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Bernard Krigstein - An Illustrator with Impact

CINESCAPE looks at the career of a Bernard Krigstein, now featured in a volume from Fantagraphics Books

By Arnold T. Blumberg     March 04, 2002


A Bernard Krigstein illustration of buccaneers from 1960 (the illustration that is, not the pirates).
© 1960 Bernard Krigstein
"I belong to low culture. This is my thing. Not only do I belong to low culture, I don't think low culture is low culture. It's all culture." So said Bernard Krigstein at a 1978 Boston comic book convention. Although he died in 1990, his words still resonate today, especially when comic books as an art form continue to struggle under a mountain of mainstream misconceptions. Krigstein, considered one of the most innovative comic book creators to ever work in the medium, is still known only to a handful of dedicated fans. With the release of a new comprehensive book this month from Fantagraphics dedicated to his life and career, titled simply B. KRIGSTEIN, his exceptional talent will hopefully become known to new generations of readers for many years to come.

One of Bernard Krigstein's landscape paintings, this one of the Canadian Rockies.

While the name is obscure to fans who have grown up with sharp memories of work by Silver, Bronze and Modern Age giants like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, John Byrne, Todd McFarlane, and even reaching back to the Golden Age work of Seigel and Shuster, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (again), and many more besides, Krigstein is not altogether forgotten in the annals of comic book history. He may in fact be familiar to some for his work with comic book publishers EC, DC, and Atlas, but it was with EC in particular (the originators of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, VAULT OF HORROR, WEIRD FANTASY, and other world-famous - and infamous - horror series of the 1950s) that he crafted what remains his best-known and most critically acclaimed comic book piece.

The opening page of Krigstein's 1952 comic story, "Ghoul's Gold," from ASTONISHING #13.

Scholars of comic book literature, whether focusing on the development of the artistic or verbal side of the medium, often point to "Master Race" as one of the landmarks that pushed the boundaries of the form and introduced a new awareness of the world in which these "funny books" existed. Originally appearing in EC's IMPACT #1, "Master Race" was a stunning exploration of post-Holocaust terror that showcased both a willingness to deal with frank subject matter and a level of graphic invention unparalleled then or now. One of the first pop culture references in any medium to that dark period in world history, "Master Race" dealt with two mysterious figures, one haunted by the memories of the concentration camps and what he witnessed there, and the other a black-clad cadaverous man relentlessly chasing the first. As the first man is tormented by visions of torture, medical experiments, and the final solution that sent millions to their deaths, he is pursued by this dark, emaciated specter through the city and into the subway. Their final confrontation beside the tracks provides the shocking coda to the tale, utilizing EC's trademark twist ending in a far more profound way.

Bernard Krigstein artwork from ADVENTURES INTO TERROR #12, 1952.

But those who remember Krigstein's exceptional work in comic books might be surprised to learn of his other roles as a painter, teacher, and commercial illustrator. As Fantagraphics' new book illustrates with a plethora of fascinating images from throughout his career, Krigstein's artistic talent went far beyond the confines of the comic book page. B. KRIGSTEIN sheds light on the whole spectrum of the man's career from the four-color funnies to the fine art galleries, with a number of reproductions from Krigstein's comic book work as well as his landscapes and other arresting paintings. Examining his self-portraits and expressive line work offers new insight into the mind of this gifted man and his amazing capacity for artistic adaptability.

B. KRIGSTEIN begins a two-volume retrospective of Bernard Krigstein's wide-ranging artistic career.

This new retrospective is actually the first in a two-volume set (the first volume covers 1919-1955) devoted to a man who may now be re-evaluated as one of the most important architects of the comic book medium. Certainly his innovation in panel and page design, as evidenced by some of the more arresting sequences in "Master Race" and his many other comic stories, set a standard by which many future artists in the business measured themselves and their work. But over the years, Krigstein's name was lost in the storm of Kirbys and Byrnes, Andersons and Buscemas, until he was all but forgotten by all but a few. Now Fantagraphics has done its part to revitalize critical interest in Krigstein's life and accomplishments.

Bernie Krigstein's cinematic climax to "Master Race," from EC Comics' IMPACT #1.

The book not only recounts Krigstein's story in exhaustive detail, offering a portrait of the man behind the illustrations, but also offers many reproductions that have never before seen print since their initial publication or exhibition. For those comic book fans who do know of Krigstein, but are only familiar with his work for EC or DC, viewing his landscape and portrait work in this collection should be an eye-opening experience. Too often we believe that the creative minds behind our favorite comics dwell only in the world of four-color funnies, but this was definitely not the case with Krigstein, whose artistic versatility is finally given proper recognition with this examination of his work. B. KRIGSTEIN showcases the life and times of a versatile artist who could clearly make almost any style his own.

B. KRIGSTEIN, a 272 page hardcover edition, is available now from Fantagraphics Books for $49.95. Five complete Krigstein stories have been newly recolored by Marie Severin. In an era when comics are slowly receiving their just due as a literary medium, this retrospective serves as yet another superb addition to any comic book enthusiast's historical library.

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