Say what you will about THE COMICS JOURNAL (though they’ve lately been replaced as The Great Satan of the comics business by Rich Johnston, and more about him later), their parent company Fantagraphics Books sure does put out some great stuff. One of their recent projects – a hefty, luxurious coffee table hardcover, B. KRIGSTEIN (Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle WA 98115; $49.95) about Bernie Krigstein’s life and work – is easily the best book ever written about a comics artist, and Krigstein more than virtually any other deserves it.
Odds are you’ve never heard of Krigstein. He was a visionary, arguably the greatest visionary the business has ever known. Trained as a fine artist and equally capable of producing a flawless Chagall or Cezanne, he broke into comics in the early ’40s to earn money doing what he loved, and almost immediately produced virtually flawless Jack Kirby impressions. (His work lacked only Kirby’s frenetic roughness; it was just a little too refined to pass for Kirby, but only a little.) Most artists of the time, including standard bearers like Kirby and Eisner, worked more from instinct than anything else (reflecting Charles Foster Kane’s proclamation in CITIZEN KANE, “I don’t know anything about running a newspaper. I just try everything I can think of.”) but Krigstein had the education, experience and intellectual background as well. The army truncated his early comics career, and one story reprinted in the book about his wartime role as mapmaker and illustrator encapsulates every frustration ever felt by virtually any truly great artist in comics, when he had to deal with another Army illustrator:
Orville is sitting beside me drawing a pin-up girl, and a lot of guys are around him, agog. I was drawing a composition to do in wash, but I finally stopped because I was just too irritated to continue… but I see that he’s a fake, a mediocrity, can’t draw, avoids, in his lying way, any difficulty he comes across in a problem… what I find particularly revolting is that, after playing for the admiration of the boys, he’ll answer a criticism of his obviously prostituted drawing with reasons of artistic license… I don’t care if nincompoops waste their lives on cheapness and vulgarity, but when I see that I am considered inferior to this trash, it affects me personally…”
Many, I’m sure, have glanced at Krigstein’s comics and judged them inferior, and they were dead wrong. (No less a person than Bob Kanigher, then editor of DC’s war comics, pronounced him “[not] good enough to be given a feature…”) His post-war work – superheroes, war, westerns, romance, crime – shows an increasingly fine, modern line (ahead of his time), comedic posing for effect, and an emphasis on design. His figurework grows increasingly expressionistic, shifting away from both realism and cartooning to something new in comics. By the early ’50s, it was the most refined, subtle work on the market, and his attention was turned to content as well as art. Krigstein pushed for more adult themes and the space to enhance characterization. This in an era when 6-8 pages for a story was the norm, and he dreamed of having a full comic (at that point, 52 pages) to work with. More than any artist since Eisner, Krigstein focused on comics art as a vehicle for narrative. By the time he reached EC Comics in 1954, after a run at Atlas (Marvel) and DC Comics working on titles like AMAZING ADVENTURES, SPELLBOUND and OUR ARMY AT WAR, he had developed an idiosyncratic style as well as his own visual language for the use of space as a function of storytelling in comics, aiming for a medium that was not an approximation of film or an extrapolation from the comic strip but its own pure form.
After all the cookie cutter publishers he had worked for, I can only imagine the thrill EC must’ve been for Krigstein: a company that encouraged artists to give full vent to their styles. Even there, the length restrictions chafed him, but it was there he was able to experiment with subdividing panels into multiple shots, disintegrating the staple six panel grid to develop character, developing the use of perspective as emotional content. It’s unfortunate that not even EC was willing to give him the space he wanted, or go far beyond their standard “shock ending” stories, but it led to what must be regarded as his piece de resistance and possibly the finest single comics story ever done, “Master Race,” in one of EC’s last gasp run of titles, IMPACT #1. Whole essays (notably a much reprinted, brilliant exegesis by John Benson, Bhob Stewart and Art Spiegelman) have been written on this story, but here’s the upshot:
Ten years after World War II, an escaped Nazi war criminal enjoys the good life under a new identity in America when he takes a ride on a subway and recognizes a face from his past: a Jew from the concentration camp he had run. Memories of Nazi Germany and of the camps come flooding back to him in stunningly upsetting, evocative shots – this is one sickening story, and it’s meant to be – before he’s recognized. Now the persecuted rather than the persecutor, the ex-Nazi goes on a mad through a subway station, horrific images haunting him, until he slips and falls to his death before a speeding train. Others ask what happen, and the Jew denies any knowledge of it, leaving us with two possible interpretations: the Jew is satisfied with the Nazi’s fate and opts to leave the past in the past now, or the entire incident is in the Nazi’s mind, fueled by his guilt and terror, and the man “chasing” him truly has no knowledge of what actually happened; he could have been anyone.
