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Trouble with Comics

ADD Flashback: Bernard Krigstein in the Spotlight

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

ADD Flashback: Please Don’t Bend the Comics

My family lived in Florida in the 1970s, and in 1980, when I was about 14, we moved back to upstate New York from whence we came and where we belonged. Now, I had discovered all sorts of wonderful things between, say, 1978 and 1980: The Bud Plant Catalog, CerebusStar*ReachThe Comics Journal, hell, the very existence of comic book stores probably hit in there somewhere, in that formative 12-to-14 year old time in my life.

And while there were no “good comic shops” (as I like to call them) where we lived (St. Augustine, Florida — this may have changed since 1980, I’ve never been back and would not know), there was one used coin shop that both bought and sold comics and had maybe 5 or 10 longboxes full of back issues. This was the first store ever where I experienced bringing in my unwanted extras and stuff I no longer cared for and walking out flush with cash.

In my memory, that store paid full guide for back issues, but knowing what I know now, that seems sort of impossible. Maybe they paid some crazy figure like 80 percent of guide and kept a low profit margin; after all, comics were just a sidelight in this shop. But at any rate, I probably sold many hundreds if not thousands of my accumulated comics to that store in a two-year or so time period — all my Bill Mantlo/Sal Buscema Incredible Hulks certainly ended up there: Incredible Hulk by Mantlo and Buscema was one of those comics that seemed awesome at 10 and incredibly lame by 12, you know?

But between that shop and the great number of 7/11s and Jiffy Marts that were in our area (one within walking distance of our home in St. Augustine Shores, a middle-class housing development built on swampland on the outskirts of town — that one was a Jiffy Mart that became a 7/11), I never wanted for comics. They were always available, either new in the convenience stores or used at that coin shop. In fact, not a weekend went by, probably from the age of 8 or 9 right up until we moved when I was 14 that I would not take a buck or three and walk down to the Jiffy Mart (it was Jiffy Mart most of the time we lived there, in my memory) and get some comics, a Slush Puppy (later a Slurpie once it became 7/11), and walk home with my bounty, set for the weekend of reading. And in the early part of those years, when comics were 20 cents? Two bucks bought a lot of comics. Toward the end I think they were closer to 35 or 40 cents, so, then, not so much. But I digress…

So, living in Florida: Plenty of comics to be had. Flash ahead to 1980, back in upstate New York (where my comics addiction had begun, at the age of 6, recovering from having my tonsils out): After she had the good sense to leave her husband, my mom moved us (me, my brother and her) to the very small town (literally one red light in those days; it might be three, now) of Greenwich, in Washington County. And like in St. Augustine, we lived not “in town,” but rather on the outskirts. And rural Washington County is pretty damn rural. Not Deliverance rural, where we were, but closer to that than to any sort of Gilmore Girls small-town idyll.

Greenwich had no comic shops. Unicorn Comics in Saratoga Springs, probably the second most significant comics shop of my teenage years after FantaCo in Albany (40 miles south and reserved for special trips, maybe once a month), would not open for months, so as we settled in Greenwich, I was parched for comics with nothing but desert all around.

Downtown in Greenwich one day with mom and my younger brother, we went into Hughes Newsroom. Ah-ha! There on the bottom tier of a two-tiered magazine rack were the comics. Well, you knew they had to be here somewhere, right? 1980 was still in the beginning years of the direct market, and comics were living out their dying breaths in the mainstream magazine distribution chain, so they generally could be found in most towns, but you had to look.

I grabbed as many as I could afford (read: talk my mom into buying for me) and went up to the counter. The old man, Hughes himself, took the stack of maybe half-a-dozen comics. He put them on the counter. He put the palm of one hand on the bottom half of the cover of the top book on the stack, and then, one by one, he bent the covers back to see the prices and ring them up on the cash register.

Again: He put the palm of one hand on the bottom half of the cover of the top book on the stack, and then, one by one, he bent the covers back to see the prices and ring them up on the cash register.

In my head, a voice screamed: OH MY GOD. HE IS KILLING MY COMICS. STOP KILLING MY COMICS!

In the store, a young teenage boy smiled meekly as the old man, Hughes himself, handed me a bag with my now-ruined comics and no doubt told me to “have a nice day.” A day he had just destroyed by KILLING MY COMICS.

It was no different than bringing a hamster to the cash register of a pet shop, having the clerk break its neck, take your money and hand you the dead hamster in a paper bag. In fact, this is exactly what it felt like.

And I’d like to tell you that I either spoke up next time, or never shopped there again, but as I say, other than once or twice a month trips to FantaCo in Albany, I had no comics and I was hooked on comics. You may be able to relate, but from the age of 6 until, well, now, my whole life in any retail environment is basically where are the comics? Are there comics here? No? Anywhere nearby? Have you any comics? Come on, there must be some comics here someplace! And in those days, that was a successful strategy more often than not. Every garage sale, thrift shop, drug store and supermarket had the comics; you just had to look. And look I did.

But no, it was many weeks — maybe months — before I screwed up the courage to take my stack to the counter at Hughes Newsroom and meekly say to to the old man, Hughes himself, “Could you please not bend them?”

You could have heard a pin drop, as they say.

Total silence.

In my memory, he was smoking a cigar. That may be my brain playing tricks on me, but intimidating and big is how I remember this old man, and I swear to God I think he was smoking a cigar. A short, stubby one. Which he would have had to take out to ask me, “What?”

And there it was, in my first moment of comics consumer activism (that’s right, blame old man Hughes), I repeated my plea that he please not break my hamster’s neck. I mean, please don’t bend my comics.

Boy howdy, did he ever look at me like I was out of my mind. I guaran-damn-tee you that every comic book he ever sold, from probably the 1940s when that store probably opened up until the chubby teenager spoke up in spring or summer of 1980, every comic book that old man ever sold had its spine broken by his checkout method. Palm on lower half of cover of top comic: Check. Comics bent back one by one to verify prices: Check. Comics ruined: Check.

And thinking about it, back then, every damned comic cost the same! Always! Unless you were buying some outsized Warren magazine or Heavy Metal, they were all the same price! All he had to do was count them. But no!

It was some tense moments, there, in Hughes Newsroom there in early 1980. But after I explained, no doubt with many stutters and stammers and a good deal of flop sweat, that he was destroying any resale value the comics might have had (and by then, as noted, I had a good deal of experience reselling my old comics), he came around. Never again did old man Hughes destroy my comics when I checked out there, which I did at least twice a week. See, his distributor dropped off the new comics twice weekly, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I think it was, so I was in there twice a week. And from then on, there were no more broken spines on my comics from Hughes Newsroom.

At least, not for me. I wonder now if he extended the same courtesy to anyone else who bought comics there. If anyone else even did.

Alan David Doane