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Year of the Artist, Day 201: Bernard Krigstein, Part 5 – Shock SuspenStories #18 and Uncanny Tales #42

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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 stories are “In the Bag” in Shock SuspenStories #18 and “They Wait Below” in Uncanny Tales #42, the first of which was published by EC and is cover dated January 1955, the second of which was published by Marvel and is cover dated April 1956. For the last time, these scans are from Messages in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. Krigstein, which was published by Fantagraphics in 2013. Enjoy!

I wanted to stick to one story by Krigstein to finish out the posts on him, but he was drawing such short stories in the mid-1950s that it was easy to find two to show. “In the Bag” is six pages long, and “They Wait Below” is only four, so I figured it was better to show both of them, because they show some cool things Krigstein was doing with his art even as he was looking to leave the industry.

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“In the Bag” is the last story Krigstein would draw for EC, as the company canceled most of its titles by the end of 1954 due to the Comics Code brouhaha. Sharp-eyed readers might notice that this was published before “Master Race,” but by this time we know when Krigstein was drawing things, and he drew this two months after that story, which is why it comes after that one. In Messages in a Bottle, this story is probably the most abstract – Krigstein uses heavy inking and Zip-A-Tone in other stories, but “In the Bag” is saturated with both. Check out this sequence, in which Zip-A-Tone dominates and Krigstein’s lack of holding lines in Panel 3, for instance, make McLeod almost a phantom stepping out of the storm. The mood of the story is bleak – it’s a nifty little noir tale with a twist – and Krigstein’s art sells that wonderfully.

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McLeod stops the guy and asks him what’s going on, and Dominick confesses to a heinous crime. In 13 (!) panels, Krigstein takes Carl Kessler’s dense script and makes his killer a strange, pathetic, crazed, and enraged character. He won’t give up his satchel to McLeod, and if you ignore the words completely, you can see him go through many moods. He cries, gets angry and desperate, wheedles, collapses and regains his composure, reflects, gets happy, then triumphant. It’s a chilling transformation, and you don’t need the words to see it. Krigstein uses thick inks to turn Dominick’s face into a terrifying visage, and as he descends into gleeful madness, Krigstein begins to ring his eyes with more black, isolating his eyes, until we get the final two panels, where he smiles satisfactorily and then opens his eyes and mouth wide in triumph. It’s a tremendous sequence, made even more impressive by the way Krigstein packs it into such a small space.

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Dominick runs for it, and McLeod tries to shoot him, but fails. This sequence is where we can see how effective Krigstein was at using stuff like Zip-A-Tone. It appears that he applied a sheet to the art and then created clear strips to simulate the rain instead of simply drawing in lines. Look how thick it makes the rain, turning it even more oppressive as McLeod begins his trip into the dark heart of the soul. The rain is not only “heavier,” it also forms a cage, trapping McLeod into a path that leads only to tragedy. It’s a tremendous effect. I’m not going to show you what happens with McLeod and Dominick, but it ain’t good. So sad!

By the end of 1955, Krigstein was working for Marvel (Atlas), and he turned in “They Wait Below,” a four-page story with 75 panels in it. Yeah. Here’s the first panel:

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As we’ll see, Krigstein does this throughout the story, but the first panel, by far the biggest in the story, shows the exquisite brushwork wonderfully. According to the notes in the back of Messages in a Bottle, this was restored using an original copy and photostats, but it doesn’t mention that Marie Severin recolored it, so I wonder how this looked originally, because the blue is stunning. The impressionistic brushwork around the more solid lighthouse creates a wonderful stormy mood for the story, and the dialogue – I don’t know who wrote this story – fits the tone perfectly, as the lighthouse appears to be floating in a turbulent world. It’s a small masterpiece of inking, and it sets up the story very well.

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Krigstein doesn’t necessarily need to use so many panels, but it’s part of creating tension in the story, as Matt the lighthouse keeper is approached by a siren who wants to “plunder” the ship that crashes on the rocks. So Krigstein switches back and forth from the ship to Matt, interspersing the page with views of the exterior, with more of that magnificent brushwork we saw above. The final row, where Matt realizes what the siren is doing, is wonderful, as he runs the gamut of emotions as he understand what’s going on, while the siren stands serenely as he blusters. The dichotomy between the siren – who is covered in seaweed, I assume – and her solid earthiness and the spookiness of the outside world is nicely done. We’d expect her to be more ethereal, but Krigstein doesn’t go that way, so it seems that she offers something to ground Matt, when she’s really leading him into temptation.

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Krigstein continues to ramp up the tension, as Matt tries to escape the siren, who is then joined by her sisters. Despite the smallness of the panels, Krigstein still shows the anxiety on Matt’s face and the eerie calm on the sirens’ faces as they approach. Panels 4-5, particularly, are well done, as the beautiful forms come closer until their faces fill the panel, and it becomes clear they can’t be stopped. Matt doesn’t do anything heroic, just happens to knock over the lantern (which provides a light for the ship … somehow), and Krigstein does a good job showing how unheroic he is, as it’s just his clumsiness that saves his sorry ass. The fact that the panels are so small help create the claustrophobic vibe of a man in a small space, alone and forgotten, doing a lonely job. The sirens closing in on him also create that claustrophobia.

By this time, Krigstein was making $27 per page, down from a height during EC’s heyday of $41 per page. He couldn’t afford to keep doing comics, so he went to work for his father for several months in 1956. Late in the year he returned to Marvel, but his page rate was down to $23 per page, so after a few months, in early 1957 he left comics for good, with quite a bit of lingering bitterness at a Mr. Stan Lee. He had not yet turned 37 years old, and he was at his artistic peak. Yet while he continued creating art, he never worked in comics again. That really sucks.