This would’ve been an intense story in any case, but we can extrapolate from the captions and from other work by writer Al Feldstein where Krigstein’s hand comes into it, and his layouts, figurework, perspective and panel designs all brilliantly enhance the story’s claustrophobia and horror. A Nazi rally is expansive, all the visible figures almost tiny stick works, then cuts to a tight close-up cross-section of the audience, eyes wide is a hypnotic terror that mirrors a later close-up of the escaped Nazi when his former prisoner recognizes him. A long shot of a Nazi army marching past classical pristine architecture with Nazi flags waving, figures so tiny they’re barely recognizable as human cuts to a medium close cross-section of badly dressed sunken-cheeked men staring out accusingly from behind a barbed wire fence, followed by beautifully simple and innocuous smokestacks behind a wall, in front of which ordinary people walk with handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses, rigidly not looking. This is the imagery of nightmare, as only a real artist could have rendered it, bringing home the horror of that that. It is not sentimental art, as most comics art is. It does not glorify the human figure or the human condition. In its style and rhythms, it’s the purest single work of narrative art ever to appear in comics.
And it has one of the best visual gimmicks I’ve ever seen, the use of multiple repetitions of images inside a panel behind a single static image to suggest the rapid movement of a subway train. You can get vertigo from staring at it.
I knew much of what was in Greg Sadowski’s B. KRIGSTEIN before I read it, but, besides being meticulously researched and a beautiful object in its own right, the book fills in many of the blank spaces in Krigstein’s development. Besides tons of his comics pages and several complete stories (including “Master Race”) from various stages of his development, it includes numerous drawings and paintings from throughout his life and many commercial art pieces from magazine illustration, greeting card design and other areas. (It also prints a number of his personal photographs.) You can see how Krigstein’s tastes and attitudes in fine art influences his comics and vice versa. Krigstein died in 1990, after a long career as a fine artist and teacher and a mercifully short battle with cancer. His life worked out okay (would we could say that of all the great talent who’ve graced comics) but he remains one of the great lost possibilities of comic books, and I periodically wonder what the medium would be like today if his influence had been widely felt, if more than a handful of fans in the early days of fandom had focused in on and extolled his work as much as that of, oh, Frank Frazetta or Wally Wood. (I also wonder what comics would look like today had Joe Maneely, Stan Lee’s artist of choice in the early ’50s before Maneely’s untimely death, had still been Marvel’s premier artist instead of Jack Kirby when FANTASTIC FOUR was born.) Krigstein’s vision of what comics could be, and his brilliant execution of his ideas within the limitations imposed on him, places him in the top ranks comics creators, alongside Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and Alex Toth.
This is a great book: a great art book, a great biography, a great exegesis of an artist’s development and body of work. Sadowski has done a wonderful job of explaining why Krigstein is great, certainly better than I have in this limited space, and the book is written with love and clarity. Comics artists looking for new inspiration should get B. KRIGSTEIN immediately – it’s full of great ideas whose potential still remains untapped. But that pretty much goes for everyone. For anyone truly in love with comics art, there’s not a better way to spend $49.95. buy Buy it. Buy it now.
Back in the late ’80s, when they were trying to revamp and update virtually their whole line, DC instituted what came to be known as “cattle calls” – asking various creators to develop ideas for the same property, in essence directly competing with each other. From the corporate point of view, it makes a certain amount of sense by cutting development time and allowing the powers that be to pick and choose from all the possibilities laid out before them without actually having to pay anyone for the work, but it sucks for writers and artists and imposes the subtle message on them that, yes, they are all interchangeable. And replaceable. By ’92 or so, whether DC had finally figured out how insulting it was to the talent or whether the logistics of such behavior just got too much for them, the practice had thankfully fallen out of fashion, and they’ve been very good about such things since.
