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Quote of the day from the late Bernard Krigstein (1919-1990)

When told in 1965 that Stan Lee was helping revitalize comics over at Marvel, Bernard Krigstein responded:

I was delighted to learn that Lee has attained the status of an authority in the comics field. Twenty years of unrelenting editorial effort to suppress the artistic effort, encourage miserable taste, flood the field with degraded imitations and polluted non-stories, treating artists and writers like cattle, and failure on his part to make an independent success as a cartoonist have certainly qualified him for this respected position.

Damn. Tell us how you really feel, Mr. Krigstein! A bit of context (all of this is from Messages in a Bottle, a collection of Krigstein stories from the 1940s and ’50s, which is published by Fantagraphics): Krigstein clashed with Lee when he was forced to work at Atlas Comics after EC’s demise in the wake of the Great Comics Scare. Lee wouldn’t allow any experimentation with his stories, which Krigstein thought were pablum, and Atlas slashed page rates to $23 a page (when Krigstein worked for EC, page rates were originally $41 a page and then $35 a page as the company suffered from the denunciations of crazed politicians). Krigstein couldn’t make a living in comics, so he quit (at age 38 and pretty much at his artistic peak). He battled with Lee over a particular story that Lee thought needed more dialogue, changing the tense atmosphere that Krigstein had created, and Krigstein told Lee that he couldn’t mess with the art with his (Krigstein’s) permission. Lee backed down, but the writing was on the wall.

Look at that quote, though. How sad that an artist could easily apply it to editors/publishers in today’s comics landscape very easily. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose and all that.

Check the book out if you can. Krigstein was a damned fine artist, and it’s too bad he couldn’t stay in comics when he loved the medium so much.

20 Comments

Sadly, yes. Vince Colleta basically ruined the majority of Jack Kirby’s run on THOR.

Today, for example, Marvel swaps in and out artists on their series – even in the middle of single issues. People complain, but the only thing that matters is voting with your money.

Lee did nothing wrong. The only people who disagree with this fact are asspained nerds who can’t deal with the fact that no one cares about the hipster crap that they think “deserves” to sell better than it does.

Krigstein was a genius and clearly knew what he was talking about… but I will always love Stan Lee. I think the sad fact of the matter is that the circumstances of the world don’t always allow artists to be both innovative and profitable.

I know that there are an awful lot people with both the talent and the access to really that considered a very poor writer/editor. The other two thirds of the Marvel Silver Age triumvirate shared similar sentiments. However, I adore those Sixties Marvels and, by extension, Stan Lee.

When compared with stuff that Krigstein was producing at EC (e.g “Master Race”), those early Marvels were hardly the revolution that they claimed to be. Lee and Marvel were much closer to Silver Age DC Comics than EC. That was the point. The modern Big Two were trying to avoid the death blow that had been dealt EC by the government. Mort Wesinger an company were making comics for grade schoolers and Stan Lee was addressing the comparably more mature middle school market. Neither were addressing adults.

Mr. Krigstein of course ignores that Stan Lee made the comics field a field, instead of a forgettable nothingness.

And, vjj, while I usually defend poor Vinnie Colleta regardless of the title he gets heat for, I especially do so on “Thor”, ‘cuz he was really good in it. Legitimately good, not just better than his average

Marvel’s bread and butter were college kids. Hulk basically became a pop-culture phenomenon because college students took to him big time.

And Stan’s real strength was as an editor. Just like Shooter: They both wrote some excellent stuff, but their greatest contribution will always be providing a solid consistent direction for Marvel. Look at current DC for an example of what happens when editorial can’t be assed to steer the ship themselves.

Yeah Jim Shooter was so good as an Editor, the staff burned an effigy of him when he was fired…

An editor’s job isn’t to make friends with the staff.

What made Stan different from most of his artistic contemporaries was that he was (IS) also a shrewd businessman, which meant that he usually got his way and that he ended up in a much better financial position than most. Can’t help but feel that most of the animosity he gets has a hint of jealousy in it.

In all fairness, I don’t think anyone is saying that Lee wasn’t somewhat of an asshole, only that he was a qualified editor regardless.

I imagine that no small part of Krigstein’s opinion of Stan stems from the latter’s role in forming and supporting the CCA. The Code’s reviewers weren’t exactly fans of the sort of atmosphere and subject matter Krigstein employed.

Really, until the birth of the indy scene, I don’t know that there was much place in comics for an auteur. Will Eisner carved out a space for himself, and you had the underground comics scene. Otherwise, it was the Big Two if you wanted to make a living and some rather unstable smaller companies if you wanted slightly more artistic freedom, with the understanding that pay would be worse or potentially nonexistent.

It’s interesting that Lee actually promoted the work of Steranko and some of the last Jack Kirby jobs for Marvel as if they were “auteur” projects. That stuff was safely within the house style, of course — a style Kirby had basically invented along with a bit of polish from Lee’s scripting — but Lee was a canny promoter all the same.

Even today, where there’s a strong presence for serious artistic projects in comics, there remains a substantial stylistic and format divide between “mainstream” comics and auteur “comix,” one that gets enforced by folks on both sides. It’s become like movies, where “arthouse” is as much about how you market and preset the work as about the work itself.

