Year of the Artist, Day 201: Bernard Krigstein, Part 5 – Shock SuspenStories #18 and Uncanny Tales #42

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Year of the Artist, Day 201: Bernard Krigstein, Part 5 – <i>Shock SuspenStories</i> #18 and <i>Uncanny Tales</i> #42

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Bernard Krigstein, and the stories are “In the Bag” in Shock SuspenStories #18 and “They Wait Below” in Uncanny Tales #42, the first of which was published by EC and is cover dated January 1955, the second of which was published by Marvel and is cover dated April 1956. For the last time, these scans are from Messages in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. Krigstein, which was published by Fantagraphics in 2013. Enjoy!

I wanted to stick to one story by Krigstein to finish out the posts on him, but he was drawing such short stories in the mid-1950s that it was easy to find two to show. “In the Bag” is six pages long, and “They Wait Below” is only four, so I figured it was better to show both of them, because they show some cool things Krigstein was doing with his art even as he was looking to leave the industry.

“In the Bag” is the last story Krigstein would draw for EC, as the company canceled most of its titles by the end of 1954 due to the Comics Code brouhaha. Sharp-eyed readers might notice that this was published before “Master Race,” but by this time we know when Krigstein was drawing things, and he drew this two months after that story, which is why it comes after that one. In Messages in a Bottle, this story is probably the most abstract – Krigstein uses heavy inking and Zip-A-Tone in other stories, but “In the Bag” is saturated with both. Check out this sequence, in which Zip-A-Tone dominates and Krigstein’s lack of holding lines in Panel 3, for instance, make McLeod almost a phantom stepping out of the storm. The mood of the story is bleak – it’s a nifty little noir tale with a twist – and Krigstein’s art sells that wonderfully.

McLeod stops the guy and asks him what’s going on, and Dominick confesses to a heinous crime. In 13 (!) panels, Krigstein takes Carl Kessler’s dense script and makes his killer a strange, pathetic, crazed, and enraged character. He won’t give up his satchel to McLeod, and if you ignore the words completely, you can see him go through many moods. He cries, gets angry and desperate, wheedles, collapses and regains his composure, reflects, gets happy, then triumphant. It’s a chilling transformation, and you don’t need the words to see it. Krigstein uses thick inks to turn Dominick’s face into a terrifying visage, and as he descends into gleeful madness, Krigstein begins to ring his eyes with more black, isolating his eyes, until we get the final two panels, where he smiles satisfactorily and then opens his eyes and mouth wide in triumph. It’s a tremendous sequence, made even more impressive by the way Krigstein packs it into such a small space.

Dominick runs for it, and McLeod tries to shoot him, but fails. This sequence is where we can see how effective Krigstein was at using stuff like Zip-A-Tone. It appears that he applied a sheet to the art and then created clear strips to simulate the rain instead of simply drawing in lines. Look how thick it makes the rain, turning it even more oppressive as McLeod begins his trip into the dark heart of the soul. The rain is not only “heavier,” it also forms a cage, trapping McLeod into a path that leads only to tragedy. It’s a tremendous effect. I’m not going to show you what happens with McLeod and Dominick, but it ain’t good. So sad!

By the end of 1955, Krigstein was working for Marvel (Atlas), and he turned in “They Wait Below,” a four-page story with 75 panels in it. Yeah. Here’s the first panel:

As we’ll see, Krigstein does this throughout the story, but the first panel, by far the biggest in the story, shows the exquisite brushwork wonderfully. According to the notes in the back of Messages in a Bottle, this was restored using an original copy and photostats, but it doesn’t mention that Marie Severin recolored it, so I wonder how this looked originally, because the blue is stunning. The impressionistic brushwork around the more solid lighthouse creates a wonderful stormy mood for the story, and the dialogue – I don’t know who wrote this story – fits the tone perfectly, as the lighthouse appears to be floating in a turbulent world. It’s a small masterpiece of inking, and it sets up the story very well.

Krigstein doesn’t necessarily need to use so many panels, but it’s part of creating tension in the story, as Matt the lighthouse keeper is approached by a siren who wants to “plunder” the ship that crashes on the rocks. So Krigstein switches back and forth from the ship to Matt, interspersing the page with views of the exterior, with more of that magnificent brushwork we saw above. The final row, where Matt realizes what the siren is doing, is wonderful, as he runs the gamut of emotions as he understand what’s going on, while the siren stands serenely as he blusters. The dichotomy between the siren – who is covered in seaweed, I assume – and her solid earthiness and the spookiness of the outside world is nicely done. We’d expect her to be more ethereal, but Krigstein doesn’t go that way, so it seems that she offers something to ground Matt, when she’s really leading him into temptation.

Krigstein continues to ramp up the tension, as Matt tries to escape the siren, who is then joined by her sisters. Despite the smallness of the panels, Krigstein still shows the anxiety on Matt’s face and the eerie calm on the sirens’ faces as they approach. Panels 4-5, particularly, are well done, as the beautiful forms come closer until their faces fill the panel, and it becomes clear they can’t be stopped. Matt doesn’t do anything heroic, just happens to knock over the lantern (which provides a light for the ship … somehow), and Krigstein does a good job showing how unheroic he is, as it’s just his clumsiness that saves his sorry ass. The fact that the panels are so small help create the claustrophobic vibe of a man in a small space, alone and forgotten, doing a lonely job. The sirens closing in on him also create that claustrophobia.

By this time, Krigstein was making $27 per page, down from a height during EC’s heyday of $41 per page. He couldn’t afford to keep doing comics, so he went to work for his father for several months in 1956. Late in the year he returned to Marvel, but his page rate was down to $23 per page, so after a few months, in early 1957 he left comics for good, with quite a bit of lingering bitterness at a Mr. Stan Lee. He had not yet turned 37 years old, and he was at his artistic peak. Yet while he continued creating art, he never worked in comics again. That really sucks.

Krigstein is a tremendous artist, and I really encourage you to get Messages in a Bottle, because it’s phenomenal. Tomorrow I’m going to go modern again, because why not? Come back and see who I’m going to feature next! In the meantime, there’s some Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Modern Age comics – all sorts of ages! – in the archives!