K Is for Krigstein!

« Krigstein was a heartfelt sort of warm guy, but always in conflict. He was getting sick and tired of being embroiled and embattled. He fought hard to keep interested, but began getting cynical. » — Gil Kane, or Eli Katz if you prefer, fellow K-Man.

On any given day, K could easily stand for Kurtzman, Kliban, Kirby, Kubert, Kremer (or Krenkel, Kaz, Kupperman, Keller, Kim, Kuper, Kricfalusi, Kristiansen, Kiefer, Kirchner, Kinstler, Kamb, Kida…): what’s just another letter in everyday life is one of comics’ mightiest signifiers.

Over seven hundred posts in, why have we never featured Bernard Krigstein, despite the fact that both of us absolutely adore his work? Part of the reason is that so much of value and insight has already been written on the subject, and part of it is that he’s hard to write about, which makes the existing literature even more remarkable and worth treasuring. And yet, there’s still so much left to say!

Hell, since it’s his birthday (born on March 19, 1919, he would now be one hundred and three years old), I’ll give it a try.

I’m not quite certain what precisely was my proper introduction to Mr. Krigstein’s œuvre: it was either my encounter with the whimsical The Hypnotist! (written by Carl Wessler, originally published in Astonishing no. 47, March 1956, Atlas), as reprinted in Weird Wonder Tales no. 19 (Sept. 1976, Marvel), or with Pipe-dream, scripted by Johnny Craig and reprinted in Nostalgia Press’ Horror Comics of the 1950’s (1971, edited by Bhob Stewart, Ron Barlow and original publisher Bill Gaines… mine was the French-language edition). I enjoyed the first one just fine, but the latter blew my young mind, not that I was equipped to fully appreciate it. Kudos to the editors for including the tale, because it really stood out amidst the tried-and-true and somewhat formulaic EC classics. It had no heavy, easily digested moral, it was illustrated in a sketchy, vaporous, elastic style that bore no resemblance to its more conventional company, to say nothing of the writing.

Pipe-dream originally appeared in Vault of Horror no. 36 (Apr.-May 1954, EC); written by Johnny Craig (who was also editor). This version was recoloured from original Silverprints by Marie Severin for Greg Sadowski‘s rather sublime B. Krigstein Volume One (2002, Fantagraphics).

As it turns out, even the story’s colourist, a young Marie Severin, had some severe misgivings about it: as she noted many years later, « I can’t remember a thing about coloring ‘Pipe Dream‘ the first time. I rushed through it because I found it so depressing. The whole subject was so dingy to me. I was just a kid, you know — I didn’t want to know anything about dope. When I saw it again, it brought back all those negative feelings. I suppose I shielded myself from them by doing it quickly. Now that I’ve lived a while I can appreciate its beauty, and I’m better equipped to color it. »

To be fair, she had done her usual fine job on it.

Having come late to the EC stable, Krigstein didn’t get too many cover opportunities. This is his second, and final shot, Piracy no. 6 (Aug.- Sept. 1955, EC)… and, I daresay, a classic.
Krigstein sure could paint the elements evocatively: from the same year, an illustration from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (Pocket Library Series no. 28, 1955).
A 1949 photo of the radiant artist, having just been awarded First prize in black and white graphics by the Brooklyn Society of Artists. I think that part of what makes me favourably disposed towards Krigstein is that he’s a dead ringer for my accountant, a most worthy fellow himself.

If one could find any fault in Greg Sadowski’s definitive two-volume Krigstein monograph, it’s that his research missed one crucial entry in his subject’s funnybook bibliography… the last, and longest one! Here’s hoping for an updated edition, some sweet day.

It took another hardy historian, England’s Paul Gravett, to uncover the fascinating, final piece of the puzzle. It turned up in Gravett’s The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics (2008, Running Press). A comic book spinoff of the television series based in turn upon Salvatore Albert Lombino‘s (aka Evan Hunter, Ed McBain, Hunt Collins, Curt Cannon, Richard Marsten, D.A. Addams and Ted Taine) 87th Precinct series, it appeared in the final year of Dell’s Four Color series. So here are a few extracts (as Mr. Gravett would surely call them) from Blind Man’s Bluff; scripter unknown, pencilled and inked by Krigstein, from Four Color no. 1309, June 1962, Dell). By all means, read the whole thing here!

Gravett says of the tale: « Illustrated by the EC Comics genius Bernie Krigstein, it was described by him as ” … the most fantastically absurd story that has ever been typed or presented to an artist… ” A painter himself at the time, Krigstein quit the series after rejecting the unknown writer’s second script and pursued his art career, sadly never to draw comics again. Despite his misgivings, his swansong has a bizarre fascination to it. »

Well, that about wraps it up. See what I mean about how much there is to say? All this blather, and I never even got around to introducing the villains of the piece, Kanigher and Lee.

-RG

5 thoughts on “K Is for Krigstein!

  1. Earl Geier March 24, 2022 / 22:07

    Re: Krigstein. If you haven’t read it, I suggest tracking down a copy of Squa Tront #6. It reprints an earlier interview with Krigstein (by John Benson? 1963?). The whole interview is very read worthy, but he talks about the 87th Precinct comic. He found the story totally ridiculous, and thought he would show the publishers up by illustrating it exactly as scripted. The publisher loved it and gave him a second, equally ridiculous script, at which point Krigstein walked away from comics. I do love the story myself.
    I’m showing my age. You can probably find the interview online.

    Like

    • gasp65 March 24, 2022 / 22:28

      Hi Earl! Thanks so much for dropping by. I do indeed own (and treasure!) a copy of Squa Tront 6. I had actually quoted Krigstein (dripping with sarcastic venom on the topic of former employer Stan Lee) during this blog’s first year. Given how pivotal that interview is as a piece of Krigstein’s biography (readily acknowledged in his biography), one wonders how the 87th Precinct story could have been omitted.

      That said, I was really impressed with ultra-conservative Dell for appreciating Krigstein’s efforts. Which led me to investigate a hunch, leading in turn to a Eureka! moment: it was during L.B. Cole’s brief editorial tenure at Dell, which also gave us John Stanley’s Tales From the Tomb one-shot and Ghost Stories no. 1. I love ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ too, and Krigstein’s largely deadpan approach is precisely the right one. Too bad he didn’t enjoy himself, although heaven knows it doesn’t show!

      Cheers!

      Like

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