Cory!! Strode

June 3, 2013 at 8:03 am

Lee and Krigstein were do8ing very different comics. Lee was doing super-hero books that sold well to a new audience by combining soap opera plots with Kirby’s visuals. Krigstein was pushing the medium in new direction by playing with form.

It’s like comparing James Joyce with Max Allen Collins, to my mind.

Another important bit of context lies in knowing what Marvel’s output was like at the time Krigstein left – ie, dreadful. The sci-fi/fantasy titles had brought their page counts down drastically – leaving Krigstein with just four pages to his stories in some instances – and the stories themselves were just endlessly recycling tired material, often incompetently because of CCA restrictions. Jack Kirby had only just returned as Krigstein was leaving. Krigstein had no idea how Kirby’s influence would turn the entire company around – but he’d clearly had more than enough of Lee.

I remember seeing an interview with Stan Lee, where he was just such a positive person. He would talk about the creative people he worked with with fond memories and praise, and he would always end his thoughts with, “He ended up being angry with me, but I really cannot remember why.” Whenever he said that, I could imagine said creative person watching this interview and muttering, “I remember why…”

RE: Stan Lee,

Writer: Stan was the best dialogue writer in superhero comics during the ’60s. Just compare, for example, the way that Stan gave each member of the FF his/her own voice to the bland uniformity that prevailed at DC’s Justice League, where the only thing distinguishing one character from another was choice of epithet (MMM, he said Great Krypton, so he must be Superman).Stan’s influence as a scripter was omnipresent for the next 20 years in superhero comics. Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, etc: they all demonstrated the Stan Lee imprint in some way. Even Alan Moore, in his less polemical moments, will acknowledge the impact that Stan has had on his writing.

Editor: The best editor in the history of superhero comics:This is an aspect of Stan’s career that is often overlooked by fans. A good editor, after all, does his work behind the scenes. He is the man behind the curtain, the guy who makes sure that the trains run on time.It was Stan who understood what Kirby was doing and made the Kirby art revolution the MARVEL style. It was under Stan’s watch that Ditko produced his greatest artistic triumphs (Spider-Man and Dr strange). It was Stan Lee who elevated the intellectual level of superhero comics, moving out of the elementary school ghetto and into High School’s and colleges.To be sure, Stan made some bad/questionable decisions during his tenure (Vinnie Colletta inking Thor?), but the pluses far outway the minuses.

Heh. Krigstein’s complaint about Lee sounds exactly like every artist whose been told by an editor they can’t do whatever the hell they want. (Incidentally, the primary reason of the burning in effigy of Jim Shooter: he took his job as EinC seriously and didn’t let the inmates run the asylum)

And why did Vinnie Colletta get tossed into this?

Lee was a great editor and really built Marvel, in part because he was willing to do the dirty promotional work that helps books get sold. Has there ever been a more relentless booster than Stan? Artists hate the guys who keep the trains running on time (no wonder Shooter gets crapped on, right?). While today’s Marvel & DC books can blow deadlines and it won’t kill the titles or the company because Spider-man, Batman, etc are such icons…if the books hadn’t come out on time for years and years and years and built that audience where would we be? How many great indies have died because they just couldn’t publish consistently and on time?

A Horde of Evil Hipsters

June 4, 2013 at 1:30 am

“He battled with Lee over a particular story that Lee thought needed more dialogue, changing the tense atmosphere that Krigstein had created”: Well, it took them a few decades, but even run-of-the-mill superhero writers finally realized they don’t have to clutter every single panel with pointless captions and word bubbles. A moral victory for Krigstein, much good as that does.

That aside, those of us who are old enough to remember the Image comics debacle know full well nothing good comes of giving “artists” complete control. As much as they’d like to think so, not everyone is a Jeff Smith or a Bryan Lee O’Malley. Or a Will Eisner. No one is a Will Eisner anymore.

Jake Earlewine

June 4, 2013 at 3:33 am

Isn’t it refreshing to hear Krigstein, or anyone in the business, talk honestly and openly about the people who have frustrated them? Most “professionals” refuse to name names, which is dishonest and politic.

Pete Woodhouse

June 6, 2013 at 4:24 pm

The battle between artistic concerns and commercial pressures is arguably the most important factor in a creative medium, whether it’s comics, film, music, books, and so on.

You are always going to have tensions, whether it is internal in the artist, or between the artist and management.
It is rare for an artist to find a completely happy medium: those who do it best have the longest, most critically acclaimed and most successful careers: think someone like REM.

Or for someone more left-field like Frank Zappa they have to build up a following through a gruelling schedule of album-tour-album. They had to record and play crowd-pleasers like “Dinah Moe Humm” to fund their more personal projects. Zappa ended up founding his own record company to bypass corporate interference.

The problem for the likes of Krigstein was/is that the equivalent action would have been setting yourself up as a publisher to gain ‘complete control’ of your work. Unless you’re Will Eisner, that ain’t really going to happen in the context of a humble 1950s comics artist. It was far easier for Krigstein to move elsewhere in art, to comics’ loss.

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