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Bernie Krigstein:

The Right To Silence

Fifty years ago, when artist Bernie Krigstein (1919-1990) finally turned his back on the Comics Code-approved, formula-bound, space-restricted, word-dominated American comicbook industry, the medium lost one of its few genuine visionaries, an inspiration to Jim Steranko, Frank Miller and others to this day.

Krigstein (pronounced Krig-styne, not -steen) was a thinker, a questioner, a radical, a man of culture with a love of art in all its forms, including the lowly comic. To many after World War II, drawing comicbooks was the very bottom of the ladder, a temporary job to pay the bills, while touting for something, anything, better. Coming from a fine art background to start working in comics full time from October 1945, Krigstein soon viewed them differently. As his colleague and friend Gil Kane put it, "Once he saw comics, he thought it was such an extraordinary area of expression that he wanted to be a part of it."

Best known for his EC short stories, Krigstein would eventually envision the sorts of ambitious, expansive, mature comics, using both words and pictures to their fullest, that have truly begun to flourish in the modern era of the global graphic novel movement. The tragedy is that by 1957 the constraints and tamperings from most editors and publishers pressured him into quitting. Finding his hopes dashed that larger literary publishers would develop comics in long-form books, he polished off one final 32-page oddity in 1962, based on the TV cop show of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct, and then never drew published comics again.

Proof that this principled Jewish intellectual was years ahead of his time becomes abundantly clear in the 250-page B. Krigstein Volume 1, the first of Greg Sadowski’s two-volume biography, and the companion compilation of B. Krigstein Comics, both from Fantagraphics and in the same format as those big, black-and-white EC Libraries. In the biography covering the time from his birth to his departure from EC in 1955, Sadowski highlights Krigstein’s thinking and questioning about comics, not only in the six complete EC stories reprinted here and numerous extracts, but also through his forceful comments about the deeper possibilities of the comics.

In a legendary 1962 interview with John Benson in the special sixth issue of EC zine Squa Tront, Krigstein reflects, "Until the artist arrives at the point where he realises that by drawing a single panel he has a single work of art that exists by itself, only then can all the panels live together. And then you reach a totality that is completely out of the realm of the infantile kind of page continuities that comics are filled with."

Two prime causes of the medium’s infantilism were the insistence by most post-war publishers on ‘value-for-money’ anthologies of multiple short stories and on the domination of the word over the image, of telling rather than showing. It was as if without a constant running commentary, the reader might lose the story. Krigstein was saddled with wordy scripts and never granted more than nine pages maximum, and typically only four to six. With space at a premium and layouts standardised, even pre-drawn, the idea of one silent, word-free but meaningful panel, let alone a sequence, was almost unheard of. Comicbooks had no right to remain silent. The word always had the last word.

Early on at Hillman Comics he won some rare perks from editor Ed Cronin, who let him ink his own pencils and experiment with pacing and drawing. Nine of Krigstein’s fine Hillman genre pieces from 1950 to 1952 are dusted off for the B. Krigstein Comics tome, but they offer only one silent sequence, four panels of a climactic cowboy shoot-out. During a later brief trial at DC Comics, however, editors ruled and artists could not deviate from its polished house veneer. Their war comics writer and editor, Robert Kanigher, went so far as to have Krigstein’s artwork shaved with razors to ‘correct’ his expressionistic anatomy so that it conformed to his editorial standards of realism, before eventually firing him. Sadowski quotes Kanigher’s definition of those who drew comics as "...illustrators of the written word. The word, the thought always came first. They weren’t artists. There are no artists in comics."

Krigstein enjoyed more freedom, or less supervision, over at the high-volume ‘factory’ of Atlas, or Fifties Marvel, to pace and design at the pencil stage. He drew some 77 stories on and off between 1950 and 1957, more than for anyone else and roughly a third of his total. Several are presented in the compilation, many only four pages long. To make more of them, he reduced the opening image and subdivided each page into smaller and smaller panels. At his peak he squeezed a record 75 panels into only four pages. For all this effort, the page rate shrank to only $23.

The final straw came when editor and writer Stan Lee insisted that Krigstein amalgamate some of his extra panels to insert balloons into his deliberately silent sequences. When Krigstein refused and threatened to sue, the story was published unchanged. His next four-pager for Atlas was his last.

