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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 “Master Race” in Impact #1, which was published by EC and is cover dated April 1955. By now you know that these scans are from Messages in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. Krigstein, which was published by Fantagraphics in 2013. Enjoy!
“Master Race” is justifiably famous – it’s one of those stories that new comics fans hear about, and while some of those stories might not be all that good in the first place or they might not have aged well, this short story retains its power. The story behind the production might be almost as famous as the story itself, as Our Dread Lord and Master just recently went over in his world-famous column, Comic Book Legends Revealed (Brian literally cannot walk the streets in Andorra because they love him so much!). Brian showed quite a bit of the story, and I had to rein in my desire to just post the entire thing, as it’s only eight pages long. So much goodness in eight pages!
As Brian notes in the link up there, EC comics were carefully laid out before the artist even got hold of the script, so in this case Al Feldstein, who wrote it, would also have been very clear how Krigstein should draw it. The original story was six pages, but Krigstein felt he couldn’t do justice to it in only six pages, so he cut up the layouts and made it eight pages. Brian points out that Feldstein was so angry that he sat on the story for almost a year, but Messages in a Bottle doesn’t go that far, noting only that EC wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Either way, we get little sequences like this, where Krigstein introduces an element that comes back into play later. Was this his own contribution, or Feldstein’s? It beats me, but it’s neat foreshadowing. Feldstein’s second-person prose is a bit florid in this story, but still effective (second person isn’t a bad voice to use in short stories – it’s in longer pieces where it starts to get annoying), as he tracks the movements of Carl Reissman on the subway. Krigstein uses a fairly clean basic line and then inks some of it more heavily, creating a delicacy to the art that is almost intruded upon by the thicker lines. Here, he sticks to cleaner lines as the train rumbles out of the tunnel and heads toward the platform. At the bottom of Panel 2, Reissman stands watching the train, with the edge of the platform “intersecting” his head, implying that he’s standing near the gap, which he knows he shouldn’t do (foreshadowing!). Panel 3 is wonderful, as Krigstein repeats the images of the woman sitting in the seat and the man standing in the aisle to mimic the motion of the train, and he uses thicker lines on the window to break it up a bit, which adds to the odd feeling of watching a flickering film reel. It’s a very neat trick, and it works very well.
A passenger gets on the train, and Reissman has a flashback to Nazi Germany. His clean lines now work as indictments of the Nazis’ preference for “purity” and also ironically, as Krigstein shows the ugliness inherent in their regime. First, though, we get that nice Panel 2, where Krigstein shows the train leaning on the track and inks around it very heavily, creating a murky area lurking on the edges of the clean, efficient train tracks. I can’t believe this isn’t a subtle reference to the trains arriving at concentration camps, but what do I know? The link to Brian’s column shows the comic with different coloring, so I have no idea if this is closer to the original or if the colors at Brian’s link are, but it would be nice if the colors in Panel 2 and Panel 7 were the same sickly yellow, as that also links them. Anyway, look at the way Krigstein juxtaposes the hard lines of Hitler’s podium with the mass of people that he simply inks darkly – again, we get the dichotomy of the “purity”/ugliness that Krigstein uses throughout the story. His heavy inking is evident in Panel 5, where he uses thick lines to create a cast-iron sculpture of the eagle grasping the swastika. It’s domineering, on the grand scale that the Nazis liked, and it shrinks the people walking around it. The final panel, with Hitler’s face twisted into something inhuman, is a good counterpoint to the faces in Panel 4, some of which look enthusiastic but others of which look terrified. Krigstein notes that the animal has been unleashed, and whatever fear the people fear in Panel 4 has been superseded by their rage.
