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Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Bernard Krigstein, and the story is “Last Bullet” in Battle #23, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated November 1953. These scans, as usual, are from Messages in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. Krigstein, which was published by Fantagraphics in 2013. Enjoy!
Krigstein drew some stories for Marvel and DC, and one of them is “Last Bullet,” for which we actually have a writer – Paul S. Newman. In the back of Messages in a Bottle, the notes explain a bit more about each story, including the fact that this was shot from photostats and recolored by Marie Severin. Severin, of course, is still alive, so I assume when Fantagraphics mentions “recoloring,” it means she recolored it much more recently (I think it must have been in 2003, when some of these stories were reprinted). Severin, I imagine, stayed close to the original coloring, but I’m still not going to get into it too much because I know it’s not the original work.
Krigstein wasn’t afraid to get gritty, as we see here. The end notes mention that he was probably influenced by Alex Toth on this story, as Toth was drawing acclaimed war comics at this time, and this is certainly more scratchy than we’ve seen from Krigstein so far. He uses a gallon of black in the background to isolate the soldier (as well as cross-hatching over what appear to be hills, where you can see his signature), and he puts the soldier off to the side just slightly to make the encroaching black even more sinister. He hatches the soldier well – the scratches on the helmet imply a great deal of use, the five o’clock shadow obviously speaks to a good deal of time spent away from civilization, and the lines on the soldier’s hands give him a rough, dry, beaten-up look. Krigstein uses thick blacks on the soldier’s face, which implies hardship, loss, exhaustion, and angst, but also, in a more prosaic manner, shows where the light source for the panel is. Krigstein opens the man’s eyes wide and makes his pupils tiny, implying the desperation he feels as he realizes he has only one bullet. It’s a tremendous panel, setting up the story well.
The soldiers see the “Commies” (this story takes place during the Korean War) coming with a big battalion, and they have to get back and warn the artillery, but they’re discovered. So Harry – our hero – and his pals have to shoot it out. We haven’t seen a ton of action from Krigstein, but he does nice work with it on this page. We get more heavy inking, from the thick blacks on the rock in Panel 1 to the scruffy beards on the soldiers. Krigstein leads us around the page quite well – in Panel 1, the faceless Commies are in the left background, so we see them first, and then we’re led to the heroic Americans in the right foreground. Panel 3 reverses that, as we’re led from the Americans in the left foreground to the right back, following the path of the bullet. This happens again in Panel 5, as Krigstein once again reverses so that the soldier in the back is almost obscured by the gun and the muzzle flash, which makes the gun much more powerful and the soldier much more frail. Krigstein gets the close quarters of combat well, as he uses the small panels and then packs them with figures to show how cramped everything is (the story is only five pages long, so of course space was at a premium, but Krigstein still doesn’t waste any of it). The haphazard running of the soldiers in Panel 4 implies, once again, the chaos of battle – they’re simply scrambling as well as they can. Panel 2 is also a very nice one, as Krigstein continues with the theme of Harry as a haggard warrior – we still get the heavy blacks under his eyes, and his grim mouth fits his dismissal of the Korean that he dispatches. The story isn’t about the inhumanity of war, but Krigstein manages to imply it quite well. I don’t know if Krigstein saw combat during World War II, but he was overseas, so I imagine he saw some of the impact of war on people up close, and he brings that to his post-war war comics.
Harry, of course, has but the one bullet, and three Commies are approaching, and he’s not quite sure what to do. This is a wonderful panel, as Krigstein shows his fear and bravado very well. His eyes remain wide, almost crazed, as he contemplates his fate, and once again Krigstein cross-hatches his face liberally, turning him almost into a hunted animal, which of course he is, in a way. The placement of the gun, between his eyes, is necessary to fit it into the panel, but it also seems to become part of his face, turning Harry himself into a weapon. Krigstein had to use the space well, and it makes certain images much more powerful and haunting than if he had more room to work with.
Harry uses his one bullet and manages to bluff the other two Koreans into surrendering (which I’m sure is some kind of comment on how cowardly the Commies are and how awesome ‘Muricans are, but I’ll let it go). Once again, Krigstein uses the space available well. Panel 2 needs to be off-center to accommodate Harry’s word balloon, but the tilting of the Koreans as their dead comrade slumps against them helps show how unprepared they are for Harry and his American gumption. Panel 3 is tremendous, as Harry has almost gone too far – Krigstein shades his eyes even more, making them stand out boldly and evilly, while his gritted teeth, even thicker beard, and gnarled hand make him almost a wild man of the mountains who happened to wander by. The silhouetted Panel 5 is nicely done, with the heavily inked clouds and the tree framing the desperate march back to camp, and notice that Panel 6 mirrors Panel 1, except this time it’s the Americans in the bottom left, looking “back” at Harry and his prisoners, reversing the mood of Panel 1, where Harry stood alone against three Koreans. I do like the dour look on the Korean soldier in the final panel, as if he can’t believe he got taken in by this annoying Yankee. CURSE YOU, YANKEE!!!!!
Krigstein drew some other war comics, but none in the book are as visceral as this, so I figured I’d show this one. Tomorrow, I suppose I’ll check out his most famous story. That should be fun, shouldn’t it? If you want to see other famous comics, I’d suggest a journey through the archives!
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