Bernie Krigstein’s 44 stories for the maverick EC Comics from 1953 to 1955 are his pinnacle, but here too he struggled against their rigid working systems. EC is generally hailed as the period’s most enlightened publisher and encouraged Krigstein to bring in a variety of artistic inspirations to suit each tale, from Chinese prints to German expressionist film. But still the writer and editor dominated. Their chief writer Al Feldstein, an artist himself, would provide Krigstein with artboards on which the empty panels were already lettered with often wordy descriptive captions and balloons. With all the breaking down of the story already done, and virtually all the story told in the words, Krigstein struggled to use the panel spaces to make pictures that could resonate with and interpret the texts, rather than simply accompany and duplicate them.

In these circumstances, it was a stroke of luck that Krigstein was assigned to draw Master Race which ran in the premiere of Impact in 1955. Feldstein, a Jew like himself, wrote this intense study of the legacy of the Holocaust in the second person, from inside the mind of a paranoid Nazi death-camp commandant who, on being recognised and pursued by one of his surviving victims on the subway, panics, runs and falls under a train. Assigned only six pages, Krigstein saw such scope in this unprecedented tale addressing the Holocaust, that he asked for an exceptional 12 pages; he had to make do with eight, thanks to the absurd dictum that this was the longest any EC story could run.

So he cut up the lettering and reconfigured the layouts to introduce extra panels, most famously an exceptional 2-tier, 11-panel, soundless finale. Art Spiegelman wrote about this in his New Yorker essay: "The two tiers of wordless staccato panels that climax the story… have often been described as ‘cinematic’. a phrase thoroughly inadequate to the achievement: Krigstein condenses and distends time itself… The cumulative effect carries an impact - simultaneoulsy visceral and intellectual - that is unique to comics."

The whole work became Krigstein’s master class on the power of soundless, purely visual narration, on how sometimes pictures are more eloquent than any amount of words. As long as artists were constrained and overruled by writers and editors, collaborative American comicbooks would be thwarted from exploring their fullest potential. Even when Stan Lee left Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko free to pace and direct their Marvel classics, Lee could not resist filling most panels with his effusive writing. On occasions where silence was called for (a whole page of Kirby combat choreography between Captain America and Batroc for example), Lee had to add a snappy aside to draw attention to the anomaly. No wonder the wordless opening pages of Nick Fury #1 in 1968 by solo writer-artist Steranko stood out as so innovative, as would later sequences in Miller’s Daredevil and Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen.

The avenues that current graphic novelists can explore would have seemed like a dream to Krigstein. Post-EC, from the mid-to-late Fifties, he tried to persuade major literary publishers to let him adapt War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy, The Red Badge Of Courage by Stephen Crane, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and other books. Rather than squeeze them down to their bare-bones synopses, he laid out storyboards for opening them out into a hundred, or a thousand, pages and unlocking all their visual and verbal possibilities. No publisher would touch them. Krigstein’s final work in comic books was the first Dell issue of 87th Precinct, a 1962 spin-off from the TV series based on Ed McBain’s characters. In John Benson’s EC magazine Squa Tront 6 (1975), Krigstein described Blind Man’s Bluff as “the most fantastically absurd story that has ever been typed or presented to an artist for a breakdown.” Never reprinted before, his 32-page swansong finally sees print again in The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, which I’ve edited for Robinson and Running Press, out July 18th. The book also includes a reprint of his 1950 Lily-White Joe courtesy of and restored by Sadowski.

Blind Man’s Bluff from 87th Precinct
by Bernie Krigstein

Krigstein began his illustration career in 1957, right after leaving Atlas. When he started teaching full time in 1962, he did just a few more illustrations before leaving the commercial field entirely in 1965. After that has was strictly a painter and a teacher and the only pursuit that earned him a living was teaching. He struggled as an illustrator and sold very few paintings. He retired from teaching in 1982, and continued to paint until a few months before his death in January 1990.

But Krigstein kept an eye out on comics. His widow Natalie remembered, "He did express great admiration for some of the underground comics in the 1970s, and he was tempted to return to the field - but perhaps he felt it was too late." If only he could have been given that second chance then and explored the graphic novel like Will Eisner, two years his senior. Instead, we conclude the first volume of Sadowski’s biography with a wealth of the artist’s accomplished oils, watercolours, etchings and drawings. Most demonstrate Krigstein’s undoubted skills and diverse media and influences. But frankly they reinforce the inescapable truth: that drawing comics was his most singular, significant gift, abandoned in frustration and disappointment.

Posted: June 8, 2008

This article originally appeared in 2007 in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Featured Books

B. Krigstein Vol 1
by Greg Sadowski

B. Krigstein Vol 2:
A Life In Art
From Comics To Canvas

by Greg Sadowski
(Publication Date: 2009)

B. Krigstein Comics

The Mammoth Book Of
Best Crime Comics

edited by Paul Gravett,
designed by Peter Stanbury