On the next page, we get more disturbing juxtaposition. Obviously, the first row shows the Nazis doing all sorts of evil Nazi things, and notice, especially in Panel 1, how inhuman Krigstein makes the Nazis look, with the heavily inked faces and the glee on the dude on the left’s face. But then Krigstein gives us the Greek revival buildings with the orderly columns and finely-drawn roof, with the rows of soldiers marching by. He places this next to the people at Belsen, with their etched cheekbones sinking their faces in and their haunted eyes. He continues to switch back and forth in Panel 6, as the camps in the background are almost abstract, showing no hint of the horrors perpetrated within them, but then in Panel 7, he shows the effect the camps are having on the populace (I’ve never been to the camp, but I did a bit of research, and it doesn’t appear that it would be that close to the regular folk, but Krigstein and Feldstein are making a point, so I guess we can allow it). This is a powerful page, as it continues the theme of the grandeur of the Nazi state masking the rotten core, and Krigstein does it fairly subtly.
The plot twist to the story is, of course, that Reissman is not a victim of the Nazi regime, but an active participant in it, as he commanded the concentration camp instead of being one of the inmates. As twists go, it’s pretty solid. Krigstein sets us up well, as the mysterious stranger chases Reissman, and as we’ve already been inside Reissman’s head, we’re wondering what evil Nazi is now chasing him and why. Krigstein uses that block of black for the stranger, and the bowler hat obscures even more of him. Even though we haven’t seen a lot of Reissman close up (we’ve seen some, but Krigstein maintained a bit of cool detachment from his subjects in this story), we’re still more inclined to be sympathetic to him, as we know how vile he thought the Nazis were. So the stranger becomes a vision of Death, while Krigstein does nice work showing the panic on Reissman’s face as he flees. This, I think, has to be part of where Krigstein cut up the story to suit his needs. He uses seven (7!!!) panels to show Reissman turning and running out onto the platform, with the stranger in pursuit. That might seem excessive, but it creates this unbearable tension as we watch every tiny movement that Reissman makes, with the stranger right behind him, implying that there’s no way Reissman can escape (we’ll see this technique again). Then Krigstein opens up the scene and shows the subway station, with its beautiful lines and perspective telescoping our view right onto the two men. It can’t be a coincidence that the majesty of the station is reminiscent of the grandeur of the Nazi architecture, and there’s also some of the oppressiveness in it, too. Krigstein keeps the men small in Panel 8 and then, when he switches perspective in Panel 9, we get more clean, orderly lines and Reissman running toward his fate, as we see the train approaching in the deep background. Then we get the twist, as we find out that the stranger is a survivor of the camp, and Krigstein reminds us of the gruesome events that occurred there. His thin but confident line and his slightly offbeat style of drawing people helps make this panel devastating, as his inking highlights the gaunt features of the corpses and his limbs splay in horrific and unnatural angles. Krigstein’s use of thicker inks comes to fruition quite nicely in Panel 11, when we see Reissman from below – so he’s both more impressive and more inhuman – with his uniform scratched with black leading down to his black boots and his bloody hands. It’s a great image capping an amazing page.
Finally, we reach the end (well, I cut off the last row, but you’ll forgive me, I hope), as Reissman meets his destiny. Krigstein repeats the panel from the previous page, but this time the train is closer and Reissman is losing his balance. Artists are always lucky when they’re given something with windows, because the train looks like a giant insect rushing toward Reissman to crush him. As I noted above, this links back to the trains used to carry people to the concentration camps, as the transportation motif has been pretty clear throughout the story – the subway may carry Reissman away from his past, but of course he can’t escape it! Krigstein once again stretches time in Panels 3-6, as he agonizingly tips Reissman off the platform, showing every contortion he would make as he plummets, and then we get the switching back and forth between the train and Reissman landing on the tracks. I mentioned above that the filmic use of images to show the passengers on the train was neat foreshadowing, and Krigstein uses it again, as this time the stranger is watching the people flit by. It’s a brilliant scene, ending a brilliant story.
I’m sure you can find the rest of “Master Race” on-line somewhere, and you really should read it. Krigstein knew it was good, as he took a month to draw it, far longer than he usually took. But he still had to pay the bills, so he kept working, and tomorrow we’ll check out stories (yes, two of them) in which he did some cool stuff … although not quite as cool as in this one. As always, be sure to check out the archives!
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