Krigstein is a tremendous artist, and I really encourage you to get Messages in a Bottle, because it’s phenomenal. Tomorrow I’m going to go modern again, because why not? Come back and see who I’m going to feature next! In the meantime, there’s some Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Modern Age comics – all sorts of ages! – in the archives!

14 Comments

““In the Bag” is the last story Krigstein would draw for EC”

It may have been the last one he finished, but according to “Foul Play: The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics!” he was working on Fall Guy For Murder (Crime Illustrated #1) when he & Feldstein disagreed over the ending and he left & Reed Crandall was brought in to finish the story.

KAM: That’s interesting. He and Feldstein didn’t get along too well, it seems!

From the article on the war between Krigstein and Lee: “Krigstein clashed with Lee when…Lee wouldn’t allow any experimentation with his stories… 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… Lee backed down, but the writing was on the wall.”

Well this seems full of contradictions. Lee wouldn’t allow experimentation, yet “backed down”? It took Feldstein almost a year to back down on Master Race and even then, he only compromised. Lee had a lot of faults, but it’s pretty clear he gave the artists an awful lot of leeway. Even here, he gave Krigstein the opportunity to cram 75 panels into a 4 page story. I can’t imagine someone like Feldstein or Kanigher allowing that. Indeed, Krigstein’s relationship with the union-busting Kanigher was far worse than with Lee. Not only did he openly disapprove of Krigstein’s union activities, he relentlessly pressured him into conforming to the DC house style. Kanigher even said Krigstein “simply wasn’t good enough to be needed” and blackballed him from the company!

That’s neither here nor there, though. What IS clear is that Krigstein’s best work was done for Atlas and EC, and the editors for those companies allowed him at least some measure of artistic freedom, a freedom he was unlikely to encounter at any other big publisher. As for the page rate, yeah, that was lame, but maybe Krigstein could have ameliorated this financial hit by not insisting on a time-consuming million panels per story?

mrclam: Yeah, I don’t put too much credence in Krigstein’s complaints except for the page rate, which sucks. He was obviously looking at comics much differently than Lee was, and that’s cool. I just like that he refused to be coy about his disdain for Lee, whether it was justified or not.

is zip-a-tone that dotted shade technique all up in chaykins work, notably american flagg?

s!moN: Yeah. that’s it. You can do a lot of other stuff with it, but that’s what it’s, I guess, famous for.

Jeff Nettleton

July 20, 2014 at 9:40 pm

Zip-a-tone comes in sheets (or did, before you could do that stuff on computer. The artist would cut out a segment to match what he wanted to shade and paste it in place. You can see it throughout comics of the 70s and 80s. Chayking used it quite a bit, but so did Bob Layton, who used it very effectively to give a more metallic look to Iron Man’s armor (along with John Romita Jr.). Computers allowed you to do the same effects within the computer. Ben Day dots were a similar product, which you see in earlier comics, and , famously (or infamously, in my book) in Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings.

Zip-a-tone is the reason that Dave Sim had a shitload of trouble getting the first Cerebus trade back into print, because with digital printing, the dots are made up of pixels and aren’t perfectly round, so if the tone (like on that lovable aardvark himself) gets slightly “out of sync” it creates a plaid effect (or moire) that is definitely distracting when reading. Luckily, he’s got someone who apparently has worked out the kinks in creating digital files and that first Cerebus trade is getting reprinted currently.

Eddie Campbell and Colleen Doran extensively use zip-a-tone (or letratone, as I believe it’s called in England), and they faced a load of trouble digitizing their work (on Alec and Bacchus for Campbell and A Distant Soil for Doran) for reprinting as well.

Since 1978, Ben Day Dots have been also available in jars. Rather than apply them via sheets, the artist merely had to apply them using a brush, much like any other paint. This was the method used by Sim , Layton, and Chaykin.

very interesting. always tried to mimic that look to shall we say, extendend production results, with just a pen thanks everybody

This is actually quite depressing. Krigstein sounds like one of those people who unforunately was very individualistic and idiosycratic, the exact sort of creator who, as others have noted, there really was no place for in the comic book industry of the late 1950s. Really, the best company for Krigstein to have worked at would have been Fantagraphics… which was not founded until 1976, and didn’t begin publishing comic books until 1982, a quarter of a century after he quit the field.

This makes me appreciate the various independent & small press companies all the more. Sometimes it can be easy to forget what a narrow niche the Big Two have in terms of types of material and style. Creators definitely need more choises, places where perhaps artistic considerations are not so quickly sacrificed to commercial ones, and much more freedom & creativity is avalable.

In any case, the two stories Greg spotlighted here look superb.

Ben: I agree about Krigstein. He had a different idea of what comics could and maybe should be, and he came up against the more powerful forces moving in another direction. I don’t buy all of his complaints because, as mrclam pointed out, he did get a lot of leeway, but I sympathize with his point of view. He really would have done well in a more diverse environment – not in terms of topic, because comics in 1950s were much more diversified than they were later, but in terms of creators able to strike out on their own.

“In the Bag” is perhaps the apotheosis of Zip-A-Tone.

And “They Wait Below” is a real gem: I had a bunch of students pick it as the text for their Krigstein paper, and they had some lovely observations about the tale.

Pete Woodhouse

July 22, 2014 at 5:12 pm

Really glad you featured this artist. One of the all-time innovators: up there with Eisner, Kirby, Kurtzmann, Adams, Steranko, Miller & co.

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