of birds, like a new dragon in a land of ancient dragons…"

Beneath this lyrical caption, Krigstein created a panel that is wide open – a bright, colorful bird of a man set against a pure white background. Far below him are the simple abstract shapes that represent the world that he's left behind. The inventor is slightly out of focus, but his wings are in sharp vision, bright and intensely colorful, suggesting the vividness of life. His wings have set the man free. The inventor has broken free of the prosaic world of abstract dullness in favor of a newly vivid world that he has created. He has embraced the divine. He is a new dragon in a land of ancient dragons.

The inventor is suffused with grace and joy when he gets to meet his Emperor. The ordinary man preens and poses like a peacock in front of his ruler, presenting his colorful finery, all flash and energy and redolent freedom. But the Emperor thinks differently about what he sees. We can sense the tension between man and king on the next page of "The Flying Machine".

In that panel, another open panel, we see just the Emperor, the dragon and the Emperor's advisor, counterpoised against each other in a formal looking pose. The inventor is deferential to his king, but the king looks to be appalled with the gall of his subject, an idea that Krigstein reinforces as we move to the next panel in the grid, where we see the vastness of the Emperor's kingdom in full display. The Kingdom is vast and unfeeling. The territory will abide without the flying man. In that brilliant panel we get a subtle foreshadowing of the fact that this dramatic change will not come without agony, that sometimes an ancient dragon cannot abide a new dragon.

Without providing spoilers for "The Flying Machine", I can tell you that the Emperor executes the man. The three panels above show the execution – or should I say that they give the reader the context for the execution, because Krigstein implies the actual execution as an offscreen action for readers. It's as if Krigstein is a distant observer as this story unfolds, mumbling his disapproval of the man's death to the readers who are viewing the story through Krigstein's eyes.

In panel one of this sequence, we see the exquisite regal palace drenched in rainbow colors while the scene of the actual execution is bathed in a uniform unappealing yellow. Instead of the inventor being robed in rainbow colors, the palace is now colorful. The control of the situation has passed back from the main with the rainbow wings to the rainbow palace. The wings were a symbolic rebellion against the Emperor's authority. Swift action was necessary to regain the Emperor's control over his small kingdom.

Panel two of the sequence shows that the Emperor isn't the only one delighted by the man's execution. Birds seem pleased to have the sky back for themselves, pleasantly flying as a sort of celebration that the natural order is restored.

Finally in the third panel of the sequence, we see the Emperor's back turned to his deceased subject, who is only shown as very humble pants and peasant shoes. The inventor was crushed under the state's dreadful authority. The inventor is so insignificant that he isn't even worth the slightest backwards look.

And though the denouement of this story ascribes different motivations to the Emperor than I do in this essay, it seems clear from Krigstein's storytelling that freedom from earthly boundaries also represents a rebellion against regal authority.


 

While "The Flying Machine" features a lyrical fine-line style, one of the hallmarks of Krigstein's art was the way he tailored his artistic style to fit the story assigned to him. In the remarkably dark "Pipe Dream" (written by the great Johnny Craig), Krigstein assumes a grimy, expressionistic, Asian-oriented style that grotesquely conveys the feeling of a man caught up in an opium haze.

Notice how the climax of this incredibly bleak tale shows our protagonist as almost an abstract shape, dissolute and nearly consumed by the all-encompassing darkness that the drug addict has allowed to consume his soul. Virtually the only item that readers can make out in the light on the left panel is the man's beloved opium pipe, which has caused the deaths of everybody that was close to him.

Krigstein used the entire panoramic range of the comics page to tell the tale of his desperate lead character. The artist employed changes in his art style, in the display of characters on the comic page, and in the way he manipulated colors to successfully tell this bleak story with a maximum possible impact. But one aspect of Krigstein's work wasn't innovative: He still closely hewed to the standard, very quiet, EC comic page layout template.


 

But in the next tale Bernard Krigstein created for EC, "The Catacombs", we can see the man's skills in full display.

