There is no artist in the history of comics that I hold in higher esteem than Bernard Krigstein. No other artist understood the inherent potential of the artform better and no other artist ever demonstrated such a grasp of what was needed in order to reach and exceed both his own limits and those of his chosen medium.
As influential as Jack Kirby was on American corporate superhero comics (and others), Krigstein’s influence was more profound. Subtle, yes, but generations of artists have seen comics through Krigstein’s eyes and come away from that revelation understanding that Kirby, as great and fabulous a creator as he was, was the beginning of understanding. Bernard Krigstein and his battle with his art and with his publishers (particularly EC), represent the maturing and growth of the artform. Out of Krigstein’s influence you can trace the artistic struggles of other notable masters of comic book artwork, like Gil Kane, and Dan Clowes, to mention two very different cartoonists both heavily indebted to Krigstein’s innovations.
You can hear Krigstein’s voice whispering in Frank Miller’s ear, both in the times of his greatest successes (Batman: Year One), and even — perhaps especially — when he falls on his face (The Dark Knight Strikes Again). Anyone who thinks Krigstein holds no dominion over modern comics has not a clue what they are talking about. His influence is everywhere, for those of us who seek out comics made with passion and seeking to express truth.
A study of Krigstein’s genius must include careful immersion in his EC work. For it is here where he met his greatest victories, and his greatest struggle. It’s my belief that the intersection of these elements created a moment of artistic growth as yet unequaled in comics.
In an era when graphic novels (both real and so-called) are issued on a weekly basis by writers and artists with not even one-tenth of one percent of Krigstein’s profound understanding of comics’ potential, this is among the greatest crimes the industry of comics has to answer for — not that it ever will. We should be eternally grateful that Krigstein, despite these obstacles, still gave us “Master Race,” “The Catacombs,” “Key Chain,” and other awe-inspiring works. In almost every one of his best works, you see him playing with the form, experimenting with page design, panel arrangement, and perhaps most famously, subdividing EC’s restrictive pre-set panel layouts in order to expand his own storytelling territory within the defined parameters. He was, in a very real sense, a fractal genius of comic art. Where he was not allowed to grow out, he grew inward, like a Koch Snowflake — demanding, as a true artist must, that he be allowed to grow in whatever way humanly possible.
A few years ago, Fantagraphics Books released B. Krigstein: Volume One by Greg Sadowski. This oversized hardcover artbook/biography is one of the finest of its kind ever released, and although Krigstein’s story is largely one of restriction and boundaries, it should be noted that B. Krigstein Vol. 1 is not a depressing book. Its author was meticulous in his creation of a lasting, vital document of the subject, a man who took life and art very seriously and suffered greatly for both. The book is, in fact, a celebration of the life and work of Bernard Krigstein, and even if you think you know who that is, I guarantee you that by the time you get to the end of the book, you’re going to know the man and his work one hell of a lot better.
Sadowski’s book highlighted one of the greatest shames of the comics industry. That is, the crushing effect of the work for hire system on a true artist. On page 187 we see Krigstein lament that “I wanted to edit a book. I wanted to devote one book to a single story.” This was creative mutiny at the tightly-controlled EC Comics, and even though the company turned out many, many masterpieces in their short stories, the fact that the most well-remembered of them is Krigstein’s own “Master Race” (reprinted in its entirety in B. Krigstein Vol. 1 and beautifully recoloured by Marie Severin, as are the other stories included in the book), a story he chopped up and recreated to make it brilliant, says all that needs be said about how tragic it is that Krigstein was never given the simple freedom to do an issue-long story. Think about the artists that have since been given such opportunities, hundreds of mediocre talents, hundreds of times, while Krigstein never once got to, and one very quickly can sink into a dark depression tinged with righteous indignation, if not rage.
I think even of perhaps the most obvious and well-documented case of longform corporate malfeasance toward a mistreated creator, that of Jack Kirby, and I realize that his case is considerably attenuated by the fact that, for all the injustice done him by Marvel (and least a little by DC), at least he was able to create what he wanted largely without interference, at least until a title was cancelled. In B. Krigstein Vol. 1, we got a portrait of an artist who led a brilliant creative existence and created great works of art, but who was never allowed any real freedom in his chosen field to see just how far his skill and imagination could take him.
I’ve said in the past that Krigstein is “perhaps the greatest artist ever to work in comics,” and I believe that his contributions to comic art are the equal of what Alan Moore brought to the artform in his writing. As the years wear on and my appreciation for what Krigstein left us to consider grows ever stronger, more and more I am certain that comparison is apt.
In the same way that Moore’s words and ideas in the 1980s, ’90s and ’00s revolutionized the standard by which comics would be perceived by both reader and creator, Krigstein overthrew the stagnant visual paradigm American comics had been mired in since its inception early in the century. The vast, unmapped canvas Krigstein’s body of work not only suggests but demands still lay primarily before us, unexplored, waiting.
— Alan David Doane