So it’s a bit disturbing that I’m now getting reports that other companies are now revisiting the practice, and people in power who obviously don’t remember the DC “experiment” think it’s just a peachy idea. And it is, if you’re a corporate overlord. But, y’know, it’s one thing if I call an editor and say, “hey, I’ve got this great idea for reviving Rubbergimp, you want to hear it?” and for an editor, or a publisher, to call and say, “Hey, we really want to get a new Rubbergimp series off the ground, can you come up with one?” If the company – and the editor is the company’s man on the front line, their official rep – asks someone to do development work, the company should pay for the time involved, even if the result is left unused. They were the ones who asked the freelancer to commit time that could be used for other things, after all. If the company asks a dozen different people to come up with Rubbergimp revamps independently so the company can sample the delights, they pay each of those people for their time. This isn’t a business exactly known for its ethics, but that much ought to be established. And anyone who doesn’t see how such a system is offensive to and exploitative of freelancers, particularly in these precarious financial times, is truly out of touch. Or is willing himself to be.
Speaking of which, much has been made of writer-artist William Messner-Loebs’ current financial straits, and it truly reflects badly on this business that someone as talented as Bill could be in such condition. It also speaks to the naivete of the business that the situation prompted a call for a Messner-Loebs benefit book, a noble idea that’s unlikely to make anywhere near enough anywhere quickly enough to affect the situation much. Such things are band-aids, and miss the point completely. Bill was lucky enough to have Gary Groth rally to his cause, but what of the hundreds of other writers and artists (not to mention inkers, letterers, colorists, and, in a couple instances, editors) who are out there in basically the same position? Hell, I’m rarely more than a check or two away from disaster myself and I’ve been working regularly. I’m not saying such a book shouldn’t be done or that the work is futile, just that the problem spreads far beyond Bill, and that’s something the business should address sooner than later.
Bill & Nadine Messner-Loebs
PO Box 558
Pinckney, MI 48169
Addressing other problems: lately I’ve chatted with several creators attempting to do their own graphic novels. As most people who’ve done them know, a graphic novel is a huge, time-demanding undertaking, and while you can get paid as you go along to do a CAPTAIN AMERICA or MARTIAN MANHUNTER graphic novel, but if you’re trying something truly adventurous, something original, you’re pretty much on your own. This includes highly regarded, well-established talents with critical acclaim behind them, believe it or not. And publishers with anything resembling money behind them continue to become increasingly conservative in their tastes, feeling the proper future for comics is to rerun variation of 1966 endlessly. This increasingly leaves original graphic novels in the province of “works of love,” but as my grandmother used to say, “love is like butter – it’s better with bread.” Unfortunately the world doesn’t stop because you have an idea you’d like to develop. Bills must still be paid. Which means top talents end up working for DC or Marvel instead of developing their own material and all the assorted problems of the business continue on. (Not that I’m saying it’s Marvel or DC’s duty to do something about them, because it’s not. They probably don’t even seen them as problems, more as the natural condition of things, a state more and more freelancers and fans are also willing to take for granted. The fact is Marvel and DC play to what they perceive as their core audience, and the rest of the business has conned itself into thinking that’s the only core audience possible, and let possibility after possibility slip away, but it’s not really fair to tell Marvel or DC they have to develop an audience for work they don’t publish, though I have no doubt if that work suddenly became profitable they’d rush to try to publish they’re equivalent of it.)
A possible solution lies in the old PILOTE model, if anyone’s willing to take up the challenge. PILOTE was a weekly French magazine in the first golden age of French graphic novels, which would publish graphic novels in progress. On any given week there might be three pages of VALERIAN, two of LT. BLUEBERRY, ten of LUCKY LUKE, etc. – and I’m not talking chapters, I’m talking whatever of the graphic novel happened to have been produced that week – rounded out by short comics stories, one page gag strips, and a few text features. 80 pages or so per week, much of it full color. It was great. Eventually it was cancelled because – get this – the publisher found it more profitable to go straight to graphic novels, because, yes, they were doing that well.