Krigstein always battled the tight control that William Gaines requested of his artists. Gaines hated the use of small panels to break out of standard page grids, but Krigstein believed that he should allow the stories to dictate the ways that they were presented. We can understand Krigstein's mastery of the comics page on one of my favorite tales in this collection, the intensely moody "The Catacombs."

In this story, written by Carl Wessler and newly recolored by Marie Severin, many elements of Krigstein's brilliance are on intense display. "The Catacombs" is the tale of two men, Pietro and Gino, who commit a crime together. The pair descends into the Roman catacombs to attempt to hide the money that they have stolen. Notice in panel one above how Krigstein creates a scene in deeply muted colors, in which the entire world looks like it has become bleached out. Everything other than the crime has faded into the background of these very broken men; they now live in a world that is thoroughly dehumanized by their brutalizing acts.

The second panel above is even more evocative than the first. Two tiny men stand on the precipice of a plunge into a deep, all-consuming darkness. Krigstein vividly composes this panel in a way that emphasizes the deepness of the bleak, thoroughly obscure world that Gino and Pietro will be entering, a world that feels like it will devour them like the pathetic insects that they emotionally are. One can almost imagine panel two being used as a symbol for a descent into Hell; the fate of these men wouldn't be too far off from that horrific fate.

As the men descend into the deep catacombs, their steps illuminated only by a small lantern, the all-pervasive gloom seems to devour the mens' souls. Suddenly Pietro bares a knife to viciously attack his erstwhile ally, murdering Gino in cold blood in a series of rapidly shrinking panels that seem to both convey the loss of life by Gino and the suddenness of Pietro's attack on him. It's intriguing that Krigstein chooses to show these story elements in what might be called a "classic EC style" – it's likely that we could find a Jack Davis crime tale or two in which the murder victim folds up with the same sort of progression as Krigstein gives Gino here. Yet despite the use of this very familiar panel arrangement, the combination of lighting, figure rendering and small panels renders this scene startling.

That startled feeling only intensifies as the "The Catacombs" progresses. Note this sequence from the next page. Now an image of Jesus, apparently glowing against the shadowy gloom of the catacombs, ironically seems to be warning Pietro not to plunge further, that no possible grace can come from descending into an all-encompassing evil. But Pietro does not notice nor care about his destiny. Pietro's back is turned to his potential savior, and his intensely bright torchlight radiates from the corner of this panel like a shocking bolt of lightning. We can sense Pietro's excitement about being able to begin his search for the trail again, but we also notice that the man is colored in a solid red – an indicator of his descent into the inferno or perhaps an indicator of the lies that Pietro is telling himself.

And as the sequence of panels continues forward and the brightness of the lantern glows like a distant, beckoning moon, Pietro appears hunchbacked and vaguely insane as he wobbles inside the dramatically small panels that seem to trap him. The square panel borders feel like they refuse to allow Pietro's soul to roam free, emphasizing how the man feels trapped in the intensely enigmatic world that he entered..

I don't want to ruin the gorgeous final page of this story because it's one of the most beautiful scenes in this entire book, but suffice to say that at the end of this story, Krigstein pulls out a trick that honestly left me spellbound and tingling with excitement.


 

Maybe my favorite piece in Messages in a Bottle is "Key Chain", a simple crime story by Jack Oleck, again recolored by the amazing Marie Severin.

In the "The Catacombs" we saw a simple revenge tale turned transcendent due to Krigstein's empathetic storytelling; in "Key Chain" we similarly see a brilliant criminal's master plan come undone in a way that emphasizes the astonishing creativity of the master cartoonist.

"Key Chain" starts out slowly and patiently; like so many other EC True Crime yarns, we watch the criminal deliberately put his seemingly simple plan into action. All the time we watch the cartoonist build his story, we know the criminal will end up being defeated by his own hubris. The real pleasure of these true crime tales comes from watching how the criminal becomes a kind of tragic hero.

We watch the suave and sophisticated Unger work his grift against the rich women of New York. The panel above shows how Krigstein draws the criminal, all Mad Men cool and sophisticated attire, He is a seemingly ordinary man standing outside a very fateful key store. If we pay close attention to this first panel we might notice that the man appears oddly small against the store itself, dwarfed by his surroundings. That image presents an interesting foreshadowing of future complications, in a way that could only work in a comic book story.

The Oleck-Krigstein tale builds gradually and patiently until Unger's plan snaps into action and he suddenly needs to get inside this self-same key shop to take a master mold of a hotel key. At that point everything, dazzlingly, falls apart for the man.

The plan seems well in motion by panel two of the page above. Unger has the all-important master key placed right in the middle of his hand. Things are as uncomplicated as a man holding a key in his hand, surely as banal an image as anyone could imagine. But as Unger lets himself into the shop, the drumbeat of panels grows more staccato and insistent, taking up a rhythm like a thudding heart or the insistent pangs of guilt.

In the first panel of tier two, Unger sits serenely on a table across from a wall jam-packed of keys sitting and waiting to take action. For a brief and fleeting moment, Unger is dead calm. Nothing else is shown in the room because nothing else really is in the room for our master criminal. He is completely caught up in the crime that he's about to commit and by the seemingly commonplace actions he's about to take. Unger even looks like he's smirking as he glances around the room. The panel is dazzling in the way it feels like the pause before the action really begins. These panels feel like a simple moment of calm before the thundering heartbeat of terror brings on Unger's utter defeat.

We quickly see the defeat come on Unger in a superbly clipped set of small panels. The overconfident criminal is trying too hard! His shaking hands cause the keys to tumble down from the wall, cascading down like roaring hailstones that signal both the police and Unger's eventual downfall.

By the third tier of panels, Unger has completely lost in his attempt to find the keys. The fleeting glimpses that Krigstein gives of Unger in action act to show us the man's devastating fear in the face of the actions that he's taking. Keys are strewn everywhere by the time that the page ends. The floor looks like it is three layers thick, filled with these uncaring keys like a snowstorm on a winter's morning, cold to the touch and impossible to organize. A blizzard of keys have overwhelmed the man's mind.

By the middle tier of the final page, we can feel Unger's desperation in every move that he makes. Unger tries pathetically to hide in the darkness as a police officer patrols past the store, but Unger's pathetically anxious movements, arms akimbo, glasses askew, show the sheer madness that Unger is creating for himself as he tries to get a key, any key, that can just take the pain away.

Notice how Krigstein subdivides this page, with an amazing eight panels on this tier. That would be too many panels for the ordinary comics page. Under most circumstances nine panels would overwhelm the reader and feel too busy for the page to work, but here – with Krigstein's use of recurrent images and simple linework – the large number of panels work brilliantly, presenting a small man in a small space being defeated by his small ambitions.


 

Messages in a Bottle is filled with story after story that shows brilliant storytelling and amazing character rendering that feels decades ahead of its time.

Notice, for instance, this stunning panel progression in "In the Bag", a very simple tale of ironic advancing madness redeemed brilliantly with sequences like this one.

Or notice how the master cartoonist transforms a standard boxing yarn into something truly transcendent through his use of small, narrow panels and repeated shapes to show power and force.

Yes, and though Krigstein's undisputed masterpiece, "Master Race," appears in this amazing volume, I'll defer to other critics on their analysis of that story. Interested readers might enjoy the outstanding six-page analysis of "Master Race" by John Benson, David Kasakove and Art Spiegelman.

Despite his Daedalus-like proximity to  the bright sunshine of absolute comics genius, Bernard Krigstein was brought down by disastrous events that were beyond his control. The fall of EC Comics and the witch-hunt against comics in the early 1950s forced this enormously talented and monumentally innovative artist to leave the comics medium. Comics became much poorer when Bernard Krigstein stopped pursuing perfection in their artform. Thankfully we have this amazing collection to remind us why Krigstein was such an important figure in comics history.

Next time in "Classic Comics Cavalcade", we look at the work of the great Wally Wood!


Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him atjason.sacks@comicsbulletin.com or friend him on Facebook.

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