Zero Hour and Other Stories by Jack KamenA column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Jason Sacks
Welcome to the eighth part of our multi-part look at the great EC cartoonists!
In previous columns we discussed the comics of:
And this week we discuss the comics of Jack Kamen.
Jack Kamen has always been a bit of the odd man out among fans of EC Comics. Neither as slick as Al Williamson, nor as innovative as Harvey Kurtzman, nor as pulpy as Al Feldstein, nor as gritty as John Severin, Kamen has frequently been the least acclaimed among 1950s comic publisher EC's deep roster of world-class artists. Though Kamen was a workhorse, his solid, stolid style was always seen as a bit of a "tweener" among EC aficionados.
But as Zero Hour demonstrates, Kamen was a legitimately terrific artist himself, particularly in stories that focused on the interactions between people. This wonderful collection of 22 Kamen-illustrated tales is full of emotive faces and determined looks, lost and lonely lovers and treacherous spouses. The people on these pages are real actors, with expressive faces and wonderfully exaggerated looks. More than anything, Kamen's people feel real. They feel like specific people having specific events. His men and women are diverse despite the fact that many of his seven-pagers are variations on different themes.
In that way, much of the joy of reading a collection like this comes from recognizing the recurring themes in Kamen's work. There are bizarro relationships, like this one between a scientist and the beautiful colleague that he loves (notice the romance comic-style feathering of Kamen's inks):
…or this one between a philandering scientist husband and his girlfriend (I love the look on Edith's face in panel three below):
A recurring theme in Kamen's comics is the idea of happiness twisted into tragedy. There's the dread of children gone wild – a resonant theme in conformist 1950s America, as in this adaptation of a spooky Ray Bradbury short story:
…or of the difficulty in finding love, only to find your partner in the strangest possible way:
(Just look at that final panel and try to tell me that Kamen wasn't a peer to the more famous artists at EC!)
…though in the wonderful "…Conquers All", the familiar trope is twisted as human-looking aliens discover that love will make them happy:
I've already highlighted some of the genius scientists who are at the center of these yarns; I dig the way that Kamen and his collaborators use pseudo-science, from Melvin's formula for creating the perfect girl in "Miscalculation!", a creepy tale that still has resonance in the Internet age:
Or (of all things!) the way Kamen illustrates an explanation of compounding interest in a "get rich very slowly" tale:
This rather leaden talk of parallel dimensions is enlivened by gorgeous artwork by Kamen that adds drama to a dull repeating of facts:
And notice how well he also makes a recitation of the law of averages seem interesting:
And his scenes of time twists are genuinely fun!
Though some pages are truly fun and games (yes, folks, the Brooklyn Dodgers are namechecked)…
...other stories end with truly tragic endings (SPOILERS!).
There's fertile ground to see these stories as subtle criticisms of the normative era of the 1950s; I'm pretty sure that more than one person has written a Master's Thesis about that very idea. Though Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines wrote many of them, it was part of their standard technique to choose a suitable artist for each story, a creator who could find hidden depths in that would give the script extra intensity or power.
With his stylistic similarity to romance comics and his skill at depicting human faces with empathy and verve, Jack Kamen was the perfect artist for the 22 stories collected here. The back cover makes the case that Kamen may have been the most underrated of all the EC artists; this book makes a convincing case of that idea.