Obviously this would be a harder sell in today’s American market. We’ve trained the market against anthologies, and this would be more volatile than your standard anthology as it wouldn’t even involve chapter breaks; material would flow just as in the graphic novel format, not reconstructed to fit eight page segments or whatever. A weekly is an all but unheard of sell in the American market. I don’t know that our current distributors or retailers would be comfortable with such a thing; this is a business now dead set against any real progress, where everything has to look like something someone else is familiar with.
It would need an assortment of stunning talent, but, fortunately, stunning talent isn’t something the industry’s in short supply of these days. (Would you buy a magazine featuring work by Frank Miller, Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, John Jay Muth, George Pratt, Bryan Talbot, fill in your favorite top talent’s name here, etc?) Of course, it would also take someone willing to put money behind it, while it has become the standard of the startup comics publisher to let the talent shoulder the financial burden, which puts us back where we began. Still, the potential’s there, and I know from talking to talent the hunger is there. An awful lot of creators would love the chance to shift to original graphic novels. Any funded entrepreneurs out there willing to seize the moment?
So how are those San Diego samples coming along?
If you budding artists have been sticking to my six week plan for developing an art sample for San Diego, you’re just beginning your third three-page sample. Some of you have written saying it’s hard to come up with ideas for sample pages, and considering you’re trying to be artists and not writers, that’s a perfectly reasonable complaint. Here are a couple more tips:
Don’t use characters whose books have been recently cancelled, or whose books are due for imminent revamp. One will remind editors of failures, the other will put you solidly behind the curve.
Have someone pull a three page sequence from an existing comic and write out the events in the following manner:
The Demon tosses Batman roughly aside. Batman strikes the wing of the Batplane. As he’s recovering, the Demon speaks to him from a rock outcropping, and Batman tries to focus. Batman makes his move as the Demon rears back, preparing to attack. The Demon leaps forward, a jet of flame erupting from his mouth, shattering the Batplane, but Batman has barely hurled himself out of harm’s way. Batman lies on the ground, injured, trying to get up, as the Demon lopes after him. The Demon opens his mouth, preparing to spit another inferno. To the Demon’s surprise, an arrow rockets into his mouth. He gags as the arrow foams, quenching his flame. Green Arrow helps Batman to his feet. They stand together and look down at the Demon, who writes on the ground seemingly drowning in foam pouring from his mouth. Seeing that the Demon’s writhing in pain, Batman tells the Demon to turn back to Jason Blood, as Green Arrow watches. Green Arrow’s puzzled, but Batman tells him to watch. Flailing helplessly, the Demon blubbers out a spell. Batman and Green Arrow look on as they watch the Demon become enveloped by flame. Green Arrow reacts in shock. And where the Demon knelt, Jason Blood now kneels, naked, looking harshly up at the two heroes.
That’s a three page sequence from GREEN ARROW #6, by Kevin Smith, Phil Hester and Ande Parks. DON’T go look up the comic. Don’t try to remember how Phil and Ande drew it. Draw the sequence your way. This is a perfectly valid way to develop art samples, and you know the story can pass muster because it already has.
And if anyone wants to send me their retelling of this sequence, I’ll publish the best version here next week.
Finally, welcome aboard to Rich Johnston, who joins the CBR family next Monday, the scourge of all that’s right and good in comics, when his new column LYING IN THE GUTTERS debuts here. Rich established himself as a gossipmonger with several running Internet columns, most recently ALL THE RAGE, and it’s no exaggeration that he regularly pisses off professionals, publicists, comics reporters, etc., with information that tends to be more accurate than not. I’ve been warned that biblical plagues will accompany his arrival here, but that strikes me as melodrama. Where’s the line between gossip and muckraking? Find out for yourself on Monday. (And while you’re at it, go read Matt Fraction’s POPLIFE every Thursday, because Matt’s lonely and he gets depressed so easily…)
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions.
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