Year of the Artist, Day 197: Bernard Krigstein, Part 1 – Prize Comics #34

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Year of the Artist, Day 197: Bernard Krigstein, Part 1 – <i>Prize Comics</i> #34

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Bernard Krigstein, and the story is an untitled Buck Sanders tale from Prize Comics #34, which was published by Prize Publications, also known as Crestwood Publications, also known as Feature Publications, and is cover dated September 1943. All of the scans in this post and the rest of the series are from Messages in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. Krigstein, which was published by Fantagraphics in 2013. Enjoy!

Bernard Krigstein is famous for drawing “Master Race,” of course, but he drew a lot of other comics too, you know! Fantagraphics’ Messages in a Bottle is a tremendous book, and it contains quite a lot of Krigstein’s work before he left comics, so I’ll be using it over the next five days. That’s just the way it is! I can’t find how much work Krigstein did before he went to war in the spring of 1943, but in the back of the book, in an interview Krigstein mentions that this might have been the last story he drew before he went into the army. He worked for Prize Comics from about mid-1942, but the book doesn’t say when he took over full art duties. He drew a bunch of “Buck Sanders” stories for Prize, and he was probably around 24 when he drew this (he turned 24 in March 1943). I can’t find who wrote this story, but we’re not here about the story, are we?

In the interview in the back of the book, Krigstein was shown this story so he could comment on it, and it jogged his memory a bit (the interview was in 1987). He mentions that some of the inking wasn’t his style, and cited Panel 3 as an example, because he said he wouldn’t have inked the forms in the foreground so blackly on both sides like that. He looked through the story and mentioned that the inking had more “feathering” than he would usually do, so he wasn’t sure if he actually inked this. What is notable again about inking is how much stock Krigstein put into it – he comes across as almost embarrassed that he’s getting credit for the artwork when he can’t really say if it was his inking. It’s fascinating, because in the more modern era, the penciler is usually the star, but I hope I’ve been able to show over the course of this year how important the inker is to the way the art looks. The only credit for this story is Krigstein’s – there’s no writer credited, and of course no colorist gets credit either. It’s just something to keep in mind.

I know I’ve always thought of 1940s artwork as somewhat crude, and much of it lives up to the stereotype, but we have to remember the conditions in which many creators worked and the materials they had on hand. Even so, the great thing about the Golden Age of Reprints in which we live is that so much more than just Batman and Superman comics is getting its place in the spotlight, so we can see that some artists were far more sophisticated than others. Krigstein’s figure work is still a bit wonky when it comes to perspective (even though we still see modern artists having trouble with that!), but he still does a marvelous job with a fairly big cast, making them each pretty unique. He moves us nicely across the page, even with the large amount of text in the way, and he does a good job creating a scene where Buck and his pals can walk through the forest and be observed by the gangsters. The facial expressions are very Forties – “Fatty’s” face in Panel 4, with the black eyes and pinched, grumpy expression a very good example of what we see in comics from this time period, while Wolf’s sneering look in Panel 6 is done well, as he’s a combination of conniving and evil.

This is a nice fight sequence, as Wolf is trying to get the information about Herman the Hermit’s money out of him while Buck and his pals decide that, in the spirit of the 1940s, the best thing to do is attack these heavily armed gangsters. Krigstein again does a very nice job with the layout. In Panel 1, he gives us a medium view to show how cruel and craven Wolf really is, as he beats on an old man (all old men in early comics had big, white beards, don’t you know). In Panel 2, the kids burst in, and Krigstein leads us from them diagonally to the bad guys, who react to the intrusion. Panel 3 shows the boys again in the upper part, which makes them seem more in control of the situation than the gangsters. The kid with the glasses (he never gets named in this story) manages a bank shot off of two bad guys in Panel 4, which is pretty impressive. Krigstein switches the point of view in Panel 5 of the first page, as the gangster is in the back while Glasses Dude and Fatty are in the front, but that just moves us to the next page with our mind on the more sympathetic characters. On the next page, he circles back around to link the two panels and the two characters, who snag the thug with the fishing line and accidentally knock him into Buck. In the middle row, Krigstein puts the kids in the front of Panel 4, and their throws lead us back toward the bad guys, who start to gain the upper hand in Panels 5 and 6. Panel 6 is remarkably violent for the time period – we don’t see anything, of course, but three grown men with blackjacks beating on kids is a disturbing image. Notice that even though Krigstein is still drawing somewhat cartoonish characters, he still manages to show how they’re feeling through their expressions, from the haplessness of the punks on the first page to their rage on the second page. There’s a good sense of the bad guys being actual people, from their embarrassment at being bested by kids to their revenge on said kids. It’s what makes Panel 6 so disturbing, because Krigstein really gets across the rage they’re feeling.

This is some very nice work, as Krigstein and the inker (whoever it was) put the houseboat in a neat setting and heighten the drama in Panel 4. In the first three panels, we get really nice spot blacks on the trees, creating a murky and somewhat scary atmosphere, especially when you add in the blacks on the water. The notes in the back state that this story was “restored” from the original comic, so unfortunately I don’t know how much retouching was done, but I imagine that this is very close to the original, and it works well. The final panel, in which the text tells us the boat is heading toward a waterfall, is a nice drawing. The thugs look scared, which again shows that they’re just a bunch of guys, no matter how menacing they might seem when they’re talking tough, and Krigstein’s use of the horizon line and the mist rising up above it is a neat touch. Krigstein designs the panel so that our attention is focused on the drop, which isn’t terribly revolutionary but still works really well.

As I noted above, Krigstein went into the army soon after this story was drawn, and he didn’t get back until late in 1945. So tomorrow we’ll start on his post-war career! Be sure to come back, and remember that you can find some other Golden Age